A couple of years back I nearly killed myself and wound up at the Priory. It quite literally saved my life.
On the face of it I had it all; wife, kids, good job, nice house. But I had battled with depression for years. Eventually the quick drink on the way home turned into a few, then an all nighter. I would roll home full of apologies, breathe booze fumes over my sleeping children and stumble into bed. I was roundly pilloried by the wife and vowed to change my ways.
Except I didn’t. I began buying a miniature vodka on the way home, just to get me through the evening. Which then became two. Which then became a quarter bottle, then a half bottle. All concealed from the wife, of course. I would decant into a water bottle and secretly drink it. Working away from home a lot of the time I would seek out every low end dive bar in all the cities I worked in and drink, drink all night. I wound up in strip bars and brothels, searching for some meaning. And a drink.
The drinking got steadily worse, as did the morning shakes. To conceal it I would of course – have to have another drink. In the morning, before work. Then at lunchtime. Before long I was consuming a half bottle of spirits during the day and then a further half bottle for the evening. I still held down a very highly paid job however. As a contractor, that came to a natural end and this was when my inner alcoholic ran riot. I had earned a shitload of money so decided to take a career break for a few weeks.
A few weeks turned into a few months and I was leaving the childcare duties to my wife while continuing to secretly drink. I became erratic and even more unhappy with the way my life was going. To avoid drinking, I would hang around the less salubrious areas of where I live after dark, looking to get mugged. I am a tubby bloke in my mid forties, and in the wrong part of town I must have looked like an easy target. I am however really quite good at fighting; competition honours in martial arts from my youth. Knowing I may have to fight kept me sober, and the rush of adrenaline would supplant the need to drink. For a while. Three times the local hoodlums tried it on, to be violently rebuffed. I would then drink even more heavily to celebrate. At the time I really did not care if I was killed. It took the last fight, when it was 3 on one and the last guy pulled a knife, to stop me from seeking this route. I broke my hand in two places on his jaw and cut his face with his own knife.
I managed to get my shit together and got a job again, full-time instead of contract. To give you an idea of how good I was at hiding that I was drinking, I managed to go through 3 interviews with half a bottle of Smirnoff inside me. Highly functioning alcoholic indeed. And all the time keeping this from my wife.
A couple of months went by, where I could go for a few days until the depression turned me back to the drinking again. By now my wife had tumbled my secret drinking and had arranged for me to see a doctor. I was to go to the dentist, to work, and then I was to meet my wife and go to the doctors.
Except I didn’t. I have little recollection of that day but I remember turning my phone off, deleting all the missed calls and text messages. I rolled home at 8.00 pm, pissed out of my head with a smashed up face and an eye that was closed over and bleeding. I have no idea what happened. The wife took the kids to a friends and I was largely left alone to get pissed, which I did royally. I think I managed a bottle and a half of spirits on Saturday. By Monday I was in my Dad’s car (the shame of it, in my forties and still having to rely on my Dad to help me out) and on the way to the Priory with a monstrous hangover. Luckily my job came with full on medical health insurance, and I was booked in.
So let us pause for a moment and consider what an alcoholic is. It really is someone who will choose alcohol over all else. There is a certain physical addiction to the drug, but for many it is psychological; alcoholics cannot live life on life’s terms without the numbing effect of alcohol. There is a line that is crossed over yet many alcoholics cannot tell you where there’s was. But we all know we are the wrong side of it. The physical aspect of it is quite nicely summed up with this series of videos:
– this series is also quite interesting as it argues that addiction is not a moral failing but a medical condition and should be treated as such. Many argue that it is a moral failing and even I am still not sure if it qualifies. Either way, alcoholism is a unique condition because it tells you that you don’t have it.
So there we have it; I am now sitting in a room with a really quite attractive addiction counsellor who is telling me about the month long rehab they offer. In my arrogance I tell her that I will do the course in two weeks. She laughs, all pearly teeth and cute curls bouncing. “We’ll see” she said.
I was shown my room and they went through my things. No phone, no books, no money and of course, no contraband. Not even sweets, crisps or even fruit allowed on admission.
I was left to it and realised there was no lock on the door. The place was designed Panopticon style, with a security guard / nurse on each juncture so every room door was visible. I was taken to a doctor who took blood and urine samples, gave me some Librium for the shakes and then gave me a vitamin B injection in my arse, which hurt quite a bit. I would have 4 more of these intramuscular injections, each time the dead leg for a few hours reminding me how badly I was in the shit.
The hospital was run by a few consultant psychologists, one of whom interviewed me. For the first time I was able to say how I felt, because he’d heard it all before. Any attempts at justifying how I came to his hospital was met with a steely glare and a raised eyebrow. There was no lying to this doctor, he was already in my head. Quite a discombobulating experience.
I was led into the cafeteria for dinner, and to meet my rehab mates. There was Charles (all names changed), a legal clerk, alcoholic. There was Kate, a speed, coke and alcohol fiend. There was Nigel, and alcoholic who’d already been through the program two years previously and had self funded and referred himself back in. On hearing this I thought – bloody hell you’re not the best advert for this place are you? There was Anil, a Sikh gentleman alcoholic. There were others but they were towards the end of their time and they played no real part on my time there. The rehab is set up on a rolling basis; attendees come for 28 days and a new person arrives for the start of their treatment. Others arrived, Sarah, a love addicted lesbian, Jason a coke head student. Sunil, alcoholic. Lorna, alcoholic bulimic, Mary alcoholic bulimic. Nick, alcoholic. Simon, married with children, closet homosexual with a penchant for gay chemsex and booze parties. I looked at them and felt compassion plus a little bit of revulsion. I’m better than you I thought, all of you. I’m not an addict or an alcoholic, and I will be out of here in two weeks. That’s how good I am. Ah, hubris.
We were an unusual group apparently, heavy on the booze front. They treat all kinds of addiction at the Priory, and each in accordance with the 12 step methodology. Going through the group’s various addictions, it became clear that no matter the substance we were abusing it was all because we did not like the way we felt about our lives and ourselves. The way we propped ourselves up, or tortured ourselves depending on how you look at it differed, but how we got there was the same.
I went to bed early; the lights go out at 11 but I was pretty bewildered by this time, a lot to take in and a really crushing hangover were taking their toll. Lights out at 11 anyway. At 7 my door was hammered on – no alarm clocks in the room and I was told to get up, shower and be in the cafeteria by 7:30. After breakfast it was Group Therapy, break, step work, lunch, yoga, break then more step work. Easy, I thought. I was asked to describe the circumstances that led to my admission. “Yep, you’re an alcoholic” they said. No I am not! I retorted. I am just here to keep everyone happy. I’ve had a few problems, but I’ll be OK, I can work this out myself. Ah Step One – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
I was not getting it. Here I was, with a 2 day old hangover, in a mental institution, with a face like a smashed crab and I could not bring myself to admit that I had a problem, that my life at present was not quite the land of glory and happiness.
Later I was summoned to the main office where I met Alice, my assigned counsellor. She was tall, blonde, slim in all the right places and curvy where it counts. Drop dead gorgeous in fact. All the counsellors are ex-addicts of one sort or another at this Priory. I sat down and we talked. What was your addiction I wondered. Every time I tried to justify my behaviour she would cut me off, at one point finishing my sentence for me, using the same words exactly as I would have. No hiding.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Gradually it dawned on me that these people were not the enemy, I was not in the Priory to be punished.
It still took them 2 and a half weeks to get me to admit I was an alcoholic though. Being a strong independent woman it was hard to admit powerlessness over drink.
Every day – rise at 7, breakfast, group therapy, step work. Group Therapy is quite possibly the most evil yet effective way of helping others, and by extension yourself. In a room full of denialists, skilled people manipulators and liars, the denier manipulator liar has nowhere to hide. I wrote my Step 1 – a history of all the times when my drinking had gone wrong and I had messed something or someone up. After 8 pages of A4 I could see the patterns – I was not drinking like normal people do.
Every evening we would trek out to a shed on the grounds for a 12 step meeting. I remember it clearly – Monday Over Eaters Anonymous, Tuesday Alcoholics. Wednesday Marijuana, Thursday Cocaine, Friday Love Addiction. At first I hated it – what did I have in common with these fat ladies who could not stay away from the biscuit tin, or these flashy media types who got caught up with the Devil’s Dandruff?
But I listened – I had nothing better to do anyway bar the TV in the common room that was always tuned to some BBC crap or other – no internet or Sky TV here. On arrival at the Priory I was somewhat disappointed to note there was no swimming pool, sauna or golf course on offer. I began looking at the Fat Ladies Club as we called it, with new eyes. These people were eating themselves to death by organ failure, deeply unhappy with the way that their lives had turned out. I heard tales of domestic abuse, of rape, of child abuse. Of grinding poverty and injustices in their lives. And also of petty small things that they could not spring their minds free from. But as I saw it – I could just about envisage a life without drinking but these people had to face their addiction three times a day and win. They had my respect; they were filling the hole in themselves just as I was.
With Step 1 finally embedded in my reluctant skull, it was on to Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” This is where I really began to choke on it – this concept of a Higher Power. The AA program was founded in a time when Christianity was far more prevalent and the texts, the “Big Book” draw heavily on the Christian faith. There was some controversy at the time when the book was being written and specific references to the Christian God were padded out with “a God of your understanding” which leaves room for the atheist, the non-Christian and so on to have some way of bringing some spirituality into their lives. I’ve met fervent Christians, card carrying atheists, pagans, Hindu’s, Sikhs and general spiritualists in the program since. It is really trying to heal the gap in people by removing the loneliness of the soul that afflicts so many of us.
The three things that a 12 step approach tries to heal are the physical, mental (including emotional) and the spiritual. Physical is fairly straightforward, but mental and spiritual are harder, being subjective and ephemeral. Many don’t get “God” and substitute “Group Of Drunks” or “Gift Of Desperation” – desperation because choosing to be in a cold room with a bunch of strangers talking about feelz is better than lying in a gutter covered in your own filth having alienated all those close to you. There is power in an AA room though, the power of people who have tried everything else to stop drinking and failed miserably. Who want to stop drinking but cannot do it by themselves, who give freely of their time and experience so others may also get well. Deists will claim this is the power of God working through His mortal instruments, others will just view it as a useful self help group. But in every meeting there is an abundance of hope, and I once read that true despair is the absence of hope. In a room surrounded by the kindness of strangers it is impossible to not feel the smallest glimmer of hope. Especially when many in the room have been sober for decades.
In the Priory you are forced to be honest, and in order to be honest you have to be at rock bottom. There are many rock bottoms; some addicts lose everything and end up in rags on the streets which is the popular image of an alcoholic. In reality, alcoholics are mostly just like everyone else. The route to rock bottom is like an endless lift downwards, there are many opportunities to get out of the lift before the consequences become too grave. For some, this is being whipped insensible by dominatrixes in a cold dojo above Robert Dyas at Leadenhall Market, for others it is a serious physical injury and a blank where memories of a day should be. Constant probing and guiding by a counsellor who has really been there, who alternatively bullies and supports you to confront what that mental, emotional or spiritual malaise is that drives your addictions. It is not a comfortable time, unpicking the lies you tell yourself and force yourself to believe, but it is necessary, and it is worthwhile. And in the Priory it is relentless; start at 7.00 am and finish at 11.00 pm, every hour devoted to understanding why you’re in a mental institution and how to get out and live, in 28 days without coming back.
Part of the spiritual and mental work that must be done to follow the program is to pray and meditate. For myself I do not “pray”, for how does one pray to hope? But I meditate in the morning, and at night I process the days events, decide which I can live with and which are bothering me but I can do nothing about. I can then let them go. It is this daily process that is successful on staving off the depression I suffer, the idea of keeping my mental and emotional state stable, by giving myself 10 minutes or more a day to see what resentments I am building up which will ultimately lead me to drinking again. These are the mental gymnastics I must jump through to keep myself on a happy plane. And this is how I, and many others like me, fill the hole of spirituality and maintain a healthy mental state. Counting of things to be grateful for is useful too; in today’s world it is all too easy to get caught up in that which we do not have while ignoring that which we do. Good health (JWP excepted), good relations with those close to us, meaningful employment. Even just clean warm sheets and a soft pillow to lay your head on each night.
So there you have it, a potted history of what it really is like being in the Priory.
It strikes me that many are in this malaise of physical, mental and spiritual imbalance, which is why it has been interesting reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules. Many rules seem to borrow from the 12 step program; not that I am accusing Peterson of plagiarism. Perhaps he just sees the truth the way Bill did. For lobsters read right sizing your ego, in AA speak. A drunk on a bender is most definitely not a happy lobster, and a hangover will definitely wilt your carapace. Stand up straight with your shoulders straight indeed.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping – be kind to yourself. Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie.
Overall I cannot recommend Peterson’s book enough; even if you consider yourself happy and stable it will give you an insight into perhaps a deeper level of happiness.
If you or someone you know are having a problem with alcohol, give AA a call or just turn up to a meeting. The meetings are anonymous and you don’t even have to give your real name.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
It will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.
© UnknownPuffin 2018