I drank and went to the gym every day. I never realized I could be alcohol-dependent.

Sam Thomas Selfie
The author.Courtesy of Sam Thomas
  • I didn't start drinking alcohol until I was in my mid-20s.

  • I decided to quit drinking in 2016 and experienced serious alcohol-withdrawal symptoms.

  • I was told to keep drinking to prevent having more withdrawal episodes or going into shock.

Back in the days before I knew anything about alcoholism, it never occurred to me that I'd crossed an invisible line into alcohol dependency. It was only when I tried to stop drinking — five months after my first alcohol-withdrawal episode — that I realized I had a serious problem.

It would take four detoxes and many relapses over the course of three years before I could finally get a grip on my recovery.

My drinking escalated quickly

It often surprises people when I tell them I didn't drink until I was 24. I tried drinking twice when I was 18 and decided I hated it. I only started drinking when my best friend at the time thought it would be "funny" to spike my Diet Coke with vodka.

From that point, I began drinking regularly, and within a year I was drinking two or three glasses of wine every night while working at home. By the time I was 27, that had steadily crept up to two or three bottles a night.

When I reached 30, I was aware my drinking had become excessive but I was in total denial about any impact it might be having. My only concern was that I'd fallen out of the habit of going to the gym — up until then, I'd been managing daily gym sessions.

As the managing director of a men's eating-disorder charity I'd founded, I appeared to be "functioning" without any issues — which, in retrospect, was probably one of the early signs of my alcoholism. In the absence of any outward signs that my drinking was spilling over into my work life, I thought I was handling it.

I suffered from withdrawal

The first time any indication my drinking had caught up with me came 36 hours after I'd decided to stop, with the intention to get back to the gym. It was an extremely hot day in London in July 2016, and I couldn't ignore how ropy I was feeling. On the way to the tube station, I was sweltering, with sweat dripping off me.

As I stood up to get off the train, I noticed my body wasn't doing what I was telling it to and my reactions were slowed down. I knew that something was wrong. It was as if there was a disconnect between my brain, body, and ability to move. Clambering off the train, I somehow made it to the street level and the exit.

My anxiety was through the roof, and in a total panic, I found sanctuary in a coffee shop opposite the station. At this point, I tried to hold the glass of water to my mouth to drink it, but I kept spilling the water down me. A lady sitting at the table opposite was looking at me curiously.

"Do you need help? You look like you're in trouble?" she said after a short while. She introduced herself, and it turned out she was an off-duty nurse from the nearby St Mary's Hospital. "Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asked. "No," was my short but breathless reply. All I could think of was that I may be having a reaction to something, but I wasn't allergic to anything. The next minute, I passed out and came around in an ambulance arriving at the hospital.

It would take until my third subsequent hospital visit, in November 2016, to confirm that my previous episodes of illness were in fact serious alcohol withdrawal.

"You're over the threshold," were the words of the specialist medic from the local drug and alcohol service. "You need to be referred for a detox, possibly as an inpatient, given the severity of your withdrawals, '' he said.

Until now, it hadn't even occurred to me that drinking was making me ill — or more specifically, that cutting back on my drinking too quickly or stopping drinking abruptly could make me sick.

"It's really important that you continue to keep drinking to prevent any further episodes," the medic stressed, which was quite possibly the most confusing medical advice in the history of all medical advice. But what he meant was I needed to slowly wean myself off alcohol, not try to stop all at once.

What I learned is that if I'd known about the brutal reality of alcoholism sooner, I might well have managed to embrace recovery sooner, too. Now over three years in recovery, I've concluded that recovery needs to be more compelling than drinking ever was.

Sam Thomas is an award-winning writer, campaigner, and public speaker. His first memoir "Smashed Not Wasted" is set to be released by Guts Publishing in April 2023.

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