John Barleycorn

Oh lord. There are so many ways to write what should be my most important message. I think part of my delay has been the daunting task of trying to picture how to structure the telling. It was a a kind of hell to live through, and if I cant organize that into something useful to another fellow sufferer (drinker or anchored to one), then it will be one more massive fail to throw on the pyre. Because that’s who this is for. Most people have problems. Sometimes those problems are as massive as a personal black hole, consuming everything in ones life down to the very light itself. It can be hard to come back from a blackhole. Science says it’s impossible in fact. Actually science used to say the same things about my type of affliction. Head back 60 or 80 years and doctors wrote my kind off as ‘hopeless and untreatable’. To be restrained to a bed in a mental hospital for the rest of ones days.

I am an alcoholic. That is a line I’ve said countless times over the years. The first bunch of times would have had a sarcastic fearful self denying tone. Or would have tried feebly inserting the word not in there, to see if that lie could be sold. After a time I would accept it, and on occasion own up to it, but always in such a surrendered self defeated way.

I remember clearly when the first person who I both cared about and respected the opinion of, told me she thought I had a drinking problem. She even approached it then with a ‘let’s try to figure this out for moving forward’ spirit. For which she was repayed with damn near a decade of really getting to know addiction, alcoholism, deception, reckless behavior and more stress response than is healthy to cram into a body. (Maybe a good lesson here is have your eyes wide open as to what you may be signing on for if you decide to “help” someone).

I wasn’t a stranger to alcoholism at 20 something years old when the above proclamation was made. I watched my father struggle with the same bottles for most of my formative years. His tale and his father’s tales are similar. How far back does that go I wonder. I’m the oldest of three boys, and thankfully neither of my brothers has been ensnared as thouroughly. They may not have had to struggle with booze like I did, but both of their lives were shaped by it. The science on what role genes or heredity play is still slowly emerging, but I’m satisfied to know that there are some ways to be put together that make certain things intolerable to some folk. How I am put together is influenced by my gene’s and similar in ways to my dad, and his dad. One or more of those ways make alcohol intolerable to us, in that if we ingest it, things start rewiring in predictable (and some unique) ways inside that lead to disaster everywhere. And an inability to stop ingesting alcohol. A craving or desire so strong and urgent it becomes the one ring to rule them all. I think a big part of what happens is parts of your brain that control the most important things (beat heart, move diaphragm, breath) and parts that signal trouble (starving, thirsty, pain, move) start making strong connections to the higher level parts of the brain. The parts that plan and think. The part of the brain outside conscious thought and control is convinced that alcohol is needed to live and sends the commands out accordingly. There is a pressure that builds, you’ll feel it if you go a few days without food (I encourage you to try). Or sleep (dont do that for any reason). I know now that is a growing number of receptors somewhere accumulating hormone signal molecules, and it requires an action to release them. Something like that, and it is very hard to ignore. Almost impossible if your also all messed up from the other things drinking to much does to a person’s body and mind. You’ll find out something else as well that alot of alcoholics can confirm. You dont actually need the thing you crave to get the feel good release and all better sensations. You just need to decide that you are going to do so. Or be in the process of acquiring whatever that thing is. Right there is the first release of that pressure, but the crux is you actually have to be committed to this action. Theres no tricking the brain. Or at least not for long. You could probably use “playing the tape forward” here with some good visualization, picture the act and get a mild dose. Good for the early days of recovery when one is just trying to get through each day. But it wouldn’t work more than a few times. Your brain is clever. And I did come to feel it strongly as something akin to an allergic reaction as well. AA has made the same connection a big part of their literature.

I didn’t have much happiness exiting my childhood, with my family, or myself and that is the vulnerable state I found what to me were the necessities of alcohol. I dont need to glorify how booze pulled me out of myself and let me feel bolstered in its presence. Theres definitly a connection to the levels of anxiety and general fear I carried around and how those were mediated with booze. I began drinking socially around 18, for awhile it seemed to work well enough. I’m from the sort of places where hard drinking is an expected rite of passage for young males, and I drank as hard as anyone else I could find. Red flags of course right from the get go, in quantity and frequency. After a few years when my peers began to slow down or modify their drinking (which was still considerably often) to accommodate a growing life… I did not. When it began to mark me as outside the norm I ignored and dismissed the issue. When it was pointed out in a way that couldnt be rationalized, I began to hide it. That’s when I really started to get into trouble. Slowly building and a landslide at the end, alcohol had hooks deeply entrenched into my psyche and my way of being. I floundered in post secondary education, there for the parties and not the classes. I learned things but not what was in the curriculums. When my mounting debt without drawing any closer to a degree (I didn’t even know what the hell I should bother learning about) forced me out of higher learning, I found jobs which allowed me to continue drinking the way I needed to. Hard labour type jobs, sometimes quite dangerous in nature, often out of town, or involving night shift work. The toll the drinking took on my faculties was easier to hide in professions that seem to beat people down a little harder. Where the older guys tend to be more bitter and angry with how life has unfolded, the younger guys either unable to reach for something better, or just passing through. Dont get me wrong, I met and worked with some amazing people through these jobs, just the majority fell as I described. I drank whenever I could get away with it, trying to always toe the line between intoxicated and hammered. Until I was by myself and could finish everything and blackout. I hadnt started drinking at work yet, that didn’t come until I had more to lose, work and family wise.

Part of what I was drinking so hard to drown was the feeling of not living up to my potential. In every aspect of my life I was stalled, afraid to move in a direction, lost. So despite all the posion I was putting into my body, I pushed myself through some pretty challenging obstacles and into a job that seemed would meet most of my criteria to be fulfilling, meaningful, satisfying and stable. I had hid the depth of my alcoholsim from everyone enough to get this far. The good job, now married to the girl who wanted to help (and we had our first child), and her family became mine. I could tell everyone knew to some level (slight awareness to secretly scared or put off depending how observant), but there is an expectation that someone will be able to handle their shit. So they respected my space. By this point I was very skilled at lying, or deflecting, or distracting, or whatever I had to do, to project a better image of my life than the movie that was actually playing. The better you are at crisis managment, adapting on the spot, able to spin stories and keep track of them, all these things help someone who is drowning delay any sort of rescue (self or other). There were some who obviously couldnt ignore what they saw in front of them, and made tentative attempts or offers, or questions. But I was having none of that, politely pointing out that I of course can manage thanks. I had over these years slowly lost touch with all the friends I had made, some very close and I regret that terribly. There is a shame that goes with living the way I was, that cant stand to be seen by close friends and loved ones. To continue being me, I ghosted everyone I possibly could. My natural introverted tendencies were okay with this, but overall it was a tremendous loss.

Alcoholism doesnt seem to find a steady stasis point, and eventually drinking around work crumbled and I began to drink at work. Of course in the quantities I was consuming, alcohol had invaded my work long before that. I was working as a firefighter and paramedic, and I couldnt stop drinking. My relationship followed a pattern of getting caught drunk, fighting, promising change and pretending harder. Work was catching on, and eventually there was a brief stint in rehab, 30 days which I offered to go to and tried without any sort of resolve or belief would work. I was only interested in preserving what I had, and protecting my cravings. It didn’t take long for that to fail and I started drinking again. That facility was one available to people who were government funded or court ordered, most of the others had or were in track for multiple visits and I found the whole thing to be designed to fail. Now I know it was me who was designed to fail, at that point in my life.

By this point there was no party or fun to the drink. It was just something I needed, more important than water or air. I didn’t get the shakes or feel physically I’ll if circumstances came up where I couldnt drink for hours or even a day. But it couldnt be longer than that, and it took considerable time, effort and energy to coordinate. I had never been an angry drunk, there was no acting out or noise in the whole process, I just wanted to be numb, and no clue from what. Part off it became to erase or manage the painful to live with wake I was leaving behind me. All those shames and memories I didn’t want to have. Didn’t want to be mine. In the off hours of work, my first consequential brush with the law happened and I earned myself a DUI. I havent mentioned yet how often I drove impaired, but it was alot. And to my great shame, it wasn’t confined to just endangering myself. I have been impaired behind the wheel with friends, family, my children, my wife. And everyone else of course who would have been in my path. I’m sorry to everyone, and am as horrified about my choices now as all those people I’m sure would have been. Or are. One of the effects of the drinking is how my memories were made, or not during alot of these times. The morning of my arrest cuts in and out reliably, given my impairment level I’m surprised I remember much. 0.325 is the number I remember the judge reading out. Over 3 times the legal limit. To get to that required a usual night of drinking somewhere close to 750 MLs of vodka (my go to, less smell), followed by another 3-500 in the morning. That’s a 26er followed by a Mickey and maybe a few coolers or tall boys. I fade in and out when the police were dealing with me at my car, I remember I didn’t recognize them, but they new the uniform in my backseat. The detachment part is more clear to me, highly stressful and not something I’d like to repeat. After being charged, they allowed a confused coworker to pick me up, I dont remember what I tried to tell him but I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. Fast forward almost a year I was able to limp through on my charades ability. Alot of work went into hiding everything, the drinking, the health issues, the legal troubles, the imoral dangerous choices. I was driving fire trucks, ambulances, and my own vehicles sometimes still impaired, while on a driving suspension for just that. If I were to been caught then, I could have seen a little jail, alot of fines and a mountain of work to overcome it. Had I hurt or killed someone, which was a good possibility, I would have been looking at a good chunk of my life in jail. And would have earned it. My work lies were crumbling, my home life had been falling apart and we were in the process of splitting up. I was drinking myself to death, on the edge of being fired, homeless, and playing with imprisonment. I felt as sick, and tired, and defeated as I possibly could. See I wasn’t a bad guy. I’m not a bad guy. I’m actually a very warm, caring, capable person. All that was good in me was completly tainted and corrupted by how ethanol interacted in my cells.

At this point most everyone had given up on me. They had too, I had refused any help for almost a decade, proving time and again that I wasn’t up to kicking this disease state. The lies coming out of my mouth must have been infuriating to hear, I remember alot of disgusted and angry faces. Or worse glazed over looks of people who have written you off to lost in the swamp. Dead and gone already, some sort of living zombie. I was sleeping in an uninsured unregistered vehicle, in the middle of winter, out of options and out of time. Everything hurt, physically and emotionally, I was out of fight and drinking whenever I was not unconscious. I wouldn’t say I was trying to kill myself, but I wasn’t not trying to either. I just needed everything to stop, and I had no clue how to make that happen.

This is the part where the tide stopped receding, though I couldnt tell yet. I had to put down everything, all those things I had been juggling and trying to save. All the things I was afraid to lose. My whole life was holding me where I was, and I had to walk away from it all. I was lucky, I had a few family members still willing to take me in the state I was in. For a few months there not much changed, traded one side of the country for another and kept right were I had been. Lies and drinking, hiding and games. I attended some AA meetings half heartedly (as I had a few times before), some local programs services. Nothing seemed any different yet, only worse for the loss of my wife and children (there are 2 now whom I love very much), job, sense of self….it was all gone. I have a no nonsense Aunt who knew that the best use she could be to me was to kick my ass physically (using exercise… we didn’t fistfight). I cant underscore how important this was to my recovery, to anyone who may be where I was and lost. You need to get back on your health, diet, sleep and exercise. If those cards are stacked against you, along with the rest of the deck, hows a person to win? Take them back. It was painful at first, even though I was coming from a career known for good physicality. That amazing old lady jogged me up and down hills, drug me to early morning yoga classes and swimming pools for months. I was still drinking, but it was starting to slow down. It hurt to much to keep drinking the amounts I was used to AND survive the workouts, but I was trying. Around the same time, the AA meetings I had been pressured into attending were starting to change. They were starting to become more enjoyable. Something I liked to be going to, involved with and welcomed into. I actually heard the people there, what they were saying. I found my voice, when I shared, and was surprised at things that would come out. Of course it wasn’t the meetings changing, but myself. I was turning towards something, or away from what was destroying me anyways. I would listen to people talk about not having to take a drink of alcohol for months, even years now. Then I realized it had been a day for me. Then a couple. You start collecting coins to celebrate important lengths of time of sobriety. At first it’s the days that matter, because you are probably barely hanging on. It is day by day, like climbing a steep mountain and every handhold must be fought for. I was attending 2 meetings almost every day, month after month and the coins started adding up. Life started to become clear again. AA is the other crucial component to how I was able to pull back out of the quicksand. Started and maintained by alcoholics because noone else knew how to help us. I would strongly advise anyone in my boat to get involved with the program immediately, and stay with it. It may not make sense at first, you may hate it or fight it. Assume that is you, and double down here. It may take some time, but it is hands down the most successful tool we have and very effective if approached properly. I utilized a sponsor, and tried any other resource I could find that would strengthen the resistance I felt building. The exercising was getting easier and became automatic (now I was riding a bike around town to get to my things). I was speaking again in a positive way with my spouse, who considering what we went though was being pretty amazing to even consider it important for me to keep talking to her and the kids. I found some work through nice older people at a local church doing odd jobs like landscaping. It’s funny, by my 4 month sober chip I noticed that things in my life started happening with positive outcomes. Let me tell you, when you live the way I did (deceit, manipulation, bad choices), you get used to things usually going wrong. I didn’t realize theres a karmic reciprocity to how you go about your business,if you live bad you get bad. This was the ying to that yang, and it was all the more amazing for the stark contrast to the carnage I had grown accustomed to. With that as reinforcement and an awakening confidence in myself (there is a big difference between that and ego by the way), I kept slowly making right decisions. Within a few more months I had been able to transform my life and put myself back into a position to move forward again. I then put time and energy into repairing the damage I had wrought on my family, moved back close enough to start being of service to them and found employment. I will tell you time and patience are all that’s needed once a person can solve the mystery of how to get unstuck. The stuck side of things seems to be endless and infinite, a place where time barely moves and nothing changes. This side is much different, like a time warp where I’d love to throw an anchor out every now and then just to be able to slow down and appreciate whatever moments I can. It helped to realize that it didnt matter how much garbage was behind me. How many embarrassments and mistakes I had trailing me. I shifted my perspective to how many opportunities were still ahead, how many chances to do something different. There is always time to change your story. It’s never too late for redemption, and it can begin as immediately as a choice made with strength. I havent had a drink of alcohol since Mar 5 2012. I’m no longer haunted and chased by my mistakes and remembrances. constantly stumbling to stay one step ahead of my lies, body and soul tormented. I’m one of the lucky ones, lucky to have stumbled into a way to come back from that dead place. I consider it to be something I owe to be ready and able to help any other lost soul to do the same. I will try to reform these words, this story to include whatever information may be helpful to that end. This is my first draft, the rough copy, but I have delayed long enough. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions, you dont know which one may be the one that starts your rebirth story.

I’m an alcoholic. I say this now with no ill feelings, when it comes up. Because it no longer defines me. I will always be one, that is critical to keep in mind, but I can choose to stay away from ever letting it get a hand on my steering wheel again. And I have, for 2651 days, which is a pretty good start.