You can't have light without darkness

An Innocent Abroad, Part 3

Publication YearIssue Date 

One University of Calgary student's struggle with alcoholism while studying abroad and his return to sobriety.

After seven months living in Scotland for my exchange at the University of Glasgow, my life had become a very dark place.

Addiction is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse every day. In 2010, I spent most mornings drinking wine, most afternoons passing out or drunkenly navigating the cobblestone roads and most nights in my flat drinking scotch whisky into oblivion. I was chasing that deep, dark hole of nothingness. No memories, no worries, nothing. Just black.

I don't mean to romanticize my story in any way, but you have to understand that I drank a lot. I was losing touch with reality. The truth is I stopped thinking of people, events and things as real. They had become characters and plot points in this movie in my head. I believed I could treat everyone around me like shit because, like many movies, it all works out in the end for the protagonist -- me. It speaks a lot about how selfish and sick my mind had become. I walked around with half-closed, bloodshot eyes, mumbled words and uncertain steps. There were a few days when I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or awake. I was sick and needed help desperately, but was unwilling to ask for it.

Part of the intrigue of alcohol for me was the battle. I pictured it as a gigantic match between this monster and myself in some gladiator arena. I thought I could beat it or one day have it figured out. What I didn't know was alcohol is a beast that doesn't give a shit about anything. It could throw me down a set of stairs, it could break my nose, it could kill me and not even care. To sum it up, my battle was insane. I was doing the same thing over and over again, day in and day out and expecting different results. But as it kicked the shit out of me, I kept coming back for more.

Every alcoholic needs a bottom. Some find it on their own, some through an intervention put on by what friends and family they have left. Some fall right through their bottom and into death. I found my bottom on March 17, 2010 in Dublin, Ireland. It was St. Patrick's Day, an ironically fitting last day to my drinking life.

I flew into Dublin the night of March 16. I was there to meet three girls, celebrate St. Paddy's Day and then move on to a few other stops around the U.K. The whole trip was supposed to last about two weeks, but instead lasted two days.

One friend was added to the trip last minute, so there were four of us staying in a three-person hostel room. We figured we would take turns getting in and out of the room and no harm would be done. The night before St. Patrick's Day was spent in our hostel bar called "Paradise." The three girls were content with dancing and a few drinks. I was antsy and trying my best not to drink myself silly in front of good friends. Honestly, some nights drinking I was alright and did have a good time. The trouble mostly came when I was alone in a room with a bottle of something. I still have the notebook I kept from that night. Written in terribly shaky printing it reads, "Tonight I got lost in Paradise."

St. Patrick's Day in Dublin is beautiful. We took in the festivities for the better part of the morning and I stayed sober. Liquor stores didn't open until after noon on St. Patrick's Day to keep the first half of the day family-friendly. My stomach hurt and my head was dizzy, but I figured I'd find my way through it until early afternoon, no problem.

The drinking commenced early afternoon. From what I recall, it was in some hole-in-the-wall local pub, the type of place I had come to love. The booze was good, the locals friendly and a couple lads brought their broken guitars and fiddles to play some Celtic music. The rest of the day remains a hazy memory. I remember lots of Guinness. I remember walking from pub to pub. I remember buying an Irish scarf. I remember taking shots of whisky. I remember having an hour-long conversation with Italians even though they didn't speak English, buying my bottle of wine on the way home and the events that led to the bottom.

After a full day of drinking, I was flying. I was also mentally ill with a mind that would break on a whim. When we got back to our hostel, I noticed that we didn't have enough towels for the four of us so I went downstairs to the front desk to ask the clerk for some more. Remember, there were four of us staying in a three-person room and that wasn't allowed. The clerk quickly found out what we were up to and pegged me as the odd man out. Thinking back, I can just hear the snap in my mind. I felt threatened. I freaked out and started arguing. The conversation escalated quickly, me yelling racial slurs and him threatening to call the police. I must have said some hateful shit to him, I guess. I ran. I was drunk and on the run, again. I went from flying, filled with joy and smiles, to crashing alone in some unknown land. I was filled with anger toward a lot of people: the friend who joined our group last minute, the clerk ­-- everyone but myself. Nothing was ever my fault, it was always someone else.

I was convinced I was going to sleep on the street that night. It was not a big issue in my mind as I had done it before. My friends were not as satisfied -- they argued with me in the streets, threatening to call my family if I refused to find a roof for the night. I was one stubborn prick who didn't give a shit about anything, so I didn't budge. All I needed was a pillow and I'd be fine. Finally, they convinced me that I was nuts. This was St. Patrick's Day in Dublin, so almost every hostel had been booked for months. One friend went back inside to the front desk and talked the man down from his rage. She convinced him to let me sleep in a vacant room across the hall. I reluctantly returned inside, didn't give so much as a look to the clerk, climbed the stairs, grabbed my bottle of wine and retired to the room across the hall by myself. I was alone in the room with my belongings, my bottle of wine and my scarf. I was in trouble.

The memories I have from that room feel like a nightmare to me. I punched things, I yelled in my bathroom and I drank that bottle of wine pretty damn fast. I was an amalgamation of frustration, anger, self-pity and helplessness packed into one small, drunk body. I was fighting and I was losing. I had thoughts of taking my life.

Thoughts of suicide begin because a person feels there is no way out. Those thoughts started in the fall for me as an escape from my surroundings and mindset. I had come to rely so heavily on alcohol that I felt I needed to choose one of three options: keep drinking the way I was, which seemed like a hard-go; quit drinking, which seemed impossible; or take my life to escape from it all.

I went into the bathroom, looked myself in the mirror and said, "Fuck it, might as well. What better way for a drunk to go out than on St. Patrick's Day in Dublin?" It had a certain tragic ring to it. I felt I was approaching the end of the road anyway, so the hell with it. It only took a matter of minutes to decide on actions that would erase me forever. I never thought of my family, my friends or my roommate back in Scotland. Only me.

I tied the souvenir scarf I bought earlier in the day around my neck, climbed on top of the tub and attached the scarf to an apparatus on the bathroom roof. I couldn't even tell you what my last thought was before I leaned forward. I don't remember having one, or saying any last words. I was in such a fucked-up frenzy, the inside of my head probably sounded like a never-ending scream. I took my last breath and leaned forward.

The apparatus snapped and I fell to the floor. The only thing I remember was hitting my head and sitting on the floor for a while, disappointed and feeling like I was floating. I had no energy left. No fight. No anything. I got up, looked myself in the mirror and laughed for three minutes in a real fucked-up laugh, while reciting Joker lines from The Dark Knight. Don't ask me why. I went back to the floor, probably threw up and wanted so badly to pass out and forget that this all happened. For some reason, I wouldn't let myself do that. I couldn't let a situation like this escape. I needed to tell someone about it. I needed to get help.

I found one of my friends from across the hall and brought her to my room. I don't remember the entire conversation, but I do remember feeling comfort in the fact that I knew she once had her own struggles with alcohol and suicide in the past. She was kind and took the information as best as she could. In my mind I felt progress, but I'm sure in reality the conversation was just a bunch of circles. Most of my drunk conversations went in circles. I passed out and she called my family back home. My family called the Dublin police and the Dublin police came to find me. I was taken to the Dublin police station early March 18, assessed by a staff psychiatrist for showing signs of manic depression and sent to the hospital to see more psychiatrists and doctors. The rest of the morning was spent in and out of hospital beds and psychiatric offices, telling my story as best as I could to people I didn't know.

I still don't know how my friends put up with all my shit. They were on vacation on St. Patrick's Day in Dublin and my sorry-ass drinking problem and selfish ego had to shove its dumb mug in. To this day, I can't imagine what it was like to be them that morning. We spent some seven or eight hours in the hospital and they stayed with me through it all. At first I was in denial and thought I would continue on this trip around the U.K. with my friends. The more time I spent there, the more I sobered up. Clear thinking, if you can call it that, started to seep in. Sometime that morning, I agreed to catch the next flight back home.

The police took me and the girls back to our hostel. The rest of the day before my flight home was spent drenched in agonizing embarrassment. I can imagine it would be the same feeling as shitting in a room for a couple of years and then showing your friends that room and having to sit in it with them for a day. Maybe they thought I was a screw-up, maybe they were relieved that I was getting on the plane and going home, or maybe they were just tired. All I remember was feeling like shit.

My last drink was that cheap bottle of wine I took into the room with me late that night after St. Patrick's Day on March 18, 2010.

What I really want to talk about now is how I was able to stay sober. Anyone can get sober, but staying sober is a different story. When I got off the plane last year, it felt like I was encompassed in one big haze of fear. I was afraid of what my family would think of me, afraid of how I was going to stay sober -- basically afraid of anything that involved getting out of bed and facing the world. But the first couple months I was able to stay sober because of that fear. After such a major event, you get scared away from drinking -- shocked into sobriety. I didn't want to live in a state of sober fear and I sure as hell didn't want to drink again. I was lost.

Sometime around May or June I attended a rock show with a friend of mine at some dive bar in downtown Calgary. The show was alright. I was sober, but I was still batshit crazy. The mind of an alcoholic fixates on alcohol, whether drinking it or not. I knew exactly what everyone was drinking, how much they were drinking and how often. My friend introduced me to his friend whom I'll refer to as Carey. Carey had a glass of water in his hands and because I thought I was the only sober person living on the planet, I asked him why he wasn't drinking. Carey told me he didn't drink. Carey told me he was in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was perplexed. He was a cool dude who played guitar in a band, yet was doing this all sans alcohol. I moved past my confusion and became curious.

AA, in my mind, was a scene for losers. It was a place where old cowboys with moustaches linked hands and sang sappy "brand new day" songs to each other to make them feel good. I was not a fan. But alcohol had beat me into a place so low that I was willing to do anything to stay sober, even if that meant sitting quietly in a room full of sappy cowboys.

Carey and I went to my first AA meeting the following week. I can tell you that yes, they do the whole, "I'm Bob and I'm an alcoholic," and the room says, "Hi Bob!" When it came my turn, I finally admitted, "I'm an alcoholic." After years of fighting this term and being piss-mad if my friends even hinted at it, I said it in that room and at that moment, it felt right. Over the course of the next hour, I sat in the room and listened to mothers, fathers, old men and young women, everyone and anyone from all walks of life, share their stories about alcoholism. I felt right sitting there.

Nothing beats sitting in a room of like-minded people and sharing stories and thoughts that once kept you embarrassed or lonely. I thought I was the only one thinking these thoughts and suffering from this problem. The reality is there are a lot of us out there. Chances are almost everyone you know, knows someone who is an alcoholic. Or maybe you already know one yourself.

I take no credit for my sobriety. I tried to quit countless times on my own and I failed every one of them. Every Sunday morning I would wake from my four or five day bender and say, "That's it! I'm done today, no more!" Come Tuesday or Wednesday, I was sipping from a pint or bottle of something. I am sober today because of friends and family, because of AA and because of a deeper meaning as I have come to understand it. I have tapped into something that some say is higher, others say is deeper, but something I know for sure can't be contained in something as small as a bottle.

I tell this story not because I wanted to tell some self-aggrandized drunk-o-log, or some big tales of my dumb adventures when wasted, but because I hope you find something in it. Maybe you heard a story that was entertaining, maybe humorous or maybe you heard a story similar to yours and you'll seek help. Know that if you think you're an alcoholic, you probably have some sort of underlying issue. If that is you, I look forward to crossing paths in a church basement somewhere along the line. Whatever your case, I can only speak for myself. I have been sober just over a year and have come to embrace this new way of thinking and living. The room in my mind that I spent years making dark and dusty now has an old flashlight that keeps it well lit. You can screw up, mess up and fuck up, but there is always hope. Light is good, no matter the darkness it's in.