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My rambling route back from alcoholism

Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Recovering alcoholic RICHARD LUCK on his circuitous path back from the brink.

What did you do in the summer of 2017? Me? After stress and depression triggered an alcoholic breakdown in May, I found myself sleeping in dumpsters and drinking homebrand spirits throughout June, only to be offered a lifeline in mid-July. The help in question came courtesy of my former boss – you won’t be surprised to learn that all the alcohol and absenteeism led to me losing my job – whose parents ran a drug rehabilitation unit. Said parents were Pentecostal Christians. I was very much not.

Still, having pissed off every port I’d stumbled into during my drinking storm, I was grateful for any respite. And with the addiction having driven me to the brink of suicide, I was willing to do anything to get clean.

So it was that, on a beautiful July day, I embarked on a 10-month programme, close adherence to which could leave me a contended sober soul. Of course, there were a few ground rules: I couldn’t phone family or friends for the first month of my stay, but that’s a pretty standard rehab measure. Less typical was a complete ban on non-Christian literature and the prohibition of all non-Christian music. If this sounds strange to you, imagine how it sounded to a scared and scarred patient. But with nowhere else to go, I handed over my contraband – a copy of cricketer Simon Jones’ biography and the history of Top Gear – and got down to work.

Speaking of which, the working day broke down something life this:

7:15 Wake up and shower

7:45 15 minutes quiet time with your Bible

8:00 Breakfast

8:30 Chores (cleaning the kitchen, bathrooms, etc.)

9:30 Chapel (30 minutes of hymns)

10:30 Bible study

12:00 Lunch

13:00 Work programme (gardening, sorting charity donations, cooking the evening meal, etc.)

17:30 Dinner

19:00 Further religious instruction

19:45 Free time (television, but only certain channels – news, documentaries – and on no account EastEnders)

22:00 Chapel (evening reflections)

22:45 Bed

As I read that list back, I simply can’t believe I lasted two whole months at the treatment centre. You may notice there’s no mention of therapy, relapse prevention, meditation and the countless other classes rehabs use to give you a fighting chance upon returning to the ordinary world. And yet, for all of this, it wasn’t wholly unpleasant. When I arrived, five of the six places on the programme were taken. My fellow recoverees included a personable older gentlemen for whom the religious aspects of the course had clearly been a blessing and a young chap who’d been put through the mill but remained a thoroughly pleasant person. What with having spent the previous weeks AWOL, it was something of a joy to be in good company.

The Bible study wasn’t so bad, either. It was actually quite fun to dive into a book I really didn’t know that much about. And if I all but bit through my lip every time the Creation story came up in conversation, I tried to contribute in a positive manner.

And then there was church. Every Sunday morning at 10am, we’d pop over to a nearby scout hut for two hours of songs and sermons. Having once been to a very charismatic church – another story for another day – I was pleased to find there wasn’t much writhing on the floor and just a single bout of speaking in tongues. If I say I felt alone in these circumstances, this isn’t to suggest that I wasn’t made to feel welcome. But while the younger inmates saw church visits as something of a social occasion, I came away feeling bemused and alienated.

The longer my stay went on, the more it became apparent that, whatever the merits of Christianity, both the church and the treatment centre were as riddled with pettiness and jealousy as anywhere else on the planet. From my current vantage point, I can see that I was silly to expect anything else. Back then, however, the bullying and backbiting caused my last drop of faith to evaporate.

And so, little by little, the depression that had sparked my springtime collapse returned. The toil, the religious instruction, the aeons of time stretching out ahead of me, the confidence – misplaced in my opinion – that prayer would make everything all right… I just couldn’t take it any longer. With the carers and the only remaining patient in the kitchen, I headed for the front gate and the nearest pub.

And what then? It’d be nice to say I soon bid chaos adieu but it wouldn’t be until the New Year that a corner was turned and that was only after my parents very generously paid for a 28-day rehab at another facility. When I was admitted on the eve of the eve of Christmas Eve, I couldn’t have been lower. But through a combination of psychiatric care, classes and a range of therapies – everything from Tai-Chi, which I loved, to acupuncture which gave me the needle – I emerged at the end of January a rather different man in a very different mood.

It’s now 10 months since my last drink and I’m determined that it will remain my last. Of the help that I’ve accepted, Alcoholics Anonymous has been particularly useful. While in the past, AA’s religious aspect was too off-putting, I’ve now come to appreciate the fellowship’s emphasis on embracing a ‘higher power’ of your own understanding. For me, that means sitting in a room full of like-minded people twice a week and sharing our woes and our successes.

Like-minded people were largely absent from my first rehab. As for my second, it was mostly administered by people who were themselves in recovery. When I first found this out, I wondered how those in the same boat as me could possibly be of assistance. From the vantage point afforded by 10 months of sobriety, I realise that, in many ways, they are the only people equipped to help.

And how best to sum up what I’ve learned this past year? Let me turn to a great television drama written by an addict (Aaron Sorkin) and a monologue delivered by a character who’s an alcoholic (The West Wing’s Leo McGarry) who in turn is played by a recovering alcoholic (John Spencer): ‘This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey, it’s me, can you help me out? And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here. The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

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