On the brink
Anthony Bogan, a former Law Society Council member who stood for President in 1996, endured the terrifying realisation that he was an alcoholic, but found that there was light at the end of the tunnel
Me, an alcoholic? You must be joking. That is what I would have said as I was crossing the threshold between heavy social drinking and alcoholism. I would have said so to any enquirer, with enough indignation to scare them away for good. If only I knew then what I know now: it was me who needed a fright.
Today, I have no difficulty in calling myself an alcoholic. If I keep reminding myself of this simple fact, I have a good chance of staying sober.
My problem with alcohol probably began in the late 1980s, when the property market was booming: long business lunches were in vogue, and estate agents, mortgage brokers and any other Tom, Dick or Harry needed my attention. I was a young, busy conveyancer with a business to build I was the star of the show and I loved it. Those were the days before referral fees and we paid our introducers in other ways. Copious quantities of alcohol usually did the trick.
A few years down the road, I would say: Perhaps I drink too much sometimes. But Im an experienced solicitor. I have a practice to run and Im very, very busy. And terribly important. At least so I thought. Im a Law Society Council member. I organise campaigns for my constituents and support my local law society. I even give my time freely to other solicitors who are having problems.
True, I did all of these things, often in a comfortable alcoholic haze. If you did as much as I do, youd want a drink to keep you on the ball. That was my excuse. Or there was always the convenient medical justification to fall back on: Its a proven fact that red wine is good for the heart. So whats the problem? I didnt know then that the disease of alcoholism is progressive, or how much of a problem it was to become for me. I was an alcoholic drinker in complete denial.
That was ten years ago, when my drinking career was taking off. Being a clever so-and-so, I was convinced that it was the day job that was going somewhere. It was also about this time that my long-time secretary put a call through to me: You dont have to take this call, but I hope you will. Its Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and we think you need help.
For some reason, I did take the call, and within 24 hours a very kind man from AA came to see me in my home. He listened patiently to what I had to say about my life and my drinking. He told me about his life and the way he used to drink. Still, I was too caught up in myself to see the parallels between us. He gave me a copy of the Big Book by the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and suggested I should read it when I had time. Being a busy solicitor, I told him that time was one commodity that was in short supply.
He also offered to take me to an AA meeting, and I agreed. Over the course of the next week, I went to a number of meetings in west London and met all sorts of weird and wonderful people. Some seemed as though they had just fallen off a park bench, but most seemed quite normal, like me. That is, until they proudly announced to the assembled group: My name is X and Im an alcoholic.
Alcoholism does not discriminate: you can be a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, the leader of a political party or a lawyer.
If you are unfortunate enough to have the rogue gene that causes alcoholism, it will get you in the end whatever or whoever you are. I remember a particular meeting at the famous Priory Clinic, where I met a splendid High Court judge and a former senior partner of a magic circle firm. They told me that I was among friends and that I had nothing to feel ashamed about. I didnt because I still didnt believe that I could possibly be an alcoholic.
Back at home I read some of the AA literature. It frightened me a lot, particularly in the early hours of the morning when I couldnt sleep. Why was someone like me reading books about alcoholism at 4am, when my wife and children were soundly asleep upstairs? Reading this stuff at such an ungodly hour would surely make anyone want a drink. And so I did. Then off to work I went in the morning to attend to my clients.
I continued on this path of self-destruction for several years. After all, I was an important and busy solicitor with a business to run and battles to fight. If I didnt do the work, who else would? I was in full flight up in Chancery Lane and I would return to my office to burn the midnight oil for my clients. I must have forgotten that I had a family as well a long drink was always a good substitute for the real world I should have been living in.
By now, the routine evening bottle of wine needed a supplement. Sometimes a drink at lunchtime would do the trick. When I had to start early to meet a deadline, a quick fix would fire me up in the morning before I left for the office to face the day. In later years, I was to discover how fatal that first fix would be. It would lead to another, and then another. Inevitably, I wouldnt make it to the office.
But, in my own mind, I wasnt an alcoholic just a normal, busy solicitor. And, like most solicitors I knew, failure was never an option: as my principal had told me all those years before, we solicitors had to exercise a counsel of perfection in all the work that we did. I am sure he was right, but that advice was given in a bygone age, before professional ethics were compromised by the vagaries of unbridled free-market competition. I took his advice literally unwittingly, I became the perfect drunk.
Most alcoholics lead a double life the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. They become masters of disguise and deception. I would go to any length to conceal my drinking and cover my tracks. I thought I was being clever, but I now know that I was probably the last person to discover that I was an alcoholic. One woman I met in rehab told me how she would carefully remove the flesh from an orange before filling it with vodka with a hypodermic syringe. For months, her family believed she had turned over a new leaf and was eating healthily.
When sobering up after a binge, alcoholics are consumed with shame and remorse for their behaviour when drunk the targets they have missed or the people they have let down. Inevitably, this leads to another drink, and so the cycle continues. It will usually get worse without some form of intervention.
Towards the end, I was ducking and diving with all the skill I could muster, but it wasnt enough. The Big Book of AA describes alcohol for the alcoholic drinker as cunning, baffling and powerful. From my own experience, it most certainly is.
Slowly but surely, I sank into an alcoholic pit. The morning, lunchtime and evening drinks were never quite enough. Because I owned my own firm and was accountable to no-one but myself I discovered that I could drink continuously through the working day. I thought it didnt affect my performance. It simply kept me on my toes and nobody would notice. I was in a world of my own.
Looking back, I cannot honestly say that the loss of my business was entirely due to my unruly drinking. We were in a recession and many small firms were feeling the pinch. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I am sure that, had I been sober, I would have been in with a better chance.
When I lost my firm, I blamed everyone but myself. In the process, and to help pay the bills, our family home went too with all the dreadful consequences for my wife and children. But it wasnt my fault! As any alcoholic knows, resentments and guilt are fertile grounds for a good drink. At last I had an excuse to get really drunk and I did.
What I find totally baffling is that it took another five years in this twilight zone before I realised that I might just have a problem with alcohol. A nasty heart attack in my early forties and the subsequent loss of two senior positions were par for the course. Like a true drunk, I blamed both firms for my impromptu departures, and heart disease was something that ran in the family. I was just unlucky and another drink would soften the blow.
However, something was beginning to change in my alcoholic brain. In the life of anyone who suffers with alcoholism, there comes a time when you realise that although the first drink is essential to feel normal, it is taken in the certain knowledge that it will not be the last. This is the insanity of the disease: you know that you are beaten, but you continue to beat yourself up. How mad is that? And how frightening, too?
There was nothing sudden or dramatic about my decision to seek help. I had given up another job, but the wine was still flowing. I suppose I had reached rock bottom, although I didnt know it. I called LawCare thinking that my real problem was depression, which in turn was a symptom of work-related stress. I had been a busy solicitor for too long. Even at that stage, I honestly believed that excessive alcohol was another symptom of my malaise not a possible cause.
The people at LawCare and the Solicitors Benevolent Association were superb. They are unpaid volunteers who really do give meaning to the concept of working pro bono publico. With their assistance, I went into an alcohol rehabilitation centre Ark House in Scarborough. It had taken 15 years, but for the first time in my alcoholic life, I was where I needed to be.
Rehab was no picnic. Although the characters were colourful, they were not from the celebrity A-list. There was no time for arranging flowers or exotic poolside massage therapy. Instead, I was confronted with the harsh reality of what it means to be addicted to alcohol the causes and the consequences of the disease of alcoholism. Armed with the facts, it was now up to me to make myself better.
So began my recovery. I was introduced to AAs Twelve-Step Programme, which was conceived in America in the 1930s by a stockbroker and a doctor who were both drunk. They met by chance and realised that they could help each other to overcome their common illness by being honest and open about it. Today, the programme operates all over the world and is widely accepted as one of the most successful methods of helping people come to terms with their addictive behaviours.
Alcoholism is an insidious disease. Research suggests it is hereditary, progressive, chronic and fatal. The end stages are particularly nasty: cirrhosis of the liver or wet brain the latter being a condition which attacks brain tissue. However, most alcoholics will die because of their disease well before these symptoms appear. They will drink and then drive, or have a fatal accident in their own homes. In many cases they will inflict irreversible damage or injury to others in the process.
Like other forms of mental illness, there is an uneasy social stigma attached to alcoholism. We dont like to talk about it and this exacerbates the problem. In many ways, the alcoholic is like the person who suffers from bi-polar disease, or the epileptic who will fit without appropriate medication. In all these cases, the sufferers natural brain chemistry is out of balance.
The bodies of normal drinkers will completely metabolise the components of alcohol because they are poisonous. Not so with an alcoholic drinker: for some reason a small amount of one of the components acetaldeyde finds its way to the brain, where it mixes with natural brain chemicals to form a highly addictive substance called tetrahydrolsoqulnonine (THIQ). THIQ is closely related to heroin and was first discovered by scientists during the Second World War. They were looking for a new painkiller that was less addictive than morphine. Unfortunately, THIQ is more addictive and its existence in the brain of an alcoholic drinker helps to explain why most alcoholics cannot beat their addiction through will-power alone. They are in a similar position to the heroin user who needs to keep injecting.
As yet, there is no medical cure. So if you are an alcoholic, you must find a way to achieve sobriety under your own steam. Estimates of the numbers who potentially suffer from this disease vary, but some sources suggest that it might be as high as one in four. What is clear is that lawyers are highly represented in the total number, and the number of reported cases is rising. A common trait in the characteristic of an alcoholic brain is perfectionism there are many high achievers who are also drunks.
It took me the best part of 15 years to realise that alcohol had taken me to the edge, but my life is now different. I am sober, one day at a time. I no longer have to rely upon mind-altering chemicals to help me cope with the trials and tribulations of an ordinary life. And I can look forward to the continued support of family and friends in my new-found sobriety. How they put up with the worst of my behaviour when drunk I will never know, but they did and I can count my blessings.
If you think you might have a problem with alcohol, please dont suffer in silence. False pride will get you nowhere except to the bottom of another bottle. There is help available if you ask for it. In my experience, the sooner you do so, the better.
Anthony Bogan is a retired solicitor who is training to become an occupational stress management consultant
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020 8675 6440
l Anthony Bogan:
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