Giving up alcohol is hard without the help of loved ones, and organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Photograph: Johnny Green/PA
'For 40 years I've planned booze into my diary, making sure it would be there before, after and usually during any significant event. Only very rarely have I excluded it.'Andy Mayer, The Guardian, 20.10.01.
When I wrote that paragraph I hadn't had alcohol for seven months and was mystified I was alive and feeling well. If you appreciate my bewilderment you're probably an alcoholic too. Failed attempts to stop me drinking destructively had led to the addiction unit at the Priory hospital, Roehampton. Pre-Priory I'd gone to any lengths to evade sobriety, convinced it would be as good for me as a month's waterboarding. Alcohol was my Siamese twin and I didn't want the separation job.
And so, with astonished disbelief, I wrote about my experience of alcoholism and how I'd got seven months clear of the compulsion to drink. I didn't think then that I'd make another ten years and I couldn't have guessed what those years might be like. Here's how it has been. If alcohol is causing you difficulties, read on. If you don't want to know more then your problem may be bigger than you think.
In rehab we'd plead: abstinence may be OK if all you're doing is rehabilitating yourself but what happens when you fall out of here and it's a birthday, funeral, wedding, holiday or you have to go out for a meal, have sex, or – most daunting of all – dance in public? Sober.
Alcohol can make all those occasions easier and more fun but its abuse muffles real feelings. After a few drink-free weeks my true perceptions began to sharpen. Laughter, sadness, art, nature moved me more powerfully. I felt high on sensation. Over the years, alcohol had stealthily eased shut the doors of perception; now they were swinging open again.
Most recovering alcoholics I meet find unmuffled life more fun rather than less. More remarkably, this improvement keeps improving. Early in my recovery, a 14-years-clean alcoholic told me: "It keeps on getting better." I've found over the last ten years that he was right.
Nevertheless, it is staying stopped that's the battle. The Priory suggested I should go regularly to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I was terrified that, outside the protective shield of the hospital, I'd slip back into the newsagents for a six-pack of super-cider so I did as I was told. I didn't much like the meetings for the first few months but now really value them and hate missing any. AA can seem slightly weird at first but its quirks are superficial. I find the collective will of the group to keep clean helps to keep me from slipping, and listening to other alcoholics' stories reminds me how simple it would be to lose what I've won. AA's meetings are calm and safe places in an edgy world.
AA doesn't suit everyone and I know some who've stayed clean without it. But, even if you've decided it isn't for you, you will still need help. It's a paradox of addiction that although getting clean is something no one can do for you - you can't do it alone. I've been enormously lucky to have terrific support from my wife, Tess, and friends. Tess goes to Al-Anon – the support group for people whose lives have been affected by alcoholics. The understanding she has gained of the ways alcohol damages the lives of people in contact with addicts has been invaluable to both of us. For anybody close to someone with a drink problem, Al-Anon should be the first stop.
If you don't have support close at hand you won't have to look far to find it. Go public if you possibly can. Alcoholic drinking is a solitary, lonely business but recovery isn't. I found people were understanding and encouraging. They seemed proud of my achievement and made me feel I'd done something impressive and worthwhile.
Even now I dream about drinking; after all drink was so very important to me for so long. But they're not sweet dreams and I wake up really relieved that a dream is all it was. And often, during the dreams where I'm knocking back the booze as if it were yesterday, my dreamself is thinking – this isn't what I do. This isn't me.
Ten years ago I wrote, 'I can't believe I'm writing this but being controlled by alcohol is so awful that even giving up drinking forever feels better.' Still is, still does.