The feast of SS Peter and Paul on June 29 marks the annual anniversary of my decision to give up drinking alcohol. People find it hard to understand the compulsive drinker. I was often asked: “Why don’t you cut down a bit, drink less and enjoy it more?” Tolerance and compromise maybe the watchwords of contemporary culture but they have little currency with the heavy drinker.
I started drinking years ago as a student and carried on afterwards. Beer and wine formed a comfortable shoulder in the corporate world. A good trencher man, still running and weight lifting, I felt I had nothing to fear.
A serious kidney infection changed all that. What started as a vague backache boiled up two days later into a night-long attack. Crawling over the bedroom floor I felt much as Isaiah must have done when the local brights tried to saw him in half. The pain was a screaming, tear-inducing, saw-mill horror. “Jesus help me,” I prayed.
One casualty physician cited alcohol as a contributory factor. A look passed between us. I admitted I liked a drink. By “one drink” medics mean a half pint of beer or a pub measure of wine, he said. I was too ashamed to describe my own Wedding of Cana measures.
But admitting you ought to quit is easy. Carrying it through is rather more problematic. The unnerving part was an inability to cut down long term. A week went by with just a beer or two then the intake ramped up. Most of the time I got away with it. But when the pain came back it was like a secret policemen with an electric cattle prod. It’s still hard to admit after all these years, but that June I felt terrified that my body was packing up.
On the morning of June 29 I walked into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most people had already gone through to another room. A cheerful man called Charlie greeted me.
“Looking for AA?” he asked.
“I just want to talk to someone, see what’s involved,” I said. “I don’t want to go into a meeting. Not yet.”
“OK,” said Charlie.
We sat in small book-lined room next door. The night before I had telephoned the AA helpline. That evening had begun with a routine bottle of beer cracked open after work, then a glass or two of red wine with dinner. Over the pub I sank a few jars of cider and later finished the bottle of red. Convinced the habit was out of control, I made the call.
“It never gets any better,” said the girl on the other end of the line. “We can send someone round if you like otherwise get to a meeting as soon as you can.”
She gave me the directions.
‘It’s the terror I can’t face,” I said, “the feeling it is all slipping away.” Charlie nodded and surprised me by saying: “You don’t have to pick up that first drink, you know.”
Talking to another man about alcohol in a sensible way was something I had never done before. Charlie worked in fine arts. As a writer, I connected with him.
“It’s different for us isn’t it?” I said. Charlie laughed. In fact all professions – teachers, racehorse trainers, chemical engineers and church workers – are heartily represented at AA.
Charlie was a Catholic. “Don’t take Communion wine, just the bread, OK?” he said. “People might think you’re a bit pre-Vatican II, but so what?” Even a sip of alcohol will set off the craving.
Recovery is a slow process. Over that summer I had never slept so long. I’d been told to eat chocolate biscuits if tempted. As an obsessive I couldn’t just eat one but crunched down half a dozen. At least I wasn’t waking up in a shop doorway as a result.
AA’s reference to a Higher Power, a god of your conception, was troubling. It sounded blasphemous to me. One man said he liked to think of God as an apple tree in his back garden. I had an insane urge to find out where he lived and sneak round there at dead of night and fell the tree. Another woman said she didn’t like religion. She liked her God with skin on. I looked round the meeting: some God this, I thought. Yet I was glad to be there. No one asked me to go – you have to decide to do it yourself.
A few years later Charlie contracted cancer and died.
His funeral was heavily attended. At one point in the service the priest said: “Let us pray for Charlie and all who suffered with him.” At first, I thought he meant cancer sufferers, but as I looked at the congregation I began to pick out people I knew from AA. Thin girls, sunburnt businessmen, pensioners with bling: these were the people Charlie suffered with.
I still use Charlie’s advice: do it a day at time; be comfortable with who you are; don’t take on too much; learn to say no. In addition, I stay loyal to his memory.
After that first meeting with Charlie I slipped across town to Mass, still frightened about my health and the daunting prospect of sobriety. It’s hard to explain, but as I sat there at Mass the whole idea of stopping drinking clicked into place. I have never drunk alcohol since. Sitting there, I knew I was done with it.
I believe that Jesus goes to these meetings, sitting there with skin on. Through the laughter and encouragement of Charlie and fellow sufferers I came to understand the mercy of Christ. Considering all this I heard, as if for the first time, the words of Psalm 33: “I sought the Lord and he answered me. From all my terrors he set me free.”
My prayer was answered. Every year I repeat the response tight-throated with gratitude that this Jesus, my God with skin on, came through for me.
John Musgrave works as a technical writer and lives quietly in the south-west of England