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I Am Not an Alcoholic: ‘I had a master’s degree in hiding my dependency on alcohol’

Part 16: She’ll think I’m sick if I don’t have a glass of wine. In fact, I was sick when I was having glasses of wine

I survived Christmas. Just.

“Aren’t these roast potatoes supposed to be crispy?”

“How did you forget to buy cream? It’s an essential item.”

When I heard these questions asked across a beautifully laid table, I took deep breaths and suppressed what I really wanted to say. Being kind to myself is how I manage awkward situations. I don’t think of it as being selfish, I think of it as self-care. Everyone benefits if someone stays cool in hot situations.


Nobody likes January. Which I find strange because the evenings are noticeably getting brighter – they are if you look for them – there are buds on the trees, yes, they’re small, but they’re there and Christmas is a whole 12 months away.

What’s not to like?

Christmas may be a heightened social occasion because of all the unresolved emotional issues, but all social occasions can still be problematic for me and I imagine they always will be, given the pedestal on which we place alcohol. I must be on my guard because I am relaxed and Dolores (yes, I’ve named her so that I can keep my identity separate from the voice of temptation) is saying: “Go on, have a drink. You’ve proven you have discipline. You can stop anytime you like. You deserve a drink just like your friends.”

She can be very persuasive. But I’ve learnt to stand up to her.

I was trying to think of a social occasion where alcohol doesn’t feature and I can’t come up with a single event. Even cinemas – previously an alcohol-free zone – have caught on and one or two have introduced alcohol to great success. The original cinema, with just a projector and a screen, would never recognise its successor selling not just tickets, but alcohol (in certain cinemas), popcorn, chocolate, sweets, deodorant, washing powder; okay I’m exaggerating a tad. Personally, I prefer the old cinema where silence was not disturbed by the crackling of paper before the offending food is crunched noisily in the recipient’s mouth or the slurping of drinks being swallowed. Give me back the days when we neither ate nor drank in the cinema, but smoked our lungs out. How did we even see the screen?

But, thankfully, social occasions are becoming less of an ordeal than they were a year ago. That is not to say I don’t want to drink. I do. But I don’t have to. That is the difference. However, just in case, going to a school reunion, I pack my suit of armour.

It’s been some years since I left school. Oh, all right then, a long time (did smoking in the cinema give it away?). I was looking forward to it, but sometimes events we look forward to can disappoint us, particularly if our expectations are high and we anticipate too much from them. But this more than lived up to my expectations. If asked to sum up the reunion in one word, that word would be kindness. We’ve all gone through a lot of ups and downs in the past “number of years” (exact figure with the editor), and we laughed and cried as we told our war stories. There was a real feeling of empathy among us, almost like family (the ones you haven’t fallen out with).

In the late afternoon a group of us were sitting in the bar reminiscing about Peach, Knuckle Bruiser (piano teacher) and Dotty (we suspect she never passed her Inter Cert, never mind attaining a degree). She’d come into the classroom and ask: “What day is it today girls?” and we’d lie and say it was Thursday when it was Monday and she’d reply: “Oh, my goodness how quickly the week has gone!” I noticed that at the next table four people sat, three gin and tonics and a cup of coffee in front of them. My mind wondered.

I shared my story with an old friend, Madeleine, whom I haven’t seen in a very long time and she later told me (after she had checked with her) of another person who, like me, is in recovery. Yes, she was the one who was drinking the cup of coffee. We arranged to meet early for breakfast (reunions are not the sort of place where it’s okay to sit a deux), thinking as non-drinkers we just might be up earlier than others.

My friend, I shall call her Ruth, has been sober for 25 years and we spent a pleasant couple of hours sharing our stories. She told me about her drinking days and how one day she decided to stop and go into rehab. Like me, she has never relapsed (I was pleased to hear that – relapse is not part of recovery). I asked her if she still had cravings and she said no, but it’s not a walk in the park. Not drinking can create situations that are not always palatable. People who drink can get a little silly and sentimental and say foolish things, things they’d blush at the next morning. They feel they must come and apologise for their behaviour: “I’m so sorry about last night, it was the drink talking,” they snigger. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you?”

No, but you are now.

She didn’t like being around people who had drunk so much that their livers weren’t processing it quickly enough and their breath stank of wine. Those incidents she found challenging.

I told another schoolfriend, because I know she is an avid reader of The Irish Times and I suspected that she may have read my articles. She had and she was surprised that I had a problem with alcohol and its terrible hold over me. But then I had a master’s degree in hiding my dependency on alcohol. I told her that had I still been drinking I would not have chosen to share a room but would have my own room where a bottle of red wine would be secreted in my suitcase. In the bar I could drink like everyone else and sneak up to my room in between.

Reunions can be psychologically challenging. We meet people we haven’t seen for a very long time – in some cases since we left school and we may feel we haven’t achieved what we set out to achieve or some other inadequacy – but comparisons are odious. The grass is not always greener on the other side – in fact it’s positively brown with ugly thinning patches. Would an orang-utan compare herself with an elephant? No, she’s got far too much sense and is too busy moving habitat – baby cocooned in her arms – to avoid the python slithering up the tree to steal her baby. But we humans are not as clever and allow comparisons to distort our thinking.

Another drawback is logistics. Not everyone lives in Dublin or even Ireland and may have to travel some distance to attend a reunion. And the last obstacle may be financial, the cost may be prohibitive for some. So, given all these potential barriers, we did well with such a great turnout.

Evenings are my hardest times and to find myself in a small group where a bottle of wine was opened and shared between us was a test

At one stage, yes, you’ve guessed it, it was coming up to six o’clock and my desire for a drink was strong. My mindset had changed, I was in party mood and my perception had shifted. I was giddy, even Dolores was beginning to make sense; yes, why couldn’t I have a drink just like everyone else?

When Dolores starts to make sense, I must do something quickly.

My friend with whom I was sharing a room told me about a technique called urge surfing. I listened to an audio lasting nine minutes. It’s all about recognising the feeling and staying with it without reaction. I listened to it twice. It worked. Thank you, roommate.

I wasn’t aware when I packed my suit of armour, it was you.

As reunions go, I would say that ours was a success and as our main organiser was checking out, the receptionist asked her, “Will it be an annual event?” Watch this space.

Evenings are my hardest times and to find myself in a small group where a bottle of wine was opened and shared between us was a test. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything else. The old me could just imagine the frustration of sipping a small glass of wine over time. Not my idea of fun. Just give me the bottle.

The only person who knew my story was the person who had brought the bottle of wine. He opened the bottle and poured a tiny amount into glasses which were passed around. He said to me as he handed me a glass: “You’re not driving.” I said nothing as I passed the glass to the next person. Then they raised their glasses to toast. I sat there with my hands in my lap not knowing where to look. I felt it was obvious that I had a problem with alcohol. Why else was I not drinking?

And for no reason I can explain, I felt shame.

I went to a book launch and yes, it took place in a pub. I was meeting a friend from rehab there and I ordered a sparkling water (me) and a diet coke (her) from the bar. I handed over my card but the barman said all drinks were on the house. A man standing beside me laughed and said: “Do you want to add gin to that?” I was tempted to say “No, I’m alcohol dependent,” but I resisted. (Again, as in most situations, I and my friend were the only two people as far as I could see who were not drinking.)

I practise meditation. I started it years ago but dropped it many times thinking I was no good at it. Then I discovered I didn’t need to be good at it; I just needed to do it. There are times when I sit down to meditate and the thoughts will not go away despite the lack of an invitation to my mind. But, if I sit and wait for 20 minutes even though I’ve spent those minutes telling unwelcome thoughts in no uncertain terms to get lost, I feel a little better. There are days when sitting with yourself is the best option. Don’t neglect to give yourself time.

I belong to a group who get together once a week to meditate. But because it is scheduled for eight o’clock (evening) I struggled to not drink. It was an act of supreme discipline not to drink until after the meditation. And sometimes, I failed. I could not wait and would belatedly scribble an email to the facilitator with a fabricated excuse that I wouldn’t be available that evening. I was glad I didn’t have to talk to her.

After the meditation I was in such a hurry to have a drink that, if the bottle was not a screw top, I would open it before so that I wouldn’t waste time trying to uncork it. How pathetic is that? Even writing that sentence makes me feel small.

Waiting until eight o’clock was hard (and sometimes impossible) but interestingly, during the actual meditation, my desire for alcohol didn’t just diminish, it was gone. Which is strange because, far from distracting tactics, I was completely in the present moment. I think this shows how good meditation practice is. I find it strange that when I don’t make the time to meditate, I have less of it.

I’m going to see La Boheme and my friend suggested we meet half an hour before the performance starts so “We could have a glass of wine.”

Hmmm. She’ll think I’m sick if I don’t have a glass of wine.

In fact, I was sick when I was having glasses of wine.