How I’m doing Christmas sober
GOING sober during the month of December seems like an impossible task.
Our beautiful Australian summers have always marched hand-in-hand with alcohol through 8pm sunset beers, Christmas parties and end of year catch-ups.
While many of us feel like walking glasses of prosecco in the week before Christmas, Matthew* has just celebrated his eight-month sobriety anniversary. He checked into rehab in April and hasn't touched a drop since.
It's the longest time the 49-year-old has gone without alcohol since he first started drinking at age 13.
As he explains to news.com.au, this time of year is particularly challenging for people who want to avoid alcohol. Here he shares his story.
"I'm a highly functioning alcoholic.
I could easily go into boardrooms and make presentations. I was very articulate. I didn't suffer from hangovers.
I was always the centre of the party. I was never a bad drunk. I never got upset or angry - I was always fun and jovial.
But when I was a child, I was sent away to boarding school at the age of four and I didn't really see my parents until I was 10.
I first started drinking when I was 13, after I was sexually abused at school. I got expelled from my boarding school when I was 14.
Then I got expelled from my next school at 17 and my parents really didn't know what to do with me, so they sent me away. I didn't really have a home.
I worked in the catering trade and it's very known for its long hours, drugs and alcohol.
It was an ability to self medicate and put my trauma away and just have fun at the time.
So I ended up going to my local pub every night after work. On the weekends, I'd probably hit the pub at 11am on a Saturday and stay there.
To start I'd have five or six schooners of beer and then went on to red wine and rosé. Red wine and rosé were my two go-tos, depending on the weather. I was having around two bottles a night.
I had an amazing collection of wine. My treat was to come home and have a great bottle.
But after the first two bottles, then I didn't care which wine I would pull out of the rack.
I just used to drink, drink, drink, then pass out and wake up at 4am or 5am.
If I had an important day at work, I'd get ready for work and leave at 6am. I had a breathalyser in my car so I could check if I was over the limit.
Last year, I was drinking heavily over the Christmas period and in January I hit rock bottom.
I started to become suicidal. I was thinking about swimming in the ocean and just not coming up for air.
This one morning I woke up having fallen asleep on the floor after my fifth bottle of wine.
We had some friends over that we hadn't seen for a while and we got absolutely drunk. It was an absolutely ridiculous weekend.
That was a massive wake-up call. I was so miserable.
I didn't know what to do, so I started going online and looking up rehab places and found one in Thailand. I started going to the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] websites.
I felt so ashamed and guilty, so low. But I booked myself into rehab.
I got on a plane by myself in April and went straight to the business class lounge at 6am and I started drinking big time.
I realised this was probably going to be my last chance to have a good drink.
By the time I arrived in Thailand I'd pretty much drunk my airline dry.
I went straight to the airport bar and later I had three shots of spirits I found in a shop before I left the airport.
I'm now 'out' with my wife and our inner circle of friends, but I don't tell most people. It's hard to keep it private.
I was away for three months and naturally people ask questions.
I just say: 'I've been diagnosed with an illness and thankfully I'm in recovery now and it's just one of those things where I can't drink alcohol.'
A lot of people have pushed for more detail, but I have stuck to my guns and said: 'I'd rather not talk abut it. It's very personal and it's a very challenging time. I really am tackling one day at a time. I've been advised that it wouldn't be great to be drinking alcohol right now.' It's not a lie, it's just how you shape the dialogue.
When people tried to arrange catch-ups involving alcohol immediately after I came out [of rehab], I just said: 'I'm focusing on my health right now, I'm sure we'll have the chance to catch up soon.'
I didn't want to stop going to restaurants and bars, but it was a slow learning curve.
I joke about having bought shares in soda water and lime now.
I always have a plan before I arrive, so if I find it challenging I can always leave.
If I can't cope, I can always make an excuse, walk away and go home. I say: 'I've got to run, I have to leave.'
You have your buddies on your phone so I might say: 'Can you call me at 9pm to make sure I've left?'
I miss drinking. It's not just the alcohol, it's the whole ambience of being in a pub. You've got the sport on, you're with your mates, you're not different.
I was at the Ashes recently and not drinking there was probably one of the hardest things I've done.
They don't sell sparkling water and you can't bring your own into the grounds, so all you've got is water and sugary soft drinks.
I was sitting next to people who had brought their own spirits in and I was beside myself.
I was thinking 'God I could really do with that'.
But then I had to stop myself.
I've learned a lot of holistic techniques, like meditating with your eyes closed. I focused on why I was there - to watch the cricket and enjoy the cricket, not to drink.
When things got too much I just ducked out of the stadium for a bit, composed myself and went back inside.
I've got my 50th birthday coming up, so that's going to be my next challenge, because I've already said I wouldn't mind a glass of wine on my 50th.
I don't want to go back to the place where I was at the beginning of the year.
Is it worthwhile to test whether that tap has been fixed or not? I'm not sure.
You hear people who don't drink for 25 years and then year 26 they relapse. It is a very challenging time right now.
The life I'm living now is way better than the life I was living at the beginning of the year. There is light if you want to choose the light."
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons
Matthew* went to rehab at The Cabin in Chiang Mai, Thailand and sought follow-up treatment at the centre's Australian outpost.
The Cabin Australia's clinical director Cameron Brown provides his top five tips for navigating the holiday season sober:
Know what you're going to say when you inevitably have to turn down a drink.
Remember, you don't owe anyone an explanation for why you don't want to accept the drink.
A simple "No thanks, I'll take a Diet Coke though," is sufficient.
Have an escape route planned for when you begin to feel strong urges or uncomfortable.
REMIND YOURSELF WHY STAYING SOBER IS IMPORTANT TO YOU
Write down why you decided to stop drinking and keep that note with you for whenever the temptation arises. For example: "I am staying sober because it allows me to lead a happier and healthier life."
CHOOSE WHO YOU SPEND TIME WITH WISELY
Now is a more important time than ever to reach out to friends and family who support you and are a positive impact in your life.
If invited to a gathering, ask yourself: "Would all the attendees still be there even if alcohol was not being served?"
If the answer is no, it may be best to steer clear.
START NEW TRADITIONS
Start holiday traditions with people that are most important to you. There are endless opportunities and activities that you can do sober such as camping, hiking or volunteering.
REMEMBER THE SPIRIT OF GRATITUDE AND GIVING
Give your time, your kindness and your smile to as many people as you can.
Give back to yourself too. Making the decision to stay sober is no easy task and you deserve to celebrate your choice.
Do not be afraid to ask for help if you start feeling down, lonely, guilty or tempted.
If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.