High-functioning alcoholics: A hidden hell

About 10 percent of the population have a drinking problem, estimates Otago University Professor Doug Sellman.

About 10 percent of the population have a drinking problem, estimates Otago University Professor Doug Sellman.

For a decade, Denise Cloughley sipped her way through a bottle of wine plus one glass – always the cheeky extra glass – each evening as she made dinner for her family. A casting director in Queenstown and mother to a blended family of five children, she needed help loosening her shoulders at the end of the day. Anyone in her position would.

Her husband didn't like it, but for a long time he didn't say much, because Cloughley, now 50, was managing it all with skill and humour. She had a high tolerance for alcohol; she didn't suffer hangovers, or embarrass herself at parties. Her children made it to school with full lunch boxes, her work got done.

"Everything was in the right place," she remembers. "It was a very busy lifestyle but I thought I could cope with it."

At former alcoholic Denise Cloughey's lowest point, she was 20 kilograms underweight and her hair was falling out.

At former alcoholic Denise Cloughey's lowest point, she was 20 kilograms underweight and her hair was falling out.

Even as cracks spread across her careful facade, she believed that she could fix things. But being a smart, well-off professional with a loving family offered her no protection from what was to follow.

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At the time of the interview, Cloughley has been sober for 776 days.

At the time of the interview, Cloughley has been sober for 776 days.

"Alcohol doesn't discriminate," says Cloughley. "If you are going to fall into substance abuse and have a disorder, it doesn't matter if you are wearing Jimmy Choos or jandals."

When Cloughley hit her early 40s, sauvignon blanc stopped being fun. The relaxation no longer spread through her body like quicksilver as she neared the bottom of her glass. She needed to drink just to feel normal, then just to kick-start her day. Only she knew how much trouble she was in: the blackouts, the sweats, the constant fear of being found out.

The insidious slide into alcohol dependence is sometimes slow, the work of many years, a steady drip onto a block of stone that will inevitably create a hole.

Health advocates say that we are a nation in denial, that many of us have no idea how close we are to slipping into the same danger zone that nearly claimed Cloughley.

Professor Doug Sellman of Otago University's National Addiction Centre, perhaps the most vocal, says about 10 percent of the population – more than 400,000 of us – have a drinking problem, if you accept the new diagnostic criteria which lump together alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence. If you include the people who are hurt emotionally or physically by a loved one's drinking, many more are affected.

The thing that makes alcohol abuse so slippery to deal with is the social acceptability of drinking.

Much is made of the pressures on teenagers and early 20-somethings to binge drink, but even in the tastefully decorated living rooms of the middle-aged and middle-class, alcohol is hard to get away from.

There's the 'I made it to Friday' reward with colleagues, the girls' night out over cocktails, the stylish dinner party where the duck is matched with pinot noir. It is possible in this environment to hide your problem, for many years, though not usually forever.

If anyone phoned Cloughley in the evening, she would take notes of their conversation, so she could respond appropriately the next time they spoke, because she knew she'd have no memory of the conversation. She sucked mints constantly to mask the sweet alcohol smell that came from within.

When her husband and friends suggested she cut back, she hid bottles around the house. Under the bed, in the legs of her boots, under the hood of her car, out in the garden. She dropped empties in her neighbours' recycling bin.

"I needed to protect it, the thing that allowed me to breathe easy," she says shaking her head, trying to explain her behaviour and knowing how utterly bonkers it sounds. "The choice was gone, it was too late for me."

When we meet in Auckland on a sticky summer afternoon, Cloughley has been sober for 776 days.

She is tanned and bright-eyed, funny, sharp and utterly changed from the desperate woman she describes, the one who was arrested after she ran away from rehab and was flown from Wellington to Christchurch handcuffed to a cop. The one who hit rock bottom, "grabbed a shovel and was digging a six-foot grave".

It took many false starts to get to this calm and healthy place. Before she did, she lost her husband and some of her friends, and she nearly lost her eldest son.

She knows that for the rest of her life, she cannot have a drink, not even one. But that is too frightening for her to live with on a daily basis, so instead she tells herself, 'I can't drink today.'

Our alcohol problem is misunderstood and vastly oversimplified by the media and general population, says addiction recovery specialist Matt Bird, chief executive of The Retreat in Otahuhu, Auckland.

Environment, family history, mental health and behavioural patterns all play a part in whether someone can drink a beer and feel satisfied, or can never get enough. Yes, our heavy-drinking Kiwi good-sort culture is a factor, but it doesn't make us special. The UK, Australia, Canada and the US are also rife with problem drinking.

"We can't [speak about] New Zealand as one thing," he says. "Go to Taupo, go to [Auckland's] Viaduct, spend some time in Gore and tell me they feel like the same country."

He concedes that "if you look purely at the guidelines, we do too much stuff," but he is unwilling to label alcohol indulgence as bad, because it doesn't derail everyone.

Himself a sober alcoholic and former drug abuser, Bird sought help young. Now 27, he has been clean for eight years.

His father had a drinking problem (Michael Bird, NZ Society of Alcohol and Drug Dependence executive director) and has been sober for 20 years.

Matt Bird believes genetics is partly responsible for his addiction. He tried his first drink at four, knew how to mix a gin and tonic at five, was drinking with like-minded friends at 13 and drinking alone by 14. His father became suspicious when Bird was 16 and sent him along to CADS (Community Alcohol and Drug Services), but it was another three years before he wanted the help.

"I didn't live a life where I felt I was doing anything wrong, and I would probably hold to that today," he says. "Destructive? Yes. Was I unwell? Yes. Bad and wrong? No."

Sober life is so different to what came before that, when asked about it he says, "What hasn't changed?" But realising that he had a problem with alcohol and had to give it up, well, that was like "leaving your family/best friend/lover who has filled every void for you and has turned on you". It left Bird living, rather poetically, in a halfway house down Dominion Road, trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Lotta Dann, 44, laughingly calls herself "the poster girl for sobriety". She runs the website Living Sober, supported by the NZ Drug Foundation, and wrote a book on her journey towards an alcohol-free life, Mrs D Is Going Without.

Lotta Dann, once an alcoholic, now runs the Living Sober website.
David White

Lotta Dann, once an alcoholic, now runs the Living Sober website.

Like Cloughley, Dann drank for 20 years before she faced up to her problem. The moment when she hid a bottle of wine she planned to drink from her husband, TVNZ political editor Corin Dann, was her "bottom".

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It's what's known as a high bottom, which is fortunate for the couple and their three young boys – many wait until their lives are virtually destroyed before they stop drinking. Dann embarked on her sober journey with the aid of an anonymous blog – a way of venting her conflicted feelings as she faced familiar situations sober for the first time: a family wedding, her husband's Christmas work do, cooking dinner in the early evening summer sunshine sans a glass of chardonnay.

The blog gained traction online and Dann eventually came out with much media fanfare and revealed her identity as a middle-class Wellington mother and the wife of a TV journalist, no less. Now she is committed to joyfully embracing her sobriety and offering her hand to the thousands of people who come to her website seeking community, advice, and mocktail recipes.

Dann: "We live in a booze-soaked world, every social event is liberally lubricated."
David White

Dann: "We live in a booze-soaked world, every social event is liberally lubricated."

"We live in a booze-soaked world, every social event is liberally lubricated," says Dann.

"We have this amazing capacity to hold down these busy lives, yet we still manage to sink and process a s***load of alcohol. It's so acceptable to drink wine every day, that's how we end the day. That's what leads to the insidious drinking, I think. It's when you have that sort of habit of drinking that the addiction, the drug, really gets its claws in. It happens slowly."

Dann says that problem drinkers know there is something wrong long before they will admit it to themselves, protecting their secret as they build successful careers and families, madly juggling the different facets of their lives.

"It's a very quiet, private struggle. Waking up guilty, half the day you know there's a problem and then the other half of the day you're convincing yourself you deserve a drink. The struggle goes away when you decide to drink, and it comes back when you wake up hungover."

While alcoholism doesn't observe the social boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, the path of a middle-class alcoholic can diverge from a less privileged addict. For a while, money can cushion the blows. Cloughley, even when sick and wrung out, made sure her children were taken care of.

"You don't let the kids miss anything, you make that a priority," she says. "Where you're failing mentally and physically the cravings are really set in place, you'll do anything not to have your children miss anything. You just try harder to be super mum. I was trying so hard to be perfect in so many other areas."

Jackson James Wood, 30, flourished professionally while struggling with alcohol. A heavy drinker at university, he kept up the habit while establishing himself as a respected communications advisor for the Green Party and Drug Foundation. Living in Wellington, he was a "social chameleon" and there was always someone to meet for drinks somewhere.

Jackson James Wood, a reformed alcoholic: "I love that I have so much more energy. I have significantly more money than ...
David White

Jackson James Wood, a reformed alcoholic: "I love that I have so much more energy. I have significantly more money than I had before."

Sober for three years, he says, "I was relying on alcohol more and more as a social tool, but also to get through the day, to take the edge off. When I drank I would make stupid decisions and do stupid things that would get in the way of friendships and family and relationships. I managed to alienate a whole bunch of people from my life who I thought I could rely on and I didn't really understand it."

Other people didn't realise that his destructive behaviour was related to drink. Wood decided to quit after a big night out when he spent $2000 shouting drinks at a bar. "I ended up at home by myself thinking, 'I f***ed up again.' I drank three quarters of a bottle of Scotch and then thought, 'crap, I'm going to have a really bad hangover tomorrow,' and I took a bunch of sleeping pills." When he woke up there was blood in the bed.

Now he says, "I love waking up on Saturday and Sunday morning and not having a hangover. I love that I have so much more energy. I have significantly more money than I had before. I can hold down friendships, I can be the sober driver."

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The only time he feels he is missing out is when he is at an event and there are multiple types of wine and beer on offer, and for non-drinkers just water or orange juice. Otherwise, he never feels the need to explain himself, although attending a social occasion without a drink in hand sometimes invites unwanted attention.

"There's always that one guy at the party that presses the issue. I was at a wedding a couple of years ago, making a Soda Stream, and a guy comes over and says, 'What are you doing – why don't you have a beer?' He says, 'It takes a brave man to not drink in New Zealand's heavy drinking culture,' and wandered drunkenly off. He ended up covered in vomit in the shower."

After Cloughley's children left home and her marriage fell apart ("My husband tried everything in his power to help me"), she was relieved, even as she was disgusted with herself for feeling that way. She no longer needed to hide her addiction. She drank all day, draining four bottles before she passed out at night. She woke up craving alcohol. As soon as the supermarket opened at 8am she would go in and buy booze. To disguise her problem, she would add milk, bacon, mints and the newspaper to her shopping basket. "I've got friends coming over," she would tell the checkout operator.

The next day she would go to a different supermarket.

At her lowest point, she was 20 kilograms underweight and her hair was falling out. She flew to Queenstown for the wedding of a young man she'd known his whole life.

"I arrived and I was drunk. I went to bed and they decided not to wake me up to get me ready for the wedding. The next day the groom came over, a darling boy I have known since he was born, took one look at me and burst out crying. He just didn't know what to say. I didn't know it had got so bad. To say I had no self respect is an understatement."

A month later she went to rehab and, this time, it worked. "I was completely and utterly exhausted. I thought it was just me feeling this," she says, but sharing her anxieties and shame with people who understood eventually made them go away.


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 - Sunday Magazine

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