Quitting The Booze Never Looked This Good

The greatest cure I ever found for a drinking habit is for something godawful to happen. You can try any number of things, but a crisis is key. It could be someone dying, bankruptcy, watching your labrador get flattened by a Renault Sedan, any of the stuff that makes people turn to the booze. That’s where you want to be. In my case it was a broken heart. But any kind of severe upheaval is on the money.

What will then happen is you turn to the booze with a reckless abandon. A couple of weeks of hard drinking is bang-on. The booze will drown out the voices, will numb you from your predicament. You’ll wake up a mess and mood-alter as soon as the chance presents itself, you’ll hunt down company, hit the pub with people you don’t even like. Distraction of any sort, so long as you don’t have to sit for a second in the pain of the present.

When your veins begin to pulse with alcohol, and your head is the kind of thick fog familiar to the characters of Bleak House, one morning after another night on the sauce your world will collapse. The adrenaline of your new situation will have run dry, and you will walk for three hours through a park in tears listening to old therapy sessions on an iPod trying to find any kernel of wisdom to save you from your pain, but the emotional depths will overwhelm you and you will discover a new type of despair. This is exactly where you need to be.

Rock-bottom.


The moment of clarity.

A place I found myself in the last week of September. Saturated in feelings I had processed none of, since all I could process was the alcohol I had saturated myself in. And the answer came: stop running. And I surrendered. It was extremely logical and obvious and remarkable in its simplicity. Enough. The booze wasn’t working.


*

I tried to stop drinking four years ago. An excess of excess had made me seek change, but after two months I’d jumped off the wagon to save myself from sobriety. The clarity that being sober revealed was terrifying. I had stared into the abyss and as Nietzsche warned the abyss had begun to stare back. With nothing to distract myself with or lose myself in, the mirror had shown me what I wasn’t ready for, and it had scared the life out of me.


But this was different. There was a voice in me now demanding I get my shit together. Not because it could be good for me, but because if I didn’t I was on the road to somewhere much darker. This time round I wasn’t so much stumbling towards an ideal, it was more like I was running from hell.


I just couldn’t repeat that walk through the park again, my head on the verge of eruption, at the edges of my sanity. I yearned for clarity. For clean clear lakes of Perrier, waterfalls of San Pellegrino, I wanted early nights and rooster crows, white towelling dressing gowns and Nescafé Gold Blend.


I wanted to sit in my feelings and let the pain hit me like a truck. Instead of running, I would go into the darkness to find what still shone. The move into sobriety was as uneventful as dew disappearing on a morning of spring. There was no ceremonial last drink, no sacrifice. Only a feeling of sanctuary.

Besides, it was only a girl.

I flew into non-alcoholic beer research. Turns out I had options. In the intervening four years since my last attempt, great leaps had been made and most pubs had at least one of these badboys on offer. Peculiarly thin at first, the more you drank the less you noticed the lack of kick. It was very placeboey. More than anything you could sit there with a pint full of some amber liquid and nod earnestly and feel like one of the fucking guys.


But when the call came for same again an interesting thing happened. Forcing another enormous container of liquid down me was just non-sensical. I wasn’t exactly thirsty. And yet the whole pub was doing it without a second thought. And I understood we love drinking not for the tannins and playful notes or the hops and the citrusy twang, we love drinking for what it does. Remove alcohol from the equation and you have nothing. You have Ribena. We drink for one reason.

To open a door into the unknown and walk through it.

I tried to unpick my drinking habit. First came the how. I was never an eight-pint man, or a half bottle of Malbec on a Monday night brother. I was a crafty at midday on a Saturday guy. A solo sharpener at the bar on a Thursday kinda cat. I lived for the ‘moment’, the first couple sips. The dance with the doorman of the unknown. I drank more than some and less than others. Pretty vanilla, with a dash of Cointreau.


The why was a different story. I remember recognising a period in my life when the role of alcohol changed. Like it began to mean something different. It went from exciting to calming, from a place of fun to a place of refuge. Not all the time, but still a shift. As if I was no longer excited by the fairground ride, I just wanted to be on it. A place I could sit in, that turned off the voice yabbering in my ear about all the ways my life was not as it should be.

But it also meant I stayed on the ring-road of my problems. When things got overwhelming I’d hit the pub with a bro. And what awaited was distraction and hangover. Did I have a problem with drink. The hangover made me think I had a problem with me.


Hangovers for sensitive people are a first class ticket to Dante’s 7th circle. I’d come to where I’d left off two and a half days before, stripped of all confidence, picking my self-worth up off the floor. Hell was empty and my doorbell was ringing. My conception of myself evaporated. My friends didn’t like me. I couldn’t write for shit. I was no writer at all, I was a twat with a blog.


Imagine somebody gave you a pill and said swallow this and the pill made you feel exactly like a bad hangover. Nothing in the world would be worth this feeling, you’d think. The blanket negativity, the nausea, the delusion and insecurity. And yet we double-drop that pill most weekends, because all we see is the effect and not the cause, all we feel is the edge that needs taking off.


That’s what walking through the park was, fifteen of those pills at once. A beer-addled brain walloped by the news that the person I loved most in the world needed space from me. But that morning in the park saved me. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Domingo T-800. Cybernetic organism.


Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.

I’ve done more DIY in the last two months than the rest of my life put together, I walk into Leyland and everybody knows my name. I’m a drill-bit away from building an orphanage in the jungles of Nicaragua. I repainted bedrooms, cleared out cupboards I’d forgotten existed, took down a couple of 1000 piece jigsaws. I lost 6 kilos. Which considering I switched vices and started smashing a family pack of peanut m&ms most nights, is impressive.

More than anything the clarity brought momentum. I’d bed down at half nine and rise before dawn and there was no drop-off. Only incremental steps and a feeling of same-same or better than yesterday. I was a better human, a better friend, brother, son, bit of cheeky banter for everyone. I think there was just no regret, which meant no mean self-talk, maybe I even liked myself a little. Above all no energy spent clawing my way back up to the surface, every morning began above water and from there I flew.

Hemingway drank to make other people more interesting. But watching people get all slurry and affectionate is a beautiful thing. There is a smugness in the containment, in spending two hours in a pub and cycling home knowing you can smash a whole page of Sudoku. I had my wild nights in. When you absolutely positively feel the urge to drink yourself into oblivion and show up for your niece’s third birthday the following day.

Accept no substitutes.

PINE TRAIL PALE ALE 0.5%


*


Sadly nothing is as good as it seems.

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alchohol, morphine or idealism.

Jung

As the weeks have rolled on I’ve grown wary of this addiction to clarity. The more I avoid the hangover, the bigger its spectre becomes, the less I want to go near it. But I don’t want to live like that, always in control. How boring never to toast a pint in the sunshine, or swill an Umbrian red on your tongue on a pine-covered hill.


I don’t know if this whole thing is even about alcohol. I’d reached a point in my life where I couldn’t keep running from myself, I’d received a thump to the heart, and not drinking was my ticket out of there. And it has grown roots in me, I feel like a tree that cannot be bent by the wind. Jung said too the most intense conflicts, once overcome, leave a security and a calm that cannot be easily disturbed. But without conflict there can be no change.


So I guess life grabbed me by the balls and shook change out of me. That’s what happened. It was so necessary it was actually the easiest thing in the world. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening or claim I wasn’t ready. It was time.

Going off the booze was symbolic of something bigger. Like I was finally looking out for myself. Not just me now. But me tomorrow, me next week, me in a year’s time. Earlier this week I took her photos down. I was dreading it but strangely enough it brought peace. To die to something, so in its place something can grow again anew.


And what ever happened to gratitude. For the quantum miracles that have occurred over billions of years to even get me here, with oxygen, with memories, with side one of Billy Joel River of Dreams, about to eat some tacos.

So that’s me.

Heart a little tattered but the best I’ve been in decades. Sadness might come and tap me on the shoulder now and then, and I have the strength to welcome it in and sit with it a while. Resolute and sound. How strange one of the worst things I can remember happening saved me. That in the darkness some things begin to shine with a light from another source. But we have to go where we least want to, down into the depths, and find an ember there on which to blow to cause the spark to light up once again inside us.


Some time in the new year, once the first buds of spring have tiptoed outside, I will cycle to a pub and stand at the bar with a mate and order a pint. A real one. With pleasure and no regret.


But I have some things I need to do. And now the booze, like another thing in my life, will have to wait. Gladiator’s mate at the end of Gladiator says it best. As he buries the little statues of his family in the sands of the Colloseum, he looks to the sky and speaks to his friend.

Now we are free. I will see you again.

But not yet.

Not yet.

A Lifelong Love Affair With That Ice Cold Wizardry

When I am old and beaten down by my years I will raise a smile and remember the time my uncle took me to discover beer. For five days we had walked the entrails of the Swiss Alps and now, at the end of the last and most difficult day, outside a mountain hut in the shadow of the Matterhorn he announced it was about time for a drink.


The glass was set down before me and as I peered into the golden squall with eyes narrowed and watched the waterfall of tiny bubbles rising up towards the head, I was afraid. After all this was beer, and I was eleven. Never before in my life had a beer been intended solely for me.


Inured to the mountains around me I zeroed in on the glass and raised it to my lips. The liquid washed over my tongue and into my gullet and somewhere in the bowels of an undiscovered darkness a flame was lit. I took down my first ever beer in two gulps.

Later, in the lengthening shadows of my teenage years my mother would frown and shake her head as I approached the breakfast table blurry-eyed and puffy-faced from the previous night’s excesses. We come from a long line of professional alcoholics, she barked, you better bloody watch out.


I knew back then what I know now, that her fears were misguided. Because for me it was only about the moment. In the mists of an eight pint marathon, in the pause between the second and third sip of the opening drink, the moment would reveal itself. A coming together of man and beer and time immemorial. An inchoate idea of the pointless repetition of everything and the beauty of this and on account of it, a deep contentment to be alive


*

In 1942 an old man sat in the hilltop village of Tricesimo having a moment. Another man approached him with a proposal, to which he consented. Che al mi dedi di bevi, mi baste he said in old Friulian dialect. ‘Enough to drink is all the payment I need’. The man with the proposal was the owner of a brewery, the old man became the face of Moretti the renowned Italian beer, and the moment was fixed in time.

As I moved into my twenties the pint-swilling of youth died down and the quality of what I drank began to exceed the quantity. Maybe it was an understanding that the moment came fairly early on and then vanished, and that any pint past number four added no value and was an unhelpful amount of liquid to have in your system.


For six months I lived in Paris and there I learnt restraint and class. To Parisians a drink was more a footnote than the be-all of an evening, I saw how it was possible to sit with an empty glass and not have a panic attack, I found out first hand how the skulling of une pinte in ten minutes was roundly considered une folie.


But our local supermarket was well-stocked and in the aisle one evening I came face to face with the Trappist beers of Belgium. Leffe, Chimay, Grimbergen, these names produce a reverie in me like birdsong and the smell of freshly fallen rain.


I would sample a new one each week, gradually adapting my taste buds to the more nuanced flavour. And then one day came the revelation of beer and nuts together, a watershed moment that arrived like the fulfilment of some destiny. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ‘mouvement perpétuel’.

The Sumerians started the party in 4000BC. The Cistercian monks carried the torch through the Middle Ages. In 1751 Hogarth drew ‘Beer Street’. A century later Hardy described an ale ‘full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang, luminous as an autumn sunset’. And at last in 2011, came a whisper on the wind, a spark to the flame of the bonfire.


Every drinker through the ages must have thought they were sampling the sublimity of beer. They were wrong. For just under a decade ago, the giant leap for mankind was taken. The honeyed hops, the fizz that crackled, the hazy condensation on the side of the glass like dew on a spring morning, the craft beer had arrived.

The pissy beers of the noughties receded into the distance and made way for the new kids. Carling, Becks and Numbers became Brewdog, Beavertown, and Sierra Nevada. The format got a makeover. The 440ml can was jettisoned in favour of 330ml, a nugget of ice-cold wizardry that fit in the palm of your hand like a daydream.

The crafty was born.

And so was my alcoholism. In my teens I envisioned being the guy who had beers chilling in his fridge at all times. But for a man obsessed with finding the moment, the invention of the crafty threw up some problems. The crack of the can, the feeling as it touched my lips, I realised I could have my moment at home, whenever I desired.


I threw out my greens and cranked the fridge to optimum beer-chilling temperature. And an idea sidled up to me silently; it was always the right time for a crafty. To celebrate, to mourn, when I was pumped, when I was blue, when things were going great, when I wanted things to go better. Was I out of control, I couldn’t tell.

I still can’t really.

A Lithuanian builder Rom, a man of deep winters and cheap vodka, taught me once the key to a hangover was a beer as soon as you woke up. Just one, no more than that. And I tried it a few times, and it worked. But it also struck me as a dangerous place to dwell. Like there was something sinister in it.


Maybe my mother was right, perhaps I should’ve been wary of alcohol. At some point for sure it stopped being an adventure, and became a place I recognised, like getting in an elevator and knowing which number to press. And the dawning realisation that if something terrible were to happen to me, I don’t know if I might not consider it a refuge.


But I’d tell you my weakness wasn’t for the alcohol. It was for the crafty. That 330ml nugget. The moment. If the can wasn’t chilled to perfection I wasn’t touching it. Hand me a normal beer and I might hand it back to you. If an off-license was fresh out of crafties I wasn’t about to pick up a few Coronas, I was leaving empty-handed. There was a method in the mania.

The world isn’t an unlikely place to want to escape from. And there is an unknown in a drink, an oxygen, a door that opens to a new room. Every time I cracked a cold one I stepped into that unknown. I tried giving it up once, but it was a lesson hard-learned.


I’ve watched the old men in France congregate in village bars at 9am for a demi. In an East End boozer one afternoon I saw six men deep in conversation, each with a drink, each sitting at their own table, shouting across the room at each other.


My uncle Carlos would wait for his family to leave the Estancia and then he would go and sit on the terrace looking out over the Pampa with a drink, and would toast their departure. He told my old man it was his favourite pastime.


*

So here we are.

A man walks into a pub and approaches the bar. It isn’t yet busy but has the feeling of a room warming up. He clocks the barlady and motions to one of the taps and smiles. She tilts the glass and flicks the tap and the hazy liquid washes down into it, he turns and with his back to the bar looks out across the room.


The night ahead promises all the excitement of the unknown, but he knows this is it. The mountain top. This is the solo-sharpener, the peace before the maelstrom, when there is no need to talk, only to stand there in some idle thought, in the moment.


One man and his beer. He takes the pint in his hand and lifts it, then lifts it further, making a motion with the glass through the air, in a toast, to someone or something only he knows. Then he drinks.

Going off The Booze Should Come with A Warning

Chapter 1

When my brother was born my father poured champagne all over him in the maternity ward. At the age of 63, Hemingway sat down on his porch in the early hours of the morning, poured out a glass of rum, and shot himself. ‘Holy Intoxication’ was encouraged in Ancient Egypt as an alternative state of being, a link to the world of the Gods. When Harold took an arrow to the eye in the corner of a field near Hastings in 1066, his first words were ‘bring me my wine’.

Humans like booze.

There’s that thing which says a drink is the tonic for all occasions. Happiness, misery, sunny days, rain, to celebrate a life coming into being, to mourn a life passing on. We drink to remember, we drink to forget, to commune with others, we toast our own company, we drink to feel different, we drink to prolong going back to feeling the same all over again.

I stopped drinking three months ago, and it has been such a weird trip that I have to write it down and try to give form to it because it has been one of the most confusing things I have ever done. When people are candid and throw their truth in your face without you asking, you stray in the murky territories of the #overshare. Unless you make it interesting, and then with luck it becomes characterised by its interest, rather than the fact someone is dumping the contents of their emotional hold-all over you whilst unloading it from the luggage compartment of your soul.

*

I decided to stop drinking because it had become repetitive. Not in the sense that I was doing it metronomically with no control over it, but in the sense that nothing new was coming from it. There was a gut instinct in me that I wasn’t doing enough to deserve it, while at the same time I found myself drinking in order to mute this voice in my head, drinking to bind the hand whose finger was gently prodding away at the root of this feeling of undeservedness.

On top of this, there was the added motivation that at weekends, one too many was leading me to do my best Toni Montana impression more often than I would like, which my sober-self concluded was fundamentally and categorically a waste of time, and I know enough to know a waste of time is the bedfellow of a wasted life.

There was also a feeling that time spent even not having that concrete an idea of what I was doing, was nonetheless time better spent than that filled doing something I understood was fundamentally bad for me. And things weren’t working out like that. Instead these two pastimes were playing a protracted game of musical chairs with each other, making an arrangement behind my back to sit down together on the one remaining chair in the room, linked in a warm embrace.

At the back end of another weekend, I made a decision and the shutters came down, and I stopped. I remember the subsequent first Friday afternoon, sitting there with my mate staring deeply into the hues of his pint, watching the condensation form on the outside of the glass. And then going home the following weekend to see my parents, telling them I wasn’t drinking. Any my father looking at me as if I’d just tied my shoelaces together, reminding me more than once at lunch how interesting the wine had become since it had begun to breathe, and how not to have a small glass with the main course was absurdo.

This thing is I agreed with him. I’m definitely on the side of the drinkers. When I go out for dinner with someone who announces they aren’t drinking there’s a voice in my head that immediately lets out an extended groan, and something in me lowers the bar for the potential of the evening. There is an unknown in a glass or two of something. And you sign up to that unknown once you take a first sip.

There is no unknown in a litre and a half of Highland Spring.

I count myself lucky i’m not one of those people who can’t ever have a drink of something again. In the knowledge that a big part of alcoholism lies in the denial of its existence, I can say with confidence I’m not there. For me this is an experiment that will at some point come to a close, and yet for the moment I can feel the presence of an unmoving 28-stone bouncer manning the door of my willpower that won’t let me reach for another drink again, until I understand exactly why I’m doing it. I have no idea what that understanding will be, but I know one hundred per cent that I’ll know.

I haven’t yet gone into why and how this whole process of sobriety became so confusing, but it was divided up into three specific stages, all as strange and delusional as each other.

Chapter 2

Last year I started writing an account of my decision to give up drinking. I described it as one of the most confusing things I’d ever done. The reason it left me so confused was because I didn’t learn anything from it. Well I kind of did and I kind of didn’t. But strangely the lessons I did learn seemed to vanish into the ether pretty quickly. The whole exercise had some point to it, whilst simultaneously proving in the end somehow pointless.

Having said this, it was one of the most important things I’ve done in recent memory. Me saying I didn’t learn anything springs from the fact the now, five months later, I’ve resumed a pattern of drinking none too dissimilar from the one I was in before I stopped. But the aim was never to stop drinking completely. The aim was to take a peek behind the curtain. And to mull over whatever it was that peek might reveal to me, over an ice-cold pint of pilsner.

To say I didn’t learn much isn’t true. We always learn. Even when we don’t, we somehow do. I’d say my experience could be split up into some key stages of being, appearing to me one after the other.

The first thing I felt was smug.


The most immediate and obvious effect of stopping drinking is clear.

With not a milligram of hangover, the magic of the wake-up lies in beginning the day on the right side of normal. From here a smooth transition into Total Geedom is by no means out of the question. Have a big night however and you don’t get out of normal until most probably late afternoon – the state in which you begin when you don’t drink. On a big night with the wrong type of hangover, you might not even by the day’s end reach the oasis from which your teetotal self has been calmly sipping all day.

Another option is to go nitro and have an absolute blinder. At least you wake up feeling marvellous, because you’re still drunk. But from then it’s a headlong freefall into the abyss. Which depending on how philosophical your mindset is, or more importantly how much work you have on, can be quite funny but more often than not an absolute living death.

In this new hungover-less state, the greatest difference I found from the off was that I woke up winning. I didn’t have any hazy memories of candle-lit heart to hearts or Campo Viejo-fuelled rants, but what I did have was no headache. The rocky road from fuzzy-headedness had had an upgrade, and now more resembled an Autobahn to world domination.

This mental clarity also served to dampen the voice of my self-doubt. With no hangover gnawing at me, everything had hope, everything had potential, things were worth trying. There was less fear, less non-engagement. The glass wasn’t just half-full, it was over-flowing with San Pellegrino.

The decision to stop drinking took on a force all of its own. As I said a 28-stone bouncer manning the door of my willpower had moved into permanent residency in my brain. The expression on his face of unflinching brutishness could be seen mirrored in my own, whenever the possibility of a drink presented itself. It was self-perpetuating. The greater I felt, the smugger I was, the more I wanted to sustain it, the less I wanted to drink.

I felt fucking great, and just as any state of prolonged smugness should rightly bring with it, I soon became unbearable. I’d see groups staggering out of pubs at 10pm on a Sunday and think how they were throwing their lives away. I’d see baskets in supermarkets loaded with tinnies and feel my eyes roll to the back of my perfectly sober head. My U-turn was shocking. I was turning into a sanctimonious dick.

And I was loving it.

But all good things must come to an end.

Towards the end of my fourth week sober, I friend of mine suggested a pub visit on a Thursday afternoon. My smugness had been gradually waning, the novelty of my new lifestyle was becoming no longer novel. I’d had a shitty day, and I wanted nothing more than a release. The kind of release not many things in the world can give you quite like the first few sips of an ice cold lager. I went up top, and there was my bouncer friend, looking especially lairy, gravely shaking his bald head. So I went to the pub and sat there monosyllabically for half an hour with a soda and lime. I got to the bottom of the glass, made my excuses, went home, and fell into a deep depression.

Chapter 3

It’s Wednesday today. I’m hungover.

Not a completely incapacitated hungover. I’m the level of hangover where I can take thoughts by the hand and toddle them to a conclusion, but my sight. If I don’t make a choice on what to focus on my vision doesn’t hang attentively in the middle-distance, it blurs into a soup of light and shadow. I’ve drunk so much water to flush out the alcohol that i need to relieve myself every twenty minutes, which is a drag. And still my mouth is dry like a desert at three in the afternoon. This has become an ordeal.

A pretty good state in which to finally conclude my trilogy on alcohol. I wrote the first part fifteen months ago, in the grips of sobriety. The second part this time last year, having jumped off the wagon at high speed, and now the denouement, one year on, sitting here staring out of the window at summer unrobing herself, sozzled, fed up, and in fervent need of unsozzling.

I don’t have a problem with alcohol.

Honestly.


*


To recap, there were specific stages I passed through in the aftermath of giving up drinking. First came the unbearable smugness of waking up on the right side of the bed, not just on the odd morning, but permanently, without a trace of hangover. Of seeing people in supermarket aisles with shopping baskets laden with tinnies, and shaking my head disdainfully as I watched them throwing their lives away. Of turning into a sanctimonious dick. Of increased productivity levels, increased self confidence, of glass half-fullness. I was the me I wanted to be.

But the thing is, it didn’t continue. After four weeks the novelty wore off. The mist cleared, and the abyss that had been there in front of me all along revealed itself. And I realised why we drink. I think we drink to not feel alone. Over night, my self-satisfaction had morphed into something very sinister. As if loneliness had crept up behind solitude and tapped him in the shoulder discreetly. My turn. And they had switched places. It still felt like me against the world, but my outlook was no longer one of defiance, as it had been when I was basking in the glow of my own righteousness sipping San Pellegrino. It was one of fear.

I was alone.

It wasn’t that I needed to be with people, it was more in the sense of an awareness of the crushingness of how totally alone I was. Every single thought process which led to another thought process which led to another, was mine alone. If I had employed someone to a permanent position of listening to me speak my mind for twenty-four hours a day, an ocean would still have remained present between us. Which led me to feel an ocean away from everyone.

The wool had been pulled back from my eyes, and I saw what was actually going on. Without the drink, the distraction, the mood-altering elixir, I was forced to sit there with my demons. Instead of reaching for a pint whenever things got heavy, I had to welcome in my darkest thoughts and sit in them. I had to meet and greet the worst parts of myself and befriend them. Just a little something to take the edge off please. But I didn’t have access to that. And I learnt that a lime cordial doesn’t take the edge off. At all.

That first plunge into a cold, crisp, obscure craft beer, medium-hopped, easy-drinking, the one with that cool lick of condensation running down the outside of the glass, invaded my dreams.

I read somewhere that we ask ourselves the wrong questions. The question is not why do we drink. The question is why aren’t we all lying on street corners drowning ourselves in booze around the fucking clock. The question is not why do we get anxious. The question is why aren’t people terrified out of their skulls every second of every day to the point where they can’t even move. Anxiety isn’t a mystery. The mystery is how we ever achieve brief spells of calm. The point of drinking is to relieve us momentarily from the unbearable suffering of being alive.

And so the second month of my sobriety was characterised by a month-long depression. I had broken the shell, and I stared out across the cinders of the world with naked eyes. I went up to 8 espressos a day, my San Pellegrino intake quadrupled, and I went into isolation. I no longer looked down on drunks, I envied them. They had taken what I so coveted, and I was jealous. Swilling their cheap malbec and baring their sediment-stained teeth, they laughed at me.


*

My mate Tom said that when he stopped boozing, he didn’t miss the drinking so much. What he missed was the binge–drinking. He missed the oblivion. Some people need an escape from their brain much more than others. In his brilliant autobiography The Story Of The Streets, Mike Skinner, no stranger to self-destruction, said the following:

That’s why I insist that my psychic deterioration was down to a lack of drink and drugs, rather than anything else. As bad as those things might be for your longterm health, they’re still down-time. Which someone who gets as caught up in his own head as I do, desperately needs.

I had drawn back the curtain, and I was encountering exactly what it was to be caught up in my own head, all the time. I had eliminated the most obvious, in your face, socially acceptable, by far and away most entertaining way of achieving down-time, and in its absence I was left pacing the floor of a room without an exit, and the inescapable, slowly creeping feeling that…

This is all there is.

Once I’d processed this, I came out of my depression. And my hangover from it, was this fundamental understanding of how alone we all are. Totally and completely alone inside the prison of our own minds, going over and over and over the same thought processes, the same ways of seeing the world, the same anxiety and paranoia and the same fear of never being enough. Small wonder we need a fucking drink now and again. These are mood-altering substances for a species in desperate need of having their moods altered.

I lasted another couple of months, with less and less enthusiasm, and one Friday I went for dinner with a friend in Soho, sat through a litre of Highland Spring, something in me broke, I screamed:

E N O U G H  O F  T H I S  M I S E R Y 

and went and got annihilated. I’ve never looked back.

I said before that the whole experience of giving up drinking was one of the most confusing things I’ve ever done. The reason it left me so confused was because I didn’t learn anything from it. Well I kind of did and kind of didn’t. But strangely enough the lessons I did learn seemed to vanish into the ether pretty quickly. The whole exercise has some point to it, whilst simultaneously proving in the end somehow pointless. Like a joke that you get, but just don’t find funny.

I have a feeling it belongs in the company of those lessons we have to learn over and over again a number of times in our lives, because we’ll keep forgetting them. The clarity that sobriety bought me was terrifying, I preferred the murky lie. I still do. The truly insidious thing about alcohol is that it is blinding. It blinds us to the truths waiting there for us to stare them square in the face, but don’t have the courage to.

Mental discomfort is an alarm bell signalling we’re getting closer to the stuff that truly needs our attention. As someone once wrote, the alcohol is not our friend, all it does is persuade us our awful jobs and dreary lives are fine because who needs to challenge the status quo when we can just shuffle down to the local instead.


*

I never thought sobriety would be so difficult. I never thought I’d have to get so lost to find myself. And then realise I preferred being lost. I never thought I’d have to start drinking again to save myself from being sober. And more than anything, that alcohol has very little to do with any of it in the first place.

The tough thing about booze is that it’s the angel and the devil. The beautiful and the lethal in equal measure. And life without it is a bore. Of course, there is such a thing as drinking for pleasure. There is such a thing as moderation. But those who don’t admit that line is a blurry one are probably the ones who need the most help. Or just another drink.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote:

When I stopped working on the races I was glad, but it left an emptiness. By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good, you could only fill it by finding something better.


*


You could only fill it by finding something better.



That’s about it really.

When He Got Sober He Got Lonely

When I stopped working on the races I was glad, but it left an emptiness. By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.

Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

If he was a top-trump card, kids would whoop and holla when they got him because they knew the 98 score on power to chill on his jax trumped every other card in the pack. He’d lived out most of his young adult life with a corset on, the tightness of which symbolised the strength of his self-containment. Loneliness wasn’t for him. The company of other people, to give him what? His was a landmass surrounded by turquoise waters on all sides, well away from the maine.

On the off-chance he’d need to, he might seek company out. But always in a removed way that screamed out in veiled text that he wasn’t bothered either way. Even when his therapist flipped the script one day and told him his lonerdom was fear of engagement and his singledom was fear of rejection, he’d still beat the drum of one of the old Greek guys whose words echoed upstairs whenever he needed reminding. Self-sufficiency is the greatest virtue.

Seven weeks before he had given up drinking. And loneliness had crept up behind solitude and tapped it on the shoulder discreetly. My turn. And they had switched places. And now he felt lonely all the time. Perhaps not in the sense of needing to be with people. More in the sense of an awareness of the crushingness of how totally alone he was. Every single thought process which led to another thought process which led to another, was his alone. If he employed someone to a permanent position of listening to him speak his mind for twenty-four hours a day, an ocean would still remain present between them. Which led him to feel an ocean away from everyone.

Seeking help wasn’t really the issue. Since any help however well-worded wouldn’t penetrate. The issue had no core, nothing to get to the heart of. He could think of nothing more pathetic than wailing down the phone at somebody or staring deeply into a glass of sparkling water outside a café describing his symptoms and his ailments. And yet he had a sneaking suspicion he was doing his best to deny that he wanted more than anything for people to beat his door down and find him sat there in his flat at night, staring deeply into his glass of sparkling water, and ask him what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, he might reply. What is what.

There was a strange satisfaction in this death march. As if an unending set of enormous waves were crashing down on his head repeatedly, sending him spinning and tumbling into the depths, from which he’d surface just in time to catch sight of the next oncoming wave, to lock eyes and smile calmly at it. Then he’d go under again. It was calm and it was persistent.

A friend of his with a brain like a triple-decker bus and a heart like a champagne glass teetering on the edge of a table had told him that the colour would return. One day. The emptiness would fill up by itself. Or perhaps with something better.