I tweeted last weekend about how I would be celebrating my 9th year sober today, and I was really surprised by the feedback I received. It’s not something I’ve discussed before and most people know nothing about it. A lot of people asked me to write a blog about it and talk about it in more detail, so here it is…
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s long. I do hope you enjoy reading it and if it helps just one person, it will have been worth writing.
Taking a good hard look at myself
Nine years ago this week I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, probably a couple of hours – at least – after my wife had gone to work.
I could hardly recognise the person staring back at me. Deep down, of course, I knew full well who it was. But it certainly wasn’t who I wanted it to be.
The person in the mirror was pale, thin, unshaven, and very ill-looking. And that image was through the half-closed eyes of a hangover.
For months, I’d had a persistent cough. It was so noticeable that my neighbour, a retired health worker, had mentioned it and suggested I see a doctor. That wouldn’t be so bad, but we lived in a detached house.
I was 32. I felt much older.
How it all began
I first drank properly when I was around 13. It was love at first taste. I can’t really explain why or what exactly it did to me, but anyone in a similar position will know what I mean. It felt like it made me the person I was meant to be. Like it was the missing ingredient that nature forgot to put in my body alongside, or maybe instead of, blood.
This first real drink was at my friend’s Mum’s wedding. Her friends were mainly from London and worked in the fashion industry. Her new husband’s friends were academics. I felt incredibly out of place. So I drank. And didn’t stop until I passed out.
To cut a day of embarrassing events short, it ended with me waking in a bed I’d been put in to sleep it off, walking out on to the landing dazed and confused, and falling down a flight of stairs right into the party (there’s a knack to falling down stairs and I would eventually get quite good at it…).
I was lucky not to break my neck. That would have rather ruined the poor couple’s wedding.
Once I sobered up and the hangover had gone, all I could really think was ‘that was fun, when’s the next drink?’
I drank as and when I could until I was around 16 when I started drinking regularly (fake ID at clubs, pubs that didn’t care etc). Drinking was always part of my family’s culture. As a mixed English/Irish/Scottish Catholic family, drink was part of most gatherings, and, once I could, I rarely missed a chance to over-indulge.
What I learnt at school
Once, after a charity event the night before held in a nightclub, I turned up to school hungover aged 15 and vomited my breakfast cornflakes outside a classroom waiting for the day’s first lesson. A kind teacher – one of those you never forget – whose wife had died not long before from an alcohol-related problem, gave me a very good, kind talk and sent me home to sleep it off.
A year later, on the final day of school, I left the building at lunchtime – the unofficial end of the day – with a few friends. It was a lovely summer’s day and we sat in the sun and drank a few cans. For some reason we then decided to go back to school, where most pupils were still enjoying the last afternoon reminiscing and writing in each other’s exercise books.
Drunk and holding a can of Guinness, I walked into the school through the main doors. I was caught immediately by a teacher and threatened with expulsion. I was still a pupil until the end of that day. Thankfully the teacher merely took the can off me, poured it away in the staff room, and told me to try to get through the rest of the day without drawing any more attention to myself.
I then proceeded to tell a girl how much I had fancied her. A nice, if drunken, admission of feelings on the last day I’d ever see her. No bad thing really – except I did it in front of my then girlfriend who wasn’t too impressed.
Sixteen years later…
Back to the mirror sixteen years later. I looked at myself and started to cry. How the hell had I ended up like this? It certainly wasn’t the aim when I was 13 taking my first drink. It wasn’t the aim at 16 when I started going to pubs and clubs with friends. It wasn’t the aim when I noticed the start of my drinking day move forward from 6pm to 5pm, then 4pm when possible, or when I started to have a quick nip at lunchtime…
Everyone has their own rock-bottom. For some people it’s death. At a personal level, you can’t get any lower, although it’s possible to cause more harm to others alive.
Sadly, I’ve known quite a few for whom death was their rock-bottom. Some were young, very few were what we’d now consider old (the odd one of course but they were often sad and lonely men for whom a long life was no bonus).
For many others I’ve known, rock bottom has been total financial and personal ruin, possibly along with long-term physical and mental damage.
I was quite lucky. My rock bottom was only nearly losing my house, nearly losing my wife, and nearly damaging my health long-term (I still have fairly bad memory issues but otherwise seem more or less unscathed).
Had it not been for family and good friends helping out (thank you), all three could easily and quickly have happened.
For several years I’d been self employed but as anyone with a drink problem can testify, the work/drink balance is a tricky one to maintain.
I’d tried to stop many times before. I’d decided I had a drink problem, read books on how to stop, even stopped for a few months (although never without substituting alcohol with cannabis which simply does not work in my experience). But then I’d decide that as I’d managed to stop for a few months, I couldn’t have a problem so I started drinking again. Brilliant logic. It’s actually classic alcoholic thinking and many people fool themselves this way. And each time I started again, my problem become more serious.
Many people go through similar – around 30 is quite a common age for people to realise they are drinking a bit too much, especially if they haven’t settled down to family life. Most don’t have a serious drink problem. They just need to moderate. But some, like me, have a drink problem, but convince themselves they haven’t and start again.
No one can tell you which, if either, camp you fall in to. Of course, many people use alcohol in moderation all their lives with no problems at all, bar the odd hangover, and good luck to them!
Thankfully, on this day, as I stood there looking in the mirror, I made a decision to take my problem out of my own hands and seek help. I’d never shared my problem with anyone but my wife, and my best friend. Others knew, I’m sure, but I’d never really discussed it. You think you are hiding it, but when you realise what you look like and the fact you are always pissed, it’s pretty obvious people know you have a problem.
Making the most important phone call of my life
I googled for Manchester AA and called up. It was the hardest phone call I’d ever made. I really don’t know why. I was only asking about when the next meeting was and where. Thankfully it was that day, in about an hour or so. I was told to go and ask for a certain woman and told she would help.
I had a shower and a shave and tried to look the best I could. But even with a shave I looked a mess. But at least I was a clean mess and not a ‘sleeping rough’ mess. I wasn’t going to be like those sort of people… ‘alcoholics’. Of course, as anyone who has attended AA for any length of time knows, all alcoholics are pretty much the same. The details of their stories may be different but, in one way or another, we’ve all been there, seen it, done it.
Walking through the door of that first meeting was even harder than making the phone call. I very nearly walked away. Somehow I found the courage to go through the door.
I immediately found the woman I had been told to speak to and introduced myself. She welcomed me and introduced me to the chair of the meeting. A nice bloke who had been sober for many years but was clearly still suffering from the effects.
At the end of the first meeting I left determined to stop drinking. But I had a John Prine concert to go to the following night. I couldn’t face stopping drinking that day, so I decided to go to the concert and drink, but that would be my last night drinking. I could have been fooling myself again, putting it off once more, but I stuck to my decision and stopped. That was nine years ago and I’ve not drank since.
A few weeks later when I first told my parents I was going to AA their reaction was great. Mum was a little reticent – alcoholism was a stigma, but my Dad gave me a big hug and said he’d never been more proud of me. Both were loving and sympathetic. I only wish everyone in the same position received the same support from their parents. It was a wonderful help.
I went back to AA for several months and on the whole it was the best thing I had ever done to help myself. I left each meeting beaming. I called my wife at work as I walked through town and told her how great I felt. I was bouncing around feeling 7ft tall, full of confidence.
Going my own way
Work wise, since going sober in 2004, I’d had the best year I’d ever had and made more money than ever before in the areas of web site creation and affiliate marketing. A combination of right-place, right-time, and a clear head.
In 2005, we had builders in constructing a kitchen extension and I stopped going to AA because the meetings I liked were during the day. In a way, I used the daily contact with the builders (one of whom was my cousin who had his own problems and sadly is no longer with us) as a substitute group. It was good to have people to talk to – one of the problems when you work from home is the lack of contact. In a way, Twitter has replaced that for many people I think. I know I now use it that way.
AA is about being helped when you need it, and then giving service back (in whatever form you can) to help others, which in turn continues to help you stay sober. I know some AA users will disagree, but I see my service as running The Alcohol-Free Shop. It helps me daily and we help other people daily.
I didn’t return to AA until last month, many years after my last meeting, when I called in to one on a whim when I had a few hours to kill on a Friday night on a trip to Manchester. I was delighted to meet the woman I met at my first meeting and had a chance to thank her. It was great to see her, and some other old faces, all of whom looked so much better than the last time I saw them.
I didn’t speak at the meeting, because there were newcomers there – always wonderful to see – and I didn’t want to give the the message that I am, basically, ok without using AA long-term. That doesn’t fit in with the core AA message and I wouldn’t want to put anyone off. They’ll find out in their own time if AA is for them long-term or not. For me, it helped in the initial stages.
The genesis of The Alcohol-Free Shop
In 2005 I was thoroughly sick of drinking coke, orange juice, and sickly sweet drinks like J20 etc. I was also more confident in my physical and mental state and decided to explore the world of ‘alcohol-free’ wines and beers. These are drinks that start life as ordinary alcoholic drinks, but have the alcohol removed. Its very hard to remove the alcohol completely so they tend to have up to 0.5% alcohol-by-volume left. An amount so tiny that, because of the way the liver processes alcohol, you could never get drunk no matter how much you drank.
Some recovering alcoholics and support groups are very much against these drinks, saying that people are trying to cling on to the past or, worse, that the taste/smell/action of holding the drink could trigger a relapse. But many other recovering alcoholics successfully use them to help and maintain their recovery. It absolutely has to be a personal decision and one that each person is comfortable with themselves.
I’ve been asked the question – are they ok for alcoholics? – many times in the last few years and each time I can only say that they are for me, and that we have alcoholic customers who successfully drink them, but it has to be a personal decision and personal responsibility. If you’re not comfortable with them, stay away. If you are comfortable, go ahead.
I decided it was worth trying. I bought some drinks from various suppliers and found a mixed bag. Some were terrible. Some were ok. A few were great.
What I didn’t find was a company providing the full range of drinks. Some did beer only, some wine only, some cocktails etc etc.
Having been in business for some years, I realised this was a perfect opportunity for me to put my skills to use in a field I had a real passion for and one that could help others. I took the money we’d made in affiliate marketing and ploughed it in to starting The Alcohol-Free Shop. From going from near bankruptcy to some sort of stability, I decided to risk it all again on a totally untried and untested idea.
People thought I was mad. And I mean just about everyone I know including my dad (some still do but I don’t feel the need to argue these days). I’m only sorry dad’s no longer here to share in our success.
We started very small, with just a 100 sq foot of storage in a Safestore unit and a bit of stock. We splashed out a bit on the domain names alcoholfree.co.uk and alcoholfree.com. And then put a lot of work into building the web sites and the business.
When we launched we had sales from day one. And with the sales, the feedback – most of it very positive (4.9 out of 5 on Google Checkout).
Of course, not everyone enjoys our drinks. Sadly, some of those who don’t are just not ready to stop drinking, so find any reason not to enjoy them. But others simply don’t like the taste. I can understand that. The drinks are not 100% identical to the alcoholic versions. You will notice the lack of alcohol when you first taste them, but your palate quickly adapts (a bit like changing from full fat milk to semi-skimmed or stopping taking sugar in your tea or coffee). And they are real wines and beers, not grape juices or soft drinks, so they contain mature tastes which not everyone wants.
We quickly grew from 100sq ft, to 250 sq ft. Then my wife left her job – 25 years in journalism – to work with me. Then we moved to 1000 sq ft, then 6000 sq ft… We are currently at about 13,000 sq ft, and rather more staff than we had when I was the only person doing it by myself. Most of our sales are nationwide across the UK and Europe, delivered by courier, but this year we have made a large investment into our new Manchester store. It’s just launched in the test phase, and will be fully launched later this summer. It’s looking quite amazing, and we’re all very proud of what we’ve managed to achieve in just a few years in such a small niche market.
We’ve had some downs as well as ups in the years since we started, largely around employing the wrong people (ultimately our fault of course), but sales wise we’ve grown each and every year and we’ve done our best to work for the benefit of the customer.
The Alcohol-Free Shop is a business. We are not, to the surprise of some people, a charity. We’ve had some really snotty comments from alcoholic drinks companies at trade events/health conferences who presume we survive only on grants. I should add that, with the odd exception, we are not remotely supported by the alcohol industry even though they are sometimes the producers of the drinks. The alcohol-free market is largely treated with a degree of contempt.
We have never received any grants or external funding for the public sector (apart from when we have sold them drinks). Do we make a lot of money? Not really. I could certainly make more in other forms of business. But I don’t run The Alcohol-Free Shop to make a lot of money. I do it because it helps people (and I include myself in that).
Who shops at The Alcohol-Free Shop
Most of our customers are not alcoholics of any type (recovering or otherwise). Some are of course – and I’m delighted we can help them. We receive emails all the time thanking us for saving their jobs, marriages, and even their lives – although I point out that they did that themselves, we simply provided them with drinks that helped.
But most of our customers are people who do drink alcohol some of the time but sometimes choose not to. Pregnant woman, people on diets (alcohol-free drinks contain far fewer calories than alcoholic drinks), people with medical conditions that mean they can’t drink, those who want to drink wine daily for the heart-health benefits but don’t want the damaging effects of drinking alcohol daily, etc.
Over the years we’ve seen new companies entering the market, which is great – apart from those who think they can make a fast buck and simply copy what we do with no innovation, compete solely by selling drinks too cheaply to survive, lose money, close and move on to something more lucrative. This leaves an already small and fragile market damaged – that helps no one and pisses me off immensely.
We want to see the market grow – one of the reasons we are starting a wholesale division, The Alcohol-Free Warehouse, this year too – and competition is vital to all markets so we welcome genuine new entrants to the industry.
Where I am now
Personally, my life is unrecognisable from that day I stood in front of the mirror. I was 32 then, and looked older than I do now at 41. I was nearly bankrupt. I nearly lost everything I held dear, especially my wife. My life was a total mess.
I’m not rich but we’re comfortable. We sold our house in Manchester at the right time (more by luck more than planning) and invested more money into growing the business.
Compared with the failure staring back at me in that mirror, I’m now moderately successful. We’ve all worked hard over the last 9 years. My wife and I now live in a finca in Spain, with beautiful mountain views and a swimming pool, we drive a nice car, we have a good growing business, employ a great team of staff – everyone of whom I know personally and who I am glad work for us – and people are always asking to work with us. I’ve had two requests in the last couple of days alone.
I don’t say any of that to boast. I know many people with ‘less’ who have far more in my eyes – children for a start, something we were never lucky enough to have. We did try but suffered a number of miscarriages. Who knows if my drinking had anything to do with that. But we can’t do anything about now, so we make the best of what we have (and we have two wonderful dogs). I’m still immensely jealous of my friends with children though, no matter how much they sometimes complain about them!
What caused such a transformation between the man in the mirror and the man writing this? I wish I had a simple answer. But having the balls to admit I had a problem was the first step. I can guarantee had I not done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now – and quite possibly I’d be dead. I certainly wouldn’t be married. Giving up alcohol transformed my life. Had I not stopped, it would have transformed any way, but not for the better.
Although going from a personal rock-bottom and re-building a life should be something for anyone to be proud of, I’ve held off writing about this for many years. Party because it’s not an easy thing to admit to – but also because I don’t want to give the false impression that The Alcohol-Free Shop is only for alcoholics. It’s not. It’s for anyone who wants to avoid alcohol at least some of the time, for whatever reason.
If we could only help one person, that would make it all worth while. And we know from customer feedback we help many people.
I hope by writing this I can show anyone who is in a similar position that there is life after drink.
You are always more than welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org