As the saying goes, once you hit rock-bottom, there’s no place to go but up. My experience with overcoming alcoholism is a testament to the adage. Having dug my way out, my goal now is to keep others from hitting their rock-bottom. I’ve mapped a pathway of transformation for others at a crossroads wanting to turn their lives around.
At age 37, I was living as a hard-rock miner in Northern Ontario and was deep into my addiction to alcohol. Working underground had become a metaphor for where my life was heading. Having grown up with fear, insecurity and not believing in myself set the stage for my serious drinking problem. Booze became the love of my life. It helped fortify the artificial bravado I displayed at work. And, in my dependent state, it filled a hole in my soul that allowed me to live with myself.
Then came my personal cave-in, which, in retrospect, saved my life. My body rebelled. The day came when, with every sip of booze I took, I threw up. My body was telling me what my mind wouldn’t accept: Continuing down this reckless path would soon lead to my death. Left with two equally unthinkable choices — seeking help or suicide — I chose to seek help and reached out to the Employee Assistance Program through my union, the United Steelworkers.
The day is imprinted in my mind like the day President Kennedy was shot is etched in my generation’s consciousness. The staff at the Employee Assistance Program had me take a survey from Johns Hopkins University that assesses a person’s drinking pattern. I answered “yes” to 17 of the 20 questions. (Only three “yes” answers indicated a strong drinking problem.)
They put me in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous, a program I’d always belittled. In all my years, I’d never opened my mind to any message of help. But people stood up at the meeting and said how long they’d been sober, and I thought, “Wow. This program does work. Maybe, just maybe, this program will work for me.”
I wanted sobriety, even though I didn’t have a clue what sobriety meant. I just knew it could mean not waking up each day with guilt and remorse.
As the quote wisely states, “The anticipation of change is worse than undergoing the actual event,” but that doesn’t mean change was easy. Becoming sober is harrowing work. It’s essentially like walking along a precipice, requiring all one’s concentration to place
one foot in front of the other.
The AA program has an outstanding success rate through its 12- step program. It helped cure me. But apart from AA’s 12 steps, I found these nine tips essential to taking back my personal power:
1. Don’t wait to get better before seeking help. Anyone who shows up to an AA meeting for the first time comes there emotionally beaten, empty, and with no shred of self-respect. This is their life-or-death moment of truth. But, remarkably, the old paradox rings true that becoming strong first starts by admitting one’s weakness. All it takes is the courage to ask for help.
2. Take to heart the message of longevity. Hitting rock bottom means there’s no hope in sight. Yet, hearing how others have found a way to maintain sobriety over days and months and years is living proof that it really is possible. Find hope through the success of others.
3. Accept help when it’s offered. When someone sincerely makes an effort to bring about
change and truly tries to improve the condition of his or her life, other people notice and want to help. Once I was sober, a proprietor from my old drinking establishment would buy me lunch when I went in for coffee, and a woman from my finance company gave me an early return on my income tax to help me stay afloat. These are just two of many examples.
4. Hitch your wagon to a successful mentor. Gravitate to people who are successful at what they do and who have more than empathy to offer. This pertains to mentors within or outside of addiction. Les Brown, a motivational speaker and one of my professional mentors, says: “If you’re the smartest person in the group, get a new group.”
5. Find inspiration wherever you can. To keep a razor-sharp focus on the path to sobriety, draw inspiration from whatever sources come along, using it like a mantra. One source for me was an epilogue to Og Mandino’s book, Mission Success, titled “The Seeds of Success.” I studied them every morning for five years, engraining the messages in my mind, such as “I will face the world with goals set for this day.” Another was a cassette recording of Les Brown’s motivational speech, “It Is Not Over Until You Win.” It literally gave me goosebumps.
6. Learn the value of being “other-centered.” Addicts approach the world with self-centered absorption. They cast blame on everyone but themselves. But as the fog lifts, so does the ability to see the ramifications of their actions. The big picture comes into view, along with greater clarity into others’ needs and feelings. Becoming other-centered means becoming aware of the greater humanity and finding ways to contribute.
7. Know that change takes time. Sobriety is an ongoing process, not an instantaneous event. Today’s society is caught up in instant gratification, but it’s a fallacy to think you can fast-track recovery from addiction. It takes time to build trust and to gain self-esteem After more than 20 years, I’m still mining the vein of self-discovery and am convinced it’s a bottomless source.
8. Proclaim your uniqueness. Each of us is a unique individual with our own thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Not only do we have to recognize our uniqueness, we have to proclaim it. When we can express who we are, what we can bring to the table, and why anyone should care, people will more easily accept and be open with us.
9. Vow to live responsibly. Make a habit of taking a fearless moral inventory at the end of each day. Look over the last 24 hours and ask yourself: Did I hurt anyone? Did I offend anyone? Do I need to apologize or make amends? If so, make a conscious decision to do so at the earliest opportunity. Then ask: Have I helped someone today? Have I listened to someone who needed to talk? Have I given someone an insight? Have I reached out to family (or to myself)?
Even in my beaten-down state with my life nearly buried under, I was able to make my way back from the living dead. The riches I discovered by digging deep within myself have been immeasurable. I’m convinced others can also find a way to make the journey back to the light.
Allan McDougall is a member of Les Brown’s elite Platinum Speaking Network, and
international coordinator of the United Steel Worker’s emergency response team. His new
book, Breaking Through: Discovering the Riches Within (AM Publishing), is an inspiring
memoir that sheds light on the tortured path of the alcoholic and offers a moving example of how one can leave addiction and pain behind for a life of sobriety and vision. Learn more at www.ampublicspeaking.com.