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Alcoholic and activist

Three ex-drinkers share their experience, strength and hope

The three people who have agreed to share their experiences in PN have all been heavily involved in the peace movement and are also recovering alcoholics (their drinking was out of control, but they’re now many years sober).

One of them is religious, two aren’t. One was drinking at her most intense period of activism; the other two were several years sober before they took part in high-risk activities. All three have been to prison for their politics, which, as one of them said in her interview, may have something to do with a tendency to take things to extremes. In this article, we’ve given them the names ‘Anna’, ‘Bella’ and ‘Carlos’.

Anna

A big thing about me is my disability which I was born with. Also, my father died when I was five, and I’ve since learned that I had a sense of rejection because it was as though my father had deserted me. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but I think it explains a lot about me.

“I’d never said: ‘I need help.’ I’d always said: ‘I’m getting help.’”

I was a loner. I did think I was better than the others, which is why I didn’t make friends easily. I did have one friend and we thought we were better than anyone else. Interestingly enough, she ended up living for many, many years on the streets in different cities, completely cut off from her family, and her family only found out about her when she died in a homeless hostel.

So that was the person I was closest to.

I read a lot. I lived my fantasy life in books. I had imaginary friends based on the characters I’d read about. Eventually that turned into a religious fervour. I wanted to be a missionary and a martyr. I wanted to save the world.

In my thirties, alcohol really started to get hold of me. At the same time, I was doing jobs connected with vulnerable people, things about war, becoming part of CND, and things like that.

It was like two parts of me were fighting, and the drink was winning, definitely. I know now it is the most powerful thing in my life, which is why I have to keep away from it, and accept another higher power.

I was drinking more and more, I was feeling more and more guilty. I was using money that wasn’t mine. I was lying to people, saying I was getting help in different places.

Finally, I was offered the chance of going into treatment and I just broke down in tears and said: ‘Yes, I need help.’

I just felt a weight lift off me. I’d never said: ‘I need help.’ I’d always said: ‘I’m getting help.’

Bella

For me, getting arrested and going to prison was about having a kind of gung ho attitude with a particular lack of care for myself or my future. It didn’t come from any kind of brave fearlessness.

The times I went into prison were awful. It was awful. I hadn’t mentally or emotionally or spiritually prepared myself for the reality of going into prison.

Ignorant bravado, more than anything. If I’m really honest, that’s how I was able to carry out my activism.

“I was collapsing as a person, while putting up this very fierce front.”

From my experience of being around people who are in recovery and who’ve obviously had ‘using’ – alcoholic using, over-eating, over-sexing, whatever – pasts, any form of addiction, I think it seems to be quite a common trait that we’ve got a real problem with authority.

It’s something that I struggle with to this day. (laughs)

Anti-authoritarianism, not liking being told what to do, and a hell of a lot of anger. I think a lot of my anger was feminist anger. I had the anger before I had the politics.

I was doing the right things but for the wrong reasons.

My levels of anger and my growing alcoholism just caused me to just not have a grounded perspective or any kind of long-term sustainable action plan or acceptance of the realities of long-term committed political action.

I was very much for getting out there, getting in there, with bolt-croppers, getting into anywhere, any bases I possibly could, inflicting damage, obviously with well-motivated political reasons and understandings, but my application was amiss.

That was definitely to do with the combination of unbridled anger, stress, trauma, and loads and loads of Special Brew! (laughs)

I was hiding my drinking. Some co-ops I visited, there was heavy drinking going on that I would identify now as alcoholic. Early morning, good old strong cider. The live-in protest forest camps, some people were doing a huge amount of drinking. I wasn’t going to drink there. I wasn’t going to let that one out. I would happily go and pretend to be ‘normal’, and then go home and get absolutely plastered, and pretend nobody noticed.

Throughout my alcoholic career, I didn’t drink with alcoholics. I didn’t drink with anyone.

Eventually, people didn’t want to work with me – or be around me. I was never reeling around drunk. No one ever saw me drunk. But I had that constant anxious drive, absolutely pinpointed focussed drive, which just excluded any kind of fun. I think it was exhausting, being around me. I didn’t identify that I was controlling – I was just right! (laughs)

I withdrew from activism when I was 30. I stopped to drink. I also knew I couldn’t be involved because I was so angry and it was a huge problem. I didn’t know anything about peace. (laughs) I was at war.

Carlos

My activism and my drinking both started when I was 16. I got involved in a small group of friends who made a peace group at school, and we did stuff in our town, so activism was quite a social thing for me.

Drinking, I did a bit with my friends, but most of my memories of drinking right from the beginning were on my own. Sometimes I went drinking on my own instead of going to away matches with my sports team.

I was really pretty unwell, emotionally, before I started drinking, and my drinking career didn’t last long because I had an alcoholic breakdown at the age of 20, when I was at university.

At university, I was involved in various groups and becoming more and more grandiose in what I thought I could and should achieve politically – just as I was becoming less and less capable of doing anything effective.

I loved humanity – I felt I was willing to die for humanity – but I couldn’t stand virtually any of the people I actually met and knew. I was becoming agoraphobic – I didn’t like going out of the big cities because there was too much sky in the smaller towns. At the same time, I was becoming terrified of being around crowds and strangers in general. I was convinced everyone was talking about me, everyone was watching me.

There’s this moment I always go back to, which was when I went shopping in my local supermarket, and I reached out to buy some tomatoes, and I was convinced everyone in the shop was watching me and saying to each other: ‘This kid doesn’t know anything about tomatoes, look at the ones he’s about to choose!’ I had to just put down my basket and go home without buying anything.

I was collapsing as a person, while putting up this very fierce front – to keep everyone back, so that they couldn’t have a chance to see what was behind the façade.

There was nothing anyone could do to help me – until I reached rock bottom and reached out for help.

Bella

It would have been good if someone had had the guts, or the insight, just to – I don’t mean to sit me down and read me the Riot Act, or anything like that – but to just talk to me, or ask me: ‘Are you okay?’

My probable answer to that would have been: ‘Yeah, I’m absolutely fine! (laughs) There’s no problem, no issue here going on at all.’

There was a woman who, she was a recovering alcoholic, she did extend the hand of friendship towards me, and... I didn’t want it. She offered me a lot. There was stuff that I could have done, that would have been great, but I knew I couldn’t do it, because of my drinking.

At that time, I actually doubt there is anything anyone could have done for me.

I was on such a self-destructive, volitional, absolutely-denying-everything course that the only thing people could have done was... stay away from me.

And I don’t blame them. I was probably very scary, in a way that I don’t blame people for not wanting to be around. A combination between being very needy and psychotically driven.

Anna

Treatment was very powerful for me. I was very resistant to begin with. It was a six-month treatment programme and I thought I could do it in three, because I was religious and I knew all about God.

So for the first couple of months I was really arrogant about it. But then I heard someone sharing in an AA meeting, and the penny really dropped. The person who ran our treatment centre said it was about the drop from the head to the heart. I listened to this woman and I thought: ‘That is exactly how my drinking was.’

Then I made the most of my time in treatment, which was based on the Twelve Steps [of Alcoholics Anonymous].

So when I came out of treatment I was to find out where the [AA] meetings were, to get right into the recovery programme, get a sponsor, work the Steps, do service. I didn’t come out of the treatment centre all cured and wonderful. I really had to work hard at my character defects.

It was only when I started to address my deep-rooted character defects, which was when I was about five years sober, believe it or not, I realised my biggest character defects were — wanting to be God for other people and wanting other people to be God for me.

Either I wanted to be the main person in other people’s lives, the saviour, as it were, the one who would sort everything. Or, I was also desperately needy so I put too many demands on other people to support me emotionally.

It was like a second recovery, it was really a very profound time for me, at five years. It was at that point, then, that I started to meet activists and to have a clearer idea of what way I could go.

Because I still had this desire to help create a better world. The longer I was in recovery, the more I realised I would be doing that with other people. It was when I started to work on that, that I started to grow more, to grow up really.

I was already in my early 50s. It took me a long time to grow up! I’d been sober seven years when I became more active. When I came back to England, I got arrested at Faslane. I felt that I couldn’t have done that if I’d been drinking, because of course if you’re suddenly put in a police cell for several hours and you’ve got the desire to drink, you can’t do anything about it. But there was a freedom there.

I’ve always felt, when I’ve been in a police cell, that I’ve got a great freedom, freedom from the obsession to drink or use anything to change my mind. I always use the Twelve Step prayers, Steps Three, Seven and Eleven, if I’m on my own in a police cell, that’s what I do.

I do feel that what I do now is: I think about it more, I discern. I learned how to do discernment around civil disobedience when I was abroad. That was a great training ground for me.

Carlos

I think there are real parallels between what I’ve had to do in recovery, to stay sober, and some of the work I’ve had to do in affinity groups, preparing for high-risk stuff. There’s something about becoming more honest with yourself about who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, the bad motives that hide under apparently good actions, and opening up to other people.

In a way, both things have been about ego-deflation.

In activism, I’ve done things where I thought there was a real risk of getting killed, or a real risk of spending years in prison, and I’ve had to really dig deep to find out why I was doing these things – to what extent was it out of ego?

Bella

When I actually did end up, for the last time in AA, it was the first time I’d been in a prolonged period of daily drinking, and it was getting heavier and heavier. The days of being able to drink for a week, and then stop for a few weeks or whatever, had just gone.

Actually stopping drinking was from having heard something in AA rooms years before. Someone had said it’s not like you just wake up one day and your partner and your children have left, and you’ve lost your house, and you’ve lost your job, and you’re on the street.

I remember her talking about how all these things went, ‘and I didn’t even notice them going’. It was just incremental. Things just drifted away. Friends just drifted away. The driving licence just went. Things disappeared.

I realised that was happening. I was standing there with my can of Special Brew, thinking: ‘Oh my God, this is happening. It’s real. This is real. I’m not sure I can pay the rent on this flat and if I can’t, I have nowhere else to go.’

I couldn’t present myself to anyone, friends or family, the state I was in.

That was the real, proper beginning of the end.

If you have alcoholism, it’s not a big thing, if you know how to deal with it.

The one thing to know is that it is not going to go away. Accept in the deepest depths of your soul that this is not going to sort itself out in the way that you would like it to.

Alcoholics Anonymous, 0845 769 7555; alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk 

Topics: Activism