Change is always possible, say Lisa Ogilvie and Jerome Carson, as they share their own journeys to recovery.
Each person’s recovery journey is unique, and the process is nonlinear. So what makes our two stories different? Lisa used alcohol to make her mark on the world, or so she thought. Being able to consume extraordinary amounts of alcohol was a coveted talent when you were a young professional working on high-budget IT projects in the 2000s, and Lisa used this to justify chronic heavy drinking. Common sense tells us this is not sustainable, and that it puts one on a path toward alcoholism, something Lisa had to learn at great cost.
Jerome was a mental health professional, whose own father was an alcoholic. He could always falsely reassure himself that he was not as bad as his father. Following his move from the Institute of Psychiatry to the Maudsley Trust in 2006, Jerome spent the next five years working in mental health recovery. He co-developed a number of recovery initiatives, including co-authoring three books, the best known of which is probably, Mental Health Recovery Heroes Past and Present. This used patient narratives to share individual journeys and show that recovery is possible. In this vein, we humbly offer our own stories.
I clearly recall when my relationship with alcohol began – a relationship that endured for nearly 30 years. I was 15 and working a Saturday job stacking shelves in a supermarket. I enjoyed being with people who I felt had ‘proper lives,’ by virtue of not being at school. They regularly went to the pub, and when an invite was extended to me, I discovered a social life encompassing alcohol. It gave me confidence, it made me funny, clever, popular. I was no longer just a teenager wanting to fit in. There were so many positive possibilities.
As life unfolded, the same underlying principle continued. Alcohol was an enabler of good times, friendship and success. I had excelled at university, been head hunted by the age of 25, and rewarded with an unreasonably large salary. Alcohol had proved to be a steadfast comrade – it let me show off, helped me stand out, and I believed it had even opened doors by oiling career-building conversations. A dependence had formed. I was aware of it, but actively welcomed it.
As time progressed, my dependence evolved. Alcohol increasingly became a crutch instead of an enabler, an excuse to socialise, a reason to relax, and sadly the source of what I believed happiness to be. In reality, it was an attempt to maintain the humorous, successful and caring employee, wife, daughter and mother I wanted to portray, all the while satisfying my growing need to consume alcohol at every possible opportunity. It worked for a while, so I thought – until it didn’t.
For many years, I had been sinking, using alcohol to manage the psychological and physical fallout of an addiction that I had unwittingly cultivated to the best of my ability. Time passed, the consequences grew, and not just for me. I was a damaging force to be around, especially to those I cared for. I was desperately trying to survive, and to survive I had to have alcohol.
There was no coming back. My fulltime vocation, 24/7, was as an alcoholic. It could not be hidden or denied anymore – it was too obvious, the consequences too embarrassingly typical. I faced a simple choice, one which was incredibly difficult to make – stop drinking or lose everything that mattered. In recovery, some would call this the gift of desperation, and for me making that choice did indeed turn out to be a gift.
I began my recovery. It was not easy, and involved lots of tears, guilt and shame. As my brain started to function without alcohol, further buoyed by support from people who understood addiction, my thoughts moved toward responsibility and acceptance. I started to feel hope, even optimism, when those I cared about recognised that I was growing, improving and learning new behaviours.
Since then, my world has grown in wonderful and unexpected ways – because of recovery, not in spite of giving up alcohol. I regained a sense of what it was like for people to value my contribution. This was something I didn’t even know I had lost, but which proved to be a striking discovery in what recovery looks like to me. That is to contribute valuable and respected research in the field of addiction recovery, work that will promote and enable others to engage in recovery, as a positive and life changing experience. I have now found my source of happiness, and it is unequivocally, embracing life in recovery.
Professionals are told not to let their personal lives intrude into their work lives. Here, Lisa and I are both allowing our personal lives to intrude into our storytelling. My father was an alcoholic. His father was teetotal. Why did I choose to follow my own father, rather than my grandfather? In truth, I rather envied my father when I was a teenager. He could be a charmer with the ladies, which I yearned to be, and had a wonderful singing voice, which generally only emerged when he was drinking.
My own formative years were spent in the North East. There were the usual adolescent drinking binges, which continued into university where I took up with a small group of young men for whom drinking became an occupation. In the first year on ‘beer race day’ we drank 16 pints, and over the years I became an episodic binge drinker, drinking until I could drink no more. As most of this drinking was conducted in small groups, where it was culturally normative, it was never considered excessive.
In my middle age, beer gave way to good wine. I would only go out occasionally, as by then I had a family of four children. One of my medical friends and myself would meet every couple of months for a meal in a posh restaurant, washed down with four bottles of wine. I think we both considered ourselves to be mentally stable and that our drinking was nothing to be concerned about. It was only in later years that I realised that by the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V), I met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. My AUDIT score was also indicative of problematic drinking and I scored two of out four on the CAGE screening tool. After a very heavy drinking session with two university friends and our wives I became so unwell that I actually gave up drinking for three years. This was actually easy, as I was psychologically but not physically dependent.
On my 59th birthday I drank too much, had an argument with my partner and was given an ultimatum, the relationship or the alcohol. For once, I saw the effect that my drinking was having on someone close to me. This was the third such episode, and for her it was the last straw. I was in the proverbial last chance saloon and I decided to leave the bar.
At the time of writing, now four years, seven months and 20 days down the track, I have not had a single lapse. I will never go back. I have never been to a single AA meeting and never will, as I have managed on my own, though I have huge admiration for their work. I would never say, ‘I have done it, you can do it too.’ The fact that I had to wait until I was 59 to make this choice shows the degree of denial I was in. For some of us, there really is only one choice. That’s not red or white. It’s abstinence.
Two stories out of millions
Why might our stories be any more remarkable than anyone else’s? They probably aren’t. Yet as humans we have a need for stories to nurture, inspire or encourage us. Change is possible. It was the one life lesson that Jerome’s father failed to learn. In the end alcohol killed him while his own teetotal father had lived until his eighties. How many years does alcohol take from us? For Lisa and Jerome, giving up alcohol has opened up life’s possibilities in a way they never envisaged.
Visit their website at positivelysober.org