Hundreds of people in village halls and meeting rooms around the country have heard me say these nine words a thousand times over the past seven years, because AA has been a sanctuary for me in my recovery. Hello, my name is Susannah and I’m an alcoholic.
And here I am saying it outside those four walls, in detail, for the first time.
My alcoholism is not a secret, but it is private — that is why I have not discussed it publicly before now.
So why now? Hearing statistics about alcoholism and the pandemic made me realise that now is a time when my story could be of real benefit to others.
The second lockdown and lack of an end in sight made me realise that, while I’m fairly far forward in my recovery — it’s been seven years since my last drink — others are not. And I wanted to write an open letter to those people, in the hope that the things I have learned along my journey might make theirs a little easier.
Courageous: Susannah discusses her struggle with alcohol
So, if you are feeling your habits have changed or are becoming a worry, you are not alone.
First, let me introduce myself the old fashioned way. My name is Susannah, and I’m a 58-year-old wife of 25 years and mother of three children, with 30 years under my belt as a successful writer and broadcaster.
That’s the ordinary part. The other part is that, for eight of those years, I did much of the above numbed by alcohol.
I thank God I never let my drinking slip into the day and never reached the point where my behaviour put others in danger: I can only think my maternal instinct was stronger than my addiction. While I put a value on other people’s lives, however, I did not put one on my own.
Despite never drinking before 6pm, I looked forward to that first glass of wine too much and then it became an unconscious reflex. Evenings were so much more fun with booze. I was more entertaining — or so I thought.
One or two glasses soon became a bottle and a half, and I’d wake up in the morning struggling to remember the night before.
While I had long suspected my relationship with alcohol was an unhealthy one, the fact that I never drank in the daytime is perhaps why it took so long for me to realise how serious the problem was — it made it easier to deny, excusing my drinking by dressing it up as ‘social’ or ‘unwinding’.
Alcohol addiction can hit at any time, but I understand there is a growing number of cases among women in their 40s.
I can only speak for myself, but it was a time of great change as my children were becoming more independent, my career was evolving and my mother was reaching the end of her life.
It is a key time, especially in a woman’s life, when you begin to reassess your place in the family and society as a whole. This is a time when it is common for women to have to redefine themselves.
The word ‘alcoholic’ is a very broad, amorphous one and I suspect there are many of you reading who would not dream of labelling yourself in that way.
You don’t hide bottles of vodka in the toilet cistern, you never arrive home smashed at 5am, or wake up after a blackout.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself to be an alcoholic or just a heavy drinker. If you are reading this and questioning your relationship with alcohol, the label is irrelevant. If it’s worrying you, it’s an issue.
People often try to find an excuse for their drinking — a stressful event at home, a difficult relationship, drama at work. Yes, these are stress tests, but the bottom line is, as an alcoholic, you will always find an excuse to drink and that could be something as mundane as the bin bag breaking.
I never needed an excuse. The truth is, not only was I dependent on alcohol, I enjoyed life better when I was drinking. Until I didn’t.
I hid my drinking well, but the deception left me isolated and the effort it took was all-consuming and exhausting.
On occasion my guard would slip and it couldn’t be hidden. To my great shame, I will never forget the time it was suggested that my husband should take me home from a friend’s 40th birthday because I could barely stand.
After years of waking up filled with shame and guilt and asking God for the four horsemen to take me away and not bring me back, I knew it was time. Drinking had ceased to be fun. I had ceased to be fun. I was no longer in control, it was controlling me.
My rock bottom came in 2013 while on holiday in Cornwall with my husband. I blacked out and fell, fracturing two small bones in my back. I woke up, in terrible agony, on the pavement and realised I needed help. I called a friend — she called another friend — and within days I was at my first AA meeting. I have not missed a single weekly meeting since then, although this has been affected by lockdown sadly.
These are not memories I enjoy looking back on, but recognising the problem — sometimes staring it straight in the face even when you’re terrified of what you might see — is the first step to recovery. That first phone call, asking for help, recognising you need help, is your first step.
Even this far down the line, I’m still trying to identify the root cause of my addiction. Both my mother and grandmother were alcoholics. When my mother died in 2007, she’d been in poor health for years, suffering from both bipolar disorder and early onset dementia.
Drink, for her, I imagine, was an anaesthetic. As I child I’d watched her ‘secret’ drinking and vowed I’d never be like her. Of course, I, in turn, did the same.
My grandmother’s problems with alcohol were well known in the family. She died when I was five, so I have no memories of her drinking, but many others have. No one knows the root cause of her addiction.
The TV style guru with husband Sten
Of course, this has led me to question whether it is genetic, but also how much is learned behaviour. Had my mother mimicked her own mother? Had I mimicked her? I will never know. I doubt she would have known the answer either, were she still alive.
Whatever the cause, the problem was clear. Just as it may be for you.
Clearly, I am not qualified to counsel or diagnose a true alcoholic — that, I feel, is a job only for a professional.
In my personal experience, though, professional diagnosis was most effective when running alongside support from others who had encountered the same thing.
When I first attended an AA meeting, the relief swept over me when I realised other people had the same stories and feelings; I was not alone. I would say the same to anyone coming to terms with similar issues now: you are not alone. It is not an exaggeration to say that AA saved my life.
Nowadays, 6pm happens every day, as always, yet I don’t reach for the bottle. I don’t want to.
When I stopped drinking I found I had more of everything — more time, energy and enthusiasm. I’d been frightened about what would happen if I let alcohol go, what would replace it, but I see now that life replaced it. I got my life back.
It wasn’t until then that I realised how much time my addiction had taken up and how much energy I’d been using to sustain it.
The realisation that I no longer required anyone other than myself to make life better for me, and those around me, was liberating. After I stopped drinking, I took on several big challenges — Tough Guy for Sport Relief and an expedition to the Arctic with my son, which was hugely challenging both mentally and physically and I loved it.
The power I felt as a result of these physical activities was a better high than anything I’d had from alcohol. It made me realise I never did get a ‘high’ from alcohol; quite the opposite. I was either drunk or hungover and that meant feeling demotivated, directionless, depressed and, at my worst, suicidal. These new physical activities were addictive in their own way, but in contrast to alcohol they were empowering, motivating and healthy.
I lost a stone in the process for a start, which in itself gave me a degree of self-confidence and self-assurance I hadn’t had for a decade. I felt more attractive, which was great for me and for my marriage.
Things have levelled out of course, I’m not doing an Ironman challenge every day, but what I have come to love is swimming. To be more specific, ‘wild swimming’, as the world now calls it. Really it’s just good old-fashioned outdoor swimming in the cold, which doesn’t sound as glamorous. But let me tell you, there’s nothing glamorous about wild swimming. I don’t care, though. It’s the last thing on my mind. In fact, that is the best thing about it. There is nothing on my mind bar the act itself. Many people talk about the clarity it gives you and I would wholeheartedly agree. It brings back a childish giddiness.
When the water hits, I feel empowered. I empty my mind completely and experience a kind of freedom — liberation from everything. I am resolute, determined, and it’s a personal challenge.
It’s an almost religious experience, like a baptism; you are your own disciple, baptising yourself. It’s a new beginning and one you are in charge of. Instead of pressing what I call the ‘f**k it button’, as I could have done as an addict, it’s pressing ‘restart’. You can begin things again at any point in the day.
Here we are in 2020. Many have lost jobs, have money worries, relationship pressures, struggle with home schooling, isolation, loneliness. The trauma is unending. My sympathies are entirely with those struggling with alcohol addiction in the middle of all this.
All these things represent huge stresses for the average person, but more so for someone whose emotional well-being is already being propped up with a crutch. For some, Christmas will just add fuel to the fire.
The issue with addiction is that there’s often a degree of shame attached and/or a lack of self-awareness that prevents us from asking for help when we are most vulnerable. Often addiction masks other emotional issues and these can come into sharp relief if you are trying to stay sober under such extreme circumstances.
I once heard dementia described as the equivalent of an old car idling. The engine can handle it, but when you put your foot on the gas and more is required, it’s not up to the job. For someone with dementia this could be anything from a dental appointment to a delivery the next morning — all such things act like a stress test and put extra pressure on the engine.
The person may become irrational, agitated and flustered and suddenly we see how fragile they really are when anything out of the ordinary is expected of them.
I think the same can be true of addiction. When a person is a high functioning addict, they can appear quite ‘normal’ while their engine is idling, but when you apply a stress test, the cracks begin to show. The pandemic and attendant restrictions have created the ultimate stress test. There will be countless cracks appearing in families all over the world right now.
Probably the most important thing to take on board is that sobriety is a journey, not a destination. You will always be an alcoholic but, with the right tools and support, you can learn to live with it.
When I say ‘live with it’, I don’t mean cover it up so you can get away with it in front of others.
Women, in my experience, seem adept at accommodating their addictions; fitting them into their lives alongside all the other things they must juggle — and many believe that high-functioning alcoholics are the least likely to receive diagnosis or treatment.
Not everyone will need to seek professional help, but if you feel concerned about your behaviour, even sharing it with a trusted friend is a good start.
My husband’s story is not mine to tell, but suffice to say, I am forever grateful he understood my alcoholism was a battle I had to fight alone. I cannot do justice here to his strength, love and support, but without it, I might still be drinking today.
And while I don’t feel I have uncovered everything about my own alcoholism, I do feel there is a conclusion to my story. I realise I am, on some level, still dealing with the guilt and shame attached to it, and that it is a long road, but I feel like I’m on the right one.
I now understand I am not a bad person trying to become good, I’m an ill person trying to get better.
You can find more of Susannah’s writing at susannahconstantine.co.uk
If you are affected by any of the issues above, seek the help of a professional or contact the AA helpline free on 0800 917 7650 to be put in touch with someone locally.