On sober reflection...

Ever since my teens I've always been careful to make plenty of room in my life for alcohol. For 40 years I've planned booze into my diary, making sure it would be there before, after and usually during any significant event. Only very rarely have I excluded it.

I don't know exactly why I went to such trouble to accommodate this unruly chemical. But I do know that by early this year alcohol and I had reached a point in our relationship where one of us had to kiss the other goodbye for ever. My behaviour had become ridiculous. Alcohol was going to finish me, my marriage, the whole structure of my life and relationships, if I didn't finish with it. I reckoned I had reached what people who deal with drink call "rock bottom". I hadn't, quite.

Somehow, in all the chaos, I knew that in a one-to-one fight the booze had the edge. I needed serious support. Over the previous couple of years I'd had wary chats with my GP and various counsellors, but nothing very serious. Now the gloves were off, and I talked to the drugs and alcohol unit at the local hospital. They proposed the only NHS option available: a week's detoxification.

I was the only person in the Vine ward of Queen Mary's Hospital, west London, for alcohol addiction. Vine is actually an acute psychiatric ward, but the NHS doesn't have any dedicated alcoholic beds in my area, so dedicated alcoholics muck in with the mental patients. There may be a certain fitness in this (as an alcohol addict, I was arguably as mad as they come) but I didn't find it helpful to recovery. Vine ward is a noisy, restless, angry, unnerving and occasionally violent place to be.

Detox replaces alcohol with diminishing quantities of Librium. For the first few days of my stay on Vine, I was dazed by the dope, and I shuffled around aimlessly with the other bewildered patients. But as the Librium was gradually withdrawn I became increasingly alert to the downside of my situation - locked in a claustrophobic ward with a gang of seriously disturbed people, no booze and a dwindling supply of its substitute. I now realise that I spent the last few days of my week on Vine plotting my return to drinking.

With detox successfully achieved, intoxication resumed with dawn raids on newsagents for multiple stealthy super-ciders. Finally, after a cataclysmic showdown with Tess, my wife, outside an off-licence, I acknowledged absolute defeat. In a seamless transition I'd gone from "feeling like" or "needing" a drink to having to have one. I was helpless, couldn't exist for more than a few hours without booze. I had finally become, as Alcoholics Anonymous has it, "powerless over alcohol".

What could I possibly do? This really was rock bottom. The NHS held no further hope, so it was down to private treatment. We'd heard of the Priory clinic and rang for advice. They invited us to drop in. After an hour's consultation, I knew that I wanted a month there more than anything in the world. It was the last exit. I didn't want to throw away the moment now that I had the power of acknowledged powerlessness. While I booked in for the next day, Tess started on the desperate attempt to try to scratch together the fee.

In public imagination it is the ritzy refuge of sodden celebrities, but the Roehampton Priory actually looks like a Victorian hydro that's hit hard times. The main building, housing a psychiatric hospital and the addicts' residential quarters, is a castellated folly in need of a paint job. The addiction unit itself is an unprepossessing 60s red-brick building tucked away in the hospital grounds.

This is Galsworthy House. Check in here and you'll join a shifting population of between 20 and 40 addicts. You'll then spend 14 hours a day, seven days a week, working the Galsworthy programme. You'll be knackered by bedtime. You'll stay, if you stick it, for up to five weeks, and your visit will cost you, or your insurance company, around £500 a day.

Residents work, eat, and live together as a group. Spending time alone is frowned upon. Visiting times are limited and phone calls discouraged. Association with other addicts on a one-to-one basis is banned. No fun, no booze, no good food - like living on an oil rig and paying for the pleasure.

So how will you pass the time at the Priory? Well, boredom will not be a problem. The most significant part of your day will be spent doing group work. You sit in a circle with eight or so other regular members of your group and a counsellor (generally a recovering addict). A box of Kleenex occupies centre stage. Eating, smoking, drinking and even chewing gum is forbidden. Each member says their name, why they are there and how they are feeling at the moment. Then it's your group, for an hour-and-a-half. There's no prompting - group members speak as the spirit moves them. Honesty is unavoidable. Most find it very hard to handle. The Kleenex is often called for.

I was initially uneasy about group therapy, and I can't say I enjoy it even now (I still attend the Priory's built-in aftercare programme), but it is undeniably therapeutic and I believe it to be, without question, the most important element in my recovery to date.

The Galsworthy therapy draws heavily on AA's 12-step programme. Participants are bussed out to local AA meetings every night so that they will get to know the ropes and come to associate AA with their recovery. It is expected that when they are discharged they will attend AA regularly.

Considering that most alcoholics, myself included, are at the outset extremely resistant to the idea of joining Alcoholics Anonymous, it's surprising that the organisation is such an astounding success story, with an estimated 1.7m members worldwide.

In "the rooms", as members of "the fellowship" refer to any premises used by AA, pretty much the same things happen whichever town or country you happen to be in. In AA meetings, alcoholics talk to (or at) other alcoholics just as its two drunken American founders, the stock market analyst William Griffith Wilson and Dr Robert Holbrook Smith, did at the first, two-handed meeting in Akron, Ohio, on May 11 1933.

A speaker, "the chair", addresses the meeting for half an hour or so, telling their drinking history, which typically starts sweet, turns sour, hits rock bot tom and ends with sober salvation in the bosom of the fellowship. Then some of the other members "share", recounting their own experiences. And that's all that appears to happen. The meeting ends promptly after 90 minutes with a collection. The members recite the AA "serenity prayer" and vow to "keep coming back". The fellowship is avowedly evangelical and does have a faint religious whiff, but it is at pains to emphasise that members can take what they want of this and leave the rest (most do). It's the simplest, most efficiently organised society I have ever attended.

Since every meeting follows the same general plan and the stories told always have the same plot, AA meetings should be boring enough to speed the keenest would-be abstainer straight out of the fellowship's arms and into the Bricklayer's. Yet this doesn't happen. Every chair is welcomed with equal enthusiasm, even though they tell the same old war story. Listeners are enjoined to look not for differences but for similarities in the chair's story and theirs, and do not find this a problem. The repetition seems to act as a soothing balm to these casualties with 90% third-degree burns of the psyche.

So where does all this get us? Does any of this matter if you're not on skid row? Well, yes, it absolutely does. Take stock now. Many Guardian readers will have a drink problem at some stage of their lives. They probably won't even acknowledge its existence - Tess and I suppressed any notion that I was an alcohol addict until very recently, when it became inescapable. It really is worth an early consideration of the part that alcohol plays in your life. It shouldn't actually be at all important. Does having a drink matter less to some other people you know than it does to you? If you have too close a relationship with alcohol, you have a problem, and if this problem is not confronted and dealt with it will almost certainly get worse and worse. On your own you'll be as helpless to deal with it as I was. Talk to your partner, talk to your GP, and contact AA. If you don't feel like considering any of this, think about exactly why you don't. If it's because it could interfere with your drinking, then think again. Cut down while you can, if you can. Alcohol addiction is so awful that you should do everything possible to avoid contracting it. I can't believe I'm writing this, but even giving up drinking for ever feels better.

If, as I had, you've drunk too much for too long and slid into addiction, all is not lost. You can escape. You can't do it on your own, but you'll have to make the initial move yourself. First of all, you'll have to give up trying to give up and give in. Acknowledge that you're screwed. That's what physically going into treatment meant for me. I needed the commitment, the establishment, the authority, the clout, of this University of Sobriety. For some this hasn't been enough. For others, joining AA has been sufficient. Timing is everything. You've got to catch yourself at the right moment. I believe I went into treatment at the nadir of my despair, and the momentum I had carried me through.

Then you need support. My recovery has been sustained by a cocktail of AA shared experience, aftercare analysis, encouragement from people close to me, terrific support from Tess, and genuine improvements in physical and mental wellbeing (you discount these while you're drinking, but in fact they are a terrific bonus - the quality of sleep is wonderful and universally remarked upon).

But recovery started with me and can only start from you. Just as surely as nobody else made you drink, nobody else can make you stop. It's as if somewhere inside us we alcoholics have a place that makes us want to drink. That's where we must go to alter the controls, to want to not drink. Only then can we use the help of others that we need to succeed.

• © Andy Mayer 2001

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.