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Heavy drinking and health module

Further Perspectives on Alcohol

Experiences with Heavy Drinking

Preferred Name: John

Gender: Male

Age: 60


John lives by himself in Sydney. He retired ten years ago. He has four children. He describes his ethnic background as ‘Australian’. Both of his parents were born in Australia.

Brief Outline:

John’s drinking became ‘heavier […] and dangerous’ over time. Six months ago, John admitted himself to hospital and was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and ascites. This experience encouraged him to ‘take care’ of his health and try to drink less. He credits the support of the hospital staff with improving his health and well-being.

John's Story:

John started drinking at the age of 15 and says that over time his drinking got ‘heavier […] and dangerous’. He was drinking around five litres of wine a day. He describes himself as a ‘functional alcoholic’. He says that growing up in the 1970s, drinking was thought of as ‘normal’ and his father and grandfather drank regularly at home. For John, drinking is enjoyable, relaxing and an ‘escape’ from reality. When he drinks at home, he likes to listen to music.

About six months ago John became ‘very, very sick’. His stomach ‘started to expand’ and he was losing a lot of weight. He admitted himself to hospital and was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and ascites. When he was in hospital, 15 litres of liquid were drained from his abdomen. He describes this experience as ‘confusing’ and it took him time to understand the ‘full picture’ of these health issues. After hearing the doctors ‘mumbling’ about cirrhosis, John asked the doctor whether he had cirrhosis of the liver. When the doctor told him he did, John says he felt scared because he knew ‘cirrhosis [could] kill you’.

John says that this experience at the hospital made him realise that if he didn’t ‘take care’ of himself he ‘could die’. He is currently trying to drink less but says ‘it’s hard’. He is trying to improve his immune system by eating a high protein diet. He also takes liver support tablets, antibiotics and vitamin supplements. According the John, the support he receives from the staff at the hospital is ‘incredible’ and ‘helped [him] greatly’. Not only do they coordinate appointments and text him with reminders, but a nurse checks in with John weekly. She offers support around diet and encouragement to manage his drinking. When John ‘slips’ up and has a ‘couple of drinks’, he says the nurse doesn’t ‘give up’ on him. This makes him feel good. According to John, the medical treatment he receives has helped him and ‘it’s really positive [because] people are caring for [his] health’. He has also reconnected with his children who ring him and support him.

John lives alone and explains that he lost two marriages because of his drinking. He says that he ‘just cared about [his] drinking’ and as a result, he was ‘on the other perimeter of the family for a long time’. As he got older, he wondered why he didn’t see his children more regularly. Having lived by himself for ten years he wanted to see his family more. In the last 12 months he’s started to see his children and sister more. They know he has health issues and he says that although they don’t approve of his drinking, he now has their ‘full support’. John values being able to share his struggles with his sister and children, and says he’s ‘never felt so good’ in his life. He likes waking up in the morning ‘feeling good’ and looking forward to the first cup of coffee of the day. These things sound ‘simple and normal’, but to John they’re ‘special’ because he’s feeling good about life.


John [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] explains that he used to relax by drinking at home, listening to music and enjoying himself.


I escape. I escape reality […] Even recently, I would drink at home and I’d listen to music, and I would pretend I was the star singing, and alcohol fuelled that, and I quite enjoyed it. And I was telling everybody I enjoyed my own company because I had a drink, it relaxed me. It made me a little bit drunk, and I went into my fantasy land, you know. It was my form of escape. It always has been, always has been.

John [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] explains that for many years he did not see his children regularly because of their attitudes towards his drinking.


I was on the outer perimeter of the family for a long time, except I didn’t care. Then as I got a bit older, I thought, ‘Why don’t I see my kids?’ Especially when I was living by myself and I lived by myself for like the last 10 years. I wanted to see my kids. I wanted to see my family. And it’s just recently, about the last 12 months, I’ve been starting to see my children, even though they are adults now. They knew I was sick and they thought I was going to die and they went, ‘Uh oh.’ They didn’t approve of me drinking [but] now I’ve got full support [from] them because they thought, ‘Dad’s dying,’ and it made them realise that they’ve got a father. Because [for] many, many years I was just around, ‘Oh, yeah, Dad. He’s a drunk.’

John [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] describes giving up drinking as hard, even with the support of health professionals and medical treatment.


I’m sick and tired of the word abstinent. You’ve got to be abstinent. No, it’s a load of crap. There’s a lot more to being abstinent than just the word. The personal hell an alcoholic has to go through when he stops. It’s support and help, and I do find, the medical help that I’m getting has been successful for me. The support I’m getting from the hospital, I can’t fault it. And I’ve had a lot of experience trying to be abstinent. I hate the bloody word. I know it means to stop drinking. To stop drinking. How, mate? How do I stop drinking? You know, there’s a lot of questions to be asked and an alcoholic like myself is often intelligent and can hide it well as long as he doesn’t get smelled [laughs…] I’m not being nasty to people who are trying to help me, please, please, I’m not, I’m not that type of guy, but words like counselling, like the rehabs which I mentioned, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in rehabs. It’s really done nothing to me, but when you look at death in the eye and you know it, and there’s people out there keeping you alive and they want you to be healthy and they want you to do this, that’s positive.

John’s [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] drinking has not changed over time, but he now takes care of his health by taking prescribed liver support tablets, vitamins, and antibiotics to support his immune system.


I’ve got liver support tablets. I’m taking plenty of, what’s it called, vitamin B, and that’s [a] constant. As well as the antibiotic to stop the ascites from coming. Because I’ve been told, now I’ve had ascites, it can come back very easily if I don’t take care of myself. If I start drinking and I start eating salt again, [continue with] my bad habits, I could die and that’s a scary feeling, you know. But what I’m on now, like [I’m] not on any heavy medication. It’s mainly my diet, the antibiotics, and the vitamins. Because the more I build my body up with that type of thing, the stronger I become, and it makes my immune system stronger. So, that helps me because I’m extremely liable to infection now. So, because inside, my immune system is way down and that’s what we’re working on.

John [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] draws on the support of his children who phone him and offer encouragement.


And my kids support me in a way, ‘How are you going, Dad?’ by telephone. Sometimes, they come around, not very often because they’re working, they’ve got their own lives, but they ring up. ‘How are you going, Dad?’ you know, and I really appreciate that because I never had it before and they’re just ringing up off their own back. ‘How are you feeling? How’s your condition going?’ you know. Just making enquiries about my general well-being, and that’s helping me.

John [60 years of age, Australian, retired, drinking less] explains that his drinking resulted in unexpected weight gain, which was actually found to be caused by liver cirrhosis and ascites.


I didn’t know [it was] cirrhosis straight way. It’s when my stomach started to expand. I was getting weak and I was losing weight rapidly and I was concerned. ‘Oh, I better eat more,’ and I wasn’t. I got to eat more and I got myself scales and I’m losing a kilo by the day and I went, ‘Whoa! This is not right.’ So, to compensate for it, I drank more. [laughs] Stupid as it sounds, but I did […] hat’s when my stomach started to expand and I went, ‘Oh! I’m getting a beer gut,’ and I’d never had one. It wasn’t. It was ascites, and you can imagine the size of my belly with 15 litres of liquid in there, and that’s documented. Fifteen litres they took out. The doctors were surprised, and then they took another three litres after that, and they had me book in for more drainages, but I haven’t needed it luckily because [when] they drained it, it started to hit me. It was ascites. That’s when I was told I [also] had cirrhosis.