Mind

Matt Chisholm on celebrating 7 years of sobriety

Survivor host Matt tells how he beat his drinking demons.

By Ashleigh McEnaney
Matt Chisholm from Survivor NZ

While most parents of tiny tots may be focused on the daily details, such as sleep, potty training and introducing solids, first-time dad Matt Chisholm is already thinking ahead to when his boy is a teenager.

The Survivor New Zealand host – who celebrates seven years of sobriety in December – is determined that his boy Bede avoids following in his footsteps when it comes to alcohol.

“Chances are he’ll have the appetite for drinking,” says Matt, 40, as he and his wife Ellen, 32, wrangle their rambunctious nine-month-old at our exclusive shoot.

Matt adds, “Bede’s a massive chatterbox and an absolute show-off, so we know he’ll be social. Ellen and I will have to educate him about alcohol so the little bugger’s not tempted to steal grog, sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and drink with his mates.”

Now living an alcohol-free life after 20 years of problem drinking, Matt counts himself lucky he can call himself a father at all. Between the ages of 14 and 34 – when he suffered debilitating hangovers, blackouts, crippling anxiety and depression – a life without booze seemed impossible.

“At my worst, I didn’t even want a family – I didn’t want to put myself in a situation I knew I would stuff up,” the Fair Go reporter admits. “I had friends who had great relationships with alcohol and their partners. I didn’t have either and felt like I didn’t deserve it. If only I’d known how incredible life could be. Instead, I ran away from the things that scared me.”

Matt’s alcohol problems started when he was a teen in rural Otago, playing rugby against boys older than him. “The only places to socialise were the pubs,” he recalls. “I was young and wanted to be right in the thick of it.

“But right from the start, I realised I might have a problem. I come from a family of four boys and three of us don’t drink any more. When it came to getting on the piss, I had my dad’s DNA – it was either none or 100. If I could remember what happened after 10pm on a night out, I was doing well.

The TV presenter can see himself in his chatty, social baby boy.
The TV presenter can see himself in his chatty, social baby boy.

“Normally, I would black out for hours and sometimes wake up in another town with no recollection of how I got there or what I’d done. My hangovers almost killed me and the self-loathing was torturous. After three or four heavy nights, I’d swear black and blue I wouldn’t drink again, but by Thursday, I’d get back on it.”

It was a vicious cycle Matt attempted to break for almost two decades. He tried AA meetings, consulted his family doctor and moved back home to Otago to avoid partying with his mates, but nothing stuck for long.

Matt remembers vividly his first real effort to quit booze for good. He was 24 and stayed sober for 20 months while caring for his big brother Nick, who had suffered a series of strokes during a rugby match.

Once a fearsome player, the 27-year-old architect was bedridden and diagnosed with locked-in syndrome, a near-complete paralysis that means he can only communicate with his eyes.

Though Nick is defying the odds, he hasn’t talked or walked unaided since the accident and still has minimal movement.

“When Nick came out of his coma, he was just a pair of eyes and here I was going out, getting really pissed, having no memory and then lying around for a couple of days feeling sorry for myself,” explains Matt.

The doting dad holds his baby boy close.
The doting dad holds his baby boy close.

“I had such an amazing opportunity compared to him and I was wasting it, so I gave up the booze. That time was a real period of growth for me. My brother was the best excuse ever for not partying. We both got heaps out of being there for each other.”

Then at 27, three years to the day after his brother’s accident, Matt boarded a flight to Korea. On his first night there, he got trashed on soju, the local spirit. He recalls, “All of a sudden, I was free from this responsibility of sorting my brother’s life out and I got back on it. I was torn about my life. I couldn’t live with alcohol and I couldn’t live without it.”

After three years partying abroad, Matt came home, graduated from journalism school in Wellington and landed his dream job on TV One’s Close Up. Still drinking, he felt like a fraud in the Auckland office.

He says, “I absolutely dreaded walking into the newsroom. I was just a country hick. What did I know about the world?”

But on December 26, 2010, Matt, then 34, woke up after a week-long bender and never touched another drop. “I knew I was done and would never, ever look back,” he tells.

The Survivor host faced his own reality check after 20 years of alcohol abuse – and lived to tell the tale.
The Survivor host faced his own reality check after 20 years of alcohol abuse – and lived to tell the tale.

“There are still people today who say I was such a good bastard on the piss, but it affected my work and my relationships.

“I’m really lucky. Some people never figure it out and booze to their deaths. I didn’t ruin a marriage, I didn’t lose my job and I didn’t get behind the wheel drunk and kill someone. I just made a decision my life was better off without alcohol.”

These days, Matt is never tempted by the bottle – in fact, he doesn’t think about booze at all until the anniversary of his sobriety rolls around and he’s reminded just how far he’s come.

“Alcohol is alright for the majority of people, but it doesn’t work for me,” he says.

“I’ve had about 20 or 30 dreams where I’m back on the booze – it’s like the worst nightmare. I’ll wake up panicked and sweating, but then I’ll roll over. There’s nothing like the relief that washes over me when I see my wife and Bede in the bed next to me.”

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