'My kids grew up without a sober mum': Singaporeans share stories of alcohol addiction

SINGAPORE - "I am 100 per cent powerless when it comes to alcohol. And I will continue to be powerless for the rest of my life," says the housewife.

The 58-year-old, whom we shall call Beth because she doesn't want to be identified, hasn't touched a drop of alcohol in six years, a feat she is understandably proud of.

But she is still on high alert. She has to make sure to pay close attention to menus at restaurants, especially now that Christmas is coming up.

"Even a small taste of it will send me spiralling into that person I once was - that person I hate," she says.

Beth, a Singapore permanent resident who has been living here for 18 years, tells The New Paper on Sunday that she had been an alcoholic for more than 20 years.

She often resorted to hiding her stash of wine bottles in a cabinet in the kitchen.

"I just didn't want my husband to know the extent of my drinking," she says.

But he was more than aware.

Her husband had called her out on being an alcoholic many times - but she didn't pay attention to him.

Indeed, the more he labelled her an alcoholic, the more inclined she was to take a drink.

She would tell him: "Well, I'll live up to the label by drinking more."

Her drinking led to huge rows for the couple, which would result in her having more alcohol.

She then started drinking in secret.

Her husband, a businessman, would travel often.

Just hours after he stepped out the door, she would rush out to the nearest supermarket and buy cases of wine.

She would eagerly go back home, switch off the lights and start binge-drinking.

"I could easily finish four to five bottles a day," says Beth.

Her first drink was at the tender age of 14. She had hung out with older friends who could get her into bars.

Gradually, she started drinking more and more during social gatherings.

One drink became two, and suddenly she found herself having about five drinks on a night out.

"I don't have any explanation as to how this happened. I came from a good home and I knew what was right and wrong," says Beth.

When she was in her 30s, the "disease started to progress rapidly".

"Suddenly, I found that I could not go to work without having some vodka first," she says.

"It was as though I couldn't get through the day unless I had some alcohol."

If she tried missing that morning drink, she wouldn't be able to leave the house at all - and she'd end up drinking the whole day.

She would go to work reeking of alcohol, stumbling over and slurring her words.

She was eventually fired. She lost another job because she took too many days off, which she spent drinking at home.

"I was in denial and didn't even want to face the fact that I had a problem.

"I thought I could control it," says Beth.

She also started experiencing physical symptoms.

She demonstrates to me how shaky her hands were when she reached for a glass.

She thought she could make it better - by switching from vodka to wine.

"In my head, I thought the effects of wine were less severe.

"But of course, now I know better," she says sheepishly.

"It didn't matter which drink it was. They all destroyed me anyway."

The impact on her family was traumatic.

"My two children grew up without a sober mum," says Beth

She doesn't quite recall their growing up years - she spent a lot of time passed out and sprawled on the bed.

She would come up with excuses like she was sick or had a headache when they asked why she was sleeping all the time.

It still pains her to think how she was an absent mother to her children, who are now in their 30s.

But six years ago, there was a turning point.

Beth says: "I couldn't get drunk any more no matter how much I tried.

"I also realised that I couldn't look in the mirror because I just didn't like the person who was looking back at me.

"I couldn't recognise who I had become. I was a shadow of myself."

By then she and her husband had relocated to Singapore from Scotland for his business.

She found help, and this time, she didn't resent it.

"Once my state of mind changed, everything changed.," says Beth.

She returned to Singapore after a stint with a rehabilitation clinic in Scotland and regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings here.

She made sure that she diligently followed the AA programme's steps to recovery, including the harder ones like making amends to her loved ones.

"My children finally got to know me as a sober mum and they have forgiven me for my past," Beth says with a smile.

"And I am grateful for my family, including my husband who has stuck with me through thick and thin."

Her second interview with me is at a bar and she seems unfazed as she casually pulls out her cigarette.

"I just don't need alcohol any more. I'm happier than ever without it," says Beth.

"I have laughter in my life. But more importantly, I've got my family back."

Today, she is a sponsor to an alcoholic. Her job is to make sure to guide her charge in the right direction.

"I want to give back just like how they helped me six years ago when I was at my lowest," she says.

Story #2: Learning to be independent of drunk hubby 

He was an alcoholic but it was his wife, Laura (not her real name) who felt responsible.

"I was wracked with guilt. I kept thinking I had failed him in some way," she says.

Laura, who is in her 40s, adds: "I couldn't stop blaming myself. I kept thinking my inadequacies as a wife led to his dependence on alcohol."

So she would make excuses for him.

If her husband was too drunk to go to work, she would call his boss and tell him he was sick.

"We barely had a social life because all he wanted to do was to stay home and drink," says Laura, who has two teenage children.

"And I'd be the one telling our friends that we can't make it because he is stuck at work and that was never the truth.

"I was pulled into his world and I started enabling his addiction. I felt like I was going down a spiral as well."

Her husband is now sober after going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but she admits that it was a long road to recovery.

Laura says that he had tried to get clean many times before, but could not stick to it.

Realising that, she decided to get control. She went to meetings at Al-Anon, a group for family members of alcoholics.

"I needed to learn how to be independent from him. I also needed to know that we, as family members, don't have control over a loved one's illness. Only they could help themselves," says Laura.

The group helped her because she was able to talk to other people who faced the same problem.

"It was extremely easy to relate to one another," says Laura. "And I had more control over how I felt."

Through the group, she started to gain more confidence and her husband noticed this.

"Suddenly he realised that I could be independent, that I could live happily without him.

"And this motivated him to be a better husband and father," says Laura.

Her two children also attend Alateen, a similar support group for children of alcoholics.

"With the help of the group, they, too, understood the disease better and we can communicate with each other better," she says.

The whole family still attend their respective meetings regularly, even though alcohol is no longer a problem. Laura says: "Just because you do not drink, it does not mean you are no longer an alcoholic. Everyone still needs constant support to keep it at bay."

Of course, it is not all smooth sailing, she says.

"There are good days and there are the bad ones.

"But that's what family is for - we help each other out."

Story #3: 'So drunk I often pass out outside clubs'

Story #3: 'So drunk I often pass out outside clubs'

Every weekend, she puts on her best party outfit and leaves the house with her make-up perfectly done.

But when she returns home, Ann's eyeliner is smudged. Her lipstick has all but disappeared and her hair is dishevelled. Her dress is stained with spilled drinks and her vomit.

That's how the marketing executive, 23, returns from a night of revelry, which always involves binge drinking.

Binge drinking refers to excessive consumption of alcohol over a short time.

"I know it's bad but it's the fastest way to get high," says Ann with a sigh.

"How to have fun if you're not high?"

She asks that we do not use her full name as she does not want to lose her job.

Ann admits that she gets some cheap alcohol from liquor stores before hitting her usual nightclub along the Singapore River.

She and her friends share the cost of a bottle - sometimes two - of whiskey and down all of that quickly.

"I just don't want to enter a club sober," she says, reflecting a trend among clubbers here who down cheap alcohol before getting into a club.

It doesn't end there, though.

Even when drunk, Ann says clubbers will usually order more bottles of spirit inside the nightspot.

"When we open bottles, I don't really keep track of how much I'm drinking. My friends make sure my cup is always full," says Ann nonchalantly.

When asked to give an estimate of exactly how much she drinks, she says: "I really don't count. Maybe about 10 glasses?"

Binge drinking is categorised by the Health Ministry as having six or more drinks on a single occasion. All too often, binge drinkers like Ann can be seen passed out and sprawled on the ground at the end of a clubbing night.

Other nightclub patrons are concerned when they see the after effects.

"You have all these young girls, just lying there. Once, I had to tell one young woman's friends to try to cover her up because she was wearing too short a skirt. Another person was vomiting all over her long hair," says a resident of Robertson Quay, which is near the popular Zouk nightclub.

"Then there are young men sprawled all over, too drunk to even get home."

When approached for this story, a Zouk spokesman says that staff are alert for people who have had too much and will offer them water instead.

He adds: "At the club, the binge drinking hasn't become worse, However, there is the problem of many clubbers 'pre-gaming' and drinking copious amounts of alcohol at the riverside behind Zouk. This has been getting worse with time."

This happens at clubs everywhere, despite previous calls from nightclub owners to try to stop the problem by limiting the alcohol available at convenience stores.

If you walk past the drinking outlets dotting the banks of the Singapore River or in the Marina Bay area after clubbing hours on a Friday, you will see party-goers who have passed out.

As Ann shockingly admits, it is her goal to get tanked. She hardly remembers what happens when she's out partying.

"My friends will be the ones who tell me what I was up to the previous night," she says.

She laughs as she adds: "Usually, it's very embarrassing like making out with many strangers on the dance floor or stumbling all over the club."

It usually ends in the same way: Her passing out drunk outside the club.

Lawrence, 20, is in national service and requested that we don't use his full name to avoid trouble. He admits that he stays clean all week, then goes overboard on the one weekend night out.

So much so that he blacks out from the amount of alcohol consumed.

"This is just my way of letting off some steam. Everyone else gets wasted, so it's not fun when you're the only one left to take care of the others," says Lawrence, who says he has at least eight drinks each night he parties.

Ann says Sundays are usually spent recovering from the "hangovers from hell".

Lawrence also sleeps in till about 9pm on Sundays to "recover".

Ann's parents have tried to stop her from going out at night because of her drinking habits but she does not heed their advice.

"They can't really stop me from doing what I want to do," she says.

Ann is aware of the effects binge drinking can have on her health, but says: "I'm young, so I just want to enjoy my life first."

She adds: "I'll stop partying so hard eventually. I still have control over what I do.

"Besides, it's not like I'm addicted to alcohol."

More seeking treatment for alcohol addiction

More people are now seeking treatment for alcohol addiction, say experts.

According to the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), there were 418 alcohol addicts seeking treatment last year compared to 240 in 2009.

Confirming the trend, a spokesman for the Singapore Alcoholics Anonymous group said that they have expanded in recent years to meet the demand from people looking for help. Five years ago, there would only be three meetings a week. Now there are multiple meetings a day.

Addictions specialist, Dr Munidasa Winslow, said that the No. 1 addiction at Promises, an organisation dealing with addiction therapy, is alcohol addiction.

And the number of people coming to him with the addiction has gone up, said Dr Winslow.

He said some of his patients are highfunctioning alcoholics who can down two bottles of whiskey a day.

"Often, something triggers them to get help. It can be something like sending drunk texts, or sending an important e-mail while drunk."

Other patients who come to see him have experienced significant physical damage.

Dr Winslow said: "Some have dementia because of the brain damage caused by the addiction. They can't even remember where the toilet in their own home is."

Signs of alcohol addiction Mr Suresh Anantha, principal counsellor at Nams, says some key signs are:

1. Craving: A strong and continuing compulsion to drink

2. Drinking in spite of obvious negative consequences: For example, drinking despite recognising that a medical condition can be made worse by alcohol consumption

3. Tolerance: The need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol in order to "feel the buzz" or "to get high"

4. Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking: This includes sweating, nausea and "the shakes."


Myths and facts

Myth: I drink only wine and beer, not hard liquor. I don't have a problem.

Fact: It is about the percentage of alcohol in your blood after a drinking episode and not the type of alcohol consumed. A standard can of beer or glass of wine has as much alcohol as one shot of whiskey.


Myth: Eating a big meal before I drink will keep me sober and protect me from intoxication.

Fact: Food only delays the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the blood. It does not protect you from becoming intoxicated or developing an alcohol problem.


Myth: I can't have an alcohol problem because I have not been drinking long enough.

Fact: Alcoholism can develop very quickly, depending on how much and how often you drink.


Myth: Alcohol gives me energy.

Fact: It is a depressant which slows down reflexes, affects movement and impairs judgment.

Binge drinking in S'pore.. by the numbers

Binge drinking in S'pore.. by the numbers

1%: of Singaporeans aged between 18 and 29 drink regularly, according to a 2010 National Health Survey

16%:; of these drinkers binge drink

12.2%: of women between the ages of 18 and 29 binge drink

2x: The Institute of Mental Health, in a study released in March, found that those aged 18 to 34 are twice as likely to drink excessively compared with those in other age groups.


Hotlines

National Addictions Management Service

All Addictions

Hotline: 6-RECOVER (6732-6837)

Website: www.nams.sg

Singapore Alcoholics Anonymous

Hotline: 6475-0890

Website: www.singaporeaa.org

Al-Anon Singapore (for families and friends of alcohol addicts)

Telephone: 9894-1201

Website: www.al-anonsingapore.org

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