I can’t remember exactly when drinking became such a big part of my life – when it stopped being a pint, or a cheap glass of Merlot. I’m talking about heavy drinking. Proper drinking. The kind that punctuates your weeks, halving your weekend into coming up, then comeuppance.
My grandmother handed me my first drink. I remember the ceremony of it. Her long, perfectly painted fingernails wrapped around a tumbler of gin and sprite. Once I got over the taste, I loved how it made my joints sink in on themselves, how everything felt loose, warm – and slowly my vision popped with small white sparks.
Alcoholism runs in the family, but we’ve always had a good attitude about it. So when I told her that I always wanted to feel this way, she laughed. I spent the rest of the evening heaving against the cool ceramic of the toilet, its plastic lid pressing against my damp face.
“There was always one moment that felt transcendental … Tennessee Williams described it best.”
The usual milestones followed. Drinking at dusk in a park, foreign hands; feeling seen, feeling rejected, feeling alone. There was always one moment that felt transcendental. I imagined that it was the train gathering speed – the one that had finally arrived to rush me away from my old life. Tennessee Williams described it best. In Memoirs, he recalls how after drinking wine “you felt as if a new kind of blood had been transfused into your arteries, a blood that swept away all anxiety and all tension for a while, and for a while is the stuff that dreams are made of”.
As a teenager, I became fascinated with the legendary old drunks. John Berryman, scaling a sycamore tree to catch Robert Lowell’s shoes. Jack Kerouac telling police officers he couldn’t be drunk because he’d only had beer. Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine (Chivas, Dunhills, Coke); Raymond Carver, John Cheever.
The women had it harder. Even before their respective ends; they weren’t able to enjoy abandon on account of their gender, and its domestic obligations. Jean Rhys sunk two bottles of champagne whilst her infant son died in hospital. She never forgave herself. In Good Morning Midnight, after a short life filled with disappointments, her protagonist arrives at “the bright idea of drinking myself to death”. It was a path that closely mirrored Rhys’ own. As Elizabeth Bishop corroborated: “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”.
“Like any drunk, I had learned that alcohol could temporarily solve the problem of me.”
I found ways to romanticise this too. For a young writer, enamoured by alcohol, these stories were kryptonite. I believed great work was created by pushing the mind and body to its furthest extremes; and that alcohol was a conduit that allowed you to see the world in a singular, and profound way.
Years later, during the end stages of a relationship, I’d come home from work each night, and drink a bottle of wine on an empty stomach. Eventually, my flatmate started hiding the remaining bottles under her bed.
Like any drunk, I had learned that alcohol could temporarily solve the problem of me. After three glasses of wine, I was back on stable ground; everything buzzed, except the thoughts I drank to forget in the first place. The next day, I would drink again – kicking over my proverbial shit like a cat – in order to forget how much I had drank the night before.
Those who study the old legends will know that it ends one way. Berryman and Thomson died by suicide. Kerouac was cirrhosis. Rhys and Bishop lived out their days, unhappily. Carver and Cheever managed to stop, but died anyway.
“While some developed alcohol problems in lockdown, I went about trying to solve my own.”
I didn’t need them to know this, I only had to look at my own family; blighted as we are by alcoholism. I was always cautioned against drinking, and for years was terrified that I had inherited the “gene”. Eventually, I stopped defending my actions, and instead used my birthright to justify drinking more and more to cope with my problems.
Ironically, I stopped writing altogether. One Sunday, I woke up and found that my toes wouldn’t move, the skin engorged from the nail to the ankle, marked with blue and lilac blotches. Monet, but make it internal bleeding, I thought. Jokes didn’t lighten the situation this time.
After hoisting myself into the shower – water washing the sweat off my forehead, and the stink of tobacco and booze out of my hair – I felt one cold, hot emotion: shame. The kind you can’t drink away. I had broken my foot the night before, but kept going.
Nearly two years later, I cannot wax lyrical about sobriety, because I know nothing of it. At that moment, I knew that I needed to fix the problem – primarily because I didn’t want to live a life where I could never drink again. There is shame in that, but there’s shame to be found in most choices. You just choose the ones you’re willing to live with.
Then, while some developed alcohol problems in lockdown, I went about trying to solve my own. I wasn’t someone who was able to enjoy the first glass of wine; I was already anticipating the second. So I taught myself moderation as if I was a toddler with no self-control. Occasionally – and only if the weather permitted – I would drink a cold beer, and what would be three stealthy bottles of pocket wine turned into one. It has paid dividends nine months later.
I always come back to Joan Didion’s most famous quote, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. But what if the stories you’ve been telling yourself aren’t necessarily the correct ones, or yours in the first place? So much time for reflection tells me that I will probably always have a problematic relationship with alcohol. But I have managed to carve out tolerance within my parameters – and this time around, I am willing to accept full responsibility for my choices.