Me? Alcoholic? Never

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I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether this is the right thing to write on the internet or not. However, in recent months I’ve had the good fortune to have met and worked with some incredibly inspiring people – people with stories to tell that really help others to come to terms with the difficulties and struggles that they’re going through.

I’ve written before about the anxiety and depression I’ve battled most of my adult life (you can read that here), and thankfully, judging by the responses I’ve received since then, that post seems to have given hope to one or two people come to terms with their situation.

This one somehow feels a bit more personal, however. There’s not a lot to admire in what I’m about to scribble down. I’m doing it because I’ve realised how readily I tend to brush my non-drinking off as not being a big issue. I guess I haven’t really been telling the truth about how bad things got – not to me, not to anyone.

I’ve decided to right that wrong because I know other people will be just as low, just as confused, filled with just as much self-hatred as I was. 12 years on, things are much better for me and (thankfully) for the people around me. I caused them so much anguish, for which I’m truly sorry. But here I am, keen for you to know that alcohol-dependency, whatever it form it takes, whatever level it reaches, can be beaten.

It seems that denial, on the other hand, can linger.

I always claimed I wasn’t an alcoholic. As recently as two months ago, 12 years after quitting, I was still telling myself that. It may be that I was right all along, but at the time there was no such thing as the #SoberCurious movement – nobody to point out that alcohol dependency isn’t an either/or situation. There are different stages that it can reach, and it clearly affects people in myriad ways. At one point, I looked into the 12-step programme, concluding ultimately that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel I’d reached the necessary depths. There was still some way to go. It somehow justified a celebratory return to the bar.

The author Ruby Warrington is very succinct on this point, but I want to underline it. The word ‘alcoholic’ is insufficient in describing alcohol dependency. It’s not enough to say you are or you aren’t. For many, waiting until they fit the right category is simply waiting until it’s too late.

Still, I had to work with the tools at hand. Like so many people, I had a mental checklist that proved I wasn’t an alcoholic. That checklist, and who it applied to, changed according to my condition. Our true selves exist somewhere within a collection of stories – a mixture of truths, half-recalled memories and complete fabrications that rise and fall without our control, distorting the view.

I told myself I wasn’t alcoholic because I didn’t wake up in the morning wanting alcohol. That’s it. That was my reasoning.

Here are some of the things I did do while awake and drinking. It’s not pretty and there’s certainly nothing here that I’m proud of, other than the fact that I (with the help of very loving friends and an extraordinary wife) brought it to a halt. I’m about to describe really unpleasant behaviour, and at the time, while I knew my drinking was becoming an issue, I didn’t think I behaved like this because of my dependency. I didn’t even think I was dependent. In my waking hours, I just thought I was a really unpleasant person. I hated myself. So I drank to try and climb above it all – to bring out Fun Jon.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work.

From an early age, I’d wake to find I’d done things I no longer remembered. At about 19 years old, there was the inexplicable writing in lipstick on the mirror and across my chest – a great story for the next pub session, but a mystery to this day. Then there was the time, a few years later, when I came too to find my wife’s best friend running from the spare room as I lay down next to her stark naked, whispering sweet nothings (not even aware I was in the wrong bed) in her direction. Funny, right? I dined out on that last one for years, too, convinced that these stories were to be celebrated – not noticing that the people around me were looking increasingly worried.

Case in point: there was the time I went out drinking in Wales and woke up on someone’s floor in Dublin. Nobody other than me seemed to know I was there. I don’t recall how I managed to get from one country, across the sea to another. In the retelling of that story, I call it “The Height Of My Drinking Career”. Such a card.

But these aren’t particularly unusual tales, are they? Sure, there’s an international border to navigate in one of them, but they’re essentially harmless. Embarrassments, maybe. Nobody was at any real risk.

How about this, then?

Whilst living in Japan, where it’s perhaps more normal to see families out in Izakaya bars, I’d take my toddler son drinking with me, telling myself that people would think it cute that a grown man and his lovely child were out together at midnight. He’d sit on the bar, people would take photos, everyone would be happy. And I’d get to drink. Sorted.

I encouraged that same boy to bring me beer from the fridge. He called it “Daddy Juice”. I’d tell everyone that and they’d laugh. I don’t know if they laughed nervously. I was too caught up in the story… and the Daddy Juice.

I would drink myself into a depressed stupor, phone my wife and tell her I was going to sleep on the beach. She’d find me asleep on the patio the next morning, having scoured the beach assuming I’d washed out to sea. I would spend the rest of the day cursing the fact that I’d not been brave enough to sleep on the beach. I longed to be washed out to sea.

I’d wake to find things were broken. Not myself, necessarily, or even (thankfully) other people, but things around me. I once woke to find two holes in the walls either side of the toilet. On arriving home, I sat there drunk, furious with myself for being drunk again, and decided to put my head through the wall. Twice. Once in either wall. I know this because my wife was awoken by the banging and found me (and the wall) in a state of distress. We spent the following morning trying to concoct a story to explain the skull-sized holes when her parents came over for lunch. We said I’d fallen awkwardly when drunk. We lived by that story until today. This is the first time I’ve told anybody else.

But there’s also the time I fell asleep in a taxi and was driven to a town on the other side of the country, returning at dawn the next day to sheepishly persuade my long-suffering wife that there was a £400 taxi bill to be paid outside. She dealt with that while I cowered in shame under my blankets. Somehow, she’s still with me. I don’t know how or why. I owe her so very much.

In the last year of my drinking life, I was so desperate not to drink alone that I’d implore others to stay up until the wee hours, convinced that I was some kind of walking (staggering, flailing) Party Central. On a handful of occasions, one friend got so blisteringly drunk he could barely stand… and then he drove home, because I assured him he’d be fine. Now, I can’t claim all of the stupidity in this story for myself – clearly, it took two drunks to egg each other on. But I certainly wasn’t clear-minded enough to see the danger, and I was an enabler rather than the good friend I should’ve been.

Thankfully, that chap is still with us, and in the end he was a huge figure in helping me off my dependency. He knows who he is, and he knows how much I respect and love him. His own drinking story came to a head when he decided to ride home one drunken evening, hit a wall and broke his jaw in two places. He was so far gone that it wasn’t until he woke the next morning, in understandable agony, that he realised a trip to the hospital might be in order. I’m eternally thankful that he got off so lightly.

The month following my 30th birthday marked the change. I heard myself telling my mother-in-law that I was giving up drinking… lager. I had apparently made up my mind that I was sticking to vodka from that point onwards. It was better for me, I’d decided. Less liquid. Less calories.

I heard all of that almost as though I was listening to a disembodied voice, which wasn’t in itself unusual. Most of what I said over the previous few months I’d experienced in that way. I was increasingly experiencing something called depersonalisation disorder – I was no longer convinced I was actually here; that any of this was real. Whole nights were blacked out from my memory. Glimpses would flash back in such tiny fragments that they were impossible to piece together. My heart was constantly missing beats. I was in a permanent state of anxiety.

Eventually, I ended up in hospital, the doctors fitting me with a Holter monitor and dropping rather heavy hints that I ought to stop drinking. My heart was beating so irregularly, as if struggling to deal with the constant stew I was asking my body to churn through, that one doctor told me, “I can’t guarantee it’ll keep pumping through the night.” Of course he can’t, I thought. Nobody can guarantee that. It’s not that the hint flew over my head – more that I chose to close my eyes and duck. 

But of course I wasn’t an alcoholic. I didn’t drink in the morning. How could I be?

I was inspired to write this blogpost by two people: a writer called Catherine Grey, and a journalist/ podcaster called Ruby Warrington (who I had the chance to interview in a podcast I recently recorded, which you can listen to here). They reveal all in their books, and they do so to force the conversation forward – something I found hugely admirable, to say the least.

Catherine’s story is essentially one of survival, and I highly recommend it to anyone trying to deal with obsessive behaviour of any kind. Ruby’s book throws open fascinating questions about the nature of our relationship with alcohol – a drug that wouldn’t even be legalised if it came onto the market in the 21st century. Both are worth their weight in recycled paper. 

The photo at the top of this page was taken by my friend, Tristan Scholze. That was taken on a night out in Tenjin, Fukuoka, Japan. Yes, that’s me. No, I don’t know why I was down there.

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