My drinking career started at the age of 14. A child, innocent and naïve. Neither brain nor body fully developed. Legless at 10pm, vomiting at 6am.
Thirty-two years later, I am finally coming to terms with my addiction. I am addicted to alcohol, afflicted with alcohol use disorder (see the DSM-5). Or as Alcoholic Anonymous says, I'm an alcoholic.
I look at my beautiful, intelligent 11-year-old daughter and am filled with dread and horror that she could have the same experience only three short years from now, along with the resulting life-long negative outcomes.
Knowing that I have genetic predisposition to addiction, if there was one important message I could give my children it's Don't drink. Ever.
It was after the death of my father in the same year that I had my first drink, that my career with binge drinking really took off. At 16, I stopped for a while, when after several court appearances for underage drinking, the local magistrate threatened to fine my Mum, instead of me. After the death of my fiancé at 21, I dived back into the black hole of grief, and kick started a 25 year drinking career.
Thanks to a loving and supportive family, I started university at 24. Like many of my uni mates, I was a prodigious binge drinker throughout my 20s, which continued into my successful professional career in my 30s. I never during these times questioned my drinking behavior. Binge drinking, and the resultant hangovers, are a rite of passage in Australia.
Don't talk to a recovering alcohol addict about the scourge of methamphetamine on Australian society. It's got nothing on booze.
While both my pregnancies and breastfeeding years were mostly alcohol free, even then I didn't completely abstain. A wine spritzer here, a glass of champagne there, a few beers after the nightly breastfeed.
I have tried to pinpoint when my drinking got out of control.
Looking back, I now know that the combined stresses of moving our family to a new town, buying and running a small business with my partner, and the six-month process of diagnosing our then two-year-old son with autism was the downhill slide to every day, addictive drinking. These, coupled with social anxiety and introversion, made for a perfect storm. Like so many addicts, I continued to drink myself into oblivion so I didn't have to think or feel -- the stress, worry, anxiety, guilt.
What a terrible mother, you might be saying. Surprisingly, I continued to function. I am actively involved in my children's education, their extra-curricular activities, and the planning and implementation of therapy for my son. I work part-time running our successful small business. I am intelligent and educated; a kind and compassionate person. I love my children more than anything, they are what I live for.
But, there were always cracks in the armour. Nights where I managed to fulfill my role as a parent, but can't remember a damned thing about them. I thank God for my partner, who is an occasional, mostly moderate drinker.
When I finally realised that I was drinking too much at the age of 43, and decided I wanted to stop, or at least to moderate, I found I could not do either. No matter how hard I tried. I didn't realise it then, but I didn't control my addiction. It controlled me. And addiction is not a weakness of character. It is an insidious compulsion developed over time, and reinforced by electrochemical stimulus and hormonal responses.
Take nicotine, another addictive substance. I quit smoking when I was 35. Even though it was incredibly hard at the time. Honestly, compared to drinking, it was easy. Why? Because there was a widespread and visible health campaign warning about the risks of smoking, to myself and others.
Smokers became socially ostracised and marginalised. Not smoking became the new normal. I visited my GP and was given a prescription to help with the nicotine cravings. I rang the Quitline, day after day, whenever I felt the urge to smoke. I socially isolated myself from anyone that smoked for the next four months. And I beat that addiction.
But alcohol is altogether a different beast. I feel the same intensely overwhelming cravings to drink as I did to smoke. Every day I have to fight the physical and psychological compulsion to drink myself into oblivion. But unlike smoking, drinking is an integral part of our social melee.
I don't want to write an essay on the prevailing cultural attitude to alcohol in Australia, except to say I can think of few events that I attend as an adult where alcohol is not readily available, and the consumption of which is often actively encouraged.
But the widespread abuse of alcohol in Australia feels like the elephant in the room. In my experience, no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to hear it. I'm not sure why. My gut feeling is because partly not everyone becomes addicted to alcohol when they drink, so are unable to comprehend the problem. And many people, if they are addicted, do not want to admit it.
I 100 percent accept that I am responsible for my own behaviour, that I have to 'own' my addiction and work on fixing it. And I will continue to pursue and utilise as many resources as I can find. Support from a local GP that specialises in addiction; Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (I finally gathered up the courage to attend); weekly visits to my psychologist. Online social forums like Hello Sunday Morning, where people with alcohol addiction support each other, hopefully into sobriety. Podcasts focusing on addiction and recovery. Anything to regain my life as it was before I became an addict.
But let's face it -- it is going to take a lot of pain (as my psychologist says). The boozy culture in Australia is pervasive and inescapable. Australia is awash in it. Don't talk to a recovering alcohol addict about the scourge of methamphetamine on Australian society. It's got nothing on booze.
Bec Archer is a guest on SBS's Insight program -- available here -- which explores why more women over 40 are drinking.
If you or anyone you know needs help with an alcohol problem, contact:
Counselling Online for 24-hr free drug and alcohol counselling: 1800 888 236
Family Drug Support Online for 24-hr family support to drug and alcohol users: 1300 368 186
Alcoholics Anonymous: 1300 222 222