For years I had a little black address book with the following George Bernard Shaw quote scrawled on the opening page, “Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life”. I found it recently and just laughed; what an attitude! But I used to believe it and for a long time it was true; drinking helped me “get through life”. It allowed me to forget the doubts, fears and resentments that otherwise poisoned my thinking and it unleashed a more reckless, energetic side which temporarily obscured the darkness.
I had some brilliant nights (and days) when drunk and some of my most vivid memories are of those moments when everything seemed to fall into place. Often these experiences involved music; certain gigs stand out as being almost transcendental when drunkenness served to accentuate the hypnotic, revelatory power of live music. In particular I remember seeing the Pixies in concert for the first time and during their final song feeling a supernatural sense of cosmic bliss as the maelstrom on stage, the fevered mass of the crowd and the alcohol-induced abandon, aligned to induce what seemed to be total karmic perfection. Had alcohol continued to have this effect I’d still be drinking; who wouldn’t?
Indeed, most people do. Alcohol is our society’s proverbial social lubricant and it positively enhances most people’s experiences. But most people aren’t alcoholics; I am. I can say that today without either doubt or shame; my family knows as do most friends and I don’t really give a shit what people think anyway. The day before I finally threw in the towel and admitted the blinding obvious, I was suicidal; utterly confused, full of self-hatred and self-pity, and more terrified than I have ever been in my live. I don’t feel anything like that today.
For years my drunkenness was, to an extent, camouflaged; I could never understand the point of “one or two” and so increasingly I gravitated towards those for whom drinking was means to get drunk. Yet, even amongst this crowd my drinking began to stand out and I certainly knew something was wrong even if others didn’t. My appetite began to overtake those with whom I would drink; I drank with a cheerless frenzy, a desperation to reach that point when I would feel invincible. These moments of (utterly superficial) invulnerability became increasingly rare and fleeting, however, and, insidiously, drinking became a daily concern. By the end a “night out” would invariably involve drinking on my own hours beforehand, hiding booze in the toilets of the pubs we drank in so I could maintain my demented pace unseen, and always ensuring I had a stash ready to deal with the apocalyptic hangovers that would inevitably follow. Drinking in the morning became routine; what was the alternative? Anadin? Ha! Needless to say I went to many gigs that I have no memory of; I have the ticket stub to prove I saw The Fall in 2009 but I can’t remember it.
Morning drinking as a means to deal with the excesses of the night before soon just became all day drinking and by the end I couldn’t remember if I was “drinking” or “drinking to recover from drinking”. Eventually drinking on my own became habitual but the alcohol had all but lost its anaesthetic effect; I drank joylessly and felt utterly hopeless. Needless to say this lunacy caused havoc; my mental health was smashed but, more devastatingly, I began to hurt and lose the people I loved who were helpless to understand or help. As one more debacle followed another I regularly found myself floundering as someone asked “Why?”
The truth was I had no idea. I didn’t want to isolate, I didn’t want to wallow in despair and I certainly didn’t want to become a social pariah but somewhere along the line I had lost the power to choose whether I drank. It’s perhaps this which non-alcoholics find most difficult to understand and precisely this which separates the alcoholic from the heavy drinker; the heavy drinker chooses to get drunk, the alcoholic doesn’t. Once I had one I lost all memory of the previous devastation I’d caused, the resolutions I’d made and the many ambitions I had; reaching oblivion became the single most pressing desire. Of course no-one coerced me into buying the stuff but I did it because my outlook on life had degenerated to such a point where drinking was, paradoxically, a sensible option. As the Shaw quote suggests, who but a madman would endure an operation without anaesthesia? If life – work, family, shopping, sleeping…everything! – becomes akin to an operation then naturally we reach for the anaesthetic. And so I did habitually, and perversely the pain induced by the “operation” became more acute and a vicious cycle began.
But I stopped; with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous I managed to quit drinking and, far more importantly, slowly develop a new outlook on life. I was, of course, terrified of going to an AA meeting; would someone know me? Would they all be old men with ropes for belts hopelessly destitute? Did it mean becoming religious? But also, I have to admit, part of me was afraid it might work; what then? A life without drink? It loomed like a coma promising only boredom and sterility. The reality was completely different; people in AA come from all walks of life and while we share similar dark experiences we aren’t encouraged to believe in anything beyond the ability of the fabled twelve steps to turn lives around. At that first meeting I looked around in amazement as ambitious men and women, young and old, with vastly different attitudes and outlooks on life, laughed and joked about their past exploits and shared stories about their new lives.
Drinking, I now see, was a symptom – albeit a particularly huge, toxic one – of a more pernicious disposition which led me to routinely make destructive choices. Since going to AA I’ve begun to appreciate what I have rather than crave what I imagined I deserved or needed. Instead of the old-mind set whereby I engaged in daily self-flagellation as I either unfavourably compared myself to everyone I met or furiously discarded them as weak, useless or just pricks, I’ve learned to change my attitude to life without becoming a sop; I still have strong opinions and a particularly close-minded view of what constitutes “good” music, but I don’t ricochet through my day on the back of resentments anymore.
Just before I went to that first meeting I’d started to learn the guitar; it was a disaster as my patience was non-existent. Once I knocked the drinking on the head, however, I took to it with more focus and drive. Today I sing and play in a band that’s had a few releases, some modest radio play and regularly plays gigs. I’ve made loads of new friends and find myself in a place that really, I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was mired in negativity. Music has become an enormous part of my life – to the determent of my “real” job – and it feels like a creative part of me that was buried under a mountain of fear, doubt and hatred has been unleashed.
Being in a band involves a lot of hard work, late nights, stress, nerves and strained relationships but, throughout it all I’ve been sober and, what’s more, I’ve never once even had any desire to drink. Music is obviously synonymous with hedonism and excess but in the same way that to have a punk ethic you don’t have to look like the Sex Pistols, to make and play caustic, emotive, honest music you don’t have to be drunk; at least I don’t. I am regularly surrounded by people drinking heavily and yet I don’t in any way feel envious. Since I gave up drinking I’ve been at many gigs just as intense as those when I was drunk; gigs where I thought my head was going to explode as I levitated amongst a baying crowd but crucially, gigs from which I woke the following day without crumpling under an avalanche of regrets and physical pain.
The history of music is replete with those “icons” who “did everything to the extreme”; but history is written by the winners. For every Jack Daniels swigging “Wildman” there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of casualties, wasted lives and unmade albums. The notion that being creative necessitates enduring mental distress or engaging in self-destructive behaviour – be it through drugs or alcohol – is irresponsible bullshit.
The mind of an “active” alcoholic is a hideous place; many people – myself included – can hide this torment for years but, at least in my experience, the pressure breaks you in the end. The choice then is ultimately to go on and plunge further – and invariably rapidly – into irrevocable mental decay, or to be brave enough to ask for help. The alternative to drinking isn’t the grinding tedium of endless nights in with nothing to do but a potentially more creative, dynamic life free from the torture of regret and fear.
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