At four o’clock on Monday morning I knew my addiction was going to destroy me. It was going to drag me through the mire first. I was a successful family doctor in an ideal general practice. I was married to a lovely wife with great children. We owned a splendid old house near a pretty market town. It meant nothing because life’s stresses were unbearable and addiction had gotten such a hold of me.
Half an hour earlier I had been dragged out of bed by my wife and confronted. It had been a nightmare week-end. On Saturday afternoon I had been lying stoned under the sheets, blinds down, when she had woken me up, white-faced and furious. I had promised to collect our small son from games ten miles away, and he must now be waiting alone at the freezing sports-ground. Angrily, crazily, I insisted that of course I would go and collect him, just as I said I would. She insisted equally that she would do it now as I was in no fit state; but I won. I seized the keys to her car and drove away, which stopped her arguing. That was why I crashed her car, wrote it off completely. A friendly garage owner drove me home, and now my wife had to be the one to go and collect our son - in my car. I could see that this was a disaster, so unbearable that I had to have more drugs to cope.
This was why my wife found me semiconscious in the bath when she came up later that evening to say that the police were at the door. I panicked at the word police; but it turned out that snow had fallen and the police were worried about a man found lying in the road. They wanted help; could the doctor come? “The doctor” was unable even to get out of the bath, and sent down a message to say that he had flu, and was too unwell to assist. That at least was true. Next day was worse. It was our little girl’s birthday party. It should have been lovely. The tiny tots were there and so were their parents. It was not lovely at all. I could barely look at the parents. The avoiding, anxious expression in their eyes said it all; they knew something was desperately wrong. I felt utterly lonely, resentful and isolated, and I needed more drugs to cope. At three o’clock next morning I needed more still. It was when I came back to bed after using my stash that my wife dragged me downstairs and confronted me. “YOU! ARE! AN ADDICT!” she said, “and unless you stop, you are going to ruin everything for you and all of us. You are going to end up all over the newspapers for killing yourself or someone else.”
Even in my insanity, I thought “She’s right. I have got to stop; I will stop.” And I promised. And that was the last I could remember until a fortnight later when I awoke on a Saturday afternoon, again to find my wife, almost hysterical with rage and anxiety, hammering on my shoulder. The kitchen stove was on fire; I had put on something to cook; it had boiled over, boiled dry, and was now in flames. “How could you do this after you promised? How dare you risk our children’s lives?” she screamed. She was starting to think of leaving, and of taking the children - who can blame her?
I lost all hope. It was rock bottom. I had promised to give up and failed. I had not even made any plans or intentions to get and take more drugs, nor any memory of it. It had just happened. I was in the grip of something that had taken over and stripped me of any control. It was a nightmare world. Waking and sleeping, I was now in a constant state of frantic anguish, terror and pain. The next months became a desperate struggle to stop the drugs, repeated over and over. Each time I made a fresh plan, a genuine decision to stop. Each time I would find that I had relapsed without knowing or intending it. Addiction was a power greater than myself. It was wholly malign.
Three months of utter hell passed before my own doctor, a kind man, could admit me to hospital, but in any case I knew that it was all hopeless. Not only did my wife want to leave; my partners wanted me out. It was rock bottom again, deeper and harder. What was the point of going into hospital? I had been in hospital before. Eighteen months earlier, I had been an in-patient for “stress and inappropriate self-medication.” The cure, the hospital treatment, had been tried and failed, there was nothing left. Whatever new plans the hospital may have contemplated, my idea was to find the river nearby as soon as I had any freedom, and drown myself.
One thing alone saved me. On my way to hospital, my wife described an article she had found in one of my medical journals. It had been written by the wife of another doctor-addict, and it described the bizarre and dreadful existence she had led until her husband started to recover. My wife had cut out the article and read it occasionally to reassure herself that her own nightmare life had parallels, that she was not living in a uniquely freakish world that no-one else had ever known. But the article also described how the author’s husband had got better. At end there was a telephone number, and the author had finished by saying that if any-one reading her article had a doctor-addict husband like hers, he could ring this telephone number to get help. My wife thrust the article into my hand as I was admitted. I had nothing to lose, so some days later, as soon as I was allowed, I rang the number.
That phone call became the slender silver thread that led me from destruction to recovery. It brought me visits from two doctors who described their own experiences of disaster and recovery. They had been addicts but had long ceased all drugs and now did not miss them. They were plainly at the peak of their profession. They were relaxed and genial. They advised that I should start going to meetings of two organisations, the British Doctors and Dentists Group (BDDG) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). They also arranged exeats from the hospital for me to attend the meetings. Hospital could not help me but those meetings started the miracle of recovery; no less a word will do. The people at the meetings were smiling and at ease. They were welcoming. They knew where I had come from without me having to explain. Their minds and mine had the same blue-print. Some of them described disasters worse than mine, but they also described the varied and fulfilling lives that they were leading now. They had been freed from the compulsion to use drugs.
Above all, they described how they had done it. They convinced me that I could do it too, but that I could not do it alone; I needed a different power to set against the malign power of addiction, a power greater than myself that was benign. I still do not know how it all works but I know that it comes from going to meetings. Meetings are an essential part of the magic, the process of recovery. Another essential part was working the twelve steps.
It was and is so simple; it is not always easy. Recovery has called for a lifelong commitment. But it has turned out infinitely worthwhile. Years have passed since those first meetings. I will always be an addict but I have long lost the need for drugs and alcohol - another dangerously addictive drug. This freedom from bondage to addiction is reward enough, but there is more to recovery than that. Stresses have become manageable. Stresses still occur and they always will, particularly for doctors and dentists, but they are tolerable now. Many of them were actually caused by the drugs which I had mistakenly taken to lessen them. I now have a life of much joy. We still have our lovely old house and our practice. My partners are now great friends and we have many others. My wife and family again love me with a special love and I love them with a special love. We are the proof that those who keep coming back stay well, and more than well. It is our common experience that doctors and dentists who maintain their recovery get back to work, and yet it still sometimes a surprise just how varied and rich are the lives they lead. Recovery still unfolds.
As for me, I know beyond all certainty that I never need experience the terrors and horrors of active addiction again, and for that and so much else, I am full of gratitude to Narcotics Anonymous and the British Doctors and Dentists Group.
C2H5OH – Friend or Foe
My relationship with alcohol began in my late teens when I drank a small bottle of Irish stout. Immediately I felt like ‘like other people looked’. The alcohol removed all my feelings of insecurity, fear, anxiety, self doubt and replaced them with a confidence I had not previously felt. Alcohol enabled me to be more outgoing, more sociable and more confident ... to be the person that I thought I should be! Alcohol released me from my internal prison. Alcohol was my friend!
We lived on the other side of town to all my friends at school ... not that there were many! All the kids from my area went to a different school ... I went to the Catholic School whilst they went to the Protestant School. The only other kids who went to my school were some cousins and a couple of other boys who lived nearby. I had a feeling of not belonging and of not fitting in ... I could not stay after school for football practice or get involved in any after school activities as I had to get home. I cannot recall ever inviting any school friends to my home: it would have been too dangerous and unpredictable. Home felt like prison during my childhood.
My father drank a lot! He worked for a railway company and would retire to a local ‘pub’ to have a drink to unwind from the pressures of the day when he finished work. He was responsible for freight traffic from a nearby steel works being sent to stations and depots all over UK and always said it was a stressful job. His first wife had died after 3 years of marriage in which they had 2 children. He had to work and so his children were looked after by his mother and father in very cramped housing conditions whilst he had to live in ‘lodgings’. These were psychologically tough years for him as, in addition to his bereavement, his youngest son spent over 6 months in a Children’s Hospital. He met my mother after a few years and they were eventually married …. so I had 2 half brothers who were 10+ years older than me.
My mother, on the other hand, had a pathological aversion to alcohol. Not surprising, really, as her father was known to have had problems with alcohol which ended in him destroying a successful retail coal business. Her father and mother had also separated because of his drinking and I understand that he had been verbally, physically and psychologically violent to his wife and children. Whilst my mother had had a very successful career in the Glasgow fashion scene, which took her to fashion shows in London in the 1930s, she was a wounded person who had experienced and witnessed the damage that alcohol can cause within a family.
My father would often stay in the pub for more than one drink and would appear home between 8 and 9pm rather inebriated: he did like his drink! Then the shouting and arguing would start between my father and mother, followed by verbal abuse and then, violent physical abuse!
So my childhood and formative years were lived in a state of confusion, bickering and argument that made it unsafe to bring any school friends home, or indeed, to bring any of my local friends home. I vividly remember the Friday night when my mother physically dragged my father out of the pub before he spent all his wages on drink ... there was much screaming and fighting! Little money was left to feed the family for the rest of the week! I remember being terrified and having nightmares for months afterwards. There was no one to talk to about what was happening at home: there was no counselling!
In my early teenage years, I resolved that I would never drink alcohol, as I did not want my life to be like my father’s, and any future wife and children would not be affected as I had been affected. However, that first feeling from alcohol was the catalyst that changed me and my life for the next 20 years. Fortunately I had little money as a student but I still managed to obtain alcohol at the weekends and always drank to excess. I could never have just one drink: there seemed little point in just one drink. One bottle, yes: one drink, no!
Following graduation and marriage, my drinking progressed to daily and eventually reached just over a bottle of spirits per day. My drinking was confined to the evening with Diazepam being used in the morning to combat the hangover and tremors. On reflection, I am sure that I would have not have passed a breathalyser in the morning when I went to work: I would have been over the limit. There was never any comment from my practice partners, staff or patients of my smelling of alcohol. I was ‘fortunate’ in not having any involvement with the GDC or the police (this was many years pre-Shipman) but did have two Service Committee hearings: I thought I could interpret the NHS Dental Regulations better than the Department of Health - such was my professional arrogance! Eventually, my partners dismissed me from the practice.
I became increasingly arrogant, self obsessed and self-centred at home to the point of denying my wife and children money for food, clothing and shelter. I needed money to feed my alcohol use and could not function without it. The truth was that I could not function with it, or without it. I was hooked! I was addicted – I was an alcoholic!
My behaviour became more erratic, making promises to my wife and children that were not fulfilled. I became verbally, physically and psychologically abusive to my wife and children whilst presenting to the world a picture of the perfect family. I became deeply involved in our church and as a Governor at our children’s school. I was like a shiny apple with a rotting centre. My wife sought help to have me sectioned but I denied that there was a problem and asserted that my wife was the one with a problem! I spiralled deeper and deeper downwards! Alcohol became the centre of my life! I lived for that first drink in the evening! Alcohol was now my foe and my prison!
My professional life, my home life, my relationship with my wife and children were all in tatters. Financially, I was broken with the Banks pressing for repayment of the loans and mortgages and the Inland Revenue threatening to send in the bailiffs because of non payment of taxes. I knew that I had to do something ... but what? I attempted suicide in order to end everything but that was unsuccessful! I had spent 15 years building an empire – house, dental practice, cars. Now I had nothing and I had to live with that! My empire was rapidly imploding!
I remembered I had seen a small advert box in the British Dental Journal, inserted by The British Doctors and Dentists Group (BDDG), offering assistance to colleagues suffering with problems with alcohol or drugs. I dialled the number a left a message on an anonymous answering machine. That night I had a call from a member of BDDG. He listened to my story and shared part of his own story with me. He told me how he had a similar story to my own and how he had been helped by BDDG members to understand that he was addicted to alcohol and that addiction which could be treated: it was a disease! He also told me that he was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) .... that terrified me. I agreed to meet him and to go to a BDDG meeting. That meeting changed my life and I have not had any alcohol since that meeting: that was over 25 years ago.
I realised that I was not the only dentist in the UK whose life was shattered by alcohol and that I was addicted to alcohol. I was encouraged to attend AA but was fearful of being seen at AA meetings. Eventually, I was hurting so much that I was glad to attend and immediately found resonance with the stories from other AA members. However, although I had stopped using alcohol, my life did not fundamentally change. I was fearful, indecisive and had no focus on how to put my life in order. I was advised to study the “12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous” and use them to change my life. My brain was so scrambled that I could not really understand them and my behaviour did not change at home or work. Rehabilitation in a treatment centre for alcohol and drug dependency was the only remaining option. I spent eight weeks in primary treatment and three months in aftercare. My wife served me with divorce papers whilst I was in treatment .... that felt like the end! She also began to attend meetings of Al-Anon and of the Families Group of BDDG to assist her in her recovery from the effects and damage of my addiction.
Following discharge, I returned home to find that my children had scattered to friends homes for safety and my wife did not want me in the house. I spent 6 months sleeping on the floor in friends’ homes in different parts of the country. Eventually, I was allowed back into the home and the really hard work of change and making amends began. I recognised that alcohol was but the symptom of a deeper underlying flawed and damaged personality. So whilst I now understood the ’12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous’, I needed to continue therapy with a psychotherapist over some years to enable me to understand my childhood and to find peace within myself. I also attended meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics to appreciate that my parents were also victims of the disease of alcoholism just as much as I was.
I had to learn that being a dentist was but the means of providing for my family: it was not an instrument with which to massage my ego! I had to learn humility! Over the years in recovery, I rebuilt my professional life and was involved in dental research, undergraduate teaching and specialist dental practice.
Today, I have a loving relationship with my wife (we are now 40+ years married) and with all of my children except with my son, whom I have not seen for 5 years. I live in the hope that, one day, I will be able to re-establish that relationship but that will only happen when he is willing to meet me and other members of our family. Although it hurts, I’m sure it does not hurt as much as the hurt I inflicted on my wife and family.
I have now retired from dentistry - my finances are in order and I have no debts! It has been a difficult but wonderful journey of discovery with many insights into what makes me ‘tick’. It is good to be alive, one day at a time! I continue to attend meetings of BDDG and AA where I have many friends all over the country. One of my treasured memories in recovery was visiting 855 Ardmore Avenue, Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous ... that was a truly inspiring experience!
The British Doctors and Dentists Group, Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics saved my life. I am one of the extremely fortunate – I was given the opportunity to recover!
If you think you might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, make that call to BDDG: if you are a spouse or parent of a doctor or dentist with a problem with alcohol or drugs, make that call to BDDG Families Group!
I look forward to welcoming you to our meetings!