My friend Bob (not his real name) was a lifelong drinker. He’s been a journalist since he was a boy, starting as a cub reporter on a local newspaper. As his career took off he moved to the big newspapers and his career flourished. But as his reputation as a journalist grew so too did his love of alcohol.
It started with a few beers after work and progressed as his career did with boozy lunches and dinners. As he became an editor and got an office, the booze moved from the pub into his office and, like all good-old-fashioned hacks, he kept a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses in his top drawer.
At home, Bob had a wife and children and, as the drinking grew, they adjusted – as families do. He wasn’t violent just detached and separate from the rest of the family. If he wasn’t writing or propping up the bar, he was in bed, sleeping it off. His wife became a single-parent family, she just got on with it.
All of us, his friends, thought it would end in tears. We never tackled him about it, we felt it was pointless. We all thought that the drink would kill him, but only after it had brought his marriage to its knees and his wife had left him.
Fast forward to Bob’s 65th birthday party. I hadn’t seem him in five years and, to be honest, I expected him to be the buon vivere he always had been – drink in hand, at the bar, holding court – but divorced and living alone.
So imagine my surprise when I saw Bob – several kilos slimmer and clear eyed, propping up the bar and holding court but stone-cold sober, drinking coffee.
“What happened to you?” I asked “you look amazing.”
“I’m off the bottle.” he said. For the first time in 40 years, he was dry. He explained there had been no great dramatic showdown. No epiphany. But when his kids had left home his wife had offered him a quiet ultimatum, words to the effect of: “Dry out or I’m off to live the rest of my life without you, and know that if you keep drinking the kids will alienate you and you’ll be a lonely old man.”
This sounds like an apocryphal tale full of rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not. People can wake up and learn from their mistakes if the motivation is there. We can all be the people we know we truly are inside at any time in our lives.
Professor Jake Najman is Director of the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre. He says Bob’s story isn’t unusual.
“Most people who stop using alcohol, heroine, amphetamines, or ecstasy, stop without treatment, that is the reality. It often takes many times and they may have three, four or even five attempts to give up before they actually do.”
Professor Njman says this is called “natural recovery” and it’s better than any treatment program.
“Recovery is often associated with three things: the start of a relationship, getting a job, or getting a mortgage. The evidence is clear on that.
“There is a period in people’s lives between the ages of 18 and 25 where young people may use alcohol or drugs and they mature out of it. In people over 60 their habits can be harder to break, but it can be done,” says the professor.
Bob has his wife and his family and is enjoying his retirement with all of them around. For him that was worth losing his lifelong friend: the bottle.
It makes me angry when people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – as Bob’s story shows us, you might not be able to teach them but they can teach themselves.
Do you think people can change at any age? Have you reevaluated aspects of your life and made changes?