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Spokesman for a hard-won sobriety

By Melissa Hekkers

I don’t think Stefanos Farmakas ever imagined he would one day talk wholeheartedly about his ordeal as an alcoholic to teenagers across the island.

Yet it’s his first-hand experience, his return to soberiety for over a decade, and his concern about our society’s ignorance regarding the dangers and consequences of alcohol abuse that seems to have guided his recent talks at private and state secondary schools during the final semester of the 2016-17 academic year.

According to a report by the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), Cyprus children rank third in alcohol consumption in Europe.

“One of the things I tell them (the students) is that, when I was their age, there wasn’t this guy who came to my classroom to tell me about how dangerous alcohol is … Consider yourselves lucky that I’m here to tell you my story. And if, out of the 100 things I tell you, 30 stay with you, I’m happy,” Farmakas tells me.

In between elaborating on his story, he addresses the realities of our youth’s relationship with alcohol and the flaws in the system that don’t help many people to overcome their addiction.

Among the statistics he uses to illustrate his alarm is the fact, that, locally, excessive drinking occurs in about 57% of boys and 45% of girls, an increase of 1% and 11% respectively since the last study was carried out in 2011, while the report behind the data also notes that the ease with which alcohol is available to Cyprus youngsters is 10% more than the European average.

Meticulous in his approach, Farmakas takes me through the basics before entirely opening up about his ordeal. He makes me very aware of the fact that “the disease isn’t alcoholism itself, the disease is addiction, just like gambling, video games, heroine, these are all symptoms of addiction”.

“Alcohol can destroy you physically and mentally. It will rip you to shreds,” he continues, revealing the treacherous stages of alcoholism.

“Alcoholism has three stages: use, abuse and dependency, and the problem with alcohol, in comparison to other drugs, is that, if, with heroine, you need four doses to get hooked, with alcohol you need time, it takes longer, it’s more systematic, and it sucks you down slowly. It doesn’t get to you immediately…

“These three stages overlap: at the end of the usage, you start abuse, and, at the end of abuse, you’re already dependent. You don’t recognise when you have left one stage and gone to the other,” he says.

“For me, personally … I had it in my genes – it’s proven that alcoholism is hereditary, and I had the genetic predisposition – along with the appropriate circumstances, the environment, social circle, where you hang out, how much you feed this monster that’s called addiction… this is how you feed it, and I fed it.”

Looking back, Farmakas seems to dwell on the fact that, throughout his teenage years, no one told him that what he was doing was dangerous.

“That was in the mid ’80s though. You can’t, in 2017, have the ultimate ignorance regarding the abuse of alcohol in Cyprus, and it’s something that I see in schools, when I go and talk to teenagers – no one knows much about it. Even adults that I speak to express ignorance about what alcohol can do to you.”

It was once Farmakas returned from rehab in Athens, and after exhausting the limited options available locally to assist people in his position at the time, that the media began showing interest in his experience and eventually led him to open up to the general public.

“The occasion to speak out had to be given to me,” he reveals as I ask him what led him to reach out to teenagers. “I spoke about it in a documentary in 2013; I spoke on TV stations in Athens and, more recently, I was called by someone whose husband was alcoholic who wanted to organise an event for friends to talk about alcoholism.

“From there, I began going to private schools, and then, through the Ministry of Education, we got approval and have gone to 10-15 state schools,” Farmakas reveals.

Sharing his own experience, but also referring to statistics and concrete information, Stefanos speaks to teenagers, but is quick to stress that, everyone, when it comes to alcoholism, is vulnerable.

“Teenagers are so pressured these days, and their stress is high. The things they sell to them as refreshments are so many – for example, Bacardi Breezers, Smirnoff Ice, they seem to sell these as innocent refreshments, but they have 4.5% alcohol in them which is the same as beer,” he points out.

Journey to sobriety

Farmakas found sobriety in Athens, after exhausting the local options available to him. Speaking about the local reality at the time, almost a decade ago, he recalls feeling disappointed because the rehabilitation centre provided by the state then provided “almost nothing”.

“My personal opinion is that they do nothing, all they do is a physical detoxification, but, from a psychological point of view, and with regard to emotional dependence, they do nothing. I was in there for four months and I did not see a single psychologist. I don’t know what it’s like today. All I know is that they have moved behind the General Hospital of Nicosia and are located in prefab houses with 20 beds.

“From data collected in 2015, around 30,000 people asked for help from the state. That’s almost 4% of the population. What do you do with 30,000 and 20 beds?” he asks me.

“You send people away. And – to understand the extent of the problem – 30,000 people are the ones who asked for help. Out of these 30,000, there are also the people who live with them, whether this is parents, brothers, husbands and wives. So, let’s say there is a minimum of 90,000 people waking up in the morning with alcoholism in their face,” stresses Farmakas.

“Another important element of rehab is reintegration into society. They didn’t prepare me for this here, so, with the first slip, the first problem, you drink and you relapse,” he adds.

The road ahead

“We have a saying, we alcoholics,” smiles Farmakas – adding mid-sentence “and yes, I’m still an alcoholic, I haven’t cured myself, you never do” – “an alcoholic drinks for one and only reason: any reason.” It’s perhaps owing to this fact that Farmakas is vigilant to keep his wits about him, and also perhaps why he devotes so much time to raising awareness.

“Personally I believe that 18 is still a very young age to be able to buy alcohol. You are an adult, but you are an adult learner,” he says.

“Along with the law, one also needs the correct policing and surveillance of the law; you need a correct judiciary and penal system to deter those who break the law.

“It’s unthinkable that a study by the University of Cyprus revealed that, out of 200 kiosks that a secret customer was sent to, only 11 asked to see ID.”

Today, Farmakas keeps in touch with people dealing with alcoholism both in Greece and Cyprus, and provides the support he can.

“Whenever I find time, I send them a message to see if they are okay, just for them to feel that someone’s there,” he says, regarding a recent contact.

Meanwhile, in fighting to break the taboo regarding alcoholism in Cyprus, he openly states: “I was humiliated, I embarrassed myself, but I’m happy for how much returning to sobriety has given me. I gained spiritual awakening, spiritual clarity, clear thoughts. I recognise my emotional world and I’m peaceful inside.

“One of my biggest joys was returning to Cyprus and looking my father in the eyes. The few seconds I stared into his eyes and he stared into mine; it was a connection where he thanked me for making it. And, on my side, I thanked him for not giving up on me. He died having gotten rid of this pain, he saw me sober,” says Farmakas.

“Reintegration into society wasn’t easy. I confess that coming back and waking up the next morning, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s a new start – you start all over from the beginning again.”

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