I have never particularity liked the term alcoholic. Although I admit I am one, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what alcohol dependency really is. It’s a palatable label to encapsulate a group of people whose inability to deal with life is so desperate that they resort to numbing themselves permanently from its pressures and scrutiny. If you allow it to, the label can hang over you like a sordid and shameful secret, an admission of mental frailty and questionable moral fibre. Its stigma accentuates feelings of guilt and shame in the alcoholic which in turn exacerbates the condition.
I often try to sidestep it with all sorts of excuses; I’m allergic, it doesn’t agree with me, I don’t like the taste. Not in any way out of denial but because I fear the term “alcoholic” may deem me untrustworthy, unstable or unlovable. But like it or lump it, I have to accept that addiction has played a huge part in my life and I will be an alcoholic until the day I die. It is something that I have to address on a daily basis and, as I continue to rebuild my life, find some order and perspective from the chaos and misery that engulfed most of my adult life.
When I arrived in a treatment centre in December ’14, I was not really a person anymore. I had spent the previous couple of weeks sleeping rough in London with various runaways and other addicts. Not bad going for the middle class boy from the “big house” in the village. My mother and father wept as they handed me over to the nurses like a stray cat, tired of gnawing and hissing and just not present anymore. I was thirty one years old and my life, as I saw it, was over. I was stripped down and inspected thoroughly both for medical reasons and to ensure I wasn’t concealing anything about my person.
They could barely find a vain on my twig-like arms worthy of the amount of blood necessary to facilitate a full blood count. All I could think of was my ten year old self, running through the fields at the back of my house, golden Labrador alongside, joyous in youthful abandon and wondering where it all went so wrong. As an adolescent I began to become very cautious and wary of people which developed into what I can only describe as an extreme sensitivity to others. A throwaway comment from a fellow pupil would hang over me for weeks, months and years, feeding a neurosis of self doubt and insecurity.
Throughout my school years thoughts of inadequacy plagued me and tore away self confidence and self belief. You probably wouldn’t have noticed though for I was exceptional at keeping my cascading emotions safely under wraps. I was actually considered something of a class clown, playing up to the role impeccably to rapturous applause. And then that first drink at the age of fifteen. If there was a God, it came in liquid form. A cure, finally a cure for all this mental hardship. Nature or nurture, external or internal causality, I have no idea but I spent the next fifteen years in close proximity to the thing that didn’t make me feel so much anymore.
An addiction treatment centre is a strange old place full of crazy people. I was of course the only sane one there, the wrongly diagnosed Jack Nicolson. That pretence lasted only a few days I am pleased to say. After three or four days of eating hearty meals, being administered anti seizure medication that felt dreamlike and serene and getting a solid 8 hours sleep a night, I was cured and ready to return to society as a functioning member. However the doctors had other ideas, informing me I would be a resident for three months and that’s how long I stayed. Once you are weaned off alcohol and the shaking and nausea disappear, the real work begins. Drinking alcohol to the ludicrous quantities I had been was apparently evidence of larger behavioural problems I was told to my surprise.
I am still amazed now that I didn’t cotton on to the idea that alcohol wasn’t in fact the root of all my problems, I was. Over the following three months I worked hard, I threw myself into situations that I would previously have sneered at, I began to have clarity of thought and listened to my fellow addicts regaling devastating stories that made me feel like a phoney for my insignificant grievances. But most importantly I reconnected with tangible things that weren’t designed to be poured down the throat. Connections can have many different connotations in this day and age. Some will think of their internet processing speed, others that acquaintance who retweeted them but I am referring more to genuine human interactions. Addiction isolates by very definition and starves the addict of this most important life blood.
When my three months were up, I returned to my parent’s house and began a slow but deliberate rebuilding process. The love and understanding they showed in the early stages of recovery kept me safe and I will forever owe a debt of gratitude to my family and friends who kept me buoyant in those first few months. Things which seem commonplace to most, a visit to the cinema or to a restaurant, even a haircut, were at first a daunting prospect without the crutch of a swift swig of Russia’s least finest. But here I am in Oxford, in a cosy living room of a house I actually pay the rent on, in a job I love and that unusual feeling of connectivity. I attend Alcoholics Anonymous and will do for the rest of my days. Not because that’s what protocol dictates but because being able to talk freely about thoughts and feelings that previously would have spiralled into oblivion is a healthy and rational decision.
And why am I alive today? Because I’m a middle class boy from the “big house” in the village. It’s that simple. My time in treatment, time that so many hopeless cases like myself need, costs thousands. There is a lot of discussion as to whether or not alcoholism can be categorised as a disease as though by defining it we may be able to understand it better or treat it more effectively. The fact is, it kills people. By the thousands every year. Residential treatment centres have the best success rates by quite some distance but only the privileged have access to them. I like to take walks through Oxford late at night and it pains me to see the residents of shop doorways and alleys gulping at their last can of the night. I turned out alright because my parents had a spare £17,000 on them. It sounds a lot but it’s not too much for a life spared. Is it?