Sunday 3 August 2014

Quitting drinking is hard, not quitting is harder

Those of you who have been watching this space reasonably regularly will know that one thing I hate is advertising on TV, that is intrusive advertising. 
I would love to say that advertising doesn't work, but it clearly does, and that is why we suffer those ad breaks in our viewing. 
Being the sort of numbers man that I am, while watching Fawlty Towers last night, I noted that the show, which was produced for the BBC, and thus had no commercials in it, took 45 minutes to show on Australian TV.
The show is thirty minutes long, and thus, channel seven put 15 minutes of ads in it, or 30% of our viewing time is taken up by ads.
This is against the commercial television code of practice, but I didn't have the energy to start another strident campaign against another commercial TV network.
However, it did set me thinking about if any ads had worked on me.

And I was able to think of one, or one of a series of ads straight away.
This was the series of quit smoking ads run recently, the theme of these was, "Quitting smoking is hard, not quitting is harder." 
These truly harrowing ads show people (like in the photo above) who just couldn't bring themselves to quit, and so saw out the end of their days on oxygen in a hospital.  
And it worked on me I can tell you.
The long slow march away from cigarettes for me began when I was living in Sydney in the nineties.  
My girlfriend at the time pointed out to me that with all we know about smoking now, if you still smoke, you are effectively committing suicide.
That stuck in my mind, and I wrestled with the maxim over a lot of years.
In the end I had to admit that she was absolutely right.
Deep in my alcoholic, depressed days, I was smoking sixty to seventy rollie cigarettes a day.
And when I thought about it, I had to admit that since I had nothing to live for, then I might as well go out with some pleasure.
Smoking all the way to the grave, as it were.
My rather ignorant thoughts, such as they were, were, 'well I'll smoke, and then when I get lung cancer it will all be over quickly at the finish'.
But then I was listening to Radio National's Health report and a female thoracic physician was being interviewed.
During which she pointed out that a lot of people had similar thoughts to me, lung cancer being their only fear.
However, she went on, lung cancer is the cause of only a small percentage of people who attend hospitals for smoking related diseases.
Heart trouble is actually the main cause of trouble, and also emphysaema, an inability to breathe, due to destroyed lung tissue, being much more common reasons for smokers having to go to hospital.
Then she frighteningly pointed out that, many people who have smoked, spend their last years trapped in a chair, or on a bed, as they simply haven't the lung capacity to stand up and walk around.
That really got to me I can tell you.
I had planned to go out surfing and cycling until lung cancer got me, but this interview showed me that even if free of lung cancer, I may not be able to surf.
Clearly not an option for me.
And then with those thoughts on my mind, the "quitting smoking is hard, not quitting is even harder" ads appeared on TV.
And these ads really reinforced the message.
I haven't been able to find the exact ad that most got to me, but here is a precis.
The ad showed a man, not old, fifty or thereabouts, watching from his window while his wife mowed the lawn.
He was wearing an oxygen mask, and as he told the camera, by not quitting smoking early enough, he now couldn't mow the lawn, and his wife had to do it while he watched at the window.
Frightening stuff.
And then came another ad, that was even more frightening in its way.
It showed a young girl, six of seven years old, who was telling her father, who was in a hospital bed on oxygen, about a funny incident that had occurred at a family barbeque.
The girl's uncle had gone to catch a ball during a cricket match and fallen face first in the mud.
As she ended her story she said, "I wish you had been there."
The clear implication being that by not quitting early enough, he was missing his children growing up.
I don't have kids but it was still terrifying stuff.
I think the most frightening part of that ad was that the man in hospital was very young, in his thirties or early forties, young enough to have a six year old daughter.
So all of that pushed me to walk into my friend Mick's bottle shop one day and ask him to throw away my tobacco for me.
I had been doing the "once I finish this packet, I'll quit" thing, but eventually realised that this was an eternal "just one more packet" way of kidding myself.
And I'll tell you, not that you really need me saying it, but that first period after throwing away a half full packet of tobacco, was the longest day of my life.
I handed over the packet of 'bacco about four in the arvo, then had to get through that evening.
Then came the next morning and it was time to get through the "not having the first cigarette of the day" thing.
And that was harder again.
Only smokers can really know what I'm talking about here, there is nothing, I mean nothing like that first fag in the morning.
However I did it.
Some months later I was cycling up Hayter's Hill outside town and going OK when I realised that I had six gears left.
A clear indicator that quitting smoking had had a health benefit.
So I got through smoking, but then I was reading one of my favourite authors Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent book The Gold Coast, part of his three Californias trilogy.
This book is set in California in 2027, life is good but with the ongoing pressures that come with living in a massively overcrowded area.
Shopping malls are four stories, and if meeting someone at the entrance of the mall, you not only have to designate which exit, but which floor.
The orange groves are long gone, and the roads are beyond crowded.
One of the characters in this book is Sandy, he's a drug dealer.
He has to spend his life constantly on the search for more, and better drugs, to give his hedonistic friends, bigger and better highs.
It is obviously an extraordinary risky life-style with the cops always breathing down his neck, and you get to the point of wondering why he doesn't quit, and go straight.
Then we find out why.
Turns out Sandy's father is trapped on a hospital bed, due to excessive drinking.
Sandy's father can't afford a liver transplant, and even just the daily hospital stay is so expensive that Sandy has to keep selling drugs to keep the money supply up.
Much as I enjoyed this book, I was drinking heavily at the time, and each time Sandy's father was referred to, I felt like someone had opened up a drain in the bottom of my stomach.
So once again reading is generally a good thing to do.
The reading of this book, began the thought processes that eventually led to me really starting to contemplate giving up drinking.
For you see, like with smoking, I thought I could just drink heavily every night, and then die suddenly one day on my surfboard or astride the seat of my push bike.
Bu this book opened up a new and truly terrifying possibility, trapped on a hospital bed for years, unable to do anything that mattered to me.
I have written elsewhere here of my many reasons for quitting drinking, acting like an arsehole, borrowing money off friends, all of that, but in the end, it was the idea of a slow interminable waiting for death, trapped on a hospital bed, that finally got through to me.
So one new year's morning I got out of bed and decided that I would make the first steps.
I would incorporate two alcohol free days (AFDs) a week into my life.
And I would start today.
Now this is as old as the hills, making a new year's resolution to quit drinking on new year's day, often after a real mother of a blowout the night before.
But things were different for me, I didn't celebrate new year's, I had drunk my requisite level the night before, three beers and a bottle of wine (ten standard drinks) and gone to bed at ten pm.
So what was different?
I still don't really know, I think just the overarching impending doom that I couldn't go on like this, drinking ten standard drinks a night, and not end up like Sandy's father, trapped on a hospital bed, inactive till death.
So then began another "longest day".
I went about my business, and then came home around four pm ,and began the longest part of the longest day, four in the arvo till bedtime, when I usually did my drinking.
Knowing I would be gasping for a drink, I bought some tea, and then began sit it out.
I estimate I drank twenty cups of tea in that six hour period, anything to stop me wanting some alcohol.
This amount of caffeine was hardly the right prescription for a good night's sleep, but it got me through that hard part.
Ten o'clock came, and I dived into bed with a feeling of relief.
I had achieved my AFD, time for bed, knowing that tomorrow I could drink again.
Then January 2 dawned and it suddenly occurred to me that, again, like smoking, I had now achieved the hardest part.
The first day off any addiction is the hardest.
So I reasoned this morning, January 2, since I'd achieved the hardest day of my life, maybe I should now push on.
So then I had my second AFD, right after the first.
I did some gardening, went surfing, then went home and drank enough tea to put Twinings shares through the roof.
Then January 3 dawned.
Now I really had to make a choice, I had said I would have two AFDs a week, and now I had achieved that.
The temptation to say, "well, Lachlan, you've really earned this, time to get drunk tonight," was more appealing than I can say.
But I think I had at least subconsciously, come to understand that I had quit drinking for good.
So the third day went by without alcohol.
When the fourth day came, I had a genuine feeling of feeling good in the morning, something I hadn't had for nearly twenty years.
The signs of this were first, I was hungry, and wanted breakfast, and so that day I bought breakfast cereal for the first time in the same twenty years.
Also, I 'wanted' to go surfing in the morning.
Previously I had to clear the effects of the previous night's drinking before taking to the water, usually about lunchtime.
So this day I went surfing at nine o'clock.
After that, things began to work out easier, I stopped buying alcohol and the beneficial effects on my bank balance and my waistline became manifest.
And of course, always present and nursing me through this period was my therapist Paula the Wonder Horse.
Often I would be asked "what does Paula do that is so wonderful?", and the answer is so simple, she just listened.
My essential problem was always not being heard, and being forced to shut up (hard to believe I know), and by Paula's eternal patience, she engendered the change in me that allowed me to quit drinking.
Leonard and Penny from The Big Bang Theory
enjoying a glass of wine on a date. So, so tempting.
So quitting drinking is hard, but I hope this has shown that not quitting is harder.
If you can get through that first day, that is a major achievement.
I am still tempted from time to time.
One trigger, perhaps surprisingly, is when I watch TV at night.
Often the characters on the show would go on a date and have a glass of wine.
Now that I do miss, a lovely glass of bordeaux or chardonnay while you eat.
So that is tempting, but sadly for one such as me, one glass is a slippery slope.

I'd love to be able to say that by quitting drinking my life has turned fantastic, but it's just not the case.
I'm still broke, I'm still depressed, all the things that broke down the other week are still not fixed.
But obviously the, at least, 'broke' part of it is better now that I'm not spending $70 a week on alcohol.
What's more, now that I think about it, when was the last time you ever heard someone say, "Gee, I wish I'd drunk heavily last night."
You never hear that.
So I cling to that, my life may not be what I'd like it to be, but I deffo know that it would be worse if I was still drinking.
What's more, each day that passes and my liver has a chance to regenerate, that horrendous fear of my life ending trapped on a hospital bed diminishes.
So whatever you take from this post, if you have begun to orbit the idea of quitting drinking, or even cutting down, I hope you stick with it.
If you can achieve that first day, you have done 50% of the entire thousand step journey.
So I'll close with this odd pic, which my Possum Creek client, Joanne and I found amusing.
I went up to mow Joanne's lawn, and this day she had to go out.
Normally when she does this she leaves my money in an envelope with "Lock" written on the front.
Normally she leaves this envelope in the laundry at the back of the house.
I normally step in and grab the envelope on my way past.
However this day I looked around but couldn't see the envelope.
After a couple of minutes hard looking, I still couldn't find it, and so I rang Joanne, who was at her office.
When she answered I said, "Hey Joanne, I've, er, had a look around the laundry and couldn't see my money for today, er, did you forget to leave it there?"
To which she replied: "Oh, no, I left it there. It's on the shelf in a little glass."

With the phone to my ear, I realised that the money was indeed there, right in front of my face, as the picture shows.
Once I focussed in I realised, or at least I conjectured why I hadn't seen it, it was in a shot glass, a receptacle exclusively reserved for the drinking of alcohol.
Now that I have been off the juice for 18 months, it seemed that alcohol glasses are now invisible to me, which I think is a good sign.
Joanne and I had a minor laugh and we left it that she would in future leave the money in a tea cup.
I would be sure to see that. 

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