In this deeply personal essay Timo Rissanen shares his five year journey without alcohol and remembers the days of drinking that preceded his sobriety. It’s an essential and humbling read.
On January 18, 2012 I had my last drink: a few glasses of pinot grigio with two good friends. Mind you, I did not know that was my last encounter with my favourite wine. The next day I was at a clinic for addiction, having a profoundly transformative moment. The director of the clinic had just interviewed me – maybe for ten minutes, maybe for half an hour, I can’t recall – and she proceeded to tell me that from that moment on for the rest of my life I could not have another drink, as a matter of life and death. I remember looking at her and nodding while to myself I was thinking: how dare you, you have no idea who I am and how impossible that is, and I have this handled. Back off. Yet, listening to her, I knew I didn’t have it ‘handled’ at all. On the 10-minute walk back to the office I brought myself back to possibility. What would be possible in my life if I didn’t drink? What would that be like? In those 10 minutes a new possibility for the rest of my life started to take clear form. It seemed almost within reach. That night I didn’t drink.
What would be possible in my life if I didn’t drink? What would that be like? In those 10 minutes a new possibility for the rest of my life started to take clear form. It seemed almost within reach. That night I didn’t drink.
A month earlier, I had passed out on the subway. I have some recollections from the ambulance ride, mainly that I really pissed off a medic by being a pain in the ass. He actually called me that. I was kept at the hospital for a few hours. Upon despatch I was handed papers with a blunt assessment: you have been diagnosed with alcohol abuse. Christmas and New Year of 2011 were quiet. Although I had a drink here and there, every few days I would return to the piece of paper that said: you have been diagnosed with alcohol abuse. In the new year I finally followed the instructions on that sheet and made an appointment with a clinic. My plan was to get some tips on how to drink in moderation in the long term. That plan died a quick death as the director spoke to me.
Immediately following the initial interview, I began group therapy sessions at the clinic. I went twice a week for six months. The therapy sessions were a revelation to me. I was an arrogant brat for the first month. I would sit through the meetings judging other patients, thinking I was above them, better than them. In my head I thought: You shoot heroin, I drink pinot grigio – you can’t even compare us. In hindsight I should have seen my arrogance sooner.
In 2008, I had been locked up overnight after having been found drunk and unconscious on the street. I was put in jail with two guys, deliberately without a mattress as I’d been belligerent in the police car. The next morning, after having chatted with my homeless cellmate with chronic alcoholism (the other guy was released early) I had a moment of clarity: I saw that in the eyes of the police there was no difference between the homeless drunk and I. We were both the same trash they picked off the street day in, day out. It was a wake-up call, but one that I chose to ignore for another three years.
I saw that in the eyes of the police there was no difference between the homeless drunk and I.
I had already ignored an earlier wake-up call in 1993, when upon giving me the diagnosis of pancreatitis, the doctor told me that the most common causes are gallstones or excessive drinking, and that I didn’t have gallstones. I did not tell the doctor about the week of debauched drinking that had marked my 18th birthday less than a month earlier. Pancreatitis is not a disease people usually suffer more than three times without dying (or so the doctor told me), and I am grateful to my body for only going through it once, despite my arrogance through the years.
Resignation and shame
It wasn’t just arrogance that kept me drinking through the years. It walked hand-in-hand with resignation. I was resigned to thinking that I was born with the inability to escape alcohol due to genetics. I’ve lost several family members to alcohol. Almost a decade ago now, I was with my mum when she passed away after almost two decades of heavy drinking. After her passing, I convinced myself that a death like hers was inevitable for me. So why resist it? I might as well have fun while dying a slow death. Well, it was fun publicly. As with most negativity in life, we edit out the bits that aren’t fun: the pounding headache, the vomiting, the cigarette burn on the jacket, the lost cash, the unexplained bruise.
I was resigned to thinking that I was born with the inability to escape alcohol due to genetics. I’ve lost several family members to alcohol.
For me, the cycle to get from the fun part of drinking to the next fun part got ever shorter, and reached a nadir the night I ended up in hospital. Occasionally I’ve tried to remember what happened that night. I know that one by one my friends left until I was drinking in a bar on my own. I have a memory of somehow making it down the stairs to the subway, seeing the stairs through a wobbly porthole that my vision became when drunk. I don’t recall getting on a train nor do I remember being picked up by an ambulance. My first memory is from the ambulance. I remember the blurry hours at the hospital chair, and I remember a female doctor empathetically feeling my abdomen twice. What I recall clearly is the subway ride home. Something was different; the familiar, overwhelming embarrassment was mixed with being absolutely fed up with myself. Enough already: enough with the resignation, with the embarrassment, with the seemingly endless loss.
A year earlier in December 2010, I had done a self-development seminar called the Landmark Forum. Those three days were profound: I got my first sense of how to create a possibility for my life. A possibility unconstrained by my own past and by what I knew to be possible for me. In short, I got the possibility of a possibility. In the spring of 2011 I did a ten-week seminar at Landmark, deepening the learning from the Forum. I was mostly drunk at the seminar sessions and I was mostly drunk on the weekly phone calls with my group. I was the group leader. However, when I later heard the addiction clinic director telling me that I was not to drink again, suddenly having done the Landmark Forum made a significant difference: I simply took on the question, what becomes possible now? What can I create knowing that I won’t drink? What is the context I want to create for my life?
The context I began to create on that walk back to the office was the possibility of being someone who would make a remarkable difference to others, as an educator and as a human being. I’m not sure I saw it then, but I see now that creating a context that was bigger than I knew myself to be was important: how could I possibly be making a difference to others if I was wallowing in self-pity with a bottle of wine? Sometimes it seems to me that today’s prevalent therapy culture is connected to the extreme solipsism of our time. There is an overt focus on the individual: me, myself, I ad nauseam. In my five sober years I have been able to break away from the extreme and excessive focus on the self (trust me, I still have moments) and commit to making a difference on a scale that is far bigger than myself. It seems to be the key: when your commitment in life is large (being a parent is a great example), your personal concerns dwarf in comparison, and the issues become matters to take care of rather than be consumed by.
Sometimes it seems to me that today’s prevalent therapy culture is connected to the extreme solipsism of our time. There is an overt focus on the individual: me, myself, I ad nauseam.
As I got stronger, I created the possibility of financial freedom. That may not sound ground-breaking, but when you’re nearly $90K in debt, as I was, (not from a mortgage but a student loan and a credit card) financial freedom appeared to be completely unattainable. Up to that point my desperate attempts at experiencing financial freedom consisted of ignoring phone calls and emails from debt collectors. Or when it got really tough, I’d be drowning out those noises with some pinot grigio. Five years later, my debt is at less than $15K and 2017 is the year in which I will be debt free for the first time since I was 20. More importantly, I don’t have any fear of any phone calls or emails about money. I know what I owe and when each payment is due. This was not possible with alcohol in the equation. In the years since, I’ve expanded that possibility to abundance. I don’t mean abundance simplistically as having a lot of money; I still have months where I have very little. Rather, it is the experience of life as one of abundance that I can generate regardless of my bank statement. That said, I track my debts every two weeks, and the satisfaction I get from seeing the numbers going down is immense.
As I have written previously, I also created the possibility of an athlete. Now, on my smoking record alone this possibility was laughable and with drinking in the mix, it would have been impossible. And yet, four months into my sobriety I stubbed out my last cigarette and started running a week later. Inside the context of the possibility of an athlete – sorry, that is a mouthful and yet I ask you to really take it in – that was relatively easy. I would ask myself in the morning: Who are you to yourself? and respond: I am the possibility of an athlete (and the possibility of financial freedom). Going for a run or going to the gym was easy and continues to be easy within that context. I have learned that if I really want to transform something about my life, starting with the context makes a huge difference. Quitting smoking was not a powerful context for me; I had spent years quitting smoking. The possibility of an athlete was, and it carries me today. Before I could deal with cigarettes, however, I had to deal with alcohol. Even one glass of wine quickly led to bad decisions, the first of which was usually a second glass of wine, with a cigarette in between.
Five years of freedom and clarity
In the early months of sobriety my commitments were often short-term. Half an hour before bed I’d declared to myself: tonight I will not drink. The old me could run to the shop and buy a bottle of wine and down it in 15 minutes, so sometimes as little as a minute was crucial in staying sober. I’d decide: for the next minute I will stay in the house and not go buy wine.
Being part of a community made a difference in this. As well as group therapy, I attended meetings with SMART Recovery once or twice a week, and logged into the online forum several times a day. Naturally I looked into 12-step programs, but I found their use of language inconsistent with how I used language to design my life. Namely, I did not, and do not, see myself as powerless around alcohol. That said, I remind myself not to be smug about it; others may consider themselves powerless. The SMART Recovery online community was a lifeline when I couldn’t sleep at 3am and calling friends wasn’t an option. Counting each sober day was important for the first six months and I would share the count on the online forum. From fellow members I would receive words of encouragement, and return them. There we were, complete strangers as each other’s source of affirmation and validation, as a source of community. As sober days turned to sober weeks and sober weeks into sober months, I became a resource to others who struggled with relapse after a week or two of sobriety. Although I never intended to leave my SMART community, working on an intense project during the summer of 2012 left me less time to log in, and I transitioned into my sober life without that support structure. SMART is based on principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and as such was, for me, compatible with the ontologically based self-development training I had done. A combination of SMART Recovery and twice-weekly sessions of group therapy for addiction for six months gave me the tools to stay sober each day. I am thankful SMART Recovery exists: thank you, always, whoever you are.
Looking back at five years of clarity – with two leaps years that is 1827 days of sobriety – the hardest thing has been forgiving myself. Forgiving myself for the damage caused to the people I love the most, to my body, to my emotions, to my finances. Forgiving myself for all that was at times excruciating. A Biblical Jubilee is the wholesale forgiveness of debt, and that sums my experience: a painful, joyful, healing jubilee of forgiveness. In moments I even feel guilty that I have not relapsed. I am all too aware of how common and heart-breaking relapses are. If you relapse, forgive yourself, get up and get on. Get in touch, if it helps. I am deeply grateful to have people in my life – my husband and my best friend to name two – who are fiercely loving in their support of my sobriety. Many others tolerate my sobriety. Being generous towards this tolerance can be challenging. I come from Finland, where alcohol is rarely discussed in honest terms. Destructive drinking is routinely normalised. For example, it is acceptable to drink to a point of blackout, loss of memory. It is acceptable to drink to a point where you throw up everything you had eaten the previous day. It is acceptable to pick a drunken fight over things that don’t matter. I don’t mean acceptable for teenagers testing their limits: this is people in their thirties, forties, fifties, behaving tragically and yet it is very rarely acknowledged. You don’t need to look hard in Finland to find it (and not that hard in the US or Australia either), and yet it is rarely talked about. Lives are destroyed, albeit at an almost imperceptible rate, and we hardly talk about it. Excessive drinking is often disguised as a normative part of being social, of being a fun person, while sobriety is often discussed as the exception from the norm. Both Finnish and English languages have several derogatory ways to refer to sober people: teetotaler, raivoraitis and so on.
I come from Finland, where alcohol is rarely discussed in honest terms. Destructive drinking is routinely normalised.
Through the foggy years, I was a highly functioning drunk. Portions of my PhD dissertation were fuelled by pinot grigio. You may rightly question the validity of my doctorate, however, I will point out that the final nine months of editing were my first nine months of sobriety and I edited the entire dissertation sober. Furthermore, creatively and professionally I am at my most productive today, and in part I have my sobriety to thank for that. My body works and my mind works. Back when I drank I used to tell myself that I was at my most creative while drunk, and sure, I had some results to convince myself of that. Nevertheless, I regard the past two years as the most creative of my life, and I know that would not be the case if I still drank. I might not even be alive if I had kept drinking.
I regard the past two years as the most creative of my life, and I know that would not be the case if I still drank. I might not even be alive if I had kept drinking.
With this accomplishment comes responsibility. I strive to be kind, generous and forgiving towards those who struggle with alcohol or other addictions. Sustained sobriety can bring about swift and easy judgment of others. I have seen fellow sober people at their ugliest upon hearing of the deaths of Whitney Houston and George Michael: “Well, s/he had it coming because s/he was a drug addict/drunk.” I was only a few weeks into my sobriety when Houston passed away, and was immediately reminded of the clinic director’s words: this is life or death for you. Whenever I sense my smugness and self-righteousness emerging, I manage them. Neither will save lives. Compassion just might.