October 2, 2006, Part 3: The Sober Leap
My second stint at detox was made possible by a fleeting moment of clarity a year earlier. It was then I signed up for private health insurance and, exactly twelve months later — on October 2 2006 — I became eligible for a range of insurer-funded treatments, including alcohol detox. Wasting no time to cash in my chips, this was the day I walked into the Melbourne Clinic, determined to make a blind leap into sobriety.
It’s difficult for me to recall, let alone convey, exactly how daunting a sober life seemed back then. The prospect of all that clear-headedness — all that fucking time on my hands — petrified me. Still does a bit.
I think I drank as way to evade insight. By this I mean that drinking allowed me to avoid the discomfiting experience of interacting with my own mind. I have read academics postulate that this same powerful impulse to extract oneself from conscious presence can explain all kinds of errant behavior, from drug-taking to problem gambling to sadio-masochistic sexual fetishes. This may sound a little self-important and pretentious (moi?) but it seems useful to me to understand why we do these things if we are serious about wanting to stop. No thirst in the world is enough to explain thirty pots a day.
I actually scaled back my drinking in the two months prior to commencing detox, which is rare apparently. Most drunks ramp up their drinking in panicked anticipation that the party may soon be over. But I wanted to ease myself into sobriety, so I cut down (!) to twelve cans on weekdays (although unlimited consumption on weekends).
I was, however, in possession of an stonking great hangover on the morning of my admission and remember shaking so badly with DTs that I could barely lift the pen to sign the forms. When they breathalysed me, the nurse was surprised to see no evidence of alcohol. “Irish catholic?” he asked , laughing far too loudly when I confirmed his suspicions.
Being a private psych hospital, the Melbourne Clinic was a far more salubrious setting than Windana but no less tragic under the surface. The detox unit was located in the midst of the geriatric ward which seemed a little counterproductive: “Look around you! If you stop drinking, you might live long enough to end up like these miserable, crazy people!”
My fellow patients were mainly middle-class boozehounds, although there was an element of pill-popping into the mix. We underwent far less adventurous therapies than at Windana where the approach seemed to be to try anything as long as the instructor didn’t expect to get paid. Our days consisted of group gabfests, the obligatory diazepam to prevent convulsions, and lots and lots of smoking outside in hospital slippers. The shared misery and humiliation associated with such places creates profound, instantaneous friendships. Much gallows humor, so very much in common: at least at that indelible moment in our lives.
I remember them all, my momentary soul-mates.
One fell in love with another, though it came to nothing. Another cried so hard when I left that the recollection alone makes me wince. I kept in touch with many of them on the outside, quite intensively at first. And then, one by one, they made peace with the decision to drink again — something I wasn’t, still am not, brave enough to do.
And so I checked out and made the leap into a new, sober life. I tell people it was easy and in a strange way it was. I haven’t felt like drinking again, not yet at least. Not enough energy for it, no fight left. But, four years on today, I am not convinced that being sober is all that great either. It is just better, on balance, than the alternative.
I wrote three years ago, a year into the sober schtick, that I felt a twinge of envy when I see a unreconstructed drunk who defiantly chooses to power on, whatever the carnage or consequences. I still do, but it goes as fast as it comes.
This is my path, for better or worse. This is how I live now.