Disclaimer: Though this a personal story, the experience is all too familiar to many of us who know someone struggling with alcohol. We are sharing to help those who know someone or who worry they themselves may have a problem.
Arriving on Mallorca #
I arrived in Port Andratx, Mallorca back in the mid-80s. Back then, the Moderno was the hostel/hotel of choice because Guido and Mario were super accommodating and had a stable telephone connection. Their restaurant was packed nightly with us waiting to use the phone to call the UK or the States. As we would eat and enjoy our Rioja and spaghetti Bolognese, Panda, their Old English Sheepdog, patrolled the premises.
After dinner, we’d head to Tim’s to close down the Port and watch the sun come up. Tim’s Bar was the hangout for us all since there wasn’t much else late-night action. My first taste of that delicious peach schnapps, effervescent peach champagne and soothing Armagnac clouded my feelings of insecurity, unattractiveness and an overwhelming lack of purpose.
No one had warned me that living in paradise could be so lonely. Back home, I had kept busy with the community events, helping my neighbours and attending the occasional talk at the local bookstore. Of course, we also had drinks at these events but nothing too dramatic happened after college. Holidays were an extension of family and friend reunions. While surrounded by the most beautiful landscape in the world, swimming in the most glorious waters on the planet and hanging out with other expats nightly, I began feeling more and more isolated and alone.
What Happened #
My Spanish wasn’t great so I could not speak easily with the locals. One afternoon, a man delivered a load of firewood by simply dumping it in the middle of the street. A Mallorquin woman came out with her bucket and kept uttering words of wisdom, “Tranquilla, tranquilla,” to my rushing frenzy as I worried we were blocking cars for men returning to work after siesta.
She taught me two lessons that day that I didn’t realize until many years later: Good neighbours transcend language but it’s always good to learn to converse in local dialect. The second lesson: Life takes on a different rhythm here.
My only thought I had that day was that I needed a drink because my nerves were shot to pieces trying to not upset the villagers living in my street.
Reaching Out for Help #
A long and desperate four years later, I sat at my dining room table in Andratx, drunk dialing rehabs…at 7:30 in the morning. My luck hadn't run out. I was on a flight to a recovery centre back home in a week’s time. I’m not sure why the day before I took my last drink I felt even more desperate than before and wanted to end everything. Maybe the long string of days without any meaning in my life had taken their toll. I know for sure that my pre-occupation with drinking had started to suck all the oxygen out of my life. I had nothing left for friends and family. People would come to visit and I began to look at guests, holidays, even everyday work as an inconvenience. I fantasized about escaping my life, one way or the other.
"No one had warned me that living in paradise could be so lonely."
More About Mallorca As An Alcoholic’s Paradise #
I remember when I first landed here, I didn’t quite fit in. While I didn’t like small talk, I had a deep desire to connect with others in hope of finding some kind of purpose in my life. In essence, I wanted to belong to this place and I wanted to find my people.
Today, Mallorca has tens of millions of tourists and over 1.1 million full-time residents. The fortunate few of us who live here full-time have seen the bar flies. I was one of them. Recently, I read an article in the Majorca Daily Bulletin that 60,000 people have alcoholism in the Balearics but only a few dozen who regularly attend support groups.
It's Not About Willpower – Alcohol Is a Physical Illness #
Every morning that I woke up with a hangover (almost every morning toward the end of my drinking), I felt demoralized. Not remembering much of the night before – what I did, with whom or how I ended up where I did – was baffling. And, it was also disheartening. I thought I was losing my grip on my value system.
What I didn’t understand, until I was in treatment, is that alcoholism is a physical disease. The mind of an alcoholic is different from heavy drinkers. Once we slip over the line, there is no going back. Not to get too intellectual here but I was astounded to learn that the neurotransmitters in the brain are altered by repeated drinking bouts.
Literally, the alcohol changes the shape of the synapses in our brains. The neurotransmitters, responsible for all our nerves communicating with each other, misfire until they change to accommodate those synapses. And women have double trouble: our livers simply do not metabolize quantities that men’s do. But these and other physical changes are what set up the need for more.
Consequently, a female alcoholic usually can’t hide the condition as well as a man, although we try with all series of excuses. Those excuses are sometimes real since we suffer from the effects of chronic alcohol use with hand tremors, brain seizures and loss of weight due to inability to desire and absorb food. Until recently, few doctors would identify these conditions as related to alcohol, especially if the doctor doesn’t have a long medical history for you.
“According to the World Health Organization, total per capita alcohol consumption in Spain is 10 litres annually, which is above the WHO European regional average. Binge alcohol use is rather high in the country with almost half (49.5%) the young people using alcohol are engaging in heavy episodic alcohol intake.” The Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt just made a decision that “any minor disturbance in the body’s normal functioning is considered an illness. Hangovers, which manifest in headaches, nausea and exhaustion (and often regret and a temporary disdain for booze, though those typically go undiagnosed), deviate from the bodily norm. Therefore, hangovers are an illness."
What Happened Then?
- I read books to help me better understand what was happening to me.
- I watched movies – so many to choose but “When A Man Loves A Woman” hit the mark for me (to learn more about it keep on reading).
- I read this medical definition and took the famous questionnaire
- I did my 28+ days in rehab. Alcoholism is a physical and mental disease. Stopping cold turkey, in my case, would have been life-threatening.
- I learned to connect more with health-conscious people with positive attitudes and actions.
- I joined groups supporting causes that gave me purpose.
- I regularly attend 12-step meetings. I feel so good to help others out of despair.
Reading about other women who also drank too much helped me understand my condition - that I am different from other people who can drink normally. While knowing this didn’t change one thing about my life, my mind was beginning to open just a smidge to the magnitude of my condition. One of the best books I read which helped me to break my denial and resistance to seeing the reality of what my life had become was "lit" by Mary Karr. Funny and real, Karr was able to help me better tie the circumstances in my life to drinking. Written with Karr's relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humour, this memoir is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up--as only Mary Karr can tell it.
And then there is the perfectly titled book, "Smashed" by Koren Zailckas. The New York Times has this to say about it: “Eye-opening and utterly gripping, Koren Zailckas’s story is that of thousands of girls like her who are not alcoholics—yet—but who routinely use booze as a shortcut to courage and a stand-in for good judgment.” If I had read this years earlier, who knows if I would have fallen into such a pit of despair.
I remember watching the movie “When A Man Loves A Woman” when it was released in 1994. Meg Ryan’s character was hiding bottles in the clothes drawer. She fought constantly with her husband in front of the children. And the children... it was just too heartbreakingly real to see what the girls were living with. In one scene, the children and their dad, played by Andy Garcia, were having a talk about what is an alcoholic. That scene shredded me to tears. My husband and our friends had no idea how much I related to Meg Ryan’s character.
When A Man Loves A Woman - Trashcan Scene
The realities of hiding to avoid ridicule and shame.
What I knew was that I needed a good, long drying out. You see, from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, I tried yoga at La Mola in Port Andratx. I drank a special seaweed concoction made by a woman in the Pueblo. I swore off for Lent. I took trips where people didn’t drink as much as I did. Ugh. This brings to mind a particularly grueling cruise with my husband and two other couples up the Inland Waterway of Alaska with mesmerizing scenery but I couldn’t hide my temper at being given no more than two glasses of wine with dinner. This is only one of many standouts in the list of “not my finest moments.” It certainly wasn’t the worst but clearly showed me that I was in trouble.
What I didn’t want to hear at the rehab centre was that I needed to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Horrifying thought being with “those people.” A fate close to death, which is what I was contemplating. I can tell you beyond all doubt is that living with active addiction is much harder than dying from it. But then, somewhere from the recesses of memory, I recalled that friend from university who had gone to the same rehab centre where I was and had regularly attended AA meetings ever since. She met her future husband at one and they have been mostly ecstatically happy all these years later. Success stories were what I needed and I found plenty of them.
I’m Free #
I had to walk by Bar Cubano every single time I went into or out of my house in Andratx. I would pass our neighbours, some of whom were my old drinking buddies. I still wanted to drink after I came home. I began searching out places with people who were happy, joyous and free from the bondage of alcohol even if they were only heavy drinkers and not alcoholic like me. I needed to be around sane and purposeful people. I found them - in yoga classes, art and writing classes, hiking groups and volunteering for animal rescues. My new reality is a group of the finest real friends anyone could dream of.
I have found volunteer opportunities with non-profits in Palma, working on causes that I believed in, which meant that I needed to brush up on my Spanish speaking skills and lose the insecurity of not fitting in. These days, when I attend dinners or parties for work, I am careful to not hang-out too long around people who drink a lot and I take a sober person with me. This is much easier than you think. I have found loads of people on the island who are looking for a great evening and don’t need to get smashed.
The natural beauty of the island is intoxicating. Whether exploring the calas from Cala d’Egos to Cala Mondrago, hiking near Banyalbufar, visiting village shops in Santanyi and Cala D'Or, I remember it all. I don’t have to plan to be home at a certain hour or how to avoid the Guardia Civil. My husband and I have discovered much more of the island and the Mallorquin-born residents in the past few decades than most people can even contemplate. This little island is a rich place with the most extraordinary heritage. Life for me and my family has taken on a whole new meaning. We all feel like we belong here now.
All these years later, my one constant is attending 12-step meetings. I have a way to deal with how I look at life and take my proper place in it. I am deeply grateful for no longer being stuck in a rut of hopelessness. I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to move off the island but we did move from that Andratx house. My husband and I owned it for decades but when a buyer came along, the time was perfect to begin a new chapter in our lives. This has allowed us the opportunity to explore other parts of the island. Oh, did I tell you? We do live in Paradise.
English Speaking Helpline: (+34) 634 368 771
Or find an AA meeting on Mallorca near you.
Majorca Daily Bulletin
WHO Global status report on alcohol and health 2018 (PDF).
By Anonymous Guest Writer
15 January, 2021