From athlete to daily drinker to sober life

Addiction is a weird thing and it’s only through hindsight that we can see how easy it can be to allow alcohol to get its claws stuck into us. Alcohol is so normalised in society. It’s all but expected that we drink. It‘s a bit scary being so open but if one person reads my story and feels a like they too can change their life’s path then it’s totally worth it, so here goes!

I grew up in Australia, in the ‘life saving club’ community, racing surf ski’s and training incredibly hard. As the culture was back then (in the early ‘90s), along with training hard, we partied hard! I learned to drink from a pretty young age, before I was 18 (legal drinking age in Australia), I was already a seasoned drinker. Not an everyday drinker but throughout the summer I‘d attend parties and get drunk. Drinking, when I was young, was not about having a drink or two – it was often a bit of a competition, ‘who can drink a whole slab of beer’, or worse, down a bottle of spirits. Whatever we drank, it was always about getting drunk. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I would drink to the point that my body couldn’t take anymore, take a trip to the bathroom, be sick, then get straight back into party mode. I am very lucky that I was amongst trustworthy people because I certainly drank, on many occasions to the point of blackout. Scarily, only able to piece entire nights together by recounting stories from others.

In spite of the partying, my hard work got me some great results, including scholarships to the Victorian and Australian Institute of Sport. I trained and competed as an elite kayaker for many years. I represented Australia in World Cup events and World Championships throughout Europe, Canada and The USA. During my institute of sport years I was expected to uphold strict, non-drinking behaviour. Aside from special occasions, at the end of ‘big’ races, alcohol would seldom pass my lips but we certainly made up for this on the ‘special occasions’. When ‘allowed’, I could put the drinks away as quickly and plentifully as the next person. I recall one post World Cup dinner in Germany, where as a team, coaches and all – countless bottles of wine were guzzled down, along with a crazy number of bottles of ‘Sambuca’, consumed in the form of flaming shots – even resulting in the face of one of my teammates (beard stubble) catching in fire. At that point it was about one night of freedom, then back into the seriousness of training for the next competition.

In my prime – Kayaking days

Upon retiring, having been bound by expectations for so many years it was time to find myself. It was a rough time mentally! Not only was I saying goodbye to the sporting life I’d lived for so long, I was also adjusting to accepting my sexuality. It was late ‘99, early 2000 when, attempting to understand myself and to get my feelings out, I’d taken to writing poetry (I use the term loosely). I had journal after journal filled with poems of yearning for love and acceptance, yearning to feel ‘normal’.

I stumbled upon an online community of people who appeared to be like me, or at least to accept people like me. It was an Ani Difranco fan website. Ani was a musician whose music made me feel like someone knew what I was going through. Within this online community, was a poetry board and I would write, share, read and respond to others. I wasn’t “out” to anyone in my ‘real life’ so I retreated most nights to reading and writing in my online world. I began drinking at home, I felt like it made me more expressive and free. I shared things I feared telling my ‘real life’ friends. Drinking was becoming a habit.

When I discovered my sexuality I found it difficult to be myself where I’d been living the past few years. I didn’t even know who my ‘real self’ was but I knew I wasn’t going to find her on the Gold Coast. I needed to look for a city where there was a more diverse community. In early 2001, I moved to Brisbane, started uni and sought out gay bars. I frequented nightclubs, made new friends and fell into a world of drinking and drugs. Thankfully drugs scared the hell out of me, so while I dabbled, they never really became my thing. Drinking however, was now pretty much part of my every night, be it at home or out. At first, the home drinking was just a glass or two of wine. Once I was in a relationship for a while it changed, we began drinking a lot more. Sometimes we stuck to wine or beer, other times and increasingly it was scotch, either way it didn’t matter, I was an adult, it was my choice and I was convinced I was fine with it. There were times I questioned how much I drank, but then I’d convince myself I was fine, justifying it by telling myself that other people were doing the same.

The years went on, I suffered my first heartbreak. In an attempt to sooth my heartbreak I got drunk, slept with an ex and had to work my way out of that sticky situation. Then after a drunken night out I wound up in a relationship with a girl who became possessive and obsessed. About the only thing we had in common was an enjoyment of going out and drinking. We were only together 3 months but she moved herself into my home and threatened suicide when I tried to leave her – she held me hostage in my own home for days, I even called in sick to work in fear of her life. She wouldn’t let me call anyone or tell anyone what was happening, she eventually OD’d on prescription drugs. I took her to hospital, where I then broke down and established (through the help of a psychologist) that I had to escape. I never returned to my home, I was left with no choice but to call the police to lock up my house and I make a quick getaway – that day I flew 2000km, back to Melbourne, where I grew up. My poor dad and brother suffered the task of going up and clearing out my house.

Time went by, another relationship, another one night stand… So many things changed but my faithful companion alcohol, remained. In recent years I’d come to question my drinking a lot more frequently, how did I get from elite athlete – representing my country – to a washed up, way overweight, daily drinker looking at other people’s addictions and bad habits to justify mine? Luckily I was able to get some perspective and I started to notice that I didn’t really like the person I was when I was drinking. I was less interesting, less fun and not as nice.

Daily drinker

I don’t call myself an alcoholic, each to their own though. For me personally, as a sober person, I don’t find the term helpful. When you look at the facts though, I guess you could have categorised me as a high functioning alcoholic. I have always been a high achiever at work and I got good results in my studies but I drank almost every night, often to levels that were incredibly unhealthy. I spent a couple of years making myself promises most mornings, that today would be different but by evening I was on autopilot, driving myself to the bottle shop. I finally reached a point where I knew I had to do something serious. I no longer wanted to waste my life away, drunk or hungover, let alone continue to slowly kill myself. At the beginning of last year, after nearly 20 years of daily drinking, I decided it was time to quit. I haven’t touched a drop since February 6, 2019. That makes 501 days sober today.

Sober – making the most of life

For me, quitting drinking has been about retraining my brain to no longer buy into the lies we’re fed about alcohol. I didn’t use any traditional 12 step program to get sober. Instead, I immersed myself in the sober Instagram community. I created the profile “journey_to_sober”, now shinyhappysober” and started sharing my journey and reading about and responding to other people’s journeys. It’s a great community full of advice and support. I also emmersed myself in ‘quit lit’, starting with Catherine Gray’s “the unexpected joy of being sober”. It’s an amazing book and it solidified my decision to get and stay sober. Travelling to and from work each day I would listen to sober podcasts and audiobooks where inspiring people would talk about attempting to get sober and thriving in sobriety. I’ve learnt so much from other people’s experiences.

Through reading and listening l, I came to understand that all the things I was searching for in alcohol were merely mirages. The reality is that I have found those things in sobriety. Alcohol doesn’t relax you, it doesn’t make you more interesting, or more you. You don’t need it to be fun or to celebrate. The truth is, addictive drinking dulls your shine and bury’s all the good things. It takes some adjusting but life is so much better without alcohol.

My sober life has prompted a real lifestyle change. From staying up late drinking, to getting active again, embracing mornings, sunrises and the excitement of having energy for a new day. It’s been about enjoying my life, sharing it with my girlfriend of nearly 10 years (who has loved and supported me throughout my journey) and really living life rather than just plodding through it. I feel younger and more alive than I have in years.

I don’t think there’s a right and a wrong way to get sober, you’ve just got to put yourself out there and find the path that works for you. I think it starts from being honest with yourself about your addiction and about the type of life you want. If you’re thinking about sobriety, I can tell you it may not be easy, but no matter what your situation is, you have the power to change it if you choose to, and it is absolutely worth it!

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