Coach Alex: Thank you for inviting us so intimately into your life, Dirk. It’s amazing to reconnect with you after all this time! I gather life hasn’t been easy for you over the past few years in your struggles with addiction.
Dirk: Thanks for inviting me to join you here Alex. Yeah, I’m an alcoholic, and even though I’m one year sober, I always will be. I had my first serious binge at the age of 12 and when I went to college at 17, the floodgates opened. I’ve always felt this need to escape. Booze became my way of processing any form of emotion – up or down. I learned to wear many masks from an early age because I didn’t know how to do it differently. Maybe it was because I was an only child, or all the moving we did as a family and always having to make new friends.
Looking back, I grew up with a deep insecurity that made me constantly seek affirmation from others. There was always this fear that lived within me of not doing something right and what would happen – this irrational, paralyzing fear of failing for others. This fear and feeling out of place took me down a very dark and harmful path.
Coach Alex: The connection you make between fear and dark paths is one I believe many can relate to, but it’s not something we are in the habit of talking openly about. We tend to keep the messy details of our lives behind closed doors – and yet it’s the messiness that connects us all. Are you open to sharing the path alcoholism took you down?
Dirk: Of course. I can tell you that I hit rock bottom twice. First time, I passed out in a theatre, opening night. Fell off a bar stool and was carried off by friends. They told both myself and my ex wife that this was a cry for help. But as I’ve been expertly doing all my life, I manipulated my way out, promising I would “do better”. I got away with it.
This is when my alcoholism and self destruction became more secretive. The parties I attended couldn’t end quick enough so that I could go home and drink more. My drug of choice was always “more”. In the end, passing out was not enough. I tipped over 250 pounds and I struggled to breathe. I still didn’t think I had a problem and I didn’t tell anyone, including doctors, that I was drinking as heavily as I was.
After being diagnosed with atrium fibrillation and heart failure, I was admitted to the ICU. I spent 8 weeks in hospital, plugged into heart monitors and had two strokes there. I lost the ability to speak and the entire left side of my body became temporarily paralyzed. The doctors successfully removed a blood clot from my brain. I left the hospital with a pace maker, a dozen heart pills, speech problems, a wife and foster child.
One month after being discharged from hospital, I downed a whole bottle of wine. The doctors had told me that alcohol would kill me in the long run. I was still in complete denial. Not once did I see the necessity to stop and absolutely not to share. Even a year later when my new baby came into my life.
Denial, fear and drinking continued to rule my life until my second rock bottom moment when I was rushed in an ambulance to hospital and admitted to the ICU again with alcohol blood levels of 5.2 (4.0 is considered lethal). Doctors pumped my stomach and I woke up to doctors telling me that I had a big problem. Complete panic set in as I was outed for the first time in front of those I feared most of disappointing. This time, I left the hospital jobless and with a separation from my wife and daughter.
I was being ruled by a punishing cycle of relief and paranoia – relief when I drank, paranoia of getting caught and relief when I got away with it. The amount of times an alcoholic is caught is less than the amount of times an alcoholic relapses. My biggest fear was not dying, it was getting caught and disappointing those I loved most. I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unimaginable. I had isolated myself from everyone, which is the greatest danger to an alcoholic, or any addict for that matter. I loathed myself and relapsed quickly.
Coach Alex: I can’t imagine what an extraordinarily difficult, lonely and frightening time this must have been for you and your family. How did you pull yourself out of all that darkness?
Dirk: I got help. I went to a rehab clinic twice, for a total of 6 months. The first time didn’t work because I did it for “my wife” or “my daughter” or “my parents”. The second time worked because I did it for “myself” – the source of the problem. My last drink was on September 23rd, 2016 on a plane to the clinic in South Africa.
It wasn’t until I started connecting inward that I made a break through. In rehab, I started focusing on my emotions, something I had little experience with and a paralyzing fear of. At first, I couldn’t summon anger or tears. I remember my first cry that wasn’t instigated by self pity and it felt great. I brought more awareness and tools into my life through a combination of AA, therapy, coaching and rehab.
In Cape Town, I heard an AA old timer share once that he felt liberated when he learned that he was powerless over alcohol but what really freed him was realizing that he was powerless over other people.
Coach Alex: You’ve been sober for one year now – HUGE congrats for that! You’ve been working very hard to create your own recipe for what works and it sounds like you’re on a solid path. What’s been working for you in terms of staying sober?
Dirk: The danger of relapse for me is being isolated and disconnected. So my strategy for sobriety is staying connected to myself, my environment and the people around me. This means saying what’s wrong and speaking out. If I get that weird, sinking, empty feeling that is very familiar to me, I accept this is part of who I am, it’s part of my life. I’ve learned that meaningful connection with people means saying things out loud. Conversations like this one, with you, keep me out of danger. I have to keep reminding myself of where I came from and where I am now.
I appreciate honest exchanges. I believe in something greater than myself. I meditate. And I do the next right thing for me instead of taking easy route. When I get that empty feeling that I used to fill with alcohol, I come back to the NOW. I ask, “what can I do about this situation now”? And if I can’t do anything, I just have to let it go. It costs me a lot of effort to accept life as it is and live in the present moment. Every night, I write out my fear, resentments and harm. Then, I say to myself, “what’s your part in all of this”? More often than not, the source of all three is me not speaking out. I take responsibility.
I appreciate more what’s around me. I was walking through a forest with a friend the other day and I noticed that I was taking in nature instead of looking down at my shoes. I realize that connecting – whether emotionally or other ways – and being vulnerable is not as scary as I thought. I procrastinate less so that catastrophe doesn’t mount in my mind. Life is what gets thrown at you and I’m learning to live life on life’s terms.
Coach Alex: That sounds like the brilliance of connection alright! Asking for and accepting help from others is the only way out of our dark and dusty corners but so many of us struggle with this. What are your thoughts on why it’s so hard to reach out when we most need it?
Dirk: I didn’t reach out because I thought I was burdening people with my problems. That’s my “poster boy” answer. The truth is that I never asked for help out of fear – fear of rejection, judgement and feeling like I’ve failed somehow. I figured, if I owned my “problem”, then I would have to do something about it and that scared the living shit out of me.
If you don’t ask for help, you get to stay in hiding even though it might be slowly killing you. I think I’m addicted to creating dark clouds, it’s a powerful distraction technique! With every success that I have, I follow with “BUT”.
Coach Alex: Oh, I can assure you, you’re not alone on that! You mentioned that life still “scares the shit out of you”, what scares you most?
Dirk: I’m scared most of not being a good father. Deep down, I know that I am a good father but I think I may fear the responsibility. I fear failing as a father, and I fear failing in life.
Coach Alex: What do you perceive to be your biggest loss?
Dirk: My biggest loss is giving 20 years of my life to numbness. It’s not being able to share my life with someone I love. I feel that loss every day of my life. I wish I could have saved myself sooner. I lost a lot of relationships. But now I am seeing choice differently and I have no back doors open. There is no will in me to drink ever again. Everything that’s happened in my life has brought me to here.
Coach Alex: That’s a beautiful reframe on loss. Thank you for that. You’ve noted that your sharing is part of your healing. What’s important to you about being open and vulnerable?
Dirk: I think what I’m appreciating about vulnerability is that it creates intimacy. I’ve always had trouble being in a relationship with a girl. I’ve struggled with intimacy. Men struggle with vulnerability, which is why I think it’s important for us to practice interacting with one another more intimately, and I’m starting to initiate more of that. I think that in my age category the tipping point is fatherhood. Life changes when you become a father. My shame is that I was a father twice in my life but my denial about my disease was more powerful.
Coach Alex: People who have walked the path before you have said that you’d have “the best year” in your first year of sobriety. You didn’t believe them at the time but now, you’re starting to understand. What’s been opening up for you in life?
Dirk: Yes, this is true! I’ve been doing a lot of meaningful things that I couldn’t imagine doing before. I volunteer in a restaurant and in a hospital for the terminally ill (the amount of acceptance that they shine out is inspirational!). I go to three AA meetings a week where sometimes I’m invited to speak. Movement is very important because it helps create momentum so I’m on my bike a lot. I just started a coaching and counselling course.
A few weeks ago, I bought my first house and I hope to find a job that gives me regularity and a good livelihood so that I’m not dependant. It will take time to win back the trust with my ex wife but I hope this will be possible in future. I hope to be a great father and find someone that I can share my life with. I believe in living amends. I believe in doing your best, and if you feel the need to escape, just say it.
Coach Alex: Did you ever think you would be able to get here today?
Dirk: No. I never knew this place existed! But being here now is definitely working for me.
Coach Alex: Well, I’m so glad you’re here too, Dirk. Thank you for agreeing to share your magnificent heart, mind and soul with us today. Your story carries much guts, sincerity and hope – I know you will continue to touch many people’s lives. I’m looking forward to an update on all things Dirk next year! If you could leave us with one message today, what would it be?
Dirk: If you’re having a shitty day, take a long walk around the park and remember that all your issues, all your fears live in the past. Because if I honestly look at my life with all the angst, setbacks and regrets, the flip side is good health, meaningful connection, fatherhood and a future. Now is the best it has ever been.
In the famous words of Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift and that’s why they call it present”!
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