36 Years Sober Without AA

By Michael C Burgess 03/24/17

I'm 36 years sober now with no meetings, no chip and no higher power. ACCEPT gave me adventure, all the money I would have spent on alcohol and, of course, the distant memory of my last drink.

Sobering Thoughts
That note of finality, “my last drink,” broke my fucking heart.

I have 36 years sobriety as of sometime this year.

I don’t go to meetings. I don’t have a chip.

In 1980, my primary physician sent me to an experimental rehab located in the otherwise disused Western Hospital in Earl’s Court, London. It was called ACCEPT. I’ve Googled it and, along with its founder Charles Vetter, it seems to have disappeared without a trace.

ACCEPT differed from Alcoholics Anonymous in that there was no mention of a higher power. I could remain unrepentantly atheist. No concept of a divine entity was going to help me with this job of work. And we were not encouraged to call ourselves alcoholics. To do so would be to discount our humanity and to buy into the notion that we had become that powerless thing: the alcoholic. I never stood up and said, “My name is Michael, and I’m an alcoholic.” We never used the word. I was there to overcome a problem I had with alcohol. It was as simple as that.

There was a kitchen with huge kettles permanently topped up and near boiling so we could help ourselves to cups of instant coffee with milk and so many spoonfuls of sugar. We believed the sugar helped stave off the withdrawal symptoms.

The rooms for group therapy were jam-packed with old couches. Every morning began with relaxation therapy and a guided fantasy.

And, in the endless groups, we were discouraged from telling “war stories.” Anybody can wallow in their reminiscence of crawling across Oxford Street in their underwear having blown the rent money on a three-day bender, the Stukas dive bombing overhead. Nobody was going to be impressed by that.

The landmark of significance was the point at which I could honestly face my peers and say, I have had my last drink. Even now, I pause when I type that sentence. Thirty-six years ago, I said good-bye forever to something I craved more dearly than any lover.

That note of finality, “my last drink,” broke my fucking heart.

How could I even contemplate facing the next day, month, year, the rest of my life, without ever tasting alcohol again? It seemed unbearable and inconceivable without daily support from group therapy, art therapy, video therapy, individual counseling, training in Transactional Analysis, all day and every day from late summer, when my lover took me there in a black cab, until sometime after Christmas.

I spent Christmas Day at ACCEPT, wandering the derelict corridors of the Western Hospital, gnawing at a turkey drumstick.

One of the immediate advantages of sobriety was the money that was suddenly available. Booze is expensive in the UK. And then there was all that time. Hours and hours of afternoons and evenings no longer swallowed up by drinking time. There was no point going to my local pub. When I was offered a drink, I was treated to naked hostility when I asked for juice.

And the brilliant panel of former drinking buddies—war veterans, artists, writers, Shakespearean actors—were suddenly terribly dull company when I was no longer sufficiently inebriated to appreciate their wit.

And, of course, without my accustomed skinful of booze, I suffered insomnia. I lay awake all night listening to the radio, until that terrible news flash that John Lennon had been shot in New York City. It was December 8, 1980. I was 24 years old.

My counselor at that time was a nun who wore the full regalia. Surprisingly, she was one of the better therapists in the place. You could tell her anything, and she was never fazed. Never flinched. She’d heard it all. She just held me in her fat arms, and I sobbed for John Lennon. She held me as I wept and she probably got snot all over the acres of crisp white fabric she was wearing. She was so... absorbent.

I found bad company in ACCEPT. There was the confidence man Raymond Klein, whose brother owned a commercial fishing fleet. Raymond crashed on my floor a few times until I discovered he’d opened up a line of credit, in my name, at the liquor store around the corner.

I took a woman home and nearly had a bit of a fling with her until staff intervened and found ways to make sure we never saw each other again. And, of course, there was a pretty young man. He was Canadian, a former street hustler, the son of a high-ranking Canadian soldier. The lad told me his dad was known as "Polaris The Missile Man" because of his reputation as a seducer of female cadets.

Those long, daylight evenings, he and I wandered the cruising spots of London. He showed me Putney Towpath. We’d travel there together and then split up to have sex in all the dark corners behind the bushiest of trees. And then, from time to time, we’d get together, smoke cigarettes in the darkness, standing on the bank of the river Thames under Hammersmith Bridge, by the Harrods furniture repository.

One chilly night, I lent him a short pigskin jacket I’d stolen from Selfridges, and I never saw him again. I learned he’d tried to kill himself. God knows what happened to the jacket. Maybe it was covered in blood. So long, whatever your name was, handsome young Canadian man. I hope you’re still out there, somewhere.

Every Tuesday afternoon was devoted to learning Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis. It was pop psychology—with the distinctly subversive advantage that it taught us how to confront those who discounted us. We were even encouraged to confront the staff.

Friday afternoon was video therapy with the very distinguished Hollywood filmmaker Art Napoleon. He had lost his movie career, his houses, his cars, his relationships to alcohol and here he was holding a cheap microphone taped to a piece of bamboo to pick up our verbal interactions. It was just like any other group therapy session until halfway through, when we’d switch on the television, rewind the VHS tape and watch ourselves talking.

And there was never any suggestion that I should give up pot. In London, weed was never as popular as hash, which seemed to travel well from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Morocco. I enjoyed a joint every once in a while, especially with sex. And I had a lot of sex.

Some were impatient to quit the program and go back to providing for their families. But, how can you do that, if you’re not ready to cope without the booze? Have you had your last drink? How crushing a question is that?

But there came a time when I no longer needed to spend every day at ACCEPT, and I was assigned to a group that met for therapy just one evening a week.

But when the time had come when I no longer even needed to go to the night group, it was as if I was guilty of some unimaginable treachery. Who the fuck did I think I was? Why should I be so suddenly capable of venturing forth on my own, without the group? Such is the nature of groups. Like crabs in a bucket, each member tried to pull me back down, even accusing me of having quietly started drinking again.

But I was determined to make good on my recovery. I sought out Corinne Gledhill, the psychotherapist who had taught us TA every Tuesday afternoon. She agreed on a special low fee for me to see her privately at her home in Chelsea for one hour every two weeks. In our first session, she told me I was going to have a relapse.

No, I was not.

And I have, so far, proved myself correct. Although there has been a terrible morning when I woke from having dreamed I’d started drinking again. And, in those awful moments, before I realized it was a dream, I was engulfed with that horrible sense of anguish. How could I have put myself back into this position? How on earth would I find the will to go through all that misery again?

Art Napoleon used to tell me I’d got the right idea: sort out your addictions while you’re young and then your whole life is going to be nothing but success.

Yeah. Right.

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