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Fighting Back – A man who fought his addictions

Fighting Back – A man who fought his addictions – The story of an alcoholic who fought through his addiction to become a MMA fighter.  His toughest battles were by far outside the octagon 

When one thinks of addiction and young people, they are usually thinking of drugs such as heroin. Alcohol addiction is seen as an older person’s addiction. Alcoholism conjures up images such as middle aged, weather beaten, haggard men and women, maybe in their late 40s early 50s. You just never assume that someone in their 20s could not only be an alcoholic, but also be brought to the brink of disaster by it. James Smith, of Marrowbone Lane Dublin 8, destroys that myth.

Looking across from James in the cafe where we spoke, he is the picture of fitness. Indeed, our interview was originally about James participating in “Wimp to Warrior” a contest devised by Straight Blast Gym, in which people with no previous experience in MMA go to a bootcamp to train,and then compete in a fight on June 28th. But it is the story of James’ journey from that first taste of alcohol to where he is now that is really amazing.

James tells me that for most of his life he has looked enviously on those who are at ease in social situations. For him, it was never easy to summon the social grace and confidence that most people have. Not only that, he suffers with major anxiety issues also. Then, at the age of 12 he had his first drink, and everything changed.

When James started to drink, he noticed that  that the anxiety eased and he could relax. He told me that; “When I was drinking, I could literally feel myself relaxing into a chair”. He also changed from that guy envious of his more socially competent peers, to he himself becoming the life of the party.

At this time James also began taking party drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, mostly on weekends to start. But then the partying would start earlier and last longer, until it got to a stage were he was drinking every day.  He told me that sometimes he’d go on a binge for 4 straight days, not telling his family were he was. At this stage James had no idea, but he had just crossed the rubicon into alcohol addiction.

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I asked James when did he know he was an alcoholic? He told me that looking retrospectively back, he identified two incidents that he now knows were the triggers. One was when he was stabbed in the arm on a night out. There was significant nerve damage done, and whilst he was recovering, he could not play football. Football was one of the few sources of self esteem that James had. As a teenager he played for Lourdes Celtic and was by all accounts a very talented player (though he admits by the time he was 16, the talent was there, but the partying had stolen much of his work ethic). With the stabbing forcing him out, not only did he lose that important pillar of self esteem, it also allowed him far more free time to indulge.

The second incident happened on the fifth day of a drinking and  drugs binge. James was in his friends house when he starting having an erratic heartbeat, and had thumping pains in his chest. Eventually he had to get his friend to ring an ambulance for him. In the hospital they gave him anti-anxiety medication and got his heartbeat under control. They told him that the amount of drugs he had in his system was “suicide” and he was very lucky.

Then a few weeks later, James woke up after a night of drinking to find himself again having an erratic heartbeat and chest pains. He told his parents and they took him up to the dub doc. The dubdoc wrote it off as a panic attack and gave James a prescription for Valium. What James had experienced however, was not a panic attack, but rather his body going into withdrawals from the alcohol.

What followed in the months and years was James’ further progression into alcohol addiction, a period which he describes as a period of “lostness”. He would suffer terrible anxiety, to the point of not being able to queue in a shop, fearing everyone was looking at him and judging him. He would then drink alcohol to ease that anxiety, and he would then wake up in withdrawal from the alcohol, which compounded both the anxiety and the need to drink to alleviate that anxiety.

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He tells me, that at the age of 21, a time when most young people are coming to grips with serious long term relationships, he had a girlfriend who he was very much in love with. But what should have been a beautiful manifestation of mutual love turned into his girlfriend becoming something like his carer. His condition was so bad that he had to sneak alcohol into her home so he could dampen down his anxiety to be able to do even normal things such as talk with her family. When he didn’t sneak alcohol, his girlfriend would have to spend most of the night trying to calm him down. Inevitably, the relationship was lost.

During this time James looked into the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous. He went along to one meeting, but said “at the time, I just heard them talking about God and higher powers, and I thought it was cult, and I won’t be back”. He also had no idea about rehab and was worried it would cost too much money. So, he resigned himself to drinking just enough each day to cope with the anxiety.

Of course, that didn’t work out, he would often drink to excess, and deal with crippling withdrawal/anxiety when he had no money to buy alcohol. He would manage a few weeks sober here and there, and even hold the occasional job, but the anxiety…and the alcohol always came back. He became so psychically oppressed by this cycle, that suicide would often cross his mind, especially when he had no alcohol. In one particularly harrowing example, James tells me how close he came to hanging himself one Christmas. He was in his Grandmothers at 6am, and he thought; “I’m just gonna go out to the shed now, put a rope around me neck, and that’ll be it”. However, he thought of the hurt he would cause his family and decided against it. Instead, he began drinking at 6am that day. His father shouted; “Drink, thats what has you that way!!”. To which James replied; “You don’t understand, I need it”. James is quick to note, however, that despite the pressure they were under, his parents love was unwavering, and that they stood by him through everything.

At the age of 24 James was able to get 6 months sober from alcohol. At first the anxiety was overwhelming. But he fought through, and by about 3 months in he was doing really well. He was going to AA and fully participating. He was back playing football. And he started to attend college, studying addiction. He tells me, at that stage, he had reached an almost zen-like state of calm, felt genuinely awake for the first time and that he “had a sense of identity”. However, one night at a 21st birthday party, James would throw it all away.

He decided at the party to take two ecstasy pills, as he wanted to unwind, but not use alcohol. Then, when he went back to a house party, his old friend anxiety reappeared. Unfortunately, James would drink that night, and it would be the beginning of a run in which all the work he had done mentally, and in real life would be undone. First to go was the football. He was unable to keep up with the training, and would suffer disabling anxiety on the pitch. He barely made it through college, with the help of a really good classmate. He missed the first final exam, and the next day whilst drunk, and on valium, he managed to convince the college to allow him to repeat that day. What is more remarkable, he says, is the fact that he actually passed that exam. But grades aside, he was in no fit state to further his career.

Then, at the age of 25 James decided that if he was ever going to beat this, he would have to enter residential treatment. He remembered a social worker telling him about “Cuan Mhuire”, a rehab that offers residential options. He went to their service office in Dublin. He was told that there would be a bed available in Limerick for him the next day. So the next day, down he went, sipping a bottle of vodka to keep his withdrawal at bay. He spent his 26th birthday “in the detox wing of the rehab, on a miserable day, dosed up on medication”.

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But he persevered, and completed the 12 weeks of residential treatment. However he admits that while he fully accepted he was an alcoholic and he could not drink, he still had no intention of stopping being in situations where the danger of relapse was always possible. In any event, he was able to manage a few months of sobriety again. He got a job in a telemarketing firm. However, because James was still going out to social events where alcohol was served liberally, relapse was inevitable. One night in a nightclub, James asked for a non alcoholic beer, but the bar man had none, and on the spur of the moment, he decided to have a Corona. He told himself he’d “only have one” He went back to a house party, and started to drink heavily again. He soon lost his job, and went back down to treatment.

However things wouldn’t go as well this time. A few days into treatment, James felt that he didn’t want to stop drinking. He also had 6 weeks back pay from his last job. So he “escaped” the treatment facility with another guy. They got the bus to Limerick city, then to Waterford, drinking heavily all the way. Eventually the other guy left, but James actually found accomodation in Waterford, and stayed there for a while, indulging his growing insatiability for oblivion.

James was convinced to seek treatment again. This time he went to Athy to another Cuan Mhuire rehab. He done really well there, and moved to a transition house in Gardiner St. He found an internship in a recruitment agency whilst in the transition house. He was in no way ready for this however, and the isolation in work and the transition house, drove James to again begin drinking. During this relapse he also met a girl who was also in recovery. They dated for a short while, but when she told James she wasn’t interested, his drinking escalated again. The transition house found out and James was told if he wanted to keep his bed, he would have to go down to residential treatment again. James agreed, but after only detoxing he left rehab again.

Soon enough James was back drinking. But he had also developed a nasty dependence on Valium, an anti anxiety medication. He would use both of these drugs together, an incredibly dangerous combination of depressants. He tells me that he would black out regularly. This came to a head when one of James friends drove him back down to Cuan Mhuire, and told staff that they had to take James, because there was no way he was taking him back up. The staff eventually agreed, and James this time entered the 5 month drug program there. He tells me however, that it was less than a week after leaving treatment, he again relapsed. He points to this relapse, as the one were he knew he have wouldn’t have many chances left.

During this relapse, he would manage a few months or so sober. And during one of these sober periods, he befriended a girl who was also in recovery. She helped him through much of the horrible anxiety he suffered, and they eventually fell in love with each other. With the benefit of hindsight, James points out how foolish they were to enter a relationship with both of them being so vulnerable. Just how combustible this relationship was, was played out during a traumatic trip to Italy..

Things had been going really well for James and his girlfriend. Both were sober and the relationship was solid. So James booked a trip for 2 to Rome for Valentines Day. The first couple of days went really well, but on the third day they had an argument, and his girlfriend stormed off. James became overwhelmed with fears of rejection and anxiety. And again, he galloped for the quick relief of alcohol.

The last thing he remembers about that day is being incredibly drunk walking around Rome. The next thing he knew was when he woke up in hospital the next morning. He had lost his phone,passport and all of his money. When he was discharged later that day, he met back up with his girlfriend. Unfortunately their argument continued, and again he found himself alone in Rome. To make things worse, he was again in terrible withdrawal. Indeed, so bad were his withdrawals that he attempted to steal a bottle of whiskey in desperation. He bolted from the shop, the shopkeeper in pursuit. Then fearing arrest on top of the mess he was already in James returned the whiskey.

Luckily, James was able to meet an Italian couple who could speak English. They got him in contact with the Irish Embassy, who was then able to contact James’ beleaguered parents who wired him money. He was also able to obtain an emergency passport. He missed his flight however, and had to spend the night in a hotel, where he spent most of the money on alcohol to get through the night. In the airport the next day, with €10 to his name, James bought the cheapest bottle of gin he could find, and borrowed €2 for a bottle of coke. He waited for his flight, sitting in the airport toilets forcing down the alcohol. He finally made it back to Dublin were his parents were there waiting for him. He reconciled with his girlfriend for a while, but ultimately they realised that the relationship could not work whilst the two of them needed to work on themselves. They eventually broke up amicably and James wishes her nothing but success and happiness.

James now knew this was time to finally get his life back from the alcohol. He detoxed at home and then immersed himself in Alcoholics Anonymous, embracing the fellowship, and meeting up with a sponsor every single day. He went back to education; this time studying for a diploma in social studies. And again football came back into James’ life. He committed himself to training and turned up to every match playing for Oliver Bond, winning the league with them this season.

He also became aware of the Wimp to Warrior contest. At first, he says he was really nervous. New social situations, where he has to meet new people are always going to pose a challenge for James, especially without the crutch of inebriation. But he told himself that if he was able to to go through all he went through and come out the other side, then he could do it. And so he summoned the courage to go up and try out. And to his surprise he was selected to be part of the competition. He has continued training and will now have his first fight on the 30th of June. And he feels that MMA has played a huge part in keeping him sober. He has learned self discipline, and the fragile egoism that once was his mental state has now been replaced with an earned confidence.

So what does James do now to maintain his new sober life? He says he has taken on a holistic approach to his sobriety. He strives every day to make sure he eats right, exercises, and gets enough sleep. He keeps himself occupied with the MMA and football, and has done really well in college. Going to all his classes and doing well in exams. He also knows that AA is there for him. At present his life is very busy, so he doesn’t get to attend many meetings, but his attitude has long changed from the days he seen them as a cult. “There is wisdom in those rooms you wouldn’t get anywhere else”. A keen reader, James has also been reading many books on mindfulness and recovery. He cites an eclectic mix of authors from Russell Brand, to Alan Watts.

Speaking to James, it is clear that he has a very keen self-awareness now, that he hadn’t before. For example, when he is faced with a stressful situation, whereas his first port of call was always alcohol, he is now able to step back, to as he says “anchor myself in the moment”. Now he recognises a trigger, and can clearly see that alcohol will only make a situation worse, and he will tackle the issue in a much more productive manner. But he is also quick to point out, that now alcohol has been removed from his life, he doesn’t suffer those crippling anxiety attacks. He explains to me at length, the neurochemical damage alcohol can inflict, and how he now has the tools to see this.

Finally, James is philosophical about why he became an alcoholic; “the reality is when you grow up in a culture in which alcohol is prevalent, the laws of average say that someone will become an alcoholic in a group. I was that someone”. But addiction can strike anyone he warns; “Tell someone they cant use any social media for a month, and some people won’t be able to do it”. His point isn’t to compare being hooked on Facebook to being an alcoholic, he point is, everyone has the potential to become addicted to something. Addiction is the quintessential ‘never say never’ condition.

I ask James is there anything he’d like to say to someone who might be out there struggling in addiction right now. With brilliant succinctness he states:

 

“Never give up giving up”.

One Response

  1. Andrew O Connell says:

    What a beautifully sincere and humble guy you are pal. Takes almighty courage to open your heart to the world about your journey. Keep moving forward and breaking new goals.
    Andrew

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