Charles* was angry when he came to see me. He was angry to have been asked to come, angry to be there, and angry to have to be expected to talk to me. He didn’t have to be angry though – as I reminded him, he didn’t even have to be there.
“Well, I can hardly leave early can I? Not when she’s sat in the car outside waiting for me.” ‘She’ was Charles’ wife, who he’d been very clear didn’t need to come in with him. “I’m quite capable of being honest about what’s going on without her here to police me” he’d told me as he’d first sat down.
‘What’s going on’ was Charles’ drinking. “Socially it’s fine” his wife had told me when she’d tried to make an appointment on his behalf. “In fact, he hardly drinks at all, as he quite often insists on driving so I can have a drink after a long day or a busy week. It’s when he’s on his own that it seems to go wrong for him.”
Charles had made later arranged the appointment himself, and that why was I’d agreed to see him. Why I hadn’t asked him to leave was because there was clearly something he was trying, and struggling, to talk about.
What he found a lot easier was talking about his previous life, up to retirement a year before. A very senior figure where he worked, he’d dedicated a lot of time to his job, his staff, and his employer. We call that ‘emotional capital’, and while it can be easy for some people to build up at work, it’s never easy for anyone to withdraw when they leave.
Charles’ wife had retired a few years before him and apparently now didn’t know how she’d ever had the time to work. “She’s always doing something – with the church, or the WI, or that bloody volunteer group – and she can’t hear about a committee without being on it, or be on a committee without running it.”
“That’s why the drinking gets out of hand every so often – because it’s another evening in with just the bloody tv for company, and nothing else to do. You’d bloody well drink if you felt like such a spare part.” And with that, Charles slumped back in the chair.
That was why he hadn’t wanted his wife to come in with him. That’s why he’d been so angry. And that’s why I’d let him stay and speak. Because there it was – the truth out there in the room.
Charles had been caught by a trap that catches lots of people, especially men. He’d effectively put work first, and put very important parts of his life, like friendships, second. Other important aspects, like other interests and pastimes, he’d left to sort out in retirement with no real thought about what they might be.
Not only did that leave a huge gap when he retired, he felt that more keenly as he watched his wife enjoying her lifelong interests and activities. For Charles the easiest response to that sense of something missing was to drink.
Simply knowing that made it easier for us to help Charles stop his drinking.
“I really thought I’d left it too late” he told me later, “not just for drink but for finding other things in life. But not only is it never too late, it’s never too early either.” Whilst that’s true it was his last sentence that made me realise he understood “Anyway, I must go as I’m in a committee meeting in a couple of minutes”.
*Charles is happy to share his story, and his identity has been protected
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