Real Life

REAL LIFE: I gave up alcohol in my late 50s after discovering 'grey area drinking'

One glass was never enough for me.

By Claudia Poposki

Robyn Flemming, 69, from Sydney, shares her inspirational story

Clipping the leads on to my two dogs, Charlie and Butch, I headed out the door for a walk in the crisp Albury air before bed.
I'd had people over for dinner and finished a fourth glass of wine after they'd left and needed to clear my head.
Suddenly, a car whooshed past.
"You're so ugly," a teenager shouted out the window.
My blood ran cold. Could they tell my secret? Were my outsides finally reflecting my insides?
Immediately, I rushed home, walked to the fridge and pulled out another bottle of wine. I poured a glass. And then another. And another.
I knew I needed to help others. (Image: Supplied)
Waking the next morning, I was on top of my bed sheets, in the same clothes.
Shame filled me. Something had to give.
I'd always enjoyed a glass of white wine, but when I moved to Hong Kong in my 30s to pursue a career in publishing, alcohol became something I needed.
A glass to finish the working day. A glass to wind down. A glass to help me sleep.
Each day, I'd wake up filled with anxiety.
I soon found myself planning my day around drinking and hiding it from the people around me, as they never wanted to drink as much I did and I didn't want them to see I had an issue.
There were a few times someone noticed.
Me (right) when I worked in Hong Kong. (Image: Supplied)
Once, a dentist was shining a light into my open mouth.
"Are you a drinker," she asked.
I nodded.
"I can smell it on your breath – I made a note the last time you were here."
In that moment, I vowed to find a new dentist. She had been too close to my secret.
There was more than one occasion where I tried to stop – making deals with myself every morning that the day would be different.
At one breaking point, I returned to Australia, thinking I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I even stopped drinking for 11 months.
Then, I started again.
But now my habit became worse and I was drinking one-and-a-half bottles of wine a night. For 17 years, I tried other ways to manage my drinking - like running marathons, trekking Kokoda and eventually becoming a global nomad and travelling the world.
At age 58, while in New York, I got to a point where I knew I had to stop.
I would plan my day around my drinking. (Image: Supplied)
I decided to buy myself three more bottles. When I got to the final bottle on the second day, I enjoyed my last five glasses of white wine, as a final farewell.
Spill it, I thought.
It meant I could buy another bottle and start over again.
But I stopped myself, physically sitting on my hands. And, after the last drop, that was it.
The entire next day was spent avoiding bottle shops and I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Nerves filled me.
Should I even be here, I thought.
I sat back and listened as other addicts spoke about their addictions and what it had cost them. There were horror stories of people losing their jobs, licences, and children.
It took a few meetings before I was willing to share.
In Switzerland on my travels. (Image: Supplied)
Finally, I sucked in a breath.
"Hi, I'm Robyn, and I have a problem with alcohol," I told the room.
Each day, I'd find a new meeting to go to. I took it one step at a time. Looking too far forward made me want to run back into bed with a bottle of booze.
It was hard, as wine was my crutch and something that I used to help ease my anxiety. I had to find other ways to cope with the things that ate at me.
It was during one AA meeting that I learned that alcoholism was a sliding scale.
I also learnt the term 'grey area drinking'. It means the person isn't quite on the extreme scale of an alcohol use disorder, but enough to have the drinker question their relationship with alcohol, having it impact their life and blacking out often.
This had been my biggest barrier in seeking help, as I didn't believe my problem qualified me as someone with an addiction, as I was high-functioning and so few realised I had an issue.
I was so wrong – and I know so many other women out there are in the same place but don't seek the help they need because of it.
My last drink was in 2011.
These days, I feel so much better than when I was drinking. (Image: Supplied)
I knew I had a story to tell in 2015, after being sober for more than three years and feeling so much more refreshed in my life than I had felt in my 30s and 40s at the height of my drinking.
So, I put pen to paper and wrote a book.
The title – Skinful – came from two places. The first being the Aussie slang term about drinking enough alcohol to make one drunk. The other was about feeling at home in my own skin and going through a journey of independence and finally being at home within myself without needing a crutch.
I just want other people in a similar position to what I was, to read this and have conversations about grey area drinking, acknowledging there is a scale of alcoholism, and get the help they need.
If I can help one person wake up without feeling the way I felt – planning my entire life around my next drink and how to hide it – then I have done a good job.
Skinful: A Memoir of Addiction, published by Brio Books, is available to buy now.

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