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Hope for the hopeless

Arie P., Amsterdam

My name is Arie and I am an alcoholic. When I arrived in AA I was just about to turn 40. And I couldn’t go on any more. We have an old saying in The Netherlands, “Life starts at 40”. For me that certainly came true, although it did not know that at the time.

I started drinking when I was 13-14. It wasn’t that I one day decided “I’m going to drink for the rest of my life”, not at all. Drinking simply sort of weaseled its way into my existence. Randomly at first, more systematically later.

I know now I grew up in an alcoholic home. My father drank and my mother suffered from depression. When I was a kid I would find my mother weeping in the kitchen. Being a good boy I tried to comfort her, and I asked her what was wrong. “It’s your dad” she’d say. "He’s always drinking and away."

Of course I didn’t understand what was so bad about drinking, and my experience with him then was quite positive. He was a big, handsome, always cheerful kind of a man who took me to baseball games where he was a referee. Quite unusual in The Netherlands. But his alcoholic nature may have had something to do with that. Like all of us he liked to do things differently.

I would sit on the passenger’s seat of his bicycle and he would buy me a soft drink. That made me as proud and as happy as any 8-year old can be. If there was one thing I knew for sure in those days it was that I wanted to become like my father.

Another thing I was equally convinced of: I was never ever going to drink. So there you go: “Life is what’s happening while you are making other plans.”

Since I came to AA I’ve thought a lot about my alcoholism and how it fits into my life. When I was a little boy my father would let me sip the foam of his beer. I did not like that taste, too bitter, but it made me proud that I was allowed to have it. With Christmas we children would get some wine. As far as I knew alcohol didn’t mean anything special to me.

But later on in sobriety I realized that, long before I started drinking, I had these weird encounters with it that can’t be explained by non-alcoholic standards. As if my system had always been drawn to alcohol without my conscious knowledge or decision. Just like a newborn turtle heads for the water once it gets out of its egg.

At 12-13, my mother threw my father and me out of the house. She couldn’t stand his drinking any more and I can’t blame her for that, and she resented me for my loyalty to him.

For a while I lived with my aunt and uncle. In the evening they would have a glass of wine or beer. I was allowed to join them. That was nice, I was getting to be a man. Little did I know that there’s more to being a man than having a beer before dinner.

In spite of the fact that drinking seemed to have no special attraction to me, it did not take long before I was stealing booze from their liquor cabinet. One morning I was at school and I got this overwhelming desire to drink Brandy. Of course, being 13-14 years old there was no way that I could go buy a bottle. But that urge didn’t go away. During the following week it became an obsession. Then I found the one bar where I, at my age, could buy that bottle.

By the time I was 16-17, fresh out of juvenile detention, I was drinking and drugging seriously. Getting drunk, having black-outs, passing out. Not all the time, not every day, but unstoppably. I never knew what hit me.

The next almost 25 years were pretty much more of the same. I started traveling, returned home, sick and disillusioned. At 20 I started living with an older woman with 3 kids. We had two more children. She left me. I had a few other women, not only after the split-up. I lived alone. Had a few jobs. And lost them. Got unemployed. Traveled some more.

I did lots of different things. The only consistent factor in my life was drinking and getting drunk. And my getting into more and more out-of-control situations.

For a long time I thought the problem was my troubled youth. Then I thought it was my job. Or my being unemployed. But eventually I came to a point where I realized that my drinking had at least something to do with it.

I could no longer deny that I drank too much and that it had become a problem. When I thought about it some more, and I really tried to be honest about it, I came to understand the problem: while drinking, at some point I would get drunk. That seems like a no-brainer but it took me a while to get there.

When I thought about that some more I also figured out the solution: I had to arrest the moment, or rather that one drink, that would get me drunk. When I saw that one coming I should stop drinking. A win-win situation.

Because more and more things had started to happen. Like that evening when I was in a bar with friends after a successful get-together (trying to make a difference by fighting the housing corporation). We were having a good time and I was in an exceptionally good mood.

The next morning my then-wife told me that suddenly I had started screaming and throwing ashtrays and bottles at people. She had to get control of me with some friends and that was not easy.

To make long story short, I tried harder and harder to control my drinking or stop altogether. But instead my drinking got worse.

Eventually I started looking for help. That meant a spectacular mind-change. I had always felt different from alcoholics as I pictured them; I now started to realize I was one.

But I was not one of those failing alcoholics. I deserved better. Little did I then understand the true nature of my disease: I am powerless over alcohol. What I think or want has nothing to do with it.

I was convinced that some day, somehow, I would find a way to control and enjoy my drinking. I was equally convinced that at the end of the line there would be justice. Like in all the stories I had read and all the movies I had seen. I was convinced that I was entitled to happiness and a successful life. I knew I wasn’t a bad person.

Nevertheless I frequently found myself in situations that until this day I do not like to remember. When I was 32 I had been twice to detox (“No, I am not like those people!!!”), once to a psychiatric hospital (not because I was crazy, I just tried to kill myself and steal a saxophone from a shop at the same time. A win-win situation), twice in rehab for the short treatment (3 months), once to a Synanon-based therapeutic community for the long treatment (2 years, graduated, got my picture in the hall-of-fame, got drunk 2 weeks after graduation). And countless times in and out of daycare for a quick fix.

When I finished the detox for the second time the doctor told me: “We would really like to help you more. But we have run out of options. You’ve completed all of our programs and there is no more we can do for you. Every once in a while you may detox here for a week or so to get back on your feet again. But that is all we can do. We have limited space and must reserve that for alcoholics who still have a chance.”

So I went to the next level: unemployed and unemployable, little money, just drinking, hardly eating, in a black-out for a week, sobering up, sweating it out. Getting back into bed with a bottle again.

I decided that to get out of all this I had to try helping people. I enlisted in the Amsterdam Social Academy to become a Social Worker. I felt at home there and sort of pitched my misfortune as a success-story (the guy who went where no one else dared to go). Everyone wanted to help me. Everybody loved me. And I loved them back.

Until I got very, very drunk one day. Went into a black-out in class and threatened my classmates with a knife in order to defend my bottle of vodka. After I had passed out they carried me into the hedges off the schoolyard, and the next day they gave me an ultimatum: never be drunk in class again or school was out for me.

That got my attention for a while. Two weeks later I went for a soft drink with the others after school. They would drink and get in the mood and I would just sit there, all alone, thirsting and killing time. After an hour or so I got on my bicycle and went home.

On the way over I got this craving. I really wanted a beer. Getting near the night shop in my neighborhood the craving got stronger. But I was motivated to not drink because I was painfully aware what was at stake. I did not want to drink and was very serious about that.

But my body had other plans. Near the shop it got off my bike and went in. I desperately thought of my disaster at school. But as I walked into the store that memory faded. And when it was my turn I could no longer remember the reason that I should not drink.

So I drank again even though the taste did not mean much to me any more. And I sobered up. Sort of. I drank again, dropped out of school, and drank again.

That is when my basic functions started failing me. Both bodily and mentally. First bodily. I would be in a shop or at home and I would feel the urgent need to visit the bathroom. For small messages. And for big messages. But I wouldn’t make it. That happened more than once or twice. And it was very, very embarrassing.

One morning I was standing in the tram, it was rush-hour. God knows where I was going. No, I do remember now, I couldn’t stand being at home any more after a rough night of withdrawal. So I had to go somewhere. No matter where, just somewhere else.

There my body failed me again. The tram was full of people. Decent people. Going to work to do their fair share. I’ll never forget the look in the eyes of the young woman next to me when she turned around toward me. Shock, disbelief and disgust written all over her face when she realized what it was she smelled. My God, what are we alcoholics doing to ourselves?

Then came the day that exceeded all days. That was when I hit my bottom. Or rather, fell right through it. Because in my experience the truth about our type of bottom is that there is no bottom. It may take a while but once you get there you just keep falling.

It had been another rough night. At midnight I had run out of liquor. Not that it made much difference but the sipping from the bottle was vaguely reassuring. Then that one was empty too. First I started looking everywhere. Against all hope. My house was a mess but not so messy as to overlook full bottles. So I didn’t find any. My three cats were following me with their eyes.

I gave up and tried to sleep. Didn’t work. All those fears and memories kept running around in my head. Got up again. Tried to sleep again. At some point I decided to just stay up. What was it I had to do . . . ??? Oh yes, the liquor store in the morning. But what if I wouldn’t be able to place my order. Or not have enough money.

So I started practicing. Counting my quarters, nickels and dimes. Meanwhile saying: “Can I have a bottle of jenever, please?” In Dutch of course. It sounded weird, so early in the morning.

At some point it was time, so I gathered all my courage, got on my coat and cap, and left. It must have been late spring, early summer for the sun was already warm. I hadn’t realized that since I had been cold all night. I was wearing an old winter coat. And I looked like . . . well, we don’t want to go there.

Around that time the mothers and an occasional father would be taking their children to school. The children all happy and excited to see their little friends again. The mothers radiating with love. The fathers quietly proud. All of them absorbed in their everyday caring. And all of them oblivious of my presence. Except for the fact that none of them walked my side of the street.

A brand-new day. A day full of promise.

In those days I was living in the street where I myself grew up as a child. Around the corner was the playground where I used to go from when I was 5-6 years old. Down the road was a high school. There, a few years later, I had fallen in love for the first time. Hanging by my legs off the roof of the one-story building. Making faces to the girls inside. Imitating a chimpanzee was as close to being a man I could get in those days.

Halfway the liquor store, playground and high school at my left, the children and their parents at my right, I suddenly could walk no further. My body had to do its business and I knew that moving on would mean disaster. So I stood there, completely frozen, stiff as a broomstick. And I controlled. And I controlled. And then I failed.

And as I stood there, controlling and failing, warm thin liquid running down my legs, my childhood dreams flashed through my mind. How I had dreamt of becoming a hero. Someone to be respected and admired by all. I realized that I was finished and that my time was up. And all I could think of that moment was “Please God, give me a break.”

I kept standing there for a while, ashamed, not knowing what to do. And then I moved on. I still must get my bottle. I simply have to move on. I went on in a blur, got my bottle and went back home. That’s where the lights went out.

One of the few things I do vaguely remember after that day is one other night, where I kept staring at my digital clock wondering why I kept watching that. It was supposed to mean something, but what was it? I couldn’t remember. My mind was leaving as well.

One evening I had an epiphany: all my life I had been an empty bottle, full of hollow talk. None of my stories were true. They were all make-believe. My life was gone and I had nothing to show for. Absolutely nothing.

That evening I called AA. Heaven knows how I got the number. The man at the other end was very friendly. He invited me to come over the next day. That was very nice. He also suggested I’d throw away my last bottle. That I found a bit silly. But that night I slept like a baby.

The next day I had a friendly neighbor girl get a cab and take me there. As a kid I had hitchhiked my way all over Europe, into Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. On my own. But now, 39 years old, a man at last, public transport in Amsterdam had become too complicated. And I had lived here for all my life.

The following evening, Friday, August 4th 1989 I went to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Friday Night Mustard Seed Group, English spoken.

Of course I felt terrible. But my new friends were very gentle to me. And although my mind wasn’t what it used to be, one thing I was sure of: these people knew what they were talking about. And what they were talking about was me.

I am a full-blown, one hundred percent genuine alcoholic of the hopeless variety. But the night I called AA that irresistible need to drink was miraculously taken away. It has not returned ever since. I was also addicted to hash and some kind of hallucinatory gas. That need vanished that night too.

It did take another 53 days, 14 of which in our detox, a one-day relapse, as well as some epileptic seizures, to withdraw from valium. My valium-relapse I kept a secret for my new AA-friends for 3 months. That was a dangerous mistake, but I couldn’t help myself. I was obsessed with losing face, although I had not much face left to lose. But I could not risk losing AA. It was all I had, hope or no hope.

What I did not know was that in AA we do not love one another in spite of what’s wrong with us, we love each other because of what’s wrong with us.

By the grace of God, as I understand Him, through the Fellowship and the Program of Alcoholics Anonymous I have not needed, nor have I wanted to pick up a drink since that evening I called AA. And for that I am grateful beyond words.

One last thing: let no one say that there is no hope for the hopeless. Because there is, be that a day at a time. As long as Alcoholics Anonymous exists we alcoholics do not have to be alone any more. All of us without exception, we are just one phone call apart.

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