I was gradually drinking more and more alcohol

Photo of an elderly couple cycling
PantherMedia / iakovenko123

Frank, 67 years old

“It's incredible how low I had to fall, only to then fall again and again. And how well I was able to hide my alcohol problems from myself and others. Until I finally drew the line.”

I will turn 67 soon. I've been tee-total for two years now, having started drinking in about 1970. I drank a lot for a long time.

I grew up in a working class area. My stepfather was an alcoholic. That wasn’t unusual around there back then. So I thought alcohol was a bad thing when I was a child. I had practically never touched a drop before the age of 19. Wherever possible, I avoided parties and people who drank alcohol.

Despite my difficult family situation, I successfully completed an apprenticeship. I worked a lot – early mornings alongside my apprenticeship, and evenings after college, too. I had made it my goal to lift myself out of my social environment by working hard, and I succeeded.

I used alcohol to numb the loneliness

The price for that was little social contact and not many parties. I didn’t have time for that kind of thing. I often felt very lonely. At some stage, I thought it'd be interesting to see what effect wine had. I bought red wine because I thought it would be sweet. It tasted dreadful and gave me a headache. But at some point I “overcame” that phase. I never drank large amounts, but over time I did notice a pleasant effect. I felt safe, a little bit numb, and warm. I thought to myself: This feeling can help me get through the day and night. I mainly drank in the evening to get to sleep. That worked just fine until the end of my apprenticeship.

I had more money after my apprenticeship. Social advancement was my goal. And I wanted to surround myself with friends who had a better level of education than me. No beer or hard liquor was drunk in those social circles. We drank wine and thought of ourselves as ‘connoisseurs.’ It was all very sophisticated, accompanied by French food, for instance.

I later started a university degree. Trendy bars were starting to become popular at the time. We went to them in the evening; they had a pleasant atmosphere. Although we drank regularly, it was all done in moderation. It was an enjoyable time. We had lots of fun and a strong sense of belonging.

I never got drunk and would never have thought I had an alcohol problem. I just had that pleasant feeling when I drank. It soothed me. The alcohol was like a warming, protective jacket.

I gradually started drinking more and more alcohol

That didn’t change over the following years. But at some stage, I realized that I was drinking every day. It had become a bottle of wine each day. I was still playing lots of sports, though, and everyone else was drinking, too. I didn’t have any problems and nobody said anything to me about my drinking. So I thought everything was fine.

I finished my degree, worked, started a second degree, was politically active. My social advancement was going as planned. I had lifted myself out of the mire that I had grown up in. But I was still going to student pubs – and in the political group I was part of, you never had a pizza without a glass of wine. That was normal. I often had a beer afterwards as well, but the alcohol didn't negatively affect my behavior then, either.

At some stage, I started drinking in the daytime, too. I put it away astonishingly well and didn’t think twice about it. It was important to me to be funny and endearing towards other people, but never to become aggressive. That worked well at the time. I felt like I had everything under control.

But then I realized that something wasn't quite right

I moved around a lot after my degree and was very successful professionally. When the loneliness increased because of moving, I sometimes drank a lot. With all that in mind, I then started realizing that something might be going wrong. I noticed that I drank more alcohol when I was lonely. That connection became clear to me. Unfortunately, it only worried me for a short while. I moved back into a shared flat, which did away with the loneliness, but there was lots of partying there, with lots of alcohol.

I had my first alcohol-related breakdown when my girlfriend split up with me. I realized how dangerous my behavior was for me. I then started to drink less. That went well, so I thought: No problem, I’ve got everything under control. I don’t have to drink if I don’t want to.

That was followed by a period of very hard work. Professionally, it was an amazing and very exciting time. But alcohol was always a part of it.

I started having anxiety attacks when sober

After that very intense phase, I wanted to change my field of work. I was out of work for a few months in between jobs. I started drinking a lot more again when my work-related social network disappeared. And I had my first anxiety attacks, which were really distressing. I realized that as soon as the alcohol levels started to go down, the anxiety resurfaced. And went away again when I drank.

I went to therapy about the anxiety, but never told the therapist about my drinking habits. I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms like the shakes or anything at the time, but I did have the anxiety which went away again when I drank.

I started to drink in secret because I was ashamed of my drinking. I still remember that exactly. I always had a drink with other people, but never drank a lot in public and nobody ever noticed anything. But I did drink more when I was alone. That was fine at first. I thought it would be okay because I was going to therapy because of the anxiety. And once I had overcome that, I would no longer need to drink. I didn’t see the connection between the anxiety and the drinking, and wanted to find a way out without having to stop drinking. Of course, that was ludicrous.

Everything seemingly under control

The amount of alcohol I was drinking stayed roughly the same for a good while. My greatest fear was losing control and somebody finding out. So, I always tried to keep myself under control so that it didn’t get out of hand and nobody would notice. And nobody ever said anything to me. In later conversations, it turned out that my wife at the time truly didn't notice anything for quite a while.

My wife and I separated a few years after our child was born. I then needed alcohol more to get to grips with the situation. I thought that was okay. I drank in a “sophisticated” way, with nice music and to relax. I drank every day, but as long as I had everything under control, everything was absolutely fine for me. I was fit and healthy and went jogging regularly. I stopped smoking, which was no problem. And so I thought that I didn’t need to worry about the alcohol – that I would be able to kick that habit as well if I wanted to. I later realized how typical my reaction was for somebody with an alcohol problem.

Then I lost control

I started to drink extreme amounts when I had the first big relationship crisis with my new girlfriend, who is now my wife. That went on for about three days. When it was over, I knew that it had been an extreme situation. I had lost control. The anxiety was back, the worries about being left... the whole lot. And I couldn’t numb all of that with alcohol like I used to. In fact, it just made it worse. I was shocked again and tried to get everything back under control. And I managed that to a certain extent. But I didn’t want anyone to find out.

I had a 30-kilometer drive to work. At some stage I noticed that I always had a small bottle of sparkling wine with me. It relaxed me. I was professionally successful and got promoted. A few years before retiring, I was given a managerial position. But that was much more difficult than I had imagined. I had enjoyed a completely different relationship with my colleagues in my earlier position than I did in the managerial position. That – and the pressure of work – really took their toll on me, but as always I felt that I would manage somehow. But I was wrong. We create false images of ourselves.

I carried on keeping secrets and deceiving myself

Under all that pressure, I started drinking in the morning, too. That is to say, in the car on the way to work. I was very lucky to never be stopped. I needed the alcohol to keep going. I was aware of that, but never confided in anyone. I just wanted to stick it out until retirement.

I didn’t live with my partner and was very good at keeping things secret, so she had no idea of my true problems. She genuinely didn’t notice. Looking back, I have no idea how I kept that up the whole time. I was able to make sure that I only let things get out of control at home. I always stayed late at the office and took advantage of the times when nobody else was there, so I could have a drink. I “only” drank sparkling wine and sucked mints to not smell of alcohol. I was convinced that my plan was working.

Until my boss called me into his office one day and asked me if I had an alcohol problem. I felt as if I had been caught red-handed. I felt hot and cold all at the same time, started stuttering and denied everything. Even after that experience, I wasn’t prepared to seek help. And there were no consequences after that conversation. I managed to get by with my “strategies” until I retired.

When I retired, I thought “Now you’ve made it! The stress is over. I’ll get my act together now." I started doing sports again, went cycling a lot. But I always had a bottle of sparkling wine with me.

I decided to go to a clinic and get help

That suddenly all went very quickly. I woke up in the night and needed a drink to get back to sleep. I often had to vomit to be able to drink more alcohol again. My life had revolved around alcohol for such a long time.

Then I decided to go to a psychosomatic medicine clinic. But not because I was convinced that I was an alcoholic. Rather because I thought I had burnout. That was the excuse I used. I was in the clinic for three weeks and didn’t drink any alcohol while I was there. I felt great. I thought to myself, excellent, you’ve done it again. There’s no longer a problem.

The cycle started over again

Everything was indeed fine, but I should've stayed tee-total. I didn’t manage to do that, though. I had a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the end of my clinic stay once I got home. And started exactly where I had left off. After two or three weeks, I was back to the same level as before going into the clinic. I repeated that a couple of times: into the clinic, and back on the alcohol when I was discharged.

It all started to snowball. I had strategies for keeping the alcohol a secret. Over the years, I had stashed alcohol all over the place. I filled the sparkling wine into plain bottles so that nobody would see that there was alcohol in there. I always hid a bottle somewhere when we were on holiday. It’s crazy that nobody noticed over such a long time. I also drove very often while under the influence. But I was never pulled over.

It got to the stage where it was all just about making sure my body would function. But then I reached a point where my body didn't even function with alcohol. It was a never-ending downward spiral.

Cold turkey: I was very lucky!

I then spoke to my wife more often once she knew about my alcohol problem. She said that she felt increasingly helpless when I drank myself into a stupor. I was becoming more and more isolated. But nobody really put me under pressure. Shortly before my fourth stay in the clinic, I did something that nobody should ever do: I went cold turkey. That is extremely dangerous! I went into a delirium during that cold turkey at home and was then taken to the secure psychiatric ward. My wife arranged it all. I had apparently talked about taking my own life. I was in another world and wasn’t taking notice of anything anymore. And I was very lucky that my body coped with it all. Knowing that I was on the secure psychiatric ward was really difficult to come to terms with. I found it very troubling.

I finally drew a line

There are so many things that I can’t comprehend today, especially the fact that I started drinking again after being discharged. I was too deep in the mire of alcohol. But at least I finally realized that I kept having mental health problems again whenever I drank less. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I got into the car and drove back to the psychiatric hospital. I spoke to the senior physician and said “enough is enough.” Unlike before, this time it was really me who was drawing a line.

I started to work on myself and my past very intensively in the hospital. I started writing, much of it about my life. I took a lot of long walks. I was discharged after three weeks. I had recovered physically very quickly. But I knew that the body and the mind are two very different things. So, I went to a local addiction counseling center that helped me to arrange therapy in a clinic.

The therapy lasted three months. I had a very good therapist and was in a mixed male group. It got pretty hairy at times. Most of the men had alcohol issues, but there were also a few younger men with drug problems. Part of it was about seeing how other people were doing and how they dealt with the issue. It was almost as if someone was holding a mirror up to me at times. I found the group therapy work very interesting. You find out a lot about other people, but even more about yourself. That was excellent! I didn’t find the conversations with the therapist difficult, either. Once I had really identified my problem, I knew where my weaknesses were, so I didn't find it difficult to talk to a therapist.

Back to life

I worked through my past in detail with the therapist. One of the key things I learned was that I had to stop waiting for somebody to take me in their arms. I have to take care of myself. We then discussed a number of strategies to achieve that change. I tried them out after I was discharged. I was back in the land of the living.

I'm very lucky that my body fully recovered. I'm physically fit and healthy. That's very unusual considering my past, and I'm very grateful.

I'm happily married. Even though she says that she can't completely forgive me. Not after everything that happened. And I don’t expect her to. We now have a different, new relationship and that's fine as it is! I have to, and want to, live with those consequences. And I have a good life! Healthy and sober.

I needed help, but I had to make the decision myself

It’s incredible how low I had to fall, only to then fall again and again. And how well I was able to hide my alcohol problems from myself and others. Until I finally drew the line. I had to do that entirely by myself. Nobody could take that step for me. And only I can make sure I stay on the wagon. It's my decision and my responsibility. Anyone with an alcohol problem has to learn to take responsibility for themselves. It's damn hard. But you can get help.

My wife only drinks very little alcohol. She usually has a glass of wine if we go out to eat. That isn’t a problem for me. And alcohol is drunk at family get-togethers. That isn’t a problem for me, either. But I do start to find it boring when everyone’s alcohol levels are rising and the conversations start getting more superficial. Then I go home. I know exactly that if I have just one little glass of sparkling wine I'll be back where I used to be.

I'm fit as a fiddle now. I go cycling a lot, do sports 4 or 5 times a week and am a member of a sports club. I get up in the morning without a hangover, with no headaches and no guilt. That baggage is gone.

A relapse is always just one drink away

It's also important for me not to dress up the past, by saying things like “it wasn't all that bad – it was also quite nice sometimes.” That's a very real risk. A relapse is always just one drink away. It’s not a question of saying “never again.” If it should happen, I know what I have to do: go straight back to the hospital. No hesitation. I have an emergency plan. You never know what might happen in life. If I see that a situation is getting difficult, I take a few minutes for myself. I wait – and notice that I don’t need alcohol anymore in those situations.

Alcohol-dependent people must never think they’ve made it. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I no longer drink any alcohol, but I still have an alcohol problem. It's an illness. And I know I have to stick to rules if I want to keep it under control.

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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Created on November 9, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

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

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