5 Late Stages of Alcoholism

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Stage1 – Breaking Down

I often wonder if I ever would have bothered getting sober if the physiological results of my drinking hadn’t become so brutal. In many ways, it was the physical deterioration I experienced that finally drove me to seek help. Otherwise, I might have just kept going until I dropped dead.

As a teenager and young man, hangovers were barely noticeable. They were minor inconveniences, something to chuckle at proudly, like feeling a bit sore after a tough workout at the gym—no big deal, a slight morning headache and maybe a sour stomach. But certainly nothing close to the skull-crushing, stomach-churning onslaught that alcohol inflicted on my body in middle age.

One of the reasons so many people consider sobriety in their 30s and 40s is that the physical demands of drinking are no longer fun and cute. The older we get the more brutal and crippling the hangovers become. We lose the ability to deal with the flood of poison we pour into our bodies. And it’s important to realize that alcohol is simply that; poison. There is no nutritional value to alcohol. It serves no purpose other than to alter the chemical composition of your brain temporarily.

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If you drink long enough and hard enough, your body will begin to rebel against the poison washing through your stomach, liver, and blood. The human body can only take so much abuse before it begins to break down from the onslaught. And if like me, you’re also adding cigarettes and drugs into the mix, it’s only a matter of time before your body collapses from exhaustion.

I first began to notice the extent of my physiological pollution in my late twenties. The hangovers were becoming increasingly intense, like waking up after a night of fistfights, having lost every battle. I felt battered and bruised — my entire body aching and sore. I started developing terrible, unbearable headaches. I would wake up dizzy and confused. Nausea would overwhelm me, not just in the morning but all day. Eventually, I began to experience intense anxiety and paranoia, along with morning tremors. If you’ve never experienced alcohol-induced tremors, I can confirm there’s nothing quite as disturbing and frightening the first few times they occur. Eventually, I began drinking in the late afternoon just to make the anxiety and shaking subside.

By the time I hit rock bottom, my body was rotting from the inside. My internal organs were no longer functioning correctly. I had fatty liver disease and high blood pressure. I was bloated and looked twenty years older than my actual age. I suffered from constant stomach cramps. I experienced night sweats and intense trembling in my internal organs every morning. My hands shook so badly that it was challenging to sip a cup of coffee.

Over the last few years of my drinking, I had taken myself to the hospital on multiple occasions, thinking I was dying or having a heart attack. I struggled with constant paranoia. I was living through a never-ending cycle of drinking that made me feel horrible twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week.

The worst part of the physical deterioration that many of us experience is that the alcohol we rely on no longer seems to work anymore. For me, this was a terrible and frightening revelation when drinking no longer made me feel better. Drinking started to make me feel worse, both physically and mentally. I would drink more and more, hoping and waiting for the misery to lift, but instead, it just made me feel horrible and sick.

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I’ve spoken to numerous alcoholics over the years that experienced the same phenomenon. The booze simply stops working at some point. Talk about bitter irony! Eventually, the alcohol no longer provides relief and comfort as it did for so many years. Now it just adds to our misery and discomfort. But we keep drinking anyway because we don’t know what else to do. We become so enmeshed in relying on this one thing, alcohol, that no other alternative seems possible or achievable.

My body became polluted to the point where I no longer thought I would last much longer. Since those days, I have seen many people, including friends I love, reach the same physical state of deterioration. But instead of reaching out for help, they continued on the path they were following, drinking until their bodies simply gave out, sending them to a painful and early grave.

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Stage 2 – Hopelessness

Without hope, life loses its meaning.

Hope lifts us. Hope gets us out of bed in the morning. Hope allows us to sleep peacefully at night. Hope provides us with anticipation and joy. Hope brings light into darkness. Hope helps us to push forward through difficult times. Hope gives us a desire to grow and improve as we plan for the future.

As soon as we start to feel hopeless, life loses its color and flavor. Depression sets in, and we become cynical and angry. We feel defeated. What’s the point? Who gives a crap?

Once this started happening, once I began to feel hopeless, I drank MORE in an attempt to recapture the optimism and courage alcohol used to deliver. But my efforts to achieve hope from a bottle were all in vain. The booze no longer worked. I began to spin downward at an accelerated rate of speed. One day bled into the next in a monotonous, boring cycle of drinking, sleeping, eating, drinking, sleeping, eating, drinking. There were days near the end of my three-decade run when I never bothered to get out of bed. I had lost all hope, so why bother getting up and putting on clothes?

It wasn’t until I finally got sober that I discovered my need for a belief in something more in life. Up to that point, my concept of God, or a Higher Power, amounted to nothing more than a vague collection of ideas I had collected from books, movies, and the occasional visit to church when I was a child.

It unnerved me to place any faith in something other than my immediate needs and ego. At that stage of my life, my spiritual beliefs were as evolved as a chimp’s. Just give me a banana (daiquiri) and leave me alone while I pick my navel and grunt.

There’s a reason why alcohol is often called “spirits.” For many of us, we become spiritually empty to the point where we seek spiritual fulfilment from a bottle.

I believe with all my heart that human beings have an innate need for spiritual nourishment. It’s written into our DNA. We need and want a life filled with hope, love, and faith. There is a deep craving within the human soul for more than animal instincts and desires. We must have a spiritual life of some kind, or we remain unfulfilled, often seeking gratification from things that are harmful and destructive. It’s particularly true for those of us with addictive personalities. If we don’t feel spiritually fulfilled, we destroy ourselves by drinking, snorting, screwing, or eating everything within reach to fill the emptiness gnawing our soul.

Perhaps you know this feeling, too. Maybe you don’t feel completely hopeless, not yet. But there might be a desire within you for something more in life, a desire to feed your soul with things more nourishing than alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructive habits.

I was broken down and feeling hopeless. I felt exhausted and sick and wanted relief. Thankfully, the lifeline I was seeking was closer than I realized.

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Stage 3 – Multiple Red Flags

There comes the point if we’re lucky when we realize we can’t continue living the way we have been. For the most fortunate ones among us, we begin to notice the red flags that keep showing up, clear indicators that something is not right, that maybe it’s time to address the problems that always seem to accompany our drinking. For me, countless red flags kept popping up over the years, warning signs I chose to ignore until it was almost too late.

I want to emphasize how lucky you are if you notice these red flags and take them seriously. Sadly, most people choose to ignore the signs, usually ending up with ruined lives, in jail, institutionalized, or dead. It’s a statistical fact that the vast majority of alcoholics and addicts in the world never receive the help they need, usually because they choose not to ask for help. Millions of people die as alcoholics and addicts, fully aware of their condition, but too scared to take a leap of faith into recovery.

I put it off as long as I could. I had entirely accepted that I was an alcoholic. I was very aware of this fact in those final years. But it’s like knowing you have a serious heart problem, yet choosing not to go to the doctor because you’re too frightened to face the treatment that will save you. Confronting and fixing the heart disease is often scarier than admitting you’re sick in the first place. Many people just wait for the heart attack to take them out.

The red flags were appearing with higher frequency, and they became impossible to ignore. I was always sick and hungover. I was financially broke and in serious debt. I could never pay bills on time. I had destroyed multiple relationships. I engaged in sexual behaviour that was devoid of love or mutual respect. I had lost jobs because of my drinking. I lied to people about my life. I surrounded myself with the dregs of society (“lower companions”), people who were hustlers, drug dealers, and criminals. I had no self-respect. I had developed anxiety and paranoia. I was lonely and afraid.

How many more times could I wake up on the floor of my kitchen, not knowing how I got there? How many more times could I sneak large plastic bags of bottles and cans out of my apartment without my neighbours spotting me? How many more times could I lie to family and friends about the condition of my life? How many more times could I spit in the mirror, disgusted by my reflection?

At some point, we must admit that we’ve taken it as far as we can, that it’s time to change. I knew with absolute certainty that if I continued living this way, I was going to die drunk and alone.

The final year of my drinking was marked by an experience in a motel room when I had drunk myself into an immobile stupor. I was collapsed on the floor and struggled to remain conscious. The amount of alcohol I had consumed was enough to kill a man twice my size. I knew it was unlikely I would make it through the night.

I was terrified and began to cry out to God for help. I didn’t know if I even believed in God, but I was desperate for a life-preserver, and God seemed like the right choice at that moment.

I prayed with everything I had in me, asking for another chance at life. Please don’t let me die like this.

Miraculously, I survived. When I lifted myself off the floor the next morning, I vowed I would stop drinking.

I didn’t keep my vow.

I continued to drink for another year. I tried everything I could to stop on my own, but nothing worked. Filled with shame and guilt, I kept on drinking, no matter how many times I declared NO MORE! The compulsion to drink was just too overpowering, and there didn’t seem to be any way of breaking free.

My life in hell, which I had created for myself, continued downward despite the red flags that surrounded me.

Stage 4 – Immoral Behavior

I was beginning to sense that I had lost my moral direction in life. In many ways, I had become a liar, a cheater, and a thief.

I never robbed houses. I didn’t kill anyone or steal food from orphans. For the most part, I was a nice person, usually polite and friendly. But the painful fact was that I had been living a life filled with immoral behavior for years. I had lied to family and friends about my drinking. I cheated on girlfriends when I was drunk. I took advantage of my employers. I contributed to crime when purchasing street drugs. I endangered the lives of others when I drove drunk. I broke multiple laws when I drove intoxicated or engaged in drug transactions. I surrounded myself with lower companions, criminals, and sociopaths. I disrespected my family by putting my life in danger. I disrespected my body by poisoning it daily. I accumulated debt by spending all my money getting drunk and high. I borrowed money I couldn’t repay.

This is just a partial resume, but you get the point.

Somewhere along the journey of my life, I had lost my moral grounding and the willingness to be honest with myself and others. I had slowly, over time, made the decision that the most important thing was having a good time, getting loaded, and neglecting my responsibilities. I dreaded the idea of growing up and becoming a responsible adult, so what better way to prevent that from happening than by staying drunk, foolish, and contemptuous of normal, healthy behaviour.

Selfishness is not something we want to admit about ourselves. Nobody wants to admit that they’re self-centred, self-serving, or immoral. Not me. Even at my lowest point, I still convinced myself I was a great guy, Mr. Upstanding Citizen.

But the reality, and the truth I had to face, was that I was morally polluted. I had allowed myself to succumb to my lowest impulses. I lived only for pleasure, immediate gratification, and excitement. The realization that I was morally bankrupt was painful to accept, but the truth was impossible to deny. It was one of the lowest, most difficult moments of my life.

I had reached a point when I could no longer stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was ashamed of who I was and what I had allowed myself to become. I was starting to feel like the lowest of creatures, not much more than a slithering reptile whose sole purpose in life was to avoid pain and stay as numb as possible.

I was in desperate need of relief from the way I was living.

Stage 5 – Hitting Rock Bottom

I had run out of excuses and time. I no longer had the luxury of ignoring the red flags. I had to find a way to clean up my life and get sober, or I was facing a miserable and pathetic death, just another alcoholic who disappears from the radar without a trace. If there was a Bermuda Triangle for alcoholics and addicts, my ship was heading for disaster (I know that’s a horrible metaphor, but it makes me laugh, so I’m leaving it in).

I finally hit rock bottom

Often people hear the term “rock bottom,” and they think it means something negative. It certainly sounds negative, the lowest point in a hole where there is nowhere else to go. But if you’re an alcoholic who wants to escape addiction, rock bottom is the starting place. Rock bottom means a new beginning for the addict who genuinely wants to get clean and sober. Rock bottom means rebirth.

I had reached the stage of my polluted life when I wanted help. It was more than just needing help; I WANTED help. Enough is enough. Let’s fix this shit before it’s too late!

Recalling my vow to God the year before, I fell to my knees on a sunny December day. I was suffering through another horrible hangover when something inside me was triggered to make a sincere cry for help. I went to a local church (I was not a religious person, by any means), and fell to my knees in one of the pews. I prayed with all my mind, body, and soul, pleading for intervention. I needed help and was finally ready to accept it in whatever form it appeared.

There’s no other way to explain it but to say something changed in me that day. I left the church and called my friend, Guy, who was already sober. Guy told me to meet him at a 12 step meeting that night. I promised I would, and this time I kept my promise.

My path to sobriety finally began in earnest. I haven’t had a drink in more than 14 years.

My descent to rock bottom took years, and I’m grateful to have survived. But the day I went to my first meeting was only the beginning. I had a long way to go to climb out of the deep hole of addiction, which had left me spiritually and psychologically wounded.

Getting sober and staying sober is not easy. There’s no reason to lie about it or make it sound like a picnic filled with cookies and cakes (although there are often some awesome cookies and cakes at 12 step meetings). The reality of staying sober requires a lot of work. It also demands that we dig deep into our past and find out where things got so screwy, why we do the crazy things we do.

In my sober journey, I have come to accept, and embrace, the fact that I’m slightly nuts. I’m incredibly neurotic. I struggle with painful shyness. I’m socially awkward, to the point where I avoid people, especially groups. I’m self-conscious and vain. I often feel entitled and superior to others. I can be incredibly selfish. And I have some, really, really weird shit going on in my head.

But this is just who I am, and I’ve learned to be comfortable with myself. Through sobriety, I’ve learned to be happy with who I am, including my nutty mind—learning about ourselves and what makes us tick as human beings are part of the unique and exciting journey of recovery and sobriety.

As I was about to learn, getting, and staying sober wasn’t going to be easy. But it sure as hell wasn’t going to be boring, either.

Hold on tight, kid. The roller coaster is just getting started.


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