"It is one thing to write a book, tucked away behind my laptop in the seclusion of my own home, about my successful recovery from an alcohol addiction. It is quite another to be interviewed and have my picture taken and see all the painful details of my past drinking-life splattered all over a men’s magazine. And that is exactly what happened to me these past few weeks.
Suddenly, people in the street recognize me as “the guy who used to drink from early morning till late evening.” This kind of infamy is not what I had anticipated when I signed up for the interview! But on the other hand, those complete strangers tell me they respect the courage and bravery in my “outing” as an alcoholic.
And that, dear reader, is exactly why I wrote 'Mind on Fire' and also had this interview published. I want to tell the world what happened to me—from all the gory details to the fact that I am still here. And I am thriving!
It’s now been five years since my last drink, and I can tell you, my world has changed. I’m not going to lie. The first 18 months of recovery, as I describe in my book, were a rollercoaster of fears, anxieties, and imperfect thinking. Once I had made it through that emotional minefield, things started to look up.
During the last three years, I’ve gotten rid of a lot of baggage. My self-esteem is growing every day and my insecurities are dwindling. I feel like a different man.
I decided to share my story with others because it is a story of hope. I’d be honored if you would read the interview; I’m open to any reaction that you might have. I will be sure to reach out to you."
May 22, 2013
Exactly five years ago, Philip Muls drank his last glass of wine. For more than twenty years, alcohol fueled his life, as well as his thriving career as the sales director for the Asian market for a high-profile international corporation. Day in and day out, Muls drank. For a long time, he performed better at work, but at a certain moment, the golden fluid began to work against him. There was only one way out: complete abstinence. For once and for all.
After a difficult journey lasting several years and with the help of the right people, Muls succeeded. He can now say with certainty that he will never again touch a drop of alcohol, although he is well aware that he will have to fight against the temptation for the rest of his life.
In an effort to inspire and give hope to others, Muls shares his exhausting struggle with his poison of choice in an autobiographical book, 'Mind on Fire.' The book has been received very positively in the United States and Great Britain and is a Finalist in the International Book Awards. Publisher Mediageuzen is currently working on a Dutch version (Muls’ native language) of what it calls an “extremely moving, impactful and authentic book.” The undersigned cannot help but agree that this courageous story by an ex-alcoholic grasps you like no others do.
“I remember putting my bare feet down on the hardwood floor. I try to stand up but feel shaky. I shuffle around in the dark until I find the light switch. I curse myself for being weak, and I’m thinking, This might be your last chance to save yourself—do not go down. But I go ahead and navigate the stairs all the way down, putting both feet together on each step, just as an old man would. When I’m finally down in the kitchen, I do not switch on the light. I open the fridge, and, in its divine light, I see the half-empty bottle of white wine I knew would be there. The bottle sparkles like a sliver of heaven in my hell. I make a last, futile attempt to resist, forcing myself to think the wine is poison. The voice in my head takes the cue and says: Sure, but it is your poison, your lifeline.”
" That first glass of wine was magical for me. I will never forget that feeling. The taste drew on nothing, but the feeling was a miraculous aha moment. The feeling of: I have missed this in my life. Not everyone experiences that exaggerated sense of ecstasy. I am convinced that you either have it in you or not."
The urge to wake up even in the middle of the night and need your “poison of choice,” as you put it so beautifully. That must have been a hell.
PHILIP MULS: Unfortunately I have experienced that too often. When you get up in the morning and your body trembles from head to toe, and the only thing that helps it is a glass of wine, you know the drinking has come too far. But I could not do anything else. I had to open the refrigerator and open a new bottle. Day in and day out. Try to imagine what that does with your self-confidence and your self-respect. They are completely gone. As a young man, I would never have thought that at age 43, I’d get up each morning needing a glass of white wine. That’s not something you want, but the desire is stronger than your will power at that moment. You want to stop, but you can’t.
Drop by Drop
It all started at summer camp in the Swiss mountain village St. Moritz when you were 17 years old. Two loves came into your life. The first was a girl. In your book, you describe the second, much greater love, very poetically.
“I remember sipping my glass and gazing with curiosity at the golden liquid. I tentatively sipped some more, as if I had a premonition that I was about to set in motion forces that I could not control. And then the strangest thing happened. The best feeling ever overwhelmed me. I can only describe it as pure joy. All my worries seemed to evaporate, and all the background noise in my mind stopped. All that was left was this otherworldly feeling of blissful calm. It felt like magic. Bottom line, I fell deeply in love with alcohol, right there and then.”
MULS: That first glass of wine was magical for me. I will never forget that feeling. The taste drew on nothing, but the feeling was a miraculous aha moment. The feeling of: I have missed this in my life. Not everyone experiences that exaggerated sense of ecstasy. I am convinced that you either have it in you or not. That your genes or your personality influence whether you become dependent or not. But it took several years before my alcohol addiction became really problematic. From age 25 to 47, I literally did not go a single day without alcohol. In the beginning, it was three glasses of wine or beer a day. Then there were ten, twelve and even fifteen a day. I meticulously counted the number of glasses, to keep the illusion alive that I still had some control over my drinking problem.
That is called a high-functioning alcoholic. I performed better at work with a certain amount of alcohol in my body, but I never got really drunk. Compare it to an infusion that always keeps you in the same state of mind, drop by drop. I never became euphoric or happy with alcohol. I was always serious and fairly introverted because I spread my drinks throughout the day. Until I literally and figuratively lost count and the scraping at rock bottom started. I still get shivers when I think about it.
“Every morning, I wake up to yet another day without a solution to my mortality problem.” He looked at me carefully, to check my expression. When he saw that I was not about to scoff at him, he continued. “Every day I realize, as if for the first time, that my life will eventually end. And every day, this weighs down on my chest, like a foot of a fresh earth on top of a coffin. My coffin.”
Your drinking problem was also fueled by fear. Fear of finitude. Death. Do you still have those fears?
MULS: Unfortunately. Every morning I awake with the thought: it can’t be true that we die. Somewhere in my childhood something must have happened that is unpalatable. I am a worrier who thinks everything is broken. We are so insignificant. Why we are walking around on this planet? And why is there an inevitable end to it? I tried to drink away such thoughts every day. During the healing of my alcohol problem, I did learn to relate and accept the inevitable. Irony helps with this. You need to laugh at the situation as you ask yourself, “What are you going to do about it?” You can destroy yourself by thinking about death or you can look at the inevitable in a positive way. Though I deal with the subject better now, I still think death is an incredibly bizarre idea. The book delves deeper into this existential issue and how to deal with it.
Marriage and Children at Stake
When I think of an alcoholic, I see a man staggering in the street or hanging out in a cafe every day until the early hours. That was not the case with you. Did you have a huge wine cellar at home, then?
MULS: No. I went to the nearest gas station every day to buy a few bottles of wine. I switched stores regularly so that no one noticed that I came around so often. I always made sure that I had enough inventory in the house so that I never had to panic by being without alcohol. I only remember one time that I was completely without. I had travelled for work to a city deep inland into Russia. Much to my surprise, the hotel did not have a bar. I had never encountered that. I was really panicking then. I don’t remember what I did then, but that was certainly not my best night.
Did you drink at home in the sight of your family or did you try to hide it?
MULS: In the beginning I did try to hide my drinking. That wasn’t very difficult because who doesn’t drink a glass of wine at home with his wife? Fortunately, my wife doesn’t have a dependent personality; otherwise, she might well have been dragged into my story. So I hid my drinking for many years, but in the long run I didn’t care who saw me. I admitted everything.
“I’m sitting up straight in bed, in the spare bedroom up in the attic of our house. I feel utterly alone. By then, I’ve been sleeping alone for more than a year because my wife, Laura, has shut me out of the master bedroom after many reproachful discussions about my drinking. She has lost all respect for me after my recent series of lapses, and so have I. A familiar black desperation washes over me.” En “So I am sitting there, thinking I do not want to go downstairs to the kitchen, yet I am certain I will. It is three am, for God’s sake; only an insane person would drink now. But my body screams for alcohol to make it through the night.”
At some point your relationship was in danger. Was that the beginning of the turnaround?
MULS: Alcoholism made me so helpless that I even put my marriage and my children on the line. I desperately wanted to stop drinking, but I couldn’t. My body and my mind resisted too hard. I had already been admitted to rehab three times, but as soon as I was released, I started drinking again. In the meantime, the relationship with my children had also become horrifying. They had their problems and saw me struggle. My attitude was something like, “whatever, I can’t help you.” My wife had enough. She gave me an ultimatum. Not by being angry and threatening to pack her suitcases, but in a subtle, feminine way. And that was the decisive factor for me to finally overcome my alcohol addiction. That day something clicked. Only the day before, change had seemed utterly impossible.
Physical and Mental Withdrawal
You were admitted to KARUS in Belgium. What made the difference for you there?
MULS: KARUS’ approach was different than the other institutions I had tried before. I did my very first attempt at sobriety in a detox center on Curaçao in the Caribbean. I thought that if I have to kick-off anyway, let me do it in a pleasant place. But that wasn’t a good idea. That rehab center was once a hotel, and part of it is still used as a hotel. So you see people enjoying vacation with a drink, while you cannot touch a drop. That just didn’t work. When we arrived at the airport to take our flight home, we all rushed straight to the airport bar to drink. I also drank during the entire flight, so I returned home from an expensive rehab with a hangover. I did not succeed the second and third time either, but the day I went into KARUS on May 22, 2013, was the very last day that I touched a drop of alcohol. KARUS has developed a special therapy program that helps you to structure your day for seven weeks and gradually gives you more freedom, because eventually you have to step back into normal life. For example, they use images of a Cirrhosed liver or a heart with scar tissue as a deterrent and they constantly tell you why drinking is not possible anymore.
But when you stopped drinking, did you not have any withdrawal symptoms?
MULS: Huge. When I departed from home to the rehab center in Curaçao, I decided to stop drinking before my flight there. I then became incredibly ill during that twelve-hour flight. I really thought I was dying. Afterwards, the doctors told me that I should never have stopped drinking so abruptly. That is life-threatening. When I arrived in the Caribbean, I immediately got medication to stop these withdrawal symptoms. In KARUS, I also had to stop drinking, but at the same time I got the right medication to help my body. Still, for 72 hours, it was horrible. Cold sweat, nausea, diarrhea, unable to sleep, until the alcohol completely disappeared from my body.
After that, the mental withdrawal started, and that was soon accompanied by anxiety. That differs from person to person. For example, one person gets panic attacks, another a social phobia where you cannot handle people looking at you. Fortunately, the doctors have seen so many different cases at KARUS that they know how you feel and can help you relax. If you get admitted there, it’s very important that you enter with the right mentality. Most people hope to learn to control their drinking, but that is not the intention. A large part of those seven weeks serves to get rid of that thought. Only when you have reached the point where you accept the reality that you will never drink in your life again can the healing begin.
He looked like a lost puppy. “I will see you in two days’ time. Trust yourself—you are stronger than you think.” I felt I needed to send him off with a challenge. “There are no guarantees, but I feel confident that, together, we can instill a lasting sobriety. It is clear we need to dig deeper, give you a reason to want to live a sober and authentic life, and even enjoy it. But this type of personal transformation can be a long journey. Are you up for it?” “This is my last chance, Doc. I know that if I touch alcohol again—even one small sip—all of my resolve will be gone, forever. So yes, I am up for it. But still, I fear that I will relapse before I see you again. My past shows that obviously I lack the backbone to see this through to the end. It seems I cannot cope on my own.” I kept my silence and gave him a look of encouragement. With a faint smile, he added: “Clearly, you have more faith in me than I do.” “Peter, I need you to trust me in this. You will not drink. I will see you the day after next, and you will tell me here in this office how you did it.”
After your release from KARUS, you approached sobriety differently than the previous three times.
MULS: After the seven weeks in KARUS, I was done with the protected environment. I stood alone again. But for the first time in my life, I had the feeling that I absolutely did not want to relapse, so I went looking for a therapist to keep me on the right path. I found that in expert Myriam Bruyninckx. She used to be an alcoholic, which makes her unique, an expert by experience you could say. I've known her for five years now. In the beginning, I visited her twice a week, now I go twice a month. I now regard it more as maintenance, but I cannot stress hard enough how important this aftercare was. Even if you feel that you are successful coming out of rehab, you absolutely need someone you regularly see and can fall back on if necessary. In Flanders (northern part of Belgium), 6 to 8 percent of the population has a drinking problem, so about 500,000 people. Of this, 2 percent – roughly 10,000 people – have themselves voluntarily committed and 80% of those 10,000 people relapse within a year. So I am with that tiny group of lucky ones.
Writing as an Outlet
What was the most difficult phase for you in the rehabilitation process?
MULS: The first year after I returned from the rehab center. That was a terribly hard period. The physical dependency disappears relatively quickly, but the mental dependence is almost insurmountable. That’s why alcoholism is also a disease. Alcohol weaves its way into your existence, into your being. You no longer have a “me” separate from alcohol. It took me several years to find my own “I” in some solid form. Solid enough to make everything return more or less to normal. My wife recently told me how incredibly happy she is that she has me back. And by that she means that I have found myself and am back for her and my family. The first years after that last drop of alcohol, you try to survive without drinking, but you are not “me.” You are a piece of misery that tries to get through life. After twelve, maybe eighteen months, that started to improve.
Shifting your focus to a fun hobby can help, right?
MULS: Right. My therapist tried to convince me to find something new in which I could indulge myself. Photography or painting or something. But there was not really anything that interested me until I started writing. Suddenly I felt a kind of relief. Writing became my outlet. At first I just wrote for myself, but then I realized that I could write just as well about what I had experienced. Two years after my last drop, I started writing this book.
I have written the largest pieces during more than a hundred night flights between Europe and Asia. I noticed that it was not really convenient to isolate myself at home and to be completely in the right gear to write. For work, however, I often spend hours on the plane and I did manage to write, bizarrely enough. On the plane, you sit undisturbed in an insulated tube, with some music in your ears, and that's how inspiration came naturally. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because I fly in Business Class where the champagne flows freely. Actually, that is a very frightening place for someone who used to drink away all fears. Occasionally, I would have panic attacks and the only thing that helped was writing my story. Strange as it may sound, without the night flights, the book would probably not have come about.
Is the book completely autobiographical or is not everything true?
MULS: Most things have absolutely happened as I described them, but I consciously made some stories heavier than they really were. That is creative freedom. I followed my gut feeling in that. I wanted the book to touch you and to confuse you. Not everyone knows what exactly happened and what did not. There had to be a mysterious atmosphere for me. Maybe even the imagination of a brain affected by too much alcohol.
Danger of Overestimation
Have you sustained bodily injury as a result of your alcohol consumption?
MULS: Fortunately not. When I was still drinking, I constantly went to the doctor because I was very worried about that and every time, she said that it would end badly. My liver got worse and worse, but never to the point that the damage was irreversible. By stopping just in time, my liver has fully recovered. I owe a lot to the fact that I have never taken up strong liquor, which causes liver damage to occur much faster. But beware, even with beer and wine you can suffer enormous damage. If I had not stopped, I might not have been here, especially not at the pace I was going at the end. Of course, I can get cancer within five years as a result of all that excessive drinking, but that you never know beforehand.
Do you notice that you are different than before?
MULS: Everyone says that I have changed a lot. Most people in my immediate environment notice that I am more authentic, and present. They feel that I have experienced a lot, but that could also be related to my age and the fact that I have traveled a lot through my work. I notice that I live much more consciously than before, but no less anxiously. I am still very aware of the transience and timeliness of life.
Do you still have a kind of urge when you come into a bar?
MULS: At this moment I have no problem with that. I can see those bottles [pointing to the counter of the bar] without feeling any urge to drink. But when I find myself at a dance party in the evening where it is expected that people drink, I feel that my resistance drops. I’m not saying there’s a big chance that I’ll start drinking, but I want to get out of there as quickly as possible. And I fear that that will remain so. I am very aware of the danger of overestimation.
Last year, we celebrated our good sales results in Cabo, Mexico. The party continued in the Mexican desert where we were taken by bus. I did not like that. The feeling that I’m being taken somewhere where I can’t leave on my own volition and where people are drinking heavily, is not good. That was hard for me. The last thing you want as a non-drinker is to be a burden for people who do drink. I was so happy to be back at the hotel. I was really upset about that.
I also remember very vividly a trip with work to Las Vegas. That was for a sales conference, a kind of crowning of our successful projects. Las Vegas is a place of depravity where you actually have to drink. Every evening there was partying and drinking. I remember I went to my hotel room quite early every evening to write. I really did that for self-preservation. If you have just stopped drinking, you can’t sit at a bar for more than an hour. Then you explode or—worse still—start drinking again."
“She is the strongest person I know, a woman with real stamina. She could have easily left me when I just about destroyed our family with my drinking. But she didn’t. In fact, she gave me a strong ultimatum, and that helped me finally commit to abstinence. The thought of losing her did tip the scale and gave me the final push. When willpower is totally impaired, as it was in my case, a small miracle is needed. That is what she gave me, a small miracle.”
How do you, as a husband and father, look back on that period?
MULS: I have mixed feelings about that. The low point of the relationship with my wife was not during drinking, but after I stopped. My wife was relieved of course, but after a while, she felt tremendous anger for everything I had made her go through. . At that point, I thought, “what else can I do now? I stopped drinking didn’t I? I saw my marriage almost derail without being able to do anything about it. We almost separated. Fortunately, that has passed and she has forgiven me. That also makes us stronger now. I try to be as present as possible to my children. Not by throwing money, but by listening and helping. By being a father again."
Did your wife read the book?
MULS: She is halfway through the book. When I ask her why she does not read any further, she says it is painful and heavy, and that she needs time to read and process it in small pieces. I understand. I can hardly imagine how painful I would find it to read such a book about my wife.
Why do you want to tell this story?
MULS: Because I think a lot of people who want to stop drinking go through this, bravely, but in silence. They can probably use a little support, even if it is only to know that they are not alone. After five years without having touched one drop, it is completely safe for me to say that I stopped and will never start drinking again. And I sincerely hope that a lot of people end up on the same good track."
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Philip Muls is still a businessman, but he is also a family man who has come out of this ordeal, determined to help others on the difficult road to a sober life. Due to its raw and authentic character, MIND ON FIRE is a must for anyone who has problems with alcohol, but also for those who have deeper questions about life and death.
Click HERE to purchase 'Mind on Fire'