My Last Binge

River Thames and Tower Bridge at Dusk, London, England

By Laurie A.

My wife thought I would get up and walk out from my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The meeting started with a recitation of the 12 Steps suggested as a programme of recovery and six of them mention God or “Him” or “Power.”

I was a surly, cynical agnostic and my wife, sitting beside me, thought, “This won’t work.” But I was a week away from having attempted suicide. I’d survived by the skin of my teeth and was in no state to engage in theological wrangling. I listened with laser-like attention to anything that would keep me alive, and staying alive meant not drinking.

My last binge had not been that spectacular; in fact I thought I deserved a pat on the back for arriving home before the pubs closed. But my wife took one look at me as I reeled through the front door and fled out of the back door with our daughter. As they drove off into the night I cursed them for being so unkind. I then turned the place upside down, wreaking my frustration and resentment on the furniture.

The next morning as I surveyed the wreckage I knew this could not go on. I’d never smashed the place up before and was appalled and horrified.

It finally dawned on me that while I kept on drinking my life just got more chaotic. Despite all my well-meaning and strenuous efforts I could not stop drinking. I couldn’t face another ten, 20 or 30 years of that living hell so I decided to end it all. As an alcoholic, loneliness was a way of life. I felt despised and rejected, shunned like a leper; I despised and rejected myself. But that morning I felt as though the cosmos itself had rejected me. I no longer belonged here. The pain of being alive was impossible to bear. Words diminish it.

As I left the house, my wife and daughter arrived home. I muttered, “They shoot mad dogs, don’t they?” and pushed past them.

I went to a chemist’s (pharmacy) and tried to decide how many aspirins would do the job, 25, 50 or 100. I bought 100 just to be sure, along with a bottle of orange juice. I walked into nearby woods, left the path so I wouldn’t be found, sat under a tree and gulped down the aspirins in handfuls. I then lay down and waited to die.

I was saved by luck and ignorance. I thought I would swiftly lapse into unconsciousness and the oblivion I craved; I didn’t know how long the tablets would take to work. I was aware of an insect scratching away next to my ear. I felt woozy but that passed, as did the ringing in my ears. I watched the sun passing through the branches. At one point I began to panic and struggled to get up. But I forced myself to stay there and told myself I had to go through with it.

Baffled that nothing seemed to be happening, I thought, “You haven’t killed yourself but you haven’t done yourself any good so you’d better get help.” A cynic might say, “Well, why didn’t you put your head on a railway line?” I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that I was confused and bewildered – I wasn’t thinking straight; maybe the instinct for self-preservation had kicked in.

I walked back into the town and gave myself up to the police. Two young Police Constables rushed me to an Accident & Emergency room with the car siren blaring and lights flashing. One of them said, “Don’t you be sick in our car.” He added, “You’re not going to like what they’re going to do to you.” I found out what he meant when I was pumped out. I really did think then that I was going to die.

My wife refused to visit me; here was yet another disaster caused by my drunkenness. The kids persuaded her to come but she just sat at the end of the bed, quivering with rage, refusing to speak to me.

Before I was discharged a psychiatrist told me, “If you’d left it any longer before getting help, all they could have done was watch you die.” I didn’t plan to cut it that fine; I just wanted off the planet. He told me I would need to arrange psychiatric aftercare with my doctor  – and suggested I attend AA.

I’d turned my nose up at AA years before but now I was terrified that if I drank again I would die; and I just knew I would drink again because that’s what I always did. In AA I often hear members say they lacked the courage to commit suicide. It seems a perverse sort of courage that enables someone to die but not to live. I didn’t want to die but didn’t know how to live; I lacked the courage to live. I’ve seen suicide described as a supremely selfish act. In my case morality didn’t come into it; I just couldn’t take any more. Depending which statistic you believe, a third of male suicides are drink-related.

When I got home I phoned AA and my doctor. He encouraged me to go to AA and arranged an appointment with the consultant psychiatrist at a National Health Service addiction treatment centre. That evening two AA members visited me and told me their stories. They invited me to an AA meeting, which I went to with my wife. She had put me on probation. She thought going to AA was just another one of my “tricks”; I was always making solemn promises not to drink again.

At that first meeting I got hope that my alcoholism was no longer my unique problem; that there was help if I was prepared to use it. A few days later I met David Marjot, the psychiatrist at St Bernard’s hospital, West London. He listened to my story and said, “Well, I confirm the diagnosis. You’re a chronic alcoholic and from now on things can only get worse.” I thought, “I’ve just tried to kill myself – how much worse can it get?”

He went on, “I’ve seen hundreds of men like you. You’re in your mid-40s, still employed and married – it will all be gone if you carry on drinking, and with your pattern of binge drinking you’re in danger of having an oesophageal haemorrhage and bleeding to death.” He offered me an inpatient bed but said there was a seven-week waiting list. He added, “I’ll keep a place for you but in the meantime keep going to AA.”

That was in September 1984. I still have his letter of appointment; I hope I never have to use it.

In AA there’s a saying which I found immensely consoling: “I’m not a bad person trying to get good – I’m a sick person trying to get well.” I always blamed myself for not being able to control my drinking. I didn’t realise I was very sick. The illness theory is controversial but I find it a useful metaphor. If not scientifically exact it works for me as experiential verification. And it doesn’t let me off the hook. I had to try to put right the damage and hurt that I’d caused others in my alcoholic descent.

As soon as I felt well enough I went to the police station and thanked the two PCs who had rushed me to hospital. I wrote to the hospital and thanked them too. Those people saved my life. I’ve tried to be the husband to my wife that I’d denied her while in my alcoholic wilderness. I’ve made amends to our lovely kids.

Share and Share Alike

Laurie was the editor for Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating the diamond jubilee of AA in Great Britain.

The AA group that I began attending met at a Quaker meeting house. There was a poster on the notice board that said: “A silent Quaker meeting for worship can be a quiet process of healing and a journey of discovery.” I plucked up courage one Sunday and went to my first Quaker meeting. I was not judged for my belief or lack of belief and welcomed.

I was attracted by the similarities between Quakerism and AA. Here in Britain both are practical, non-hierarchical, egalitarian and non-creedal.

Unlike some Quaker meetings in North America, British Quakerism has no priests or pastors, nor liturgy, sermons or hymns. Meeting houses are unconsecrated and bare of ornament. Meetings for worship are held in silence from which arise occasional, spontaneous, spoken contributions which anyone present can offer if so moved. When AA began in Britain in the late 1940s British members discarded the Lord’s prayer. Most meetings end with the Serenity prayer, but it’s optional and as an agnostic I stay silent.

Both Quakerism and AA say the spiritual life is not a theory – we have to live it. I am more open-minded and tolerant than I have ever been and I’m still an agnostic.

I thought the worst thing that could have happened to me was to become an alcoholic; it turned out to be the best thing. If I hadn’t found AA and the Quakers I would never have found myself. I drank for limitless expansion, but that thirst was never satisfied.

Today it is one day at a time.

 The sobriety date of Laurie A., a former BBC journalist in the UK, is August 10, 1984.


13 Responses

  1. AndrewWS says:

    Before coming into AA, I had imagined that it would be rather like the Quakers (of whom I have some experience) – gentle but firm, and open-minded. Sad to say, it isn’t, which is why I quietly dropped out after seven years. Still sober, though.

    Although I’m now a Catholic, I’d go back to AA if there were more open-mindedness and agnosticism in it.

  2. Dennis M says:

    I am an American atheist leaning agnostic. I am also an American that lives in the South, the bible thumping, “you’re with us or your’re wrong” South. I had almost 23 years without a drink of alcohol or AA and started binge drinking 3 years or so ago. Laurie, or anyone, how does one reconcile the the “god stuff” with one’s belief. Hell, I can’t separate spirituality from the god talk. I need some type of support and am thinking about giving AA another try, but I am, admittedly, bitter from past attempts.

    • Barbara says:

      I too am agnostic and live in North Carolina. I understand completely how difficult it is to be an agnostic AA in Bible country. Seek agnostic meetings, (there are 3 in the Raleigh Durham area), search the web for like minded AA members, and even when the most bible thumping member shares in a meeting, one can usually find something useful in what they say. It can be done. Do not give up! You are not alone.

      • Laurie A says:

        When one born-again Big Book zealot insisted on giving us the benefit of his superior revelation an old-timer chuckled, “Keep coming – you’re a bad example.”

  3. david s says:

    If putting yer head on railway line ensure shunter pulls the correct levers to avoid radical pedicure….very glad you are still here one of the joys of my recovery….TCD….Essex Riviera…x

  4. Phil E. says:

    Thank you Laurie. Your story resonates with mine in that I wanted to live more than I wanted to die, so I tolerated all that “God talk”. Here in the southern colonies meetings can still be a bit one dimensional in regards to spiritual experiences. I am grateful to you, and other fellow agnostics that share their stories. Regards, Phil E.

    • Laurie A says:

      Thank goodness the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and that the realm of the spirit is broad, roomy and all-inclusive. Willingness, honesty and openmindedness are the essentials of recovery … we can only be defeated by an attitude of belligerent denial and contempt prior to investigation. I sometimes think we should ask the newcomer, “Do you have an attitude of belligerent denial and contempt?”

  5. Eric T says:

    Thank you for your story Laurie, I’m glad those aspirin failed you! I especially identified with your mention of the phrase “I’m not a bad person trying to get good – I’m a sick person trying to get well.” I’m grateful for the combination of treatments – not least of which are medical, psychological and scientific. They not only helped saved my life, but also direct my program of continued recovery.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience; your description of the doctor’s diagnosis was virtually identical to mine! At a little over a year sober today, I aspire to the length of sobriety you currently have – one day at a time.

  6. John L. says:

    Thanks, Laurie. I was especially interested in your discussion of Quakerism – wasn’t aware that it is compatible with agnosticism.

    How can one order a copy of Share and Share Alike? Could payment be made through PayPal, which automatically converts currencies? (I’m in the USA.)

    The alcoholism section of my website – Alcoholism: Recovery without Religiosity – has an article by R.L. Wild, “Only With God’s Help?” (New Humanist 1975), in which he alludes to two London AA groups for non-believers:

    It is significant that in at least two London groups he [God] is not qualified for membership. One of these, operating as a discussion group, is said to offer the finest AA in the country, boasting an excellent record of recovery and rehabilitation.

    Of course, these groups may have folded in the 38 years since Wild’s article appeared – but do you know what they are or were?

    Wild does mention that some London groups recited the Lord’s Prayer, although apparently they were exceptions. His article has some appealingly pungent phrases, like: “the persistent religious undertone contaminating AA.” Like Wild, I think that religiosity is at best irrelevant to the true AA — the AA that works.

    • Laurie A says:

      Thanks for that John. The British Quaker website says “Some Friends (Quakers) describe themselves as agnostics, or humanists, or non-theists and describe their experience in ways to avoid the use of the word God entirely.” (I belong to the Non-theist Friends Network). For unprogrammed (silent) Quaker meetings in North America log on to the website Quaker Finder.
      If you go to the British AA website and key in “agnostics” on the Meetings Page, you will find just three groups. However, some agnostic groups use names like Tradition Three, Keep It Simple etc. See Jude’s posting last week on AA Agnostica for more information.
      Writing about the early days of AA in Britain in the AA Newsletter in 1967, Canadian Bob (who was at the very first AA meeting in Britain in 1947) recorded, “We had until then followed American practice and meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. One man seemed always to reach ‘Amen’ before others were past the ‘… forgive us our trespasses’. Therefore, and because some of the few recited without enthusiasm or not at all, I suggested the shorter ‘Serenity, Courage and Wisdom’ invocation to close the meetings…” Bob’s article is in Share and Share Alike. You can find an order form on the British AA website. Follow the links to members’ area, service, documents library. Email the British general service office or Share magazine (details on site) to see how you can pay.
      Laurie A.

  7. dave h says:

    thanks, Laurie. glad you’re still with us, another survivor of the school of hard-bitten journalism. i’m imagining you shouted “copy!” when you finished an article.?

  8. Lech says:

    I’ve heard many people say over the decades that becoming an alcoholic was the best thing that ever happened to them.

    Not I. I would gladly have avoided all the turmoil, wasted money, and close calls when driving drunk.

    I had some good times drinking, but on balance a sober life would have been preferable. I suspect the ‘good times’ I had back then could easily have been found in activities that didn’t involve booze.

    • vanessa says:

      Thank you Laurie, I have always liked and respected you and class you as one of the gifts of recovery, may your journey continue with serenity and happiness x

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