How much abuse can your body take? One man’s journey to the depths of alcoholic addiction, and what it took for him to overcome it. Addiction and Alcoholism reduced him to a babbling wreck. A story of Alcoholism and it’s effects on one man.
Friday, 17 march 2000. D-day and the sun was shining in Margate. My bedside clock said 5.15am and I was fully awake.
The night had passed like so many others in the last few months. Hours had gone by with me tossing and turning, waiting for dawn. I must’ve fallen into a deep sleep at some stage though, and was awoken with the sounds of the neighbourhood coming to life. To say that I felt shit would be an understatement. My head, stomach and body in general seemed to be on their own mission, outside of my control. Experience had taught me to let the new day slowly sink in as I was in no state to do anything else.
Margate was in the middle of a hot and balmy summer and my body was covered in sweat. Nausea overwhelmed me and my vision blurred. Like everyone I had suffered illness in my lifetime, but this took the cake. How could one man feel so bad and yet still be alive? All I knew was that I had another day to get through as best as I could.
Closing my eyes it took a lot of mental strength to bring myself to face up to the reality of the position I had ended up in on this day. Today was the BIG day: a day which, according to everybody in my life, was going to end all this hassle. The only thing was, I wasn’t so convinced. Margate Private Hospital awaited me at 5pm and 12 hours was a long time for somebody like me.
Luckily relief was only an arm’s length away in the form of beer. An alkie always makes a plan. Rows and rows of empty beer bottles filled the space between my bed and the window, the evidence of weeks of drinking. There must have been 200 to 300 empty dops neatly lined up. Retreating to my bedroom was one of my actions to try and cover up the problem.
More importantly though, I always had access to the stuff at any time, day or night. Next to the bed were a few unopened ones which would see me through until I had to make my way to the office attached to my house. I reached over and grabbed a bottle and in a swift, practiced motion twisted off the top. Sitting up in the bed I put the beer to my lips and started to drink. It tasted like mother’s milk and two long gulps made short work of it. The effect was immediate. It had only been a couple of hours since my last drink, but even that short period of time had devastated my body. The very act of using alcohol seemed to relax both my body and troubled spirit. This was my own miracle cure. Not a popular choice, but bloody effective in my opinion.
Putting the empty bottle back on the floor I returned to my resting position on the bed. The booze surged through my entire body I closed my eyes and savoured the moment. The power of this damn stuff never failed to amaze me. A few minutes were all I needed to start to feel almost human again. The nausea and terrible weakness that had gripped me from the instant I awoke lessened and my mind responded with silent and grateful thanks. Breakfast for Alan with a capital B!
My room alone was enough to drive anybody to drink. I called it the Hole in Hell. The stench of human filth and stale beer was overwhelming. Who could blame Mary, my wife, for moving out. I spent my time alone on a double bed, King of a castle that nobody in their right mind would be caught in, made tolerable for me by a habit that had driven me here to start with. Was I bitter, angry, resentful? Not anymore. Those were questions for which I had no answers. Could I blame somebody or something for this? Probably. My mother, my wife, my boss, my neighbour. What the heck how about the guy in the bottle store? Now there was a good target. A few more drinks and maybe I’d storm in and punch his lights out. That made me smile.
Anyway, enough pondering and time for another beer. If I was going to make it to the hospital I had to get seriously tanked up. The second beer went down like the first, quickly and gratefully received. A few weeks earlier I would have got up after a couple of dops and gone through to the office. At least then I had access to cold beers from the fridge. Even an alcoholic is fussy and I drank warm ones only as a matter of convenience or desperation.
Unfortunately I now had to pace myself during the day as I was feeling extremely weak all the time. My business only opened at 8am and I had only 20 metres to stumble to work. I tried to stay out of the way in the bedroom until I ran out of liquor and was forced to replenish my supplies from the fridge.
For some reason the third beer of the day had lately taken on its own life and had become my ‘Head in the Toilet Bowl’ beer. My body had reached the end of its tolerance to the huge amount of booze that I was pouring into it. The third beer would force me to the toilet where I’d throw up everything I’d consumed. This normally left me lifeless on the floor, wondering what had hit
me. Sometimes Mary would hear the noise and come to help me she invariably found a broken man lying on the floor.
The Doc had spelled it out: “You’re killing yourself Alan. Read my lips: your liver has had enough.” Lying on the bed waiting for the third beer to not let me down, it occurred to me that a lot of well-meaning people had expressed their views about me and I had ignored all of them. Mary, my parents, brother, sister, friends, business colleagues, doctors, psychologists. Even strangers had had their say.
The anger welled up inside. This was one part of Alan Butterworth gone horribly wrong. I never asked to be awake at six on a lovely Margate morning, waiting to be sick and craving something other people took for granted. It happened. Addiction and Alcoholism had done me in. The Anxiety of not gettong my daily fix was killing me. I was a case of Alcoholic Hell that you can end up in. I was not looking to blame, only to survive. I wanted to scream out loud that I was not that bad. I wanted to tell the world to forgive me, not condemn me all the time. For God’s sake, I could be you. Or worse, you could be me. If this was the life of Alcoholism then I wanted out.
My pity-party was interrupted by a sudden need to rush to the toilet. I made it in time for once and vomited into the bowl. It was definitely getting worse and once again I ended up sitting on the bathroom floor wiping my face. Many times I didn’t make it and had to throw up wherever I was standing. I struggled back to the bed and waited for the attack to pass.
I was in no doubt that the average alkie spent a lot more time dwelling on the problem than was apparent to an outsider. We’ve all passed the guy in the street motherless on booze, or we know some guy in the office who seems drunk all the time. Let me tell you a secret: those very same people probably spend a whole lot of their day scheming and dreaming a way out of their living hell. But as much as I would have liked to lie on my bed and scheme the day away, my personal demon was not going to allow that. It was time to get up. Getting dressed was no problem simply because I had not changed my clothes for six weeks, and slept in them as well. My shoes were old slip-ons which presented no hassles. The trick was to get up and get moving. Twenty metres to the office with a quick stop-over at the fridge for a cold beer, then into my seat in the office. Once there the world was my oyster.
My days of secret drinking had ended months earlier so I wasn’t worried about Mary surprising me. I drank as necessary now and piled the empties on my desk. Only later would the thought occur to me about the damage I was doing the business. No doubt countless people had wandered in and been horrified at the sight of pile of empty bottles and the wreck slumped in his chair. Not that the wreck gave a damn. There were more important things to attend to, like keeping the demon happy and the beers flowing.
The fourth beer broke my chain of thought and I polished it off in one long gulp. What a great invention the fridge was. I was safe and satisfied as the liquid surged through me and calmed my mind and body. Mother’s milk with a 5.5 percent alcohol content. My very own prescription, repeated whenever I felt the need. I even had my own barometer of how I felt. When I woke up this morning I would be at about two out of 10. Now I think I had hit about five. The best deal was sleep. It gave me a six or seven. The average? Probably about four.
This part of the day was my best time, alone in the office for at least an hour. In my bedroom I was always asleep or feeling bad. Here, after a few drinks I could sit back and relax with no pressure. No contact with people meant no hassles. No questions and no answers to be given. Only me, my thoughts and my beers.
All that would change at 8am as the day kicked into life. On a busy day a number of people could pass through the doors. For weeks I had been unable to cope with demands and requests that had not been a problem before. Paranoia had crept into my psyche and I could feel people looking through me. To those who had known me for some time I must have been a real shock. The downfall of a respectable and well-known local businessman before their very eyes.
Mary and I had met in 1992 and developed a good relationship. We appeared busy every day but I had zero interest in it. I found more solace from the beer in my hand and those moments when I was alone with my thoughts. Those times gave me my lift in life.
The background noises in the house seemed to intensify and as usual I was beginning to feel that the walls were closing in on me. There was half a beer left and I lit another smoke. I was more or less sure that I had talked to Mary about going out to get some clothes for the hospital for my grand entrance. I had worn out all my clothes. I had also developed severe fears about washing them, as well as myself, and the drinking problem had not made that any easier to treat.
I looked like death yet still, something deep inside wanted me to be well thought of. I stood up very slowly. “I’m off to the shops. I’ll see you later.” Much to my relief there was no answer and I took that as approval. Maybe it was the silent prayer from everybody in the room that this would be my last excursion. Or maybe a terrible weariness that prevented any meaningful reply. Whatever, I took this as my cue and headed for the garage and the car.
They had tried absolutely everything to encourage me not to drive but I had held out to the end on this issue. The car was my passport to a relative freedom. It enabled me to go out and buy my beers and then pick my spot to drink them. Drunk or not, I realised the potential terrible consequences of my drinking and driving. I knew only too well what risks I was taking. To this day I carried the scars and old wounds resulting from the battle between drinking and motor vehicles. As a young man I had been lucky and yet I still pushed my luck. To me it was a calculated risk. I had long ago reasoned that if it was a choice between risking my life and that of others, and not being able to get my ‘fix’, then there was no choice. Very selfish, uncaring logic, but for me, as I was now, a total necessity. I believed that I could drive reasonably well, even under the influence.
Priority number one was to get to a bottle store and buy some pots. Even after a few minutes without a drink I could feel the nerves calling out for some liquid. Bastards, they never left me alone. There was a time when I could go for hours without a drink but that was history.
I had three bottle stores that I frequented and I was heading for one of these. We live in a quiet suburb of Margate and I had a five-minute drive before running into any traffic. I knew the area
like the back of my hand and as a result I could stay off the main roads as much as possible and avoid the local traffic cops.
I found the trick was to drive slowly. Luck had really been on my side, especially in the last couple of years. I had never been stopped in a roadblock, let alone tested.
One advantage of Manaba Beach shopping centre was the fact that there were no car guards to deal with. Nothing personal, but I didn’t need to be looking for change on my return. That would only add to the list of things to do and right now I was beginning to feel bad.
As I parked, one of my attacks started. The sweat poured off me while terrible cramps hit my stomach. I rested my head on the steering wheel and waited for it to pass. Sometimes they came and went in a couple of minutes. This time I realised that I was in trouble. I urgently needed a dop and felt unable to walk. The bottle store was only 50 metres away, but it might as well have been on the moon. I flung the door open and vomited all over the tarmac. Luckily I was facing away from the shop entrances and this event went unnoticed.
After retching for a minute I slumped in the car seat. Tears filled my eyes and the urge to cry out overwhelmed me. My Addiction and Alcoholism was like a living nightmare. The Anxiety of my every waking moment was too much too stand any more. I was turning into a prime case of Alcoholic suicide. My hands were gripping the steering wheel and I turned my head slightly to take in a breath of fresh air. Looking out I watched normal life going on, people oblivious to my drama. Taking a deep breath I managed to get out of the car and take a good look at the scene in front of me. There were no cars parked between me and the bottle store so I had a clear path. I checked my pockets for money and found a R50 note which would get me 24 beers, more than enough to last until this evening. I walked very slowly and stared straight ahead but after a few steps I had to stop and drop to my knees, resting my hands on the ground. Then I lay down. Turning on my back I looked up at the clear sky. Not a bad view. My mind was spinning but I had not lost my urgency to get to the bottle store. One beer and I would be okay. I summoned what was left of my strength and got to my feet. If I was a typical example of Alcoholism, then fuck it.
The manageress and a guy behind a till were the only people in the shop and I made my way to the walk-in beer fridge at the back. Over the months they had got to know me well and no doubt had their own thoughts about me. But I was probably one of their best customers so they always treated me politely. They could not have failed to notice the huge amounts of booze that I was buying.
As I made my way to the beer fridge the shop assistant appeared out of nowhere and greeted me. “Sawubona,” he said. He seemed to stare right into my very soul. I wondered what was he thinking. He sometimes helped me to the car and today would be no different. No doubt I was a shock to him as well. Maybe I was too paranoid. Sure I was gaunt, filthy and sickly-looking but then maybe there were plenty of people like me coming in and out of the bottle store every day. Maybe all that intrigued them was where the money was coming from. That must be a mystery as I looked like a typical down and out. Bugger it. Let them ponder.
The cold beer fridge revived me a little and I always stayed a couple of minutes longer than necessary. I found my beer and asked the assistant to help me carry the case to the till. There I fumbled for the money and handed it over to the guy. He remained silent and passed me the change which I gave to the assistant. He mumbled a quiet “Siyabonga,” and carried the case to the car.
The prospect of a cold beer had greatly lifted my spirits and the walk back to the car was no problem. Once there I ripped open a plastic cover from the beers and twisted off the top and drained it in one easy action. It felt good. I grabbed another and flopped into the driver’s seat. The trip towards Margate was uneventful, but I was gasping for a beer by the time I pulled into my driveway.
Running our business from home meant that there was always somebody in the office and this time was no exception. The trick now was to get my beers into the fridge without attracting too much attention, but the internal garage door led off the office. So I just went for it. Even now I still resented people questioning my actions. I felt no need to take other people’s feelings into account. I was totally self-absorbed in my own misery and my own personal struggle just to get through the days and nights.
I felt that I had no choice any more. The liquor consumed all my mental and physical energy. The people who came and went in my life saw me as a babbling wreck. I comforted myself with the thought that they should see me when I was deprived of my beers.
I stopped at the fridge long enough to sink a cold one and then walked into the office. My entrance went unnoticed and only Mary looked up and asked how I was feeling. Plonking myself down, I couldn’t fail to notice that it had turned into a lovely day.
I was oblivious to the chatter going on around me. By now it was common knowledge that I was ‘not well’ and most people who had regular dealings with me were polite and concerned in my company. They had seen me turn from a well-known and respected businessman into what I was now. My self-esteem and confidence was at its lowest ever.
I had not bathed or showered for God knows how long and a shower was something I had been planning for a couple of days. At least today I would almost smell like a normal human being. Peeling off the filthy rags that I had been wearing for the last few weeks, I cautiously stepped under the stream of water. I had placed a beer just outside the shower and for the time being was content to just stand there and sip it. But that apparently innocent action brought an immediate reaction from my beleaguered body and I vomited all over the shower floor. Even so, I began to laugh. It was a sight to behold, me, sitting on the shower floor, beer in hand, laughing like a crazy man as my vomit washed away. The laughter soon turned to tears and the joke was on me. What had turned me into this pitiful wreck? Why couldn’t I empty the beer down the drain and start over? At that moment I knew deep down I needed help.
I am not an openly religious man, but I believe in a God of love and mercy. I was broken and scared. Scared of what lay ahead and whether I’d have the strength to do the right thing.
The laughter turned to terrible sobbing.
For days I had promised myself that I would continue drinking until the very last possible moment. I felt that the only way I would walk into that hospital was if I was completely out of it.
The very thought that my last beer was now becoming a reality was not one that had any great appeal to me. It seemed impossible that after all this time I would pass even 10 minutes without something that had become so much part of my life.
Once back at my desk, my eyes never left the clock. I had half a beer left on my desk and I found myself staring at it. After all the tears, screaming and drama, I needed all the inner strength and resolve that I could possibly muster. Grabbing the bottle, I pressed it slowly to my lips and let the last liquid slide down my throat, and for the next few seconds mumbled a silent prayer to whoever was out there and listening. Mary and my parents were standing now, aware of the turmoil that I was going through. They knew that they had to be strong for me. As drunk and confused as I was I could not resist picking up the empty beer bottle, giving it a kiss and shouting at the top of my voice, “Go to hell!”
A final goodbye, done in my own twisted way.
Two young nurses were waiting for me in the ward and I climbed into bed. It felt clean and fresh, a stark contrast to the way I had been living for the last few months. They immediately tried to insert a drip into my right arm but couldn’t find a good vein. Most of my veins had started to collapse. Turning to my left arm, they pushed the drip in and out of me until they found a vein. Mary and my stepfather, Rudi, were at the bedside, reassuring me. I was close to tears and asked one of the nurses to let me go home. Of course she was wiser than that and cracked a joke instead.
The doctor had explained that I would more or less be asleep for a week while the withdrawal symptoms passed without causing me any pain or grief. Now that I was here, I needed to say something to my loved ones while I was still capable of speaking. My time had arrived and I was no longer frightened. “How long have I got? I want to say something.” The nurse smiled. “About three minutes, Mr Butterworth.” The tears streamed down my face and I remember Mary taking a step forward towards me. “Please forgive me. I couldn’t help it.” She was talking to me, but I could no longer hear the words. It was time to sleep.
The morning after
It is almost two years since my ‘D-Day’ in Margate and I can look back with some objectivity. My hospitalisation was merely the beginning of my fight against alcoholism. I had won a battle but faced a greater threat the day to day mission of staying sober. This is really what this disease is all about. Staying sober required every ounce of my mental and physical strength.
I gradually recovered physically, but the mental fight twice broke my spirit. On the last occasion eight months ago, for reasons I cannot remember, I went out and sank a bottle of the hard stuff and was rushed into hospital for a stomach pump. I awoke the next morning in my own bed with absolutely no memory of the drama that I had caused. Once again my life was in turmoil and this was the closest time I came to losing Mary. I didn’t need any other reason not to drink again.
Like many alcoholics, I became depressed and took to prescription pills to ease the pain. But the terrible cravings for alcohol continued. As I write today the cravings are still there only I can control them.
Why am I an alcoholic? Am I an example of Alcoholism and what can go wrong? Who knows. Addiction of my mind and body had obviously nearly destroyed me. All I know is that the Anxiety of staying sober is one challenge that I will take on with my greatest inner strength. Medical science is divided on the reasons we can end up like I did. It could be genetic or it could be a personality trait. We could be descendents of alcoholic waywards. While there have been great advances in treating alcoholism, the best possible cure is still total abstinence. Easier said than done. To even think about spending the rest of my life without a single drink is almost too awful to contemplate. The only way is to take it day by day. We live in a world of alcohol, from the restaurants we eat in to the ads on TV.
With the help of my loved ones, the caring medical people and the power of prayer I would like to leave you with one thought: turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength. You are not alone.
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