I’m an army veteran and a recovering alcoholic

A little over six months ago my life revolved around earning money to use, rather than earning money to live. I’m Mick and I’m an army veteran, and a recovering alcoholic. This is my story.

I’m 47, going on 48 and come from a small country town. Out near Charleville – and like many kids, I couldn’t wait to leave the place at the first opportunity I had.

So I joined the Australian Army.

I remember the day I went in, because we never forget our enlistment day. We never forget our regiment number, and nine times out of ten, we never forget what we learn.

I’ve tried heaps of times to forget a lot of that stuff but it’s ingrained into my psyche. 

I started my army career in Townsville and spent most of my career up there.

I did a deployment to Cambodia in 92/93 and then a few touring stints. I left the army seven years and 234 days later.

My primary addiction was mainly alcohol and a bit of cannabis. I started smoking weed when I was 15. And gave it up when I entered the army.

I picked it up six years later – because alcohol just wasn’t doing it for me. I had a high tolerance to its effects – and yes, you end up drinking a lot in the army.

Drinking wasn’t frowned upon, nor was it encouraged. But you’re made to participate in events that revolve around drinking – so while they say it’s not encouraged, I think it is.

There wasn’t an event leading up to the start of my drinking habit.

My Dad is an alcoholic and so are all his friends.

Drinking and work were the consistent things in their lives – so you could say that for me growing up it was the norm.

It’s socially acceptable for everyone to go to the pub to watch a game of footy, cricket or even the Olympics. There’s ads for alcohol on TV all the time.

You never realize any of this until you give up – I’m just more aware.

Now I think for the amount of problems it causes, alcohol should be banned.

I knew alcohol was becoming a problem for me, but I never broached the topic with anyone.

I never considered curbing my intake. I just accepted it as part of life and a test of life as well.

I missed positions of rank, or advancement in rank because of my association with alcohol.

And, you know, I did get to the point of thinking, “I’ve got to stop doing this,” because I’d been caught drink driving three times in two years.

The grip it had on me was powerful.

And the scary part was that I didn’t care, nor did I want to admit I had a problem, even when I was at what we call “rock bottom”.

I didn’t want to quit, because it was a release.

It was relaxing.

It was something I could do legally.

I had used marijuana for a long time, but the paranoia that I had as a result of using actually became a hassle. I’d get paranoid about any noise, so I had to stick to drinking.

My turnaround point started with an unexpected phone call.

I was working on an asbestos removal job site in September last year.

We all carry our phones on us in case of an accident or emergency, and one day my phone rang.

It was the RS (Returned Services) Welfare Officer. I had been put in a program to keep me off the streets and they’d provided accommodation as a means of helping get my life back in order.

Despite this help, I still continued my alcohol and drug addiction.

Anyway, this lady, Catherine, rang me and said “what can I do for you, or what can you do for yourself going forward with your life to make it better?”

For some unknown reason I said, “I have to kick the alcohol and drugs”.

She said, “I’ll get you into an addiction treatment program but it will take about 7 to 14 days”

I responded, saying, “No, if you’re going to ring me up and offer me this kind of thing, or want to ask me these questions I have to do this now, or I won’t ever do it.”

She promised she’d ring me back at the end of the work day.

Not expecting anything, I was shocked when she called back within ninety minutes and said, “I’ve got you into a program, I’ll send you the details”.

Even after she’d sent me the details, I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it.

I had been thinking of doing something with the Salvation Army but the program that had been offered to me was located away from Brisbane and I thought it was a good idea as I wouldn’t have any distractions.

So I agreed to do it.

Catherine told me she’d get me in “as soon as possible”.

I informed her that I’d already packed up the contents of my flat and I was ready.

I was at The Hader Clinic Queensland within 48 hours.

I’m a person of God. And I asked for His guidance. I’ve always asked for His guidance to steer my life right. And I think this opportunity was thrown at me because I kept asking for help.

When Catherine called me, I was standing on the roof of a building on the work site.

I thought, I’m working and earning good money, but I’d go home to my flat at night and realise that I had nothing to show for it, my money had been wasted on alcohol and drugs.

I didn’t work to live, I worked to use.

I could see that I was destroying my life.

I’m just sitting there, talking to this lady on the phone who was offering me some help. She said that if I didn’t accept her help, that RS would put me to the back of the line and that I wouldn’t hear from them for another 12 months.

And you know what? I didn’t want to be put to the back of the line!

I drank right up to the minute that the taxi picked me up to take me to the rehab centre. I had to throw the bottle in the bin, just as the taxi arrived.

I found it testing for the first month – all I could think about was drinking and smoking.

And it wasn’t until I was in the program for ten weeks that my attitude started to change.

I started to find peace again. And that was a big thing for me – and for everyone else in the program with me.

I wasn’t a volatile person, rather I was a controlling one. And everyone was happy when I stopped trying to control every situation.

I’m one of those people that try to control everyone because I don’t want to descend into chaos.

That was a defence mechanism for me. And because I’ve got some other medical issues, I think I was doing that.

Life at the rehab was good – it was structured and I was constantly busy.

There were, of course, breaks in the program but generally everyone would spend their time together talking about the lessons they’d learned or their life experiences and so on.

I never got bored.

When I think about it, I don’t even remember being there, it went so quick.

I found the staff great. I don’t know how Hader Clinic Queensland finds these people.

But it must be a very good selection process because I’ve seen some of the worst people throw the worst sort of crap at them and they’re very tolerant.

If that was me, I’d be punching someone’s lights out.

They’ve all got a great knowledge of the troubles people can be facing and what they’re going through – and I think it’s because they’ve all been through it themselves.

I think if you had staff up there with no real world experience they wouldn’t be able to fix our problems because they wouldn’t be able to relate to us.

And that’s what part of the program’s about – it’s a fellowship of people with the same problems, helping each other.

And when I first realised that, I thought, “how the bloody hell would a therapeutic community work – a bunch of drunks trying to fix each other?”

But it does work.

It takes the shame and isolation out of addiction. We’re all equals here.

There are people who are multimillionaires in the program. They’re at first reluctant to hand over all their power and come down to the level we’re at. I watched this old gentleman – it was hard for him to identify as one of us – and then he “got it” – and he’s great.

Checking in and going to an AA meeting is a fundamental part of the day now.

I missed my meeting on Saturday because I was doing fundraising for the Salvation Army. And I felt a bit frayed at the edges, so when I got home I had to sit quietly and have my own meeting with myself. It quietens my mind.

I am still undergoing treatment as an outpatient through Hader’s transitional housing program.

I didn’t want to go out into the real world straight away because I’d spent so long in addiction.

I use the analogy of rebirthing myself. Pregnancy and childbirth takes nine months, so I figure it’s going to take me that time, plus some to be reborn again completely.

Because I was ex-army and a Gold Card holder I was fortunate enough to have the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) assist me – The Hader Clinic Queensland is an approved DVA provider so I was able to undertake the residential rehabilitation treatment program at no cost.

So I’m using this opportunity to get every bit of help I can possibly get. Because the first thing you learn is that you really need to build a solid foundation in your recovery. If that’s not there, everything crumbles.

I could have gone back to work I guess, but I decided that it wasn’t an option. I thought of all the other people who are using alcohol at work.

On Friday afternoons, someone would bring in a carton of beer. And if I go back to that, I may start using again.

I want to ingrain this recovery as much as I can into my psyche so that when people do offer me a beer, I can just say “no, I’ve got other things to do” or use the tools we’ve been taught – setting boundaries, you know.

I’ve already had this issue with a friend – one asked me to buy her a couple of bottles from the shop and I said, “no, I can’t, because I’m cooking dinner”. But then that meant I had to go and actually cook dinner, because I don’t want to lie.

My friend knows that I’m in recovery, but doesn’t seem to care about it – now I have reservations about involving them in my life.

I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m vulnerable. 

I’ve told them what to do to seek help but they don’t want to do it yet. Like me, everyone has their reservations. It’s all fear based. That’s what I’ve learned.

We do, or don’t do things out of fear.

Fear our lives will change, fear that we don’t have any associations or fear of being pushed out of our comfort zone.

A big part of my recovery has been learning how to handle my fears.

Also, it’s been a case of becoming aware of what was making me fearful and learning how to handle those situations. There’s so much you can learn in the program but it means bugger all unless you put it into practice.

I’m going to do some cleaning work. It’s therapeutic. 

I’m also very involved with the Salvation Army – so I’m thinking that I’d like to forge a career path there. Service is part of AA – if you give to others, it comes back to you. I think that’s true.

My story is a gift and my recovery is a gift.

I never wish to disrespect that gift. I have been given an opportunity by the RSL – there are many people out there in active addiction that will never get the opportunities that I’ve had.

I asked for help and I have to take it whether I want it or not – that’s how I look at it – I have no choice but to do it to the best of my ability.

I keep myself levelled by going onto the streets. The homeless shelter. I started doing that because the RSL have put together a program that helps ex-soldiers get off the street – it’s a veteran’s support program.

I got help through them and I often think “how can I pay them back?” Because they’ve given me a start that I never would have had by myself. I thought I’d volunteer at the shelter. And I’ve been doing that for two months now.

It’s very grounding. It makes me see where I’ve come from.

And that was in my mind when I was talking to my friend who wanted me to buy those bottles – I just don’t want to go backwards. I’ve come this far, I don’t want to be on the cusp of falling of the edge. I won’t do it.

The support from people down at street level is encouraging too.

They’re so positive. They say, “Mick, you’ve changed” or “Mick, you’re looking great.” It’s good when you can’t see it.

It’s great to be feeling healthier too. I used to be skinny and kind of drawn out.  It’s great to be getting my life back on track.

With the help of the Hader Clinic Queensland and the Returned Services League (RSL), my life has been completely transformed.

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