Whenever I’m approached for help by someone who is struggling with their drinking, I always ask the same question before anything else – ‘do you suffer withdrawals when you stop?’.
If they’re unsure, I go on to ask how much they’ve been drinking and how many days, weeks, months they’ve been drinking at that level.
I do this because alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. In fact, it is the most dangerous drug to withdraw from if you are dependant. More dangerous than heroine or cocaine.
Recently a doctor, who is obviously far more qualified than me, confirmed this for me.
It means, for many, getting sober is not just as simple as going cold turkey. There is a whole mountain to climb first.
To give yourself a shot at sobriety, you first have to either wean yourself off alcohol or (if you’re really lucky) get a medical detox.
For an alcoholic, weaning yourself off alcohol is incredibly difficult. And a medical detox is not an easy thing to gain access to.
In 2013, when I was 23, I had just been told I had a place in residential rehab – but it wasn’t going to be available for a couple of weeks.
At the time I was drinking well over a litre of vodka a day. I was completely dependant on alcohol, both physically and mentally. Before you enter rehab you usually go to a detox centre to be medically weaned off alcohol.
The problem was, I had a two-week gap. At that point, the doctors told my parents I had to keep drinking until I made it to the detox house. It was too dangerous for me to go cold turkey.
So, my amazing mum had to ration me vodka for two weeks – but we’re not just talking a shot here and there.
I needed a 700ml bottle a day because of the quantity I had been drinking. Half in the morning and half at night.
I will never be able to repay my parents for what I’ve put them through. Imagine having to give your son the thing that is killing him, because the alternative is even more dangerous.
They are my hero’s.
So what do withdrawals look like……
People suffering severe alcohol withdrawal go through something called the DT’s – or delirium tremens. The thought of going through them again makes me feel physically sick.
When most people think of alcohol withdrawal, they just envisage someone with the shakes. Shaking uncontrollably is a symptom of the DT’s, however it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve had two seizures from going cold turkey on alcohol whilst dependant. Well, two that I can remember. Seizures are common. I’ve seen a number of people new into rehab have them, and they are terrifying. They can also lead to death.
Another charming symptom of the DT’s is severe hallucinations. Imagine all your worst nightmares coming to life, and you’ll be on the right track.
I knew nothing about withdrawals until I experienced them. I had no idea you could have seizures, until I had my first one. And I had no idea you could hallucinate, until it happened to me.
I was 22 and very much dependent on alcohol. I had been drinking heavily every day for a long time and found myself approaching rock bottom. Without knowing how dangerous it was, I went cold turkey.
For two days I was violently ill and constantly shaking from the withdrawal. I thought to myself, ‘I just need to get through this sickness, and I can stop drinking from now on’. I had no idea I was about to temporarily lose my mind.
The hallucinations began small but were easily enough to make me think I was going mad. First, I was seeing tiny bits of coving fly off the wall towards me.
Next, out of the corner of my I eye, I kept seeing heads popping around the doorway and windows before disappearing.
Soon my legs were being tied together with cobwebs and the floor had become a bed of insects and spiders.
As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, I then began seeing the locks on the door and windows turning as if someone was trying to get in. I spent what felt like hours running between the door and windows to relock them.
This went on and on, and progressively got worse and worse.
I was literally living a nightmare and I had no idea why it was happening. I thought I had lost my sanity.
After hours of hallucinations, I ended up running (in just my trousers) towards traffic on a main road in the middle of winter!
I was trying to get someone to stop because I genuinely thought someone was trying to kill me. Eventually, a stranger stopped and took me to the police station where they called an ambulance.
After describing all of the things I’d seen to the paramedics, they asked if I had taken anything.
At this point, I told them how ill I had been because I had stopped drinking.
As soon as I had explained the quantity of drink I had been consuming daily and that it had been going on for months, they knew what was wrong with me.
I had the DT’S from alcohol withdrawal, and I had them bad!
I spent another three days hallucinating in hospital whilst they detoxed me with medication. During those three days, one of doctors told my parents they were not sure if I would regain my sanity.
Luckily, I recovered. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was to be the first of many episodes of severe withdrawal for me.
I guess what I’m trying to say is – staying sober is the ultimate goal, but getting sober in the first place is no walk in the park.
If medical detox’s were made more accessible – followed by ongoing support – we may see more people recovering from alcoholism.
Something needs to change.
Thanks for reading and stay safe, Toby x