When it’s time to lay off the booze

Don't suffer: help is at hand through AA meetings
Don't suffer: help is at hand through AA meetings
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We’re drinking more and more as a nation, but what’s the effect on our families? Star reporter Rachael Clegg speaks to two people about how drink damaged their home life.

CHRIS Spencer hasn’t had a drink for 16 years but he’s still an alcoholic.

Chris, like many people who have a drink problem, will always be an alcoholic. “It is a disease,” he says. “For well I know that one drink might undo all the work of sixteen years.” At his lowest, Chris, , from Doncaster, would drink anything to get his fix. “I remember one day and I’d drunk all I had at home but I still had a taste so I opened up the medicine cabinet and found the Benylin and drank that.”

“It’s an incurable disease,” he said. “But alcohol isn’t the problem – it was the solution to the problem. The problem was the chaos that was going on between my ears.”

Chris had a lot of chaos. A bright, urbane, well-educated finance director of a multi-million-pound company in the 90s, Chris not only had a stressful job, he also had an over-active mind. “I just couldn’t switch off, that was my problem. And instead of growing up emotionally I made everything an intellectual challenge rather than dealing with my feelings.”

Chris was lucky – his wife of almost 40 years stuck by him. “I asked her why she stood by me all that time and she said ‘I’m Greek, we don’t walk out on our husbands.” But it wasn’t easy for her. “She drank heavily at one point to try to compete but that just resulted in violent rages.”

His mother and father were equally distraught at the sight of their son being gripped by alcoholism.

“I remember my dad storming into my office one day as I had a glass of whisky in my hand. Then there was a day where I was at the table with mum with a huge bowl of soup in front of me and I could not hold the spoon with one hand because I was shaking so much. My mum was so upset at the sight.”

But while it broke the hearts of his family, Chris didn’t stop drinking for them. “I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in 1995 but it was because I knew I had to stop. The breaking point for me was complete disgust at myself – you have to reach rock bottom to change.”

He said: “Members said that by trying not to drink for the rest of my life I was setting myself up for failure, but that I could simply decide not to drink today. This I have been doing for some 6,000 days, one day at a time.”

But of course, while selfish in motivation, the fact Chris decided to stop himself meant his family had relative peace of mind.

“The meetings weaved their magic upon me such that one day it seemed a good idea not to pick up a drink. The cravings had vanished.” This was an achievement for a man who was drinking a litre of Famous Grouse a day.

The AA focuses on a Twelve Steps programme of recovery, taking in different stages of self-realisation and a belief that a ‘higher being’ will help pull the alcohloc through. “The higher being may be other members, or God, or whatever it is that the person wishes to believe in – as long as it is not themselves,” says Chris.

Admitting defeat, Chris says is the First Step. Only when a person has admitted defeat can he or she start solving the problem.

But for Anne Hobbs, another heavy drinker, the AA wasn’t the answer. Anne, from Broomhill, got to the stage where she was drinking two bottles of wine a night, seven days a week. And, like Chris, she was middle-class and living in an affluent part of South Yorkshire.

“It is such a big problem among the middle and upper classes. I see it all the time – the kids come home from school and the mums start drinking while making the tea and then by dinner time they’re on the last glass of the first bottle and on to the second bottle by the evening.

“That is seen as normal but really, what’s the difference between that person and the person in the city centre drinking Stella outside half cut? The only difference is their surroundings.”

Chris has a similar opinion. “My ‘sponsor’ – who is also in recovery, is a medical professional at the top of his game. Many of the members of AA are people at the pinnacle of careers.”

But while Anne’s drinking was masked by middle-class comfort, it still caused upset at home.

“We would start drinking at 4pm on Saturday so my husband and I would get very drunk and have furious rows. The kids would say ‘Will you stop!’ Some days I’d be walking my school to kids and I was still drunk.”

But Anne’s apologised since. “I have spoke to them about it and they say it hasn’t bothered them too much,”

It bothered Anne though. “I just didn’t want to end up like my mother, who is an alcoholic. I know that alcohol is my drug.”

Now she’s cut back. “I’m a cheap date, I have the occasional glass now but that’s it. I don’t go to parties because I know I may end up drinking far too much.”

Anne doesn’t feel she needs the AA. “I wanted to stop so I cut it straight away,” she said.

But for others, the AA is an invaluable help when in desperate need. “Willpower is of no avail, as it merely reinforced the ego-driven attitudes that fed my drinking urge.”

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by stockbroker called Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith. Their meetings marked Dr Bob’s last drink, but it also kickstarted the establishment of an organisation that would spread across the globe. The organisation now has more than 2,000,000 members across 100 countries.

The AA programme is based on a recovered alcoholic passing on the story of his or her drinking problem, describing the sobriety he or she found in AA.

The programme is also based on Twelve Steps, the first being an admittance that a person is powerless to the lure and effects of alcohol and the last step – Step Twelve, is to have had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.

There is also help for the families and friends of alcoholics with Al-Anon family groups.

There is also Alateen – part of Al-Anon but Alateen can only be attended by 12- to 17-year-olds who are affected by another person’s drinking, usually a parent.

Other help organisations include Addaction, Connexions Direct and for children of alcoholics there’s The National Association for Children of Alcoholics.