Alcoholism: "To stop drinking is to be free!"
Published 12 Dec 2020 • Updated 14 Dec 2020 • By Candice Salomé
Erwan, a member of Carenity France, was an alcoholic for 25 years. He opens up about his journey in the face of illness for Carenity.
Hello Erwan, you accepted to share your story with us on Carenity and we thank you for it.
Can you first tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a 44 year old man and I work as an engineering executive. I'm just your average guy. Since we are going to talk about alcoholism, I want to specify that I come from a well-off family, I didn't just step out of a Dickens novel. Alcoholism affects all social classes.
You've been an alcoholic for 25 years. Would you say you still are? Can alcoholism be cured? What does this "remission" currently imply in your daily life?
I do consider myself to be an alcoholic for the rest of my life, yes. My brain has definitely registered the pleasure effect of alcohol. If I were to have another drink one day (which won't happen), my neurotransmitters would immediately light up and I would fall back into the vicious circle of addiction.
You can get through it, yes. But throughout your life, you remain vulnerable, you will always have to remain vigilant with regard to the hard drug that is alcohol to avoid a relapse. Personally, I implement a strategy to avoid it: I don't keep alcohol when I have guests over, I buy the bottle at the last minute and pour it down the sink before they leave; I avoid the alcohol aisles in the supermarket, etc.
To stop drinking is to be free. When you're an addict, you only live for one thing: the bottle. You don't spend a single minute thinking about anything else than your next drink, it is a real obsession. Nothing matters to you anymore except alcohol, not even your family.
I have been sober for 18 months now, and I've been learning how to live again. It is not easy stepping out of 25 years of fog. 25 years is a long time. All of my emotions had faded or were intensified by alcohol. Today I have to live and feel without artifice, and this can sometimes be difficult. I compare these 25 years to the movie 'The Truman Show' when Jim Carrey finds out he's always lived on a film set. He then has to learn to live in the real world.
You started drinking at the start of your life as a student, and quite heavily. Why do you think that is (influence from other students, student life, nightlife, etc.)? Was it only recreational at that time? How did it allow you to live your student life "to the fullest"? Did you continue drinking the same way after you finished your studies?
Clearly, I only went on my first few benders to get rid of my inhibitions. It all started on my 18th birthday. I was rather introverted, shy, uncomfortable with girls and the all-you-can-drink alcohol at open bar parties helped me to socialise. During all my studies, never once did the idea of a possible addiction cross my mind. I drank to party like any other student.
Each weekend, I was drunk, I drove under the influence of alcohol. My mother (who was an alcoholic) never dared to tell me anything, she was already ashamed enough of herself. So I was never really made aware of the risks of addiction. I was living with an alcoholic mother but I didn't make any connection between student binge drinking and her alcoholism.
When I finished my studies, I immediately stepped into the professional world and I discovered a new place to drink: the workplace.
When did you first realise that you had a problem with alcohol? Were you drinking more or more often? Did you find it difficult not to drink? Have you had any "mishaps" under the influence of alcohol?
When I was 26 years old, a friend was putting me up in Paris, and for the first time, I couldn't drink as I pleased. I wasn't home, I wasn't at home, I no longer had free access to alcohol, I had a trying week. I would fantasise in front of wine shops windows while walking down the street, I managed to have pre-dinner drinks earlier and earlier. It was at that time that deep down inside I realised that I was an addict.
In previous years, my consumption increased in a very insidious way: I drank more and more, more and more often, and stronger and stronger alcohol. At that time, I was drinking a lot of rum, between 55 and 62% alcohol. And above all, I did not only drink during parties with friends, but increasingly on my own. Each night after work, I would drink a few anisettes and a bottle of wine. I considered alcohol as my reward. I was working hard all day to allow my drinking at night.
I got into so much trouble because of alcohol! I went into my first alcoholic coma at 19 years old, I got into a car accident, I spent a whole night at the police station at 23 years old... I thought I was ridiculous when drunk. And that's without counting the numerous blackouts.
You wrote your autobiography retracing your 25 years of alcoholism. In it, you say that alcohol is an integral part of your family history (father, mother and grandparents). Could you tell us more about it? Do you think that alcoholism can be hereditary?
Indeed, there is a kind of alcohol curse in my family: alcohol-related deaths (death by cirrhosis, death in a car accident caused by alcohol), my alcoholic and depressed parents...
Heredity is certainly a factor that has contributed to the development of my illness. My mother drank during her pregnancy, so I must have been in contact with this drug even before I was born. And I grew up seeing her drunk every day, I believe that unfortunately, we reproduce what we see when we are children.
You tried to stop drinking several times. Could you tell us about this? What was the real catalyst? How long have you been sober? What's your view on alcohol now?
I've taken many breaks in these 25 years but they never lasted long.
When I was 36, I decided to stop drinking. I went to see an addictologist. I was convinced that one day I would be able to drink moderately again after a mandatory break. So I started a six-month period of sobriety, after which I gradually resumed drinking. I followed the advice given by the addictologist scrupulously: avoid routine drinking, don't drink every day and, especially in my case, avoid rum and beer.
My moderate consumption lasted for two and a half years and then I fell off the wagon again.
Today, I've been sober for 18 months. These last three years of alcohol were horrendous, I needed to drink all the time, everywhere, it was the only thing I could think about. I was very nervous, anxious, I would cry for no reason. It had to stop.
I met someone around that time and I got totally drunk in front of them. I had never been so ashamed in my entire life, and I wish it had never happen. The next day, I made a decision, I had two options: I could continue drinking, but I knew deep down that the end was near. I had a feeling that I was going to be very sick, that I was going to be in a car accident, that I would lose my children or that I was going to kill myself. Or I could quit, for good, for life. I chose permanent abstinence. I understood this time that moderate consumption was not for me. No more alcohol for me until the day I die.
How do I look at alcohol now? I hate it. It took 25 years of my life. It made me anxious, depressed, nervous. I made bad decisions and bad choices because of it. It almost killed me. I wasn't myself anymore.
I'm very angry... I'm angry at my parents, at the business world, at the family environment and more generally I am angry at this society in which alcohol plays such a central role. I can no longer stand this hypocrisy around alcohol. Everyone knows someone who has problems with alcohol, but nobody talks about it. You will never see someone arrive at the office in the morning and talk about their spouse's drunkenness the day before. Impossible, the subject is taboo.
Alcohol destroys families, takes lives and is often the cause of domestic violence; nearly 1 in 2 cases of domestic violence is because of alcohol! But the alcohol lobbies are so powerful that they come to get their future customers by displaying advertisements in front of colleges! And our politicians don't do anything, they just nod and let it happen.
Did you get any help in your journey? If so, how and by whom? Do you think it is essential to find support?
I didn't get help. I did what is called "hard withdrawal". I stopped drinking overnight and isolated myself. I had to cut myself off from the world in order to avoid invitations and temptations.
I don't recommend doing it this way, but for me it worked. It could have been dangerous because you shouldn't wean yourself off alcohol so suddenly without medical supervision and support.
It's strange, some people need support. However, for me, I needed to be alone.
How do you see things in your future? What is your view now on these 25 years of alcoholism?
After 18 months, I'm barely out of the fog, I'm like a newborn baby. I can't project myself. What is certain is that my future will be sober. I have to rebuild myself after these years of hell but for the moment it is still difficult.
These 25 years have been a real waste, more than half of my life! If I had known, I would never have drunk so much during those student parties, I wouldn't have started drinking alone... I wish I could warn students: be careful, it doesn't only happen to others!
Why did you decide to write your autobiography? Was it life-saving?
Soon after I stopped drinking, I found myself in a state of euphoria and hyperactivity. I felt free and needed to share my story. I wrote this book in 3 months, mostly at night drinking coffee. Everything came out. It did me a lot of good. I wouldn't be able to write such a book now, it was the right time.
Could you tell us about the book? Where can Carenity members find it?
It is called 'Un détour par l'enfer' (A Detour through Hell), came out on October 30th and is published by Lemart (Switzerland). It is available as an ebook on all online platforms as well as in paper format in bookshops Switzerland, France, Belgium and Luxembourg, or on the publishing house's website.
This autobiography looks back on my 25 years of hell. The reader will go through every stage of the addictive process through the story of your average Joe. He begins as an engineering student who likes to party and ends up a depressed alcoholic at the end of his rope. And along the way, alcohol is everywhere: at parties, family gatherings, at work...
Images courtesy of Erwan Gramand
Finally, what advice would you like to give Carenity members who are also struggling with alcoholism?
My first piece of advice for anyone struggling with alcohol is to consult an addictologist. You shouldn't be alone, you should understand that it is an illness and that there is no shame. An illness can be cured. Alcoholism is not the disease of shame! The relationship with the addictologist is essential, there must be a real dialogue. If you don't trust your addictologist, go and see another.
I am a great believer in discussion groups. Whether face-to-face (Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.) or virtual online (Facebook groups, support forums, Carenity, etc.), it vital to be able to share with others going through it. Only an alcoholic can understand another alcoholic.
And above all, know that you can get through it. Never get discouraged, never feel guilty if you relapse: when you fall, just pick yourself up again. Don't give up!
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