One good thing about addiction is it gives you two ways to transform yourself – first by succumbing, then by crawling (or leaping?) back out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself.
I freed myself from addiction to alcohol three and a half years ago. (When I was dreaming of escape, six months seemed a long stretch – now it’s loose change.) I say I freed myself because I didn’t join a group or have any other formal support, but I have benefitted hugely from other people telling their stories in books, blogs and podcasts. It’s been all take and no give from me in that department, so this is an attempt to redress that, and a gesture of thanks to all those people I’ve never met who’ve helped me change my life.
I drank too much, almost every night, for thirty years, and didn’t believe I could have an enjoyable life without the daily reward and release of alcohol. I wanted to have it every night without needing it every day – like wanting to swim without getting wet. I’m keen not to be hyperbolic or falsely positive, but since I learned to let alcohol go, I’ve missed it for no more than a few minutes in total (it’s tricky to gauge the duration of pangs but one minute per year, or five seconds a month, feels about right). These brief regrets concern not so much the here-and-now as some hypothetical event in the future when I’m afraid I’ll sorely miss having my former crutch in arm’s reach. They can be dispelled by a simple, full breath out – and a raising of the eyes to a tree or a bird, if either happens to be handy. (I first realised I could drop almost instantly from angst generator to curious earthling by gazing like a toddler at some lichen on a paving stone.) My first sober Christmas was like spending the night alone in a haunted house, when you don’t believe in ghosts but you look forward to the dawn anyway. Now, not drinking in December feels more like a superpower.
I didn’t decide to stop out of the blue. I’d thought, worried and hoped for a long time. I’d been to therapists, observed myself, wondered if alcohol delivered what I wanted from it anymore. I was familiar with the disease model of alcoholism associated with Alcoholics Anonymous – powerlessness, surrender, perpetual vigilance – and had reconciled myself to carrying on trying to manage my dependence if that model was accurate. But I had a suspicion it wasn’t – for me, at least. In early 2018, I went looking online for any other approach I might be prepared to live with. I’d given up for three months, several years before, in the hope of resetting my relationship with alcohol rather than ending it. The reset worked for only a few weeks – as I’ve since learned is usually the case. I thought maybe this time I could stop for six months and, though I hesitated to dwell on it (and I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone else), if I was in a good place by then, maybe I would just keep going.
I found a book by the late Allen Carr (or his successors) called The Easy Way to Control Alcohol. I’d successfully used his famous book on smoking many years before. It’s not a literary triumph but it had done the job – and I was a fifty-a-day mug. You’re instructed to keep smoking until you’ve finished the book, and I found it so persuasive I was impatient to get to the end and stub out my ceremonial last cigarette. Reading the alcohol book, I was again impatient for the two fingers of neat spirit recommended as a farewell rite, to remind you you’ve been dosing yourself with poison. I’m surprised to see, now, that what seemed like a week of urgent reading took place in little over a day – I downloaded the book on the evening of March 5th and had my neat craft gin at 11am on March 7th. (The bottle is on a shelf behind me. There’s still enough in there to get a good buzz on, before going downstairs to open some wine and settle in for the evening.)
Then I turned to women. That day, I downloaded Catherine Gray’s The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober – the title alone was worth the money to me, but I recognised myself on many pages. The next day, Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget, and Sarah Pooley’s The Sober Diaries. A week later, I bought Unwasted: My lush sobriety by Sacha Z Scoblic. Four days after that, I ordered the classic Lit by Mary Karr, and downloaded This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. A month passed before I found Maia Szalavitz’s Unbroken Brain: A revolutionary new way of understanding addiction. In the meantime I listened to hours of the Home podcast, with Laura McKowen and Holly Whittaker; The Bubble Hour with Jean McCarthy; and Grace’s This Naked Mind podcast. I identified with, and found comfort in, the stories told by and to these varied women. Some of the experiences were close to mine, some were wildly different, but I felt connected to all of them, and they stopped me feeling like another male, working-class, Scottish, stereotype.
I’d say Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind, book and podcast, had the deepest effect on me. Her approach is similar to Allen Carr’s, in that both help you uncover, examine and change your underlying beliefs about alcohol, what it does to you and for you, so that removing it from your life feels like a longed-for release rather than an exercise in self-denial. But Grace’s book has a more scientific underpinning, exploring the biochemistry and psychology of addiction, which appealed to me. She emphasises that alcohol is addictive to human beings, and what we call alcoholism is everyday addiction to a drug that is everywhere we turn – the condition doesn’t need a name of its own, nor must you have had a fatal flaw in the womb to succumb to it. Grace wrote that I could stop wanting to drink, without constant vigilance or feeling deprived:
‘What if, by reversing years of unconscious conditioning, you could return to the perpective of a non-drinker? Not a recovering (sober) alcoholic but a person with the same desire, need and craving for alcohol as someone who has never picked up a bottle—a true non-drinker. Well you can.’ [This Naked Mind, Introduction]
Surprisingly, and very happily, this turned out to be true – for me.
It’s impossible to know what others experience, of course, and AA has helped a lot of people change their lives, but I don’t feel I have a disease, progressive or otherwise, and I don’t feel powerless. I knew that when I’d been addicted to nicotine I’d believed life would be emptier and less fulfilling without smoking, and I’d come to learn that was absolute shite – the very opposite of the truth. Addictive thoughts are insidiously persuasive and utterly deceiving. It happens to be bang on 6pm as I type, my old wine o’clock (that deft normalisation of dependence), there are gallons of alcohol in the house and I couldn’t care less – it is not for me.
Perhaps that’s easy for me to say. Maybe people who are addicted to alcohol are different from people who are alcoholics, in which case my experience might only be of use to the former. I wasn’t drinking in the morning or doing a bottle of whisky a night. I wasn’t using cheap cider to knock myself out in a doorway. But how many of those people are in despair at having an incurable, progressive disease, and don’t believe they have the willpower for a lifetime of self-denial? My life revolved around alcohol. Even when I did Dry January, and tried to cut back afterwards, I’d drink a bottle of wine – almost always more – on over 300 nights of the year. I had regular black-outs – mornings-after with no recollection of what I’d said and done before somehow getting myself to bed. Going without wine for even one night was a truly bleak prospect, only entered into in the hope that I could master alcohol and carry on drinking for the rest of my life. But I was also a conscientious, loving husband and father, and a committed professional. I could do almost anything, under any pressure, as long as I knew the wine was waiting for me afterwards. I looked after the children while my wife worked, I played Shakespearean leads, acted with stars in films and TV, wrote plays and sweated blood as I watched them performed. I drank a bottle and a half of red wine the night before running a sub-90-minute half-marathon, at the age of 47, and was a bit disappointed with my 3:26 marathon time a few weeks later. I’ve learned from my subsequent immersion in Quit Lit that being an exercise nut is a surprisingly frequent stratagem in active addiction. (Quit Lit is the corollary of wine o’clock.)
My dad was a habitual heavy drinker who hadn’t prospered in his working life – like plenty of labourers of his generation, and many generations before, he was a smart, witty person doing the work he’d been born to. He liked to quote Keats, Burns, and Grey’s ‘Elegy’, like a working-class man in a questionable sitcom. I can just remember when he and my mum seemed happy together but by the time I was seven or eight some line had been crossed and it was all Ask your father this and Tell your mother that.
Sometimes there was no food in the house – usually the night before pay day, or benefit-collection day when Dad was unemployed. Mum would blame him for spending so much in the pub, he would blame her for bad housekeeping – she couldn’t cook and did buy us cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks. (Cigarettes were off-limits for casting-up purposes as neither had a leg to stand on in that territory. When money was very tight Mum would profess shame when sending us to buy them.) The next evening, after a day without food (we would have been entitled to free school meals but Mum forbade it, because then everybody would know), we’d wait eagerly for Dad to come home. And wait, and wait. He’d sail in, hours late, half-cut, with armfuls of fish suppers and Irn Bru. ‘Like Lord Bountiful’, Mum would say. We children knew he was in the wrong but we wanted chips and a trouble-free evening. Mum would make a show of refusing to eat but she couldn’t hold out for long. When I privately urged her to leave him, she asked, ‘Would you want to be the child of a divorcee?’ in a scandalised tone that indicated I definitely would not. I occasionally went to friends’ houses but I knew, without asking, that they couldn’t come to ours. Mum told us to tell anyone who asked that Dad was a steel-erector. How we appeared to outsiders was more important than the quality of our real lives. We were expected to stick to the script and we did.
While Dad had the apparent consolations of boozy camaraderie in The Cross Keys, Mum seems to have survived on nicotine-infused determination. She’s barely ever eaten anything green, hates the taste of water (while acknowledging it doesn’t taste of anything), has never exercised, and has smoked from morning to night for over sixty years. Cigarettes have been the one constant in her life. Even now, at eighty-four, when she is adamant she can’t leave the house (though she went to her brother’s funeral) and won’t do the exercises prescribed after a recent mini-stroke, she will still regularly struggle up off the couch and into her bedroom for a ciggie. (She doesn’t smoke in the living room any more because her children wouldn’t expose her grandchildren to it.) I don’t think she ever believed she would manage to give up, and I know well what a powerful disincentive that is. Why put yourself through it, if you know it won’t work? My older brother John and I, and my slightly younger sister, all had asthma (I still do). My sister once spent several days in hospital, and I suffered bad attacks which left me kneeling up all night with my shoulders at my ears, gasping and feeling cursed. The emergency doctor would eventually arrive, summoned from the payphone ouside the police station, to inject me with steroids which brought near-instant relief. The last time it happened, when I was 17, the injection didn’t work and he had to give me another. Mum told me, later, she thought I was going to die that night, but our parents went on smoking beside us.
We three older siblings all won the academic prizes at St Ignatius Primary School, but by the time I was going up to receive my engraved, East German, self-winding watch, John had become an scholastic flop at high school – in the space of four years. He was tall, dark and handsome, goalkeeper of the school team, and so attractive that girls in the year below wore badges with his picture. (I’ve never seen nails as badly bitten as John’s but he kept them hidden, and goalkeepers got to wear gloves.) I can believe he didn’t pay much attention in French or Maths or History, or all the other ‘O’ Grades he failed, but he failed Arithmetic, which he could have passed when he was 10. Did he panic or was it a kind of protest? A cry for help, or a fuck you? Shortly afterwards he was out of education, doing night shifts restocking the shelves at Safeway. I could attribute my desire for escape to having witnessed this but I still thought John was glamorous and happy – drinking, smoking and playing snooker in The Cross Keys; drinking, dancing and dating in The Stag; bringing home ferociously hot beef curries from the Chinese Takeaway at Wishaw Cross. He was still handsome, charming and funny and might have thought booze, fags, laughs and romance would see him through, but he died of a heart attack at 37.
As a parent of grown-up children, now, I wonder what help he got. There were dire warnings: You’ll end up like your useless father, You’ll never have a penny. Words like worthless and lazy. He could be truly wayward, mind. One job he had was unloading the English Sunday papers off the train at Glasgow Central, which required him being picked up in the very early hours of Sunday morning. The early hours of Sunday being very soon after the late hours of Saturday, John would come home drunk, a couple of hours before he was supposed to get up, and sleep through the alarm Mum had set. She’d get up and drag him out of bed, castigating him. There were now five of us siblings sleeping in the same room, as the only other bedroom was too small even for a double bed, so we had ringside seats, even if we pretended to be asleep in them. One night Mum put the light on and revealed a nearly perfect, finger-drawn arc of shit on the wall by John’s bed. So it’s not as if she wasn’t provoked. And, of course, there may have been more conciliatory exchanges between them in private. He did make a deal with Mum to go to college and resit his exams but that didn’t work out either.
And where was our useless father? It has to be said it was better for all of us when he was at work, or in the pub. When he came home in time to watch TV en famille, every interaction became laced with complicity and betrayal. To laugh at his jokes was to be disloyal to Mum; trying to ignore him or fob him off brought more promptings:
‘What do you make of that, son?… Paul, what do you make of that?’
‘What do you make of that?’
‘Your mother says you know better than to listen to me. What do you make of that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘I’m trying to watch this.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘You going to let me watch the telly?’
‘Oh, I’ll let you watch the telly, all right. Don’t you worry about that. You can watch telly to your heart’s content… You don’t know?’
I liked him in some ways – he was funny – but he was undeniably a negligent parent. He and Mum were engaged in their own Thirty Years’ War and collateral damage was inevitable – and seemingly unnoticed. One night, after he’d stumbled in from the pub, I followed Dad to his bed (Mum slept on the couch), where he lay with his face to the wall, and told him we loved him. He must have suspected I was trying to emulate a version of family we’d only ever seen on TV and he replied, ‘I just want to turn my back on everything.’ He was only in his 40s but might have felt he’d irretrievably fucked up his one shot at life (he wasn’t religious), or that he had a disease he couldn’t beat – he did briefly try AA. Another poem he liked to quote, even in better times, was Thomas Hood’s:
I remember, I remember the house where I was born,
The little window where the sun came creeping in at morn;
It never came a wink too soon nor brought too long a day,
But now I often wish the night had borne my breath away.
I can’t tell how much John’s experience contributed to my being scared of High School. He had assured me I’d be eaten alive there, and, disconcertingly, Mum agreed. I think she must have been trying to toughen me up, but I’m not sure why she thought that necessary – I was very skinny, and maybe over-sensitive, but I could be assertive, and even courageous, at a push.
Then, in my last year of primary school, Father Bernacchi, the rector of the St Francis Xavier Seminary, in Coatbridge, visited to talk about his life as a missionary priest in Bangladesh and to invite the boys in the class to pay a visit (to Coatbridge). I did, and I liked what I saw – including the chance to leave home at 12, which I took, after some resistance from Mum. I spent the next five years there, only coming home for some Saturday nights and holidays. That’s another story, but I met good people there, most of the priests included, and had five years largely without smoke, drunkenness, or despair. The people trying to mould me were not afraid for me, partly because they didn’t have a particular attachment to me, but also because they weren’t afraid of the world. I left at 17 only because I’d started illicitly seeing a girl, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to hack celibacy. Even if it had been possible, my growing doubts about God – certainly the Catholic version I’d been learning about – would have done for me eventually.
While I was away in the seminary, Mum did the thing that stands out in her adult life and makes the rest of it even harder to understand – she bravely took advantage of a government assistance scheme to go to night school, take some Highers and get a job in the office of a large Cash and Carry. She was no longer solely dependent on Dad’s wages or benefits and the stage was set for a big change, but it didn’t happen. Dad had spiralled down into addiction and taken to drinking locally-sourced, home-made spirits. He eventually fell into a coma on the couch and was taken away to hospital, then mental hospital. Like me, he was allowed home some weekends but his medication was so powerful he moved in slow-motion and could barely speak. He once fell asleep in his chair in the middle of scratching his head which made my sister and me giggle guiltily. He made a full recovery from that one, and liked to talk about his Churchill genes.
I left the seminary with qualifications coming out of my ears but too late to apply for University. I went to Our Lady’s High in Motherwell for Sixth Year, instead, but was soon offered a place at Glasgow Uni for the following September, meaning I didn’t have to pass any more exams, or even do any homework. Some of my fellow students were part of a youth theatre group which was about to do Godspell and I went along because I liked to sing. Acting gradually took over from singing, and drama school replaced Uni as my goal.
I fell in with a group of friends at Our Lady’s. Phil would pick us up in his car, and we’d sit in the bar of the driving range in Hamilton, talking, drinking, laughing and playing songs on the juke box. I drank Coke. Most of my peers now drank alcohol on nights out or at parties but I just didn’t want or need it, which pleased me because, as I understood it, alcoholism was a disease that could run in families, and I obviously didn’t have it.
To Mum’s dismay, I put off Uni for another year to audition for drama schools. My first was in Manchester and I got the bus down early one morning, found the place, and did my speeches – one Shakespeare (Hamlet), one modern (Barrie Keefe’s Gotcha). I had very little idea of what was expected of me – was I supposed to really, like, go for it? Or would that be embarrassingly OTT? But they offered me a recall and said I could do it that afternoon to save fares. After the recall, they offered me a place on the spot, and I was back in Wishaw that night to give my mum the good news. Her face fell and she said, ‘Well, if you’ve got any talent, I can’t see it.’
I think she was genuinely trying to save me from making a fool of myself, but she was also trying to protect herself from ridicule, imagined or otherwise. She was very proud of our academic prizes (the achievement of mine she’s proudest of is my emphatic victory in an episode of Celebrity Mastermind) and would probably have been disappointed even if she’d thought I had any prospects as an actor. I don’t know if she revised her opinion when I went on getting into the drama schools I auditioned for, including my dream school.
I arrived for the first day of term at the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London, a non-smoking, teetotal, virgin. I went to the Swiss Cottage pub with my classmates after school on that first day and regularly thereafter. Everyone else drank alcohol, mostly pints of the strong Sam Smith’s Pils, and I occasionally tried to join in but I still didn’t get what was supposed to be so good about the stuff. The caffeinated sugar rush of Coke was good enough for me. Then something happened to change that.
I’d started going out with a woman who was a few years older than me, and we’d soon dispensed with my virginity. Not much later, I gave up my temporary place in a student hostel and moved in with her (she was from a wealthy family and had a lovely place of her own). I found myself there alone, unusually, one Sunday afternoon – I think there was some kind of women-only lunch somewhere. It was not only unusual for me to be alone in that flat; I had rarely been alone, indoors, for more than a few minutes, in my entire life. I’d grown up in a two-bedroom flat with six other people (and no bathroom), gone to a seminary where we slept 45-to-a-room, and even shared my hostel room with an apprentice butcher who kept a stained apron and a set of knives in his locker (it’s a mercy I wasn’t vegan, then). This afternoon, on my own for an unknown length of time with nothing to do, I was uneasy. Maybe there was an undercurrent of this nice place not being mine – that I didn’t have a place anywhere. As my family didn’t have a phone, moving away entailed a degree of separation that’s surprising now; the Royal Mail was my only way to keep in touch, as it would have been if I’d sought my fortune in London in 1683 rather than 1983. My girlfriend had a small selection of spirits and I had the idea that a vodka and orange juice might change my mood. And it worked. The sweet tang of the juice made the vodka just about palatable. I think I only had the one, but it was enough. I didn’t start to drink regularly, but I stashed this new idea that there was an antidote to uneasiness, and it would be available to me any time I needed it, with nothing to worry about because I wasn’t an alcoholic. This is one serious deficiency in the disease model: most people with a drink problem start out as occasional, take-it-or-leave-it users, even if we sometimes go overboard in take mode. We can tell we don’t have a disease so we don’t start to worry until we’re quite far gone in addiction.
I’ve speculated there about why I felt bad but at the time I instinctively kept my troubles secret from myself as well as from the world. Troubles equalled inadequacy, inadequacy brought shame. Just as I’d learned to suppress fears, I now learned alcohol would ease any that bubbled to the surface. I later found Maia Szalavitz’s description of addiction as a learning disorder, in Unbroken Brain, persuasive:
‘While, like anything else that is learned, addiction may get more engrained with time, people actually have increased odds of recovery as they age, not reduced chances. This apparent paradox makes much more sense if seen as part of a developmental disorder that can change with life stages.’ [Introduction, her emphasis.]
That first proper girlfriend and I were spectacularly mismatched and we broke up over the first summer holiday. I was not in love, but I still have trouble admitting that she dumped me, and I was badly affected by it. I could barely cope with not being wanted. I’ve always been impressed by people who can talk unabashedly of having been rejected, but I’ve never been able to do it myself. I’m embarrassed even now by having been the dumpee. (The first my wife knew of it was when she read this paragraph.)
I’d begun to busk my way through school, blunder my way through relationships, get blind drunk occasionally, throw up often. One of my classmates was the daughter of a famous author – a category of person I had never even thought of meeting before. She seemed deep, fascinating and troubled. For one acting exercise we were asked to imagine an animal. Everyone else pictured an in-the-flesh creature but my image was of an elephant on a television programme, two-dimensional, in a 28-inch frame. She told me afterwards, privately, she thought I observed life as if through a screen. I’m sure she has no memory of it but it felt true enough to rattle me, and has stayed with me for 37 years. I think I’d been through more than most of my classmates but I was among the cheeriest and least likely to dwell on the darker side of being alive. Other people wore black and were punkishly cynical and rebellious. I’d sing going from class to class in a polyester jumper with an eagle pattern on the front. I sang a lot, and I preferred Billy Joel to Joe Strummer.
During those drama school years, there was a period of several weeks when, for reasons I won’t go into, I had easy access to cocaine which I was told was of very high quality – I had never taken coke before but my subsequent, limited, experience did bear that out. This was the drug for me (well-being plus energy!) and, though it was in plentiful supply, I could barely get enough. That period came to a predetermined end and the next day was the bleakest I had ever experienced. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I happened to have arrived back at Mum and Dad’s that afternoon and I paced around the small flat trying not to draw attention to what I now realise were withdrawal symptoms. If I had known who to talk to in Wishaw to get my hands on more, I would have. If cocaine had gone on being easily available to me at that time, I don’t know when or how I would have stopped. Luckily, another addictive poison was not just widely available, but celebrated as an essential part of a fulfilling life. In fact, there was something questionable about people who didn’t drink – what was their problem? (An alien would think the ultimate goal of professional sport is for players and fans to get pished – the cricketers spraying champagne on a Muslim colleague, the interviewer bantering with the cup-winner about how much he and his team-mates are about to put away, the presenter tweeting video of herself drinking champagne from the bottle because her team won a semi-final.)
I blundered and busked through my final year of drama school, too, but I managed to get a good agent before graduating. I was drinking more often, but no more than people around me. I got a place to live with John, who’d escaped/been banished to London 18 months before, after getting a young Protestant woman pregnant. They’d agreed to get married but when the child was born, according to John, he’d been refused entry to the hospital and informed that the woman wanted nothing more to do with him. I’d been back in Scotland for Christmas when a solicitor’s letter arrived seeking financial support from him, and Mum suggested he pack a bag and come back to London with me in the VW campervan I’d borrowed from my ex for the trip.
Though John and I had got to know each other much better since he’d come south, and we got on well living together, this period immediately after graduating is when I began to feel really adrift. Drama school is much more like school than university. You have a full timetable all day, five days a week, and even some evenings and Saturday mornings, so you don’t learn self-regulation the way you might at university. The loss of structure, and guaranteed society, floored me. It took an age to get housing benefit and I was flat broke – not helped by my now ridiculous nicotine habit. I took to going through our bins and ashtrays for stubs with a bit more left to give – I found a good few and they were horrible. I watched whatever was on TV and became reluctant to leave the house. It didn’t help that we’d moved to a part of London I wasn’t familiar with. Even the mail made me anxious because it came from outside.
Somehow, after six months of this new disorder, and several auditions, I got a job at a prestigious theatre in Manchester. My best friend from drama school’s parents very kindly allowed me to stay with them, just outside the city. There were only three of us in the cast, and one of them would be labelled now as a recovering alcoholic, so drinking opportunities were limited. The other actor and I could drum up a group visit to the pub, but he didn’t drink much and I was often on my own in this city I didn’t know. My friend’s parents could not have been more welcoming or generous but I needed something neither they nor I could generate. I wanted to be out, every night, with friends. I did not want to go to bed sober and alone, and I did not want to look into why that might be (I think I sensed I’d uncover some hole in myself – god-shaped, parent-shaped, heart-shaped, it didn’t matter as long as it was lager-shaped). Not only was there no one waiting for me back in London, I didn’t have a place for anyone to wait in. I had recently had a phone installed at Mum and Dad’s, with the proceeds of a small TV job while still at drama school, but we remained unused to staying in touch. (My friend went on calling his parents every Sunday night, but I didn’t feel that would work for me.) I thought the lowest times were the truest, that unconnected life was real life. Lager soothed me and I began to sluice my fears away. I paid no attention to the convention that drinking alone is a danger sign – it was just doing something I liked, when I liked. Nobody tells you not to eat ice cream or drink coffee alone.
When that job ended, I came back south to live with friends and expand my relationship with alcohol to include large bottles of cheap white wine. I got more work and started doing well enough to turn a blind eye to my now nightly drinking. I was just a fun-loving young man, untrammelled by conventional morality. I landed a US tour during which I got together with a lovely colleague (I’ll call her C). We went on seeing each other when we got back to London and after a few months of me renting a room in Robert Louis Stevenson’s former home in Hampstead (but rarely sleeping there as guests were non grata), I moved in with C.
By now, I was mid-twenties and drinking around six cans of lager every night – sometimes more, very rarely less, and never going without. C encouraged me to try to get help on the NHS. To my surprise, her GP referred me for an assessment at the nearby Royal Free Hospital. The therapist asked me about my childhood and as I was telling her it was fine, you know, normal I was ambushed by emotion – crying and gasping like a thing bereaved. She said she would see me for a six-week course of treatment, but only if I stopped drinking for the duration. She gave me a leaflet for Al-Anon, a charity which supports the families of people with drink problems. Hundreds of pounds-worth of treatment at one of the country’s leading hospitals, free, in return for giving up alcohol for six weeks, and I just couldn’t face it. That surprises me, now, because I was later able to do more-or-less dry Januarys, without too much trepidation, in the knowledge that I was just taking a break – but see the Maia Szalavitz quote, above, on the benefits of ageing. I think I felt alcohol was not the problem but the solution.
I got another job in a strange city. The play and cast were excellent, several of us were party animals, and after a few weeks of almost nightly carousing my heart started to play up. I felt like it kept stopping for a few seconds, after which it came thumping back as if trying to catch up. John and my dad were still alive then, but it was so alarming I took myself to A&E where I was given a cardiogram, which came back normal. The doctor asked me about my lifestyle and when I detailed my daily intake of cigarettes, instant coffee (two sugars), and Stella Artois, his diagnosis was What do you expect? I split from C during that job and she died tragically a few years later, in the prime of her life and career. She was the first person to take an interest in why I might have become dependent on alcohol, and I wish I could talk to her now.
I knew it was high time I get a place of my own and try to come to terms with myself. I rented a small bedsit in Swiss Cottage and tried smoking dope instead of drinking but the patterns were the same, with added looping thoughts and paranoia, and I went back to alcohol. It seemed to have less effect on me during those parts of the day when I wasn’t drinking – still most of my waking hours. I wanted to drink less, but also to drink as much as I wanted, as often as I wanted. (This is the cognitive dissonance dealt with so effectively in This Naked Mind, but that book was over 25 years away.)
I was offered another job in Manchester, for six months this time because it was a double-bill with a tour at the end, and I gratefully gave up my bedsit and took off. In a big company like this you could always get people to come for a drink, and you’d find one or two who were happy to come out every night. I had digs in someone’s house and I had been a reader since my teens but the idea of going back alone, sober, to get into to bed with a book, felt like volunteering to jump into a void – an acceptance that I wasn’t attached to anything or anyone in the world or out of it. Not that I analysed what I was doing – I still didn’t want to know. A thought that helped me let go of alcohol years later was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s:
‘The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.’
I was less impressed when I discovered Trungpa was addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, and sex, and died of liver disease at the age of 48, but by then I’d already taken the leap.
I had the great good luck of meeting B on this job – a well-adjusted, independent, optimistic single woman. We rehearsed (including practising the jive our characters danced together), performed, ate, drank, talked, laughed and became friends. I had begun to fall for her very badly but in the second play, apart from our dance, my character had to kiss hers and stroke her breast, through a tight-fitting jumper, and I feared if I asked her out and she rejected me, however considerately, the play would become excruciating for us both. My appetite disappeared (not for lager – that was robustly consistent) and I lost weight which, as I was skinny to begin with, was not a good look. Three and a half months after we’d met, i.e. when a normal theatre job would already have been over, I knocked on her dressing room door and told her how I felt. She shook her head as if I’d badly misjudged what was going on but it turned out she felt the same way and, not much more than a year later, she agreed to marry me. So she told me, anyway, because I had no memory of asking her. I couldn’t remember much else of that night and I had been planning to ask her, so her story had a grain of plausibilty. Graciously, I asked her again and, though she must have been a little more doubtful, she said yes again.
B met my dad for the first time when our show was on tour in Carlisle. He’d been sober for a few years, post-coma, and had decided to travel the 80-odd miles south without telling me. On an idyllic summer’s day, B and I happened to be passing the venue, on our way to the river Eden, when someone told me Dad had been in looking for me and had got himself a ticket. I had a look around for him, feeling guilty that my first thought had been to check the pubs, then we carried on down to the river thinking he might be there. We saw him a few hours later, outside the venue, using a bin to steady himself. I asked him what was going on but he palmed me off – it was nothing, he was on holiday. I met him after the show, on my own. He had a half of lager, as if a moderate drinker, and I walked him back to the B&B he’d booked. I’m not sure how well I handled it. I don’t think I was censorious, but I found it impossible just to be pleased to see him. B next saw him some months later, in Wishaw, when he wordlessly passed the living room door, on his way from the front door to bed. He’d been drinking ever since his day out. She last saw him a few months later, when he was back in the local psychiatric hospital, Hartwood, but he was heavily medicated, so she never really met him at all, which is a shame. She would have enjoyed him amiably and cleverly taken the mickey out of us. I think he would have enjoyed my subsequent career, as I’ve seen parents of my colleagues take pleasure in theirs.
I saw him a few months later, on my own. He’d been stabilised in Hartwood but his trademark bounce-back had eluded him and he still needed looking after. When the health authority offered to release him into Mum’s care, she politely, and justifiably, declined. So he’d been moved to a kind of halfway house in Motherwell. I was taken aback by how shaky and incompetent he was. Only two years older than I am now, he struggled to boil the kettle. A fellow-resident across the landing, much younger and more resilient, complained forcefully to me that he had to look after Dad to stop him setting the building on fire with cigarettes he’d forgotten he’d lit. I was sympathetic but I didn’t want to look after him, either – so it was convenient I lived 400 miles away.
We invited him to the wedding, of course, and he said he’d come, but I hoped he wouldn’t, and he didn’t. (When I first read that back I was struck by how sad it was, but it’s returned to being just another detail.) I was at work the following year when I got a call from my younger brother. It’s hard to believe now just how shocked I was that Dad had died. It had been pretty obvious his Churchill genes had faded but he was only 60. I hadn’t seen him for a year and I wouldn’t see him again. When Cordelia is dead, King Lear says, ‘Thou’lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never.’ I hadn’t understood what never meant.
Death – his or hers – was Mum’s only way out, and her power to out-endure all comers had seen her through. Divorce was sinful, separation scandalous, either would have represented an admission to her mother, brothers, sisters, and the town that she’d made a bad choice. Reconciliation was not to be countenanced. Two of her sisters had managed to get their marriages annulled by the Vatican. One had married a Muslim, so that was straightforward – it had never been a proper union in the eyes of the one true faith. The other had married an Italian Catholic, which must have been harder to expunge from the record. One annulment in a family is unusual, and three might have been a record, but even if Mum had had the grounds, it would still have been a public acknowledgment that we weren’t a happy family. Poor, unhappily-married, Catholic women have had a bad time through the centuries but there could at least be a communion among those who shared their troubles. Mum’s desire to set herself apart meant she was doubly isolated. Two of her sisters also suffered from anorexia – one died in her forties but the other was in and out of hospital till she died recently in her mid-eighties. There is a book to be written about that family but it would be very hard to read. It was partly to escape her own mother that Mum married my dad. They went to live near Dad’s sister by the Kent dockyards, at first, but soon moved back to Wishaw, where Mum’s mum would ignore in the street whichever of her children were currently out of favour. I wonder how their lives might have gone if they’d achieved the velocity required to escape the stifling atmosphere of Lanarkshire’s Irish theocracy-in-exile.
Mum was also worried about where we’d be sent to live if she ever found the courage to leave Dad; in extremis, he liked to point out it was his name on the rent book. Our flat was in a tenement block near the centre of town, on a regular street which also had some privately-owned homes, with the odd car parked outside, and she was concerned we’d be put in one of the housing estates on the outskirts of town. I didn’t particularly want to live in one of those working-class ghettoes, either, with barely any shops or other apparatus of civic life, though it would have meant we finally got a bathroom. Taking turns to bathe in front of the fire on a Sunday night, in what would now be regarded as a baby bath, was fine when we were small, but palled as we grew older and more self-conscious. One by one we graduated to ‘private’ bathing in the kitchen, which was narrow and unheated, with just a curtain over the doorway. (Surely we were among the last young people in Britain to get ready for dates in this way – the council renovated our block in 1983/4 when I was at drama school.) But since Mum didn’t like baths, anyway, moving to a council estate was unequivocally a step down for her. We were supposed to be a cut above those people, some of whom dressed, talked and behaved as if they weren’t ashamed of being poor. I’m still threatened by them – don’t they know how to keep a secret? We were so expert at keeping secrets we were hardly aware of doing it. But Mum and Dad had grown up on a proto-housing estate less than two miles away, built to service the mines and then the steelworks that were the main employers in the region, and I suppose our location represented a move up in the world for them – off the estate and into town. And I know well how humiliating and demoralising it is to be rated less highly than one rates oneself, however deludedly.
When B had our first child, among the friends and family who came to pay homage at our one-bedroom, rented flat in London were C, and my brother John, who was now married and living in Twickenham. B tells me John and I got drunk and raucous, leaving her to take the baby to the bedroom and look after her on her own – another thing I have no recollection of. When B became pregnant again, we started house-hunting. Just before the move, on a beautiful Spring Monday, we took the baby in her buggy to Maida Vale to catch a boat along the canal to London Zoo. As we sat waiting for the boat to leave, John’s wife called my (early-adopted) mobile to say he’d had a heart-attack in the living-room that morning while having a cigarette before work. He’d recently got out of being a barman, which was not the best line of work for him, and started an office job at the firm his wife worked for. Only 37 and apparently in reasonable health, he died instantly. Never, never, never, never, never.
Our second daughter came home from St Thomas’s maternity unit to a house that actually belonged to us. I’d managed to stop smoking before marrying my excellent wife, our children were healthy, my career was fine, and still I carried on drinking every night. B liked a drink, too. One glass, occasionally two. She comes from a liberal, upper-middle-class family for whom wine was de rigeur with dinner, so my daily habit wasn’t the red flag it might have been. Switching from lager to red wine provided further camouflage. My usual habit was to drink from 6pm til 10, calibrating the dose so that I could go to bed and go quickly to sleep. I got it wrong often, particularly on social occasions, when I was apt to feel anxious and overdo it. B did very occasionally say she thought I should get help but it was a very hot topic, close to off-limits, as it indicated she might not love me as I was. And we were mostly happy, so we just got on with it. I did visit an acupuncturist, after a particularly gruelling job, and had been impressed by how his holistic approach, his interest in me and my life in general, had made me feel better. Then, one lunchtime as B, our girls and I sat in a pleasant cafe in Camberwell, I felt overwhelmed for no obvious reason and hurriedly excused myself. I went home, got into bed and cried my eyes out over something I couldn’t name. I decided to give therapy a go. Perhaps if I was paying, I’d be allowed to keep drinking.
I went to a psychotherapist twice a week for a few years, and I did learn a lot about myself, and what it is to be human in general. During that time, while I was doing a well-paid, prestigious job, we moved to a big old house with a large garden by inner London standards. I watched the girls excitedly running around exploring, and wondered why I felt so very flat, and separate from my family. A weight would lift when I left the house on my own – literally the second I passed over the threshold – and I knew the fault lay on whichever side of the door I was on. When one of the girls did something cute, I’d enjoy it while also thinking That’ll torment me if she dies. I’d seen flashes of life being utterly empty of meaning or purpose and I thought they were glimpses of the truth.
Therapy finally got me writing and the National Theatre of Scotland produced my first play, Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, in a great production with an excellent cast, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. That was a real high but it didn’t make as much difference to my subsequent state of mind as I’d imagined back when even managing to finish writing anything seemed unlikely. What did I do after the first performance of my first play? The thing I did every night. The thing that makes the night less singular, and optimises the chances of waking up worried and regretful.
I was lucky enough to be in David Greig’s excellent play Damascus – set in the Syrian capital – and after performing it in Edinburgh and London we took it on a British Council-sponsored tour of the Middle East and North Africa, kicking off in the city of Damascus itself. After the last performance of an exciting but stressful week (there had been a big row at the Q&A after our first performance, with members of the audience having a go at us and then at each other), before we were to move on to Beirut, we were taken out by our hosts to a wonderful hillside restaurant with great views of the city. Perusing our menus while fantastic-looking food and colourful juices were carried to other tables, the unthinkable dawned on us – alcohol was not served in this dream-like setting. Anticipation became incredulity then quiet indignation. How could they do this to us? Some of us ate quickly and moved on elsewhere to get our fix, believing the Syrians had something missing – the fuckers were unaware that alcohol was essential to celebration. I wish I could go back and drink juice there now.
After much isolation, alienation, and agonising, B reached a tipping point. On New Year’s Eve morning, 2014, I woke up to her looking at me and asking calmly and seriously, ‘What are we going to do about your drinking?’ She had taken pains to frame the problem as something for both of us to work out but I didn’t take it well. However hard she tried to convince me otherwise, I thought she was considering a future without me – and if she didn’t want me as I was, I certainly didn’t want to hang around. We were both taken up with work, and remained on good terms, but we began to at least consider the possibility of going our separate ways, after the girls had left home.
I took a job in another city, and rented a nice flat for long enough to move in weeks early, and stay on after the job was over. The flat was similar to the one I’d grown up in, but with a bathroom – ideal for a single person, in fact, rather than seven. I did have sober nights there but they were self-conscious, tense, deprived, acts of will. The job was a great success and I knew if B and I were to sell our house, I’d be able to buy a similar flat there outright and have plenty left over. But I also knew I wanted to be with B, if she’d have me, and she suggested couples counselling. I agreed with trepidation, expecting all the blame to fall on me. In fact, counselling gave us greater understanding of ourselves and each other, and brought us closer than we’d ever been, and still I went on drinking. I didn’t want to take nights off, or only drink at weekends, or just have two glasses. Wine was my dependable release, reward, and consolation – in theory. That it often failed to deliver in practice was not to be examined.
A friend, champion, and frequent employer of mine died suddenly. I couldn’t get to his funeral, but I went later to a memorial gathering at a place we’d worked together. Hundreds attended, in a large space that turned out not to have been designed with those numbers in mind. It was early afternoon and wine was being served. I’d never been much into drinking in the day, partly because it spoiled the pleasure of drinking at night. But, I had a couple of glasses of wine, feeling wide awake and sober. Then during the speeches, there was a commotion to my left and two older people were on the floor. A friend who was nearer the action turned to me and said, ‘Get help.’ By that time, we were on the far side of the room from where we’d entered, but I assumed there’d be at least a fire-exit on this side. I went the length of that side of the room – no exit of any kind. I found a door at the rear of the room that turned out to lead to a supply cupboard. Access back to where we’d come in was blocked along the rear by the crowd and a temporarily-installed sound desk, so I went down to the front, near where someone quite grand was making a speech and looked at the mass of people I’d have to fight through to get help. I figured whatever I did would cause a disturbance and I’d wasted enough time, so I interrupted the speaker with a variation on the classic Is there a doctor in the house? There wasn’t, but help was summoned and the event resumed. Afterwards, I saw the elderly actor who’d collapsed being hauled out by four people – one on each limb – as if over rubble from a destroyed building. There really had been only one exit for a gathering of hundreds of people, many of them over 60 – a fire could have been catastrophic. But I sensed afterwards – and this could be paranoia – that the feeling was I’d overreacted. People wouldn’t have been aware that neither the room nor the safety arrangements were appropriate to the numbers who’d gathered. It bugged me. Had my decision been affected by alcohol? Had I been noticably under the influence? Even if my reaction had been over-cautious was it because of alcohol or a tendency to fear the worst? One person, who I respected, commended what I’d done, but I had a nagging feeling he was in a minority. One thing I was sure of was alcohol muddied the waters, even for me. I did not like being unable to judge my own behaviour. Of course, this had been an issue before – all drug-takers come up against it – but rarely so publicly. I went on drinking, mind.
But I went on thinking, too. What kind of person did I want to be in five years’ time? I’d been considered youthful well into middle-age. Years of running and yoga meant I was fitter than I’d been in my first three, smoky decades. I felt young. Fifty-four was the new forty-three, but I was undeniably getting on however I dressed it up it. Would I become an embarrassment to my children? To myself? A liability? If my children had children would they feel safe leaving them with me? And how much pleasure did I get from drinking anymore? How often did alcohol actually deliver the carefree release with which so much money has been spent associating it?
In 2017, I was filming in another strange city. Alcohol had always come into its own when I was working away. Empty rooms in Bucharest, Birmingham or Beirut were far less daunting when I had two bottles of decent red waiting for me. I would very rarely drink two but one wasn’t quite enough for peace of mind – one-and-a-quarter was sensible, one-and-a-half acceptable. Just knowing the drugs were there allowed me to concentrate on the work, and having no one around to monitor my self-medication was simpler. But on this job we had some night shoots and I thought I’d take the opportunity afforded by not being able to drink on those evenings to try, yet again, to nudge my relationship with alcohol towards moderation. I knew another actor in the cast who’d been a big drinker and party-animal but had recently, and happily, given it up. We were knocking about at Unit Base, having a laugh, waiting to be called to set, when he said of himself, ‘It’s amazing what happens when you let go of something.’ I had a flash of belief that it could be true for me, too, though he later told me that was unintentional.
Several months, and another few jobs, down the line, B was working away, the girls were off doing their own, grown-up things, and I was between jobs. I knew I found it easiest of all not to drink when I was home alone and not working – my own patch, no one to witness any struggles, and no timetable to make insomnia a big problem; I could read all night and sleep in the day. I searched online and gave The Easy Way To Control Alcohol a try.
Less than two days later, I had my 11am fingers of neat gin (which I suspect would taste horrible now but went down okay at the time). As I didn’t habitually drink during the day, I had to wait till 6pm to feel like I was really abstaining. I walked the local streets and park to distract myself. I was anxious, but I did have an inkling it was unfounded. When B got back ten days later she soon realised I wasn’t drinking but, typically, I didn’t want to talk about it, in case my balance was delicate. I had in mind, simultaneously, that I would stop for six months, in the hope, again, of changing my relationship with alcohol; and that I would stop for good, as moderation would never be possible for me – one drink always led to another and I did not believe I had the will-power to stop at one or two of an evening, night after night, for the rest of my life. That sounded like a sentence, and I wanted freedom. Knowing I’d freed myself from nicotine with no regrets, and with the benefit of all the Quit Lit mentioned above, I began to believe I could do the same with alcohol – that addiction is addiction. That I could, as Annie Grace wrote, have as many drinks as I wanted, just as I already smoked as many cigarettes as I wanted – none.
If you’d told me then that within a few weeks I’d sit at tables where alcohol was being passed around and enjoyed by others with no desire to join in myself, I’d have found it very difficult to believe. It is surprising but true that having got pretty much drunk, pretty much every night, for thirty years, I left alcohol behind with barely a glance back. After decades of wrangling, there were a few days of unease and that was that, apart from those brief pangs about not being able to drink in some future situation where we’ve learned alcohol is essential: opening-night cocktail, wedding-toast champagne, holiday-sunset beer. Those difficulties haven’t arisen. Opening nights are peculiar events whether muddled by cocktails or not. Wishing people well isn’t aided by addictive poison, however bubbly. The sun sets very nicely without lager. The chief pleasure of a beautiful sunset for the drinker is that your powerful yearning for a Peroni is deemed appropriate. And if clouds roll in to spoil the view, all the more reason to have a beer, as if the sunset weren’t really the essential here. Many of us can be relied upon to want another. Then white, or straight to red?
I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to reach this alcohol-free chapter. I regret not making the change earlier but I just didn’t think I could – and believing is key. Most addicts dream of happy moderation and most addicts are kidding themselves on. I hope I have longer than the three years Dad had left at my age – maybe another thirty before I start to feel as worn out as he was. If I’d had his life, I’d have found it very difficult to stay out of the pub, too. I don’t think I could have borne eighty-four years of Mum’s life and I hope she’s got another, happier one to come, as promised. I think John did at least have some very good times in his brief appearance, even if they caught up with him. When I was thirty-seven, my children were five and three, and I’m very glad to have seen them grow up.
B drinks, our children drink, my friends drink, I pour my in-laws drinks. I order our wine because I’m still a member of a good wine club. I do choose not to drink like I choose not to smoke. I’m glad of it, I wouldn’t change it, but I don’t think about it much. I’m free of it. Of course, anyone can go back to alcohol, but none of the 1,273 days since my release have been haunted by the spectre of relapse. Maybe I’ll drink in the future but I don’t expect to (and I do expect the place of alcohol in British life will change radically). Lots of us turn to booze to help the transition from work to relaxation, and I can still feel uneasy in the early evening, but the transition happens anyway, and there’s nothing to fear in it taking a little longer. Time passes at its own sweet pace whether I want it to speed up or stand still – so I just let it go.
Copyright Paul Higgins
All rights reserved.
#recovery #sobriety #alcoholfree #thisnakedmind #easywaytocontrolalcohol #unexpectedjoyofbeingsober #thebubblehour #unbrokenbrain