Christmas Day 2012, sitting in a room full of my family, running my own pub, I had a moment of clarity……….
Let’s begin at the beginning, my 18th birthday, my first venture in to a pub, it enshrouded me like a warm blanket on an icy cold day. Warm, enticing and strangely familiar. This is where I had dreamt of being through out my childhood, hypnotised by slick styled advertisements for every beverage on the market. I was finally here, now lets find what I like and don’t like. I found it was my super power, Clark Kent would enter a phone box and come out as superman, much like shy, quiet Alan went in to a pub and came out, many hours later, as Alan2.0. All I needed was a few of my favourite tipples to emerge once more from the cocoon I built around myself, to spread my wings and find my place as life and soul of the party. But you cant have too much of a good thing, right? The more I drank, the better I became, well no.
My default position when drinking, is, sorry, was, as long I was still conscious I was still able to drink, only stopping when my body finally screamed enough, and flicked the off switch. Over the years I have been drinking, on my own, when the sun came up, I have cracked a beer first thing in the morning, I have enhanced my morning coffee with hair of the dog, the afternoon livener, hip flask on the golf course, bottle of Bacardi beside my bed, watched the 2003 World Cup final, 6am, with a coffee and a Guinness and I have ended up in casualty on more than one occasion. I drink anything, but with just a few exceptions, I don’t drink sherry, brandy or anything aniseed, everything else is more than drinkable. I briefly cut down on my daily drinking when my daughter was born in 1992, until my first wife left in 2002, but it didn’t take too much persuasion to get me in to a pub for a pint in the intervening years, the hardest part was trying to persuade my wife to let me go.
To be fair, I would say I was going for a pint, but you knew she would not be seeing me until the pubs shut, running through Liverpool Street station at 11pm, pissed, should have been home by 8pm, trying to find a flower stall to ease the pain when I got home, and only finding a fruit and veg stall, she was not impressed by the bunch of asparagus I bought her, I laughed my arse off all the way home on the train. I can see now how much of an arse I was when drinking, like a naughty child pushing his boundaries to see how much room he had to play.
After the separation and subsequent divorce, I once again found my solace at the bottom of a pint glass, if my late teens and early twenties was a fun drunken blur, my second stint at the age of thirty five was serious, venomous and a real threat to my continued existence by misadventure or suicide. I was no longer drinking to be a better me, I would not even have tried to fool myself I was, now I was drinking to keep the pain and loss of real life from bursting my protective shell. I had made the error of letting some one inside my shell, the shell I wore to protect me from the slings and arrows of the human race. If you don’t let anyone in, you don’t get hurt, but I had and I was hurting. No one wanted to hear my woes, so I suppressed them deep inside to deal with at a later date. The wonder of alcohol is it helps you to put your problems aside, they sneak up from time to time, just need a little more booze to drown them, an Elvis Costello song from the album Blue, ‘Tonight the bottle let me down’, is a song that resonates with me, because sometimes, at your weakest moments there is not enough booze in the world to keep the voices silent.
2002-2012 was drinking on a professional level, late night lock ins, all night party’s, pub crawls, afternoon drinking watching rugby or after a round of golf, having to write a message of congratulations on a cake after 5 pints of Guinness on a Sunday lunchtime between shifts, or drinking enough Guinness in a single sitting in 2003 to earn three Guinness hats. The voices still crept through with this level of drinking, many nights I would pass out in the wicker chair by the computer in a puddle of red wine, I even changed jobs to get me away from the influences of others, in an attempt to get sober, only to find I was my own worst enemy, I didn’t need the help or influence of other to drink myself to death, I could do that myself and did.
One cold October day I arrived home from work, my last shift done before my week off, I had four cans of Guinness in my fridge, no where near enough, but I had a litre bottle of Smirnoff blue label to top it off, and so I sat on my cheap, knackered £20 sofa, watching DVDs, writing the first few parts of what became ‘Screaming’s from a maddening mind’, my collection of 55 poems, released in 2006. That was the morning I watched the sun come up at 5.30am through the window at the end of my lounge, it had caught me by surprise, I had not planned to drink all night, but I could sleep all day as I was off work for a week, a wasted Monday was nothing. I went to bed about six after finishing all the Guinness, and yes, all the vodka. I was drunk, I could have drunk more, if I had more, but I was dry, so bed was the best option. At 9am I woke to a hammering on my bedroom window, it was the head chef trying to wake me, to get me in to work as they had a suspected AA food inspector in that evening for dinner and I was needed in. There were many upsides to a ‘live in’ job on the site of the hotel you worked in, being on call 24/7 was not one of them. I was pissed, 3 hours sleep is not enough time to sober up, I told him I would be in a 2pm and went for a round of golf to sober up. I made it in to work for 2pm and left at 7pm as it was a false alarm. So, I really didn’t need anyone’s help, I could get myself drunk, but alone, it was the venomous drinker, I sat and spat venom at how my life after all these years of hard graft could leave me sat on my own, on the only piece of furniture I owned, how could I end up like this, and how far did I still have to fall to hit rock bottom.
I had some great nights out while in Worcestershire, some were epic nights out with like minded drinkers, I booked my first tattoo drunk, proper drunk. If I remember correctly breakfast had been a pint of Guinness, a double vodka and two shots of aftershock, one pink in colour the other was blue. We had a great team, kitchen, front of house, reception and office staff. Nights out were attended by more than half of the total staff, and with some proper Polish drinkers among the number, they were always guaranteed to be messy. Nights in with the Polish staff, were also messy as they always brought out the home brew, and I am not talking about elderflower wine, they had the shit that made you go blind. For most of my time there I was drinking alone in my room, writing on the computer, feeling sorry for myself. There is a difference between a social party animal that transforms from a sensible guy/girl, in to a beast on a night out or Christmas party, I was in party animal mode all day, every day, I never transformed I was always in costume. I would drink, smoke or snort whatever was available to me, I have an addictive personality, nothing I do is done in within reason, everything I do is done to excess. I don’t have that little voice inside that says,
“Don’t you think you have had enough Alan?” That whispers in my ear when sensible levels are reached, mine whispers,
“What else we got?” As it lists the alcohol we still have in the fridge or cupboards.
On that Christmas Day 2012, in my moment of clarity, I realised that my second marriage would not survive this level of constant intoxication, something had to change. So I made a promise to my wife that I would never drink again. As I approach the six year mark sober, it is not now any easier to be sober, than it was in the early days of 2013, I still become hypnotised by slick advertising, sexy bottles to keep the poison in or just seeing old friends, by this I mean my favourite brands of alcohol, not people. This has been prompted by a session spent going over my impulses with my therapist, it was an off topic session, we have been dealing with the last one of my destructive obsessions of late. I had gone to a pub on the previous Sunday, possibly for the first time in twelve months, for a meal with my parents, I looked at the wonders behind the left shoulder of the bartender. There were my ‘old friends’ glinting in the bar lights Talisker, The Balvenie, Glenmorangie amongst others, I was entranced, lost in memories of when we had first met, their flavours or the nights we had together. The landlord of a pub I frequented who bought in a bottle of Talisker just for me, and I think I was the only one who drank it. I remember my first kiss of The Balvenie on Christmas Eve 2009, the wide selection of expensive bottles of Glenmorangie, with up to three figure sums on some of them. The barman was asking what size Diet Coke I wanted and if I wanted lemon and ice, but I was lost away on the memories of when I was Alan2.0. I was totally oblivious, I felt like I was the only one standing there, transported back to an upmarket wine and whiskey off-licence in Stroud, not a can in sight, in the golden haze of deep Autumn, looking over his selection of single malts, being tattooed and having a shaved bald head, he gazed at me in confusion and suspicion, until we talked single malts, wether he could ever aline my appearance with my love of the finer single malts I will never know. My wife nudged me in the ribs to bring me back from my cerebral wandering’s to answer the barman’s questioning. I notice every bar or sly whiskey from the draw scene on almost every show on TV, in 90% of shows alcohol rears its head in a bar, or a pub or a desk draw.
I suggested to my therapist that I looked upon the end of my drinking being akin to loosing a love one, and old friend, I felt grief for the loss, to think I will never enjoy their embrace again. I bargain with myself that one day in the future I may be able to ration myself to one or two beers or glasses of wine, maybe a whiskey once in a while, and then I have to stop myself. It may start as an occasional drink, the thrill of having a full case in the fridge, one here, one there, easy? For me it will be a matter of time, a week, a month or a year, and I will be back to full blown addictive behaviours. I cant even risk taking a chance as I know where it will lead me, back to drinker number one. To undo all the hard work, would just be daft, and for what? A buzz, a hangover or to be free from the childhood fears that still grip me at times, self loathing, the feeling of never quite being good enough, the fear of being unmasked as useless, unable to complete an easy task.
I have found over the last twelve months irrefutable proof that I am not the person I have spent fifty years thinking I was, I have found a better me.
Sure, smoking causes health issues, it is addictive, and many countries are coming up with various ways to stop us smoking, in this country it is the extortionate price for 20 smokes, Russia are thinking of a total ban in ten years or so. Smokers are shunned and belittled, packs containing picture on the packet that you would have to give an advisory warning about before showing on TV, just to back up the health warning they have been preaching for decades. However, I contend, that alcohol is more destructive than cigarettes have ever been, but yet it does not carry the same warnings or show pictured of dead victims of a drunk driver, the man in stage 4 cirrhosis or any other victims of this drug. I could smoke ten Benson and Hedges and quite comfortably drive a car, you could not drink ten alcoholic beverages and safely do the same, smoking does not cause a complete and absolute change to your personality. Passive smokers are the smokers victims, anyone could be a victim of the drunk, whether in a vehicle or at the hands of an aggressive drunk, women who fear their husbands footsteps when he returns from the pub to take his anger out on her, the woman who turns in to a happy slapper when she has her husband behind closed doors. It leaches its way in to every aspect of your life, way beyond your control. You hear your children arguing about why you drink so much, only for your youngest daughter to scream out in you defence at the question
“Dad, why do you drink so much?” And for your four year old daughter removing the fingers from her mouth screams in the highest pitch I had only ever heard her mum reach,
“Because he likes it” this is not the conversations your children should be having about you, you have not told them any of your drinking stories, but they know better than you do about the problem you have. It spreads through your life like wild fire, everybody at work knows, your mates know, you family know, they know you are a drowning man going down for a third and final time, do they help or throw you a line? Maybe, maybe they did, but I was still labelling my drinking as fun, what’s the worst that can happen? I was not looking to exit the stage, I was looking to satiate my demons, to silence their screaming, to placate the beast within. Problem?, what problem? I drink, get drunk, fall over, no problem.
For me, as it turns out, the drinking was a symptom to a far larger issue waiting to be discovered. Nobody ever sees an alcoholic and think there is a mental health issue hiding beneath, I am not suggesting that every alcoholic is so just to cover up their pain, but I would guess at more than half are. We all have our reasons for drinking too much, life does seem to be easier to navigate a little toasted. For me, giving up drinking was like opening the door to a screaming multitude, it was deafening, all the slights, comments and criticisms came flooding back, without my protective shroud of alcohol I was naked, and being hit with barbed spears to tear at my flesh, it was a constant barrage, getting worse in the darkened bedroom as I had no other stimuli to distract my attention to try to block them out. They would whisper to me as I carved wood on the lathe, punishing me at every mistake, they would whisper to me through the long dark evenings as they screamed above the volume of the TV. It was a horrid diatribe lashed across naked soul, of every mistake, every missed step, every insult and critique of my life so far. Therapy may sound extreme to some, that its one step away from the rubber room and straight jacket, and for some it maybe. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to admit you have issues, and then to sit in a room and tell someone your deepest darkest secrets, well, its exhausting, you have no where to hide, and you have to tackle these voices head on.
I never expected to one day wake up and feel fantastic to be sober, I don’t miss the hangovers or feeling sick all day, having to pop one eye open in the morning to see how big your headache was going to be, before committing to being wide awake. I don’t miss that dread of not having enough booze for the evening or any money to buy any. I miss the wine, I miss the single malts, spending all day Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day floating on a cushion of inebriation, just topping up the happy until 8pm when you could put the hammer down and go for drunk. Birthdays spent drunk, I don’t miss the week long hangover that came after my 38th birthday, which I believe was borderline alcohol poisoning, and the base of my back burned hot for a month, my kidneys working overtime ridding my system of toxins. I do love being married to the kindest most supportive wife, she has been to the gates of hell and back with me, listening to my bullshit every day, worrying I have done something stupid when she cant get me on the phone, and I just don’t have the strength or wherewithal to answer the call. She has never judged me or belittled me, she has been there to look after me.
I do sometimes rue the moment I chose to speak those words ‘I promise I will never drink again’. But had I not, I would not be where I am today.