I have learned to be cautious

Photo of a man deep in thought

Christopher, 53 years old

“Mindfulness is very important for me. Listen to and observe your inner self, stay alert and then react accordingly. Ask why you drink. When you drink. How much you drink. What the alcohol does to you. And if you realize that things are happening although you don’t want them to: get help.”

I was about twelve years old the first time I got properly drunk. My mother and stepfather drank a lot and let me start drinking alcohol when I was still a child. That was in the early 70s, when people didn’t seem to think about the harms of alcohol as much as they do now.

I quickly noticed that I reacted strangely to hard liquor. I become aggressive. It was already like that when I was young.

When I realized that it had become normal for me to regularly buy cases of beer and get drunk, I pulled the emergency brake for the first time. I was still at school and felt that it wasn't right. I noticed how the alcohol and everything to do with it changed me. I didn’t want that. But the foundations for my alcoholism had already been laid.

The wrong friends and the search for help

I then managed to cut my drinking down for one or two years. But I was basically already on the path towards dependence. I was no longer living at home at the time. I was in a young people's home. I made the wrong friends there. I subconsciously tried to draw attention to myself, usually with violent behavior when under the influence.

I was taken to the same intensive care unit with alcohol poisoning time and again. I later realized that these many provoked hospital visits were a kind of call for help to make people notice me. Although it sounds strange, I always felt very happy in hospital. I had peace and quiet, but there were also people there who wanted to help me. But I wasn’t able to accept their help at the time.

First experiences of therapy

One time, I was taken to that hospital again but they didn’t want to admit me. I can’t remember anything, but I was apparently being extremely aggressive. So I was taken to the secure ward of a psychiatric hospital instead, and later transferred to the addiction ward. I was 18 years old at the time.

I was there for four weeks. The health authorities took very good care of me and organized therapy for me in a special facility for teenagers and young adults. It was a very positive time for me and I lived without alcohol for a long time afterwards. But deep down in my heart, I hadn’t actually understood what the root causes were.

Illnesses threw me off course

After the therapy, I worked a lot in different sectors to earn money. Then I got a slipped disc and developed problems with my eyesight. I relapsed in the early 90s.

That was a very critical period for me. And I thought non-alcoholic beer would be just the right thing. Some kinds of beer back then had a bitter taste, which I had always liked. I assumed that a non-alcoholic beer wouldn’t do me any harm. I was wrong. I was often alone and started drinking more. By the end, I was drinking beer with alcohol again, gradually drinking more and more.

Friends encouraged me to do an apprenticeship because I didn’t have any qualifications. I then did an apprenticeship for visually impaired people because of my eye disease. But there was a lot of drinking at the training center and I quit the apprenticeship after a year. The official reason was my back problems. But the real reason was my alcohol problem.

Then I met a woman who dragged me out of the rut a little and showed me how you can make something like a plan for life. I cut down my drinking and started to take care of myself. My girlfriend then motivated me to carry on with the apprenticeship again.

I started drinking more again, until I collapsed

Back at the training center, it took just a week until I had a bottle in my hand again. Almost everyone there drank. It was fine for quite a while. We still did well despite the alcohol. But then my girlfriend found out. I'm sure she had actually already known for a long time. I came home smelling of alcohol more and more often. She eventually split up with me because of the drinking. And told me quite clearly why.

In my first alcohol phase when I was younger, I usually drank until I passed out. The whole day. That was different after my relapse. I no longer drank until I was unconscious, or not so often at least. And I usually drank in the evenings, not so much during the day. But I always lost control. I couldn’t stop.

I generally started drinking in a pub in the evening, only to then carry on back home. The fridge was always full. Sometimes I would take a taxi to the gas station to buy another case of beer if I was desperate.

Withdrawal symptoms and guilt

I always felt a certain pressure breathing down my neck because of the threat of withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol levels went down. I would get the shakes and feel very unsettled. So I made sure that I always had some alcohol at home. I sometimes had to throw up. Then I simply drank another beer afterwards. The withdrawal symptoms then started to go away again. By the end, I was sometimes already drunk after just one bottle of beer. I couldn’t handle it anymore.

I often somewhat reluctantly went to the fridge, feeling guilty for not drinking less. I would then say to myself that everything would be different the next day. But nothing ever changed the next day. I couldn’t do it by myself.

My body and mind changed. Along with the withdrawal symptoms and the astronomically high liver values, over time I had more and more difficulty finding the right words and could no longer remember telephone numbers very well. I found numbers increasingly difficult, although I had always been good with numbers. And I didn’t have any social contacts anymore. Some people fall sooner than others. But it always goes downhill. I had to reach rock bottom before I could change.

What motivated me to make a fundamental change

I had a secure job after my apprenticeship and I did start working there, but I was pretty worn out both physically and mentally. I was protected to a certain extent at work because of my disability, and nobody dared to talk to me about my alcohol problem. Looking back, I think it would have been better if they had done. So I kept running myself down more and more with the alcohol.

At some stage, I quit my job because I could no longer manage. And was alone. And carried on drinking. The job center offered me a back-to-work scheme, but I dropped out. Or rather, I screwed it up because I turned up reeking of alcohol every day.

Also, my doctor had made me worry that my liver was no longer healthy and that it could be something serious. I was in a lot of physical pain and had tried going cold turkey a couple of times, which is very dangerous.

The physical effects, my unemployment and being alone made it clear to me that I HAD to do something. I still had a chance of turning things around. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have much more time to live. My doctor then referred me to a hospital. Before I set off, I poured the last few bottles of beer down the drain.

The foundations for a sober life

I was in that hospital for three weeks, and had to work hard and take a long hard think about myself. I learned to ask for help and to then accept it too. I was asked questions such as “What do you want?” and was then encouraged to “Go for it!”. During those three weeks, I laid the foundations for what have now been 18 self-assured, sober years.

I had to stay strong, and I really benefited from my time there. I realized that I also had to learn to deal with my disability differently, to accept it and accept myself as I am. That was my opportunity!

After that hospital stay, I went to the health authority and met a great advisor there. We got on well straight away. I told her my entire life story at those appointments. She then referred me to a rehabilitation center for several weeks of therapy.

I was able to continue working on and with myself there. But I also realized that I still had a long way to go.

Support after rehab

It was obvious to me that I still needed psychological support after those weeks in the rehab clinic. Finally being sober was good, but that wasn't the only thing I had to work on. There was plenty more to be done.

I then found a counseling center with staff who I could work through my childhood with. Again, it was a question of looking for help, accepting it, and allowing kind people into my life. I had never learned what closeness was. I find it difficult to trust other people. That's still the case today. But I'm working on it.

Stress test: Will I stay sober in the face of problems?

I applied for a pension back then. I had to go to various authorities, to apply for jobs again, and I ended up on unemployment benefits. The pension application was refused at first, but I appealed. That was a stress test. Would I stay strong, or would I turn to alcohol again? But I made it! Because I had a goal, and a number of things went my way. For instance, the medical assessments I needed all turned out in my favor.

One important thing I learned was that your friends change. When you go tee-total, you lose some friends and have to cut ties with others. Lots of my friends drank and had their own alcohol problems. You have to take that step and say goodbye to them. It's often tough, but otherwise relapse is almost inevitable.

What I have to look out for

I have to be particularly careful if I have depressive thoughts. Situations like that put me at risk of reaching for the bottle again to numb everything. I know that from the past. In those kinds of situations, it helps me to remind myself where I ended up because of alcohol, what it was like back then, what I gave up, what I achieved... I ask myself if I want to live that way again. If my body would survive...

My liver really suffered back then. I got a lot of information in the clinic about how the liver changes and what cirrhosis of the liver can mean. I was damn lucky. My liver has recovered well. It took quite a while and I had to change my diet, too. My legs were swollen and puffy from water retention, which was terribly painful. I went walking a lot and took a lot of exercise. It all took time, but it has got better again. I can run again, which was a true achievement, and I felt very proud after hardly being able to get up the stairs at first. I remind myself of that whenever I'm feeling down.

If other people offer me alcohol, I tell them I can't drink for medical reasons. That's fine and accepted; only a few people ask questions. If somebody tries to convince me to drink, I just go home. And I go home when others start to get drunk. I sometimes can’t handle it. I try not to convert anyone else. Everyone is responsible for their own happiness.

I wouldn’t manage without help

I only know very few people who have managed to go permanently tee-total without therapy and without a support group. I now live with a wonderful woman by my side, and enjoy volunteering. I have a good life! But I know very well that I have to be careful, especially if I'm feeling down.

If I notice that I'm having depressive thoughts, I take some time out for myself and do things that I enjoy and are good for me. I'm honest with my partner and tell her how I'm feeling. I've learned to be more mindful of myself and to never forget what once was. That’s very important.

What I would say to others

Mindfulness is very important for me. Listen to and observe your inner self, stay alert and then react accordingly. Ask why you drink. When you drink. How much you drink. What the alcohol does to you. And if you realize that things are happening although you don’t want them to: get help.

Acknowledgment

Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.

The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.

Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Created on November 9, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Publisher:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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