Why I Stopped Drinking at 58 — and How I Actually Managed to

Robyn Flemming is the author of SKINFUL: A Memoir of Addiction and a freelance editor. She quit smoking at 50, became a global nomad at 57, and got sober at 58. She has run five marathons and 48 half marathons and walked the Kokoda Trail. She believes that the turning points that are an inevitable part of our journey through life provide us with regular opportunities to ask: Who am I? What life do I want to live?

In writing my recovery story, I learnt a lot about myself, and about the relationship that researchers have found to exist between adverse or traumatic childhood experiences and susceptibility to addiction.

In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr Gabor Maté, an expert on addiction, trauma and childhood development, writes: ‘Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside of you, as a result of what happened to you.’ And: ‘Addictions … are emotional anaesthetics [that] ease psychological discomfort … A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.’

At one end of the spectrum of childhood adversity or trauma is abuse so horrendous, it’s traumatic even to imagine it, let alone experience it. At the other end are the physical, psychological, and emotional bumps and scrapes that everyone experiences, and that make us resilient and equip us to live in the real world.


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I got off lightly, except for repeated incidences of harsh physical discipline by my father that caused me to feel fear, pain and resentment; and a one-off incident, involving an unknown person, that I could endure only by numbing all my feelings. Around those negative experiences was a general sense, from a very young age, that I was on my own in some essential way.

I experienced insufficient attachment and nurturing from my parents, not through neglect or design, but because they were young, overburdened and stressed. My mother and father had themselves experienced adversity and been insufficiently nurtured as children. So, in addition to specific negative experiences, I lacked certain important positive experiences as a child.

The place where I might have felt more nurtured than I did became a void, which raised two basic questions: Who was I? and Was I loved? That empty space sought to be filled by something. I tried to soothe myself with food, sex, cigarettes, recreational drugs, shopping, exercise, alcohol, but the answers to these questions always proved elusive.


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Along with using substances and behaviours to try to fill that empty space, I turned to them to numb feelings that were too uncomfortable to experience unfiltered. So, I emerged from childhood with two classic preconditions for addictive behaviours: a void that I sought to fill, and emotional pain that I sought to numb.

Of course, I also had many positive experiences as a child. Nevertheless, I learnt early to be my own primary carer, but as inexperienced and damaged as I was, I wasn’t always the best person to care for me. Not knowing who I was meant to be, I felt insecure around being seen, which made it difficult to be intimate in later relationships.

My addictive substance of choice became alcohol, specifically white wine. Wine is legal, socially sanctioned and readily available. I could be seen drinking a glass of wine and yet have my addiction to it remain mostly invisible. I was under the radar, the way many ‘grey area drinkers’ are. ‘Grey area drinking’ is now understood to be excessive drinking that’s been normalised by our society.

After more than 40 years of drinking, the last two decades of which I spent trying to manage my growing dependence, I finally admitted defeat. The personal cost of the momentary relief alcohol provided was too great. I was no longer prepared to trade my dignity, self-respect, peace of mind, happiness, and physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing for a bottomless bottle of white wine.


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How, then, was I to break my addiction?

First, I had to fully and finally accept that I had tried and failed to drink in a way that didn’t cause me harm. Once I reached that state of acceptance, I could begin to reprogram myself. I turned initially to the recovery community, which helped me to break long-established habits and routines around drinking and provided opportunities to develop relationships with people who knew how I felt and had found a way to change their lives for the better. I took what worked for me and left the rest.

Connection with and attachment to others who understood why I had used alcohol the way I did inspired me to find other ways to meet my unmet emotional needs. I slowly became used to feeling and acknowledging whatever emotions came up, and I broke big things down into tiny manageable bits, just as I did when running a marathon or hiking at altitude or over a long distance.

Slowly, I became more confident that I could handle whatever might happen between when I awoke in the morning and when I lay down to sleep at night. My senses sharpened and I experienced sights and sounds and smells more acutely. As my confidence grew, the gatekeeper that, since childhood, had protected the inner me from the unpredictable, sometimes hostile world around me was able to relax its vigilance. I was finally starting to change on the inside.

I have lived an alcohol-free life since August 29, 2011. In order not to drink, I have had to find ways to nourish and nurture, instead of harming, my body, mind and spirit. I believe that we must each find our own path to a place of self-acceptance from where we can choose the life we want to live. I can (mostly) live comfortably with myself now and be fully present in my relationships.

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