Why my rock bottom was the best thing that’s happened to me
Four-and-a-half months ago, married father of two Carl Waring, from Great Hallingbury, completed the Berlin Marathon – eight years to the day that he set off on the long road to recovery from his life as an alcoholic...
It hasn’t been the case for every one of the 60 years that I’ve inhabited this planet, but I can genuinely say that 2019 was a good one.
I write stuff for lawyers for a living, so I’m getting paid for something that I’d do as a hobby anyway. I’ve started running again. My personal life is very settled. I actually feel comfortable in my own skin. It’s taken 60 years and numerous ‘car crashes’ along the way to get to that stage, but then there are those who never get that far, ever.
This feelgood factor hasn’t come about by chance. It is all down to these three little words: “I am sober.”
On September 29, 2019, I completed the Berlin Marathon. My younger son, Ben, at 21 was with me, competing in his first marathon.
By the end of the same day, I had achieved eight years of sobriety. A week later, I celebrated my 60th birthday, with my family, at the Ivy in Cambridge. Miracles do happen.
It hasn’t always been so. Rewind to September 29, 2011. The UK was enjoying an Indian summer. I was grateful that it was.
My bed for the night was a grassy embankment next to an underpass in Harlow. It was my first and only night of sleeping rough, although, for the previous six months, I had been, as they say, of no fixed abode.
On March 29 that year, a lifetime of on-off alcohol abuse and alcoholism had come crashing down around me. Periods of abstinence, punctuated by bouts of chronic alcoholic binges that lasted several days at a time, had seen me in and out of a fairly flimsy form of recovery from alcohol addiction for many years.
I now realise that the problem had always been that I had not fully accepted in my heart that I could never again drink safely.
They say that alcoholism is a progressive illness. An alcoholic who continues to drink can only get worse, never better. That applies even if they start to drink again after a period of sobriety. By picking up a drink again, the alcoholic is right back where they last left off.
That’s what happened to me, and in the space of a few mad hours on the afternoon of March 29, 2011 I had packed a small overnight bag, picked up my passport, booked an online flight to France and set off on a journey to nowhere.
Thoughts of suicide were very much on my mind. Thoughts of what I was doing to my wife and two teenage sons were, sadly, not. The madness of the mental illness of alcoholism was raging and no earthly being could have prevented me that afternoon from fleeing.
I disappeared to a bolthole in the south of France, where I was able to drink without anyone there to try to stop me. I wanted to kill myself by drinking myself to death. Why? I’d just had enough of being sick and tired, of being saddled with the illness of alcoholism. I just didn’t see any other way out.
The next six months are very much a blur. What I do know is that I was extremely ill both mentally and physically. I was in and out of hospital in France.
At one stage I found myself lying on the floor of an apartment in Cannes, unable to move and all alone. I’d taken a lot of pills and I’d drunk a considerable amount of alcohol. I wanted to go to the toilet but simply could not get off the floor. I do remember thinking that this was going to be it. At some stage, I would pass out and not wake up again. I fervently wanted that to happen.
Clearly, a power greater than me had other ideas. Somehow, I managed to rally and ultimately get back to the UK. That task was made all the more daunting by my never really being sober enough to fly. If I sobered up, I went into withdrawal and attempting to get on a plane without alcohol inside me was an even more frightening prospect. I plumped for the former option.
On returning to the UK, I went to stay in the north with a friend whose hospitality I abused from the outset. Shortly after arriving in Yorkshire, I was admitted to a cottage hospital to be dried out. That was achieved. The day after being discharged, however, I was drunk again.
A few weeks later I walked out of my friends’ home, giving up the roof over my head that had been so generously made available to me. Once more, booze was the winner over friendship, family and common decency.
The last few days of my drinking were spent in the cheapest of cheap B&Bs in Scarborough. Then a friend from Harlow found out where I was and came to collect me.
The journey back south in his car was excruciating. It was a hot day. I was without alcohol and withdrawing very badly. Apart from my stays in hospital, for the greater part of the past six months, I had never been very far from a bottle at any time, even when I was in bed.
My friend decided to take me to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow. By this time, my family had understandably had enough and didn’t want me back home. I would not have taken me back either.
Although the families of alcoholics often get to know a lot about the disease, there comes a point when it becomes impossible to look further than what you see before you – an uncaring, hopeless, selfish drunk who is ruining your lives as well as his own.
I clearly remember walking out of the hospital, after being told by the A&E consultant in charge that I would not be admitted as an in-patient. I can still hear the words that I was saying to myself: "This is it. You really are out on the streets."
I wandered around Harlow for a while. I found myself a sheltered spot on an embankment. It was there that I was to spend the night, after of course ensuring I had bought enough booze at a nearby off licence to help me get through to the morning.
What I was to experience that night was a mere microcosm of what the thousands of homeless people around the UK experience every night of the year. I wasn’t hassled by anyone, though. However, it was the loneliest six or so hours that I have ever experienced.
Little did I realise that it was in fact to be the greatest night of my life.
During the course of it, something happened to me that to this day I can’t fully explain. Bear in mind that I had been drinking virtually 24/7 for the last six months. Physically and mentally I was a wreck. You could say that I was at rock bottom. I can now say that I’m truly grateful that I was.
Among all the madness going on in my head, at some point during the middle of the night, with just the faint glow of a street lamp for company, I suddenly had a moment of clarity. I was now at the low point in my life that I had always thought, even in the good times, I was destined to hit. That was how little faith I had in myself.
Nevertheless, the stark reality of being down there, at the bottom, sparked what I can only describe as an epiphanic moment.
I got a surge of energy and positivity coursing through my pretty stricken body and mind. I was profoundly aware that if I decided to, there were still further steps down the ladder that I could take. That route would lead me only to a locked ward in a mental hospital or to death.
However, I got a very powerful feeling that even now, having cascaded down the ladder so far, it didn’t have to be that way. I suddenly, with every aching bone in my body, wanted to get well. I made up my mind that I was prepared to do whatever it would take, however painful that was going to be, to start the road to recovery – a lasting recovery. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
The next morning, I spent the last £20 that I had in my pocket on a taxi to my home. When I got there, the only welcome I received was from my German shepherd dogs. My family were angry and distraught.
Those were hugely difficult times for us all. Legally I had every right to stay in the house. Morally I had none, as my family didn’t want me to be there. Equally, they didn’t want to push me down the lane, further into no man’s land. Against their better judgement, I was allowed to stay. I was to sleep in the garage for a few nights.
I threw myself into recovering from the disease and, little by little, I started to gain my family’s trust. I went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) regularly. I did everything within my power to make sure I got better and everything that I possibly could to make amends to my family. They responded positively to my efforts. Baby steps were being made. “One day at a time” is the AA mantra. One day at a time, we came together again.
For the first time ever, I wanted to get well for myself. In the past, after alcoholic binges, I would be full of remorse, buy flowers for my wife, toys for the kids and send cards with words of humble apologies to work colleagues. Words without deeds.
I always wanted to get well for my family, first and foremost. I was forgetting who the person was that I most needed to get well for, before anyone else. That person was me. This time I wanted to do it for myself.
I have not had a drink since that day at the end of September 2011. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams. We are a strong and loving family. I was going to say “again”, but I believe that we are stronger than we’ve ever been.
Fast-forward to September 29 last year. I am with my 21-year-old son Ben in Berlin. We’ve already been in this great city for a few days, sightseeing, drinking coffee by the gallon and having a wonderful father and son time.
The little boy whom, along with his elder brother Tom, I hurt so much during that awful six months of my final drinking. Here we are, both as fit as fiddles, laughing, joking and sharing great moments together.
Although I had run a 3hr 34min marathon in London in 2003, that was 16 years ago and there’d been an awful lot of beer, wine and spirits under the bridge since then. Not to forget, too, that I had gone from 44 to being 60. Not old, but certainly older.
I crossed the finish line near the Brandenburg Gate, in the pouring Berlin rain, in 4hr 38min. Ben was a bit disappointed with his time of just inside 4 hours. He’s a fit lad, plays cricket for Hertfordshire and is a fitness fanatic to boot. He’ll run a faster marathon in the future if he wants to.
Were we really bothered about our times? Not at all. We went to Berlin to achieve more than that. Much more. We went to be together. Father and son time.
My sons are my buddies now. Some form of redemption? Or an attempt at making further amends? Possibly. All I know is that occasions like this really matter to me. I think they matter to my loved ones too.
Although it was unspoken, I know too that Ben felt proud of the fact that his old former drunk of a dad was able to do what most other nearly 60-year-olds (and those a lot younger) couldn’t do – run a marathon.
It was, though, for both of us, as well as for my wife Val and Ben’s brother Tom, much more than that. This achievement, coming as it did on the eighth anniversary of my being sober, meant something to us that can't be put into words.
Are there such things as miracles? My family and I certainly think so. Try telling us otherwise.
* Carl Waring lives in Great Hallingbury with his wife Val, their sons Tom, 25, and Ben, 21, and their German shepherd dogs Freddie, Ellie and Libby.