The Longest Hangover: 23 Years as an Alcoholic
I woke up in a cold bath. My neck was stiff and hurting, but it soon became clear that I wasn't dead. This wasn't supposed to happen. On the third go, I thought I had assured my demise by drinking as much vodka and smoking as much heroin as I could manage, and then getting into a hot bath. This time was supposed to be IT.
It became too cold to stay in the bath, so I went into the living room. I walked around naked for a while, and then slumped on the loo, mission aborted. I had been very, very lucky, but, even in this early morning haze, I knew something had switched in my head, and I was now on a mission to rebuild my entire life.
My third suicide attempt came at the end of a three-year period where pretty much everything that could go wrong had done so. My nomadic housing situation was an embarrassing disaster and had, in itself, driven me almost to a breakdown, I had been dumped by an agent who had been unable to sell my third novel, my health was ropey, I didn't have a penny to my name, and, if all that weren't bad enough, I couldn't even get myself admitted to a mental hospital.
After two years of this, I met a man who was a troubled soul, a coke addict and an alcoholic, who took me on lots of holidays in return for which I supplied sex on demand and an enormous amount of therapy. Suntan aside, I paid a very heavy price for this relationship. When I discovered the extent of his dishonesty -- the receipts, the condoms -- I unravelled for the last time, not helped by the amount of cocaine I was taking. I look back and cringe at my total lack of self-respect, and anyone might have thought I was determined to destroy myself. But let's remember: like guns, alcohol and drugs don't kill people -- people kill people.
I'm well aware that a person can be a problem drinker without ever touching illegal substances, but for me, and millions of others, alcohol was the ultimate "gateway drug". Although, bizarrely, I lost my virginity sober, I didn't have sober sex for another 23 years , and every other new substance or behaviour I tried was done while cushioned in alcohol. People do more sexual, narcotic, or violent things under the influence of booze than anything else. It's the sheer weight of numbers that I can't get over.
I just don't know why governments don't do anything about all the crime that's committed, day in and day out, which, without alcohol in the mix, simply wouldn't happen. Alcohol is, exponentially, an bigger gateway drug than cannabis has ever been or ever will be, and it's about time that the Government woke up and stopped wasting everyone's time with the "war on drugs", which is about as nonsensical as the "war on terror". And now it's January, official "wagon" month in the modern British citizen's calendar. Everybody's doing what they spend the rest of the year talking about -- giving up alcohol and other intoxicants. People are desperately proud of their January abstinence, not least because this excessive self-denial will entitle them to party all the harder come 1 February.
I remember one of these parties, called Candle Massive by the hosts, in homage to the religious festival. The day leading up to that party sums up my final drinking years pretty well. I got up in the morning incredibly depressed and desperate to talk to someone, but turned up for my appointment at the mental health unit only to be told I had got the wrong day. Reception claimed that this was my fault, and, when I protested, the security guard stepped forward in that staggeringly inappropriate way they do in hospitals. This being the NHS, there was, of course, not a respite counsellor. I nearly, so nearly, threw myself under an ambulance. In the evening I did a spoken-word gig at the ICA, where one of my fellow performers cunningly stepped on to the stage while I was reaching the climax of my piece, spoiling the effect completely. Afterwards, at pay time, the promoter made a great show of writing another performer's cheque away from where I could see the amount.
I got to the party at midnight, where a social worker sat on the bed, blissfully hugging a mirror laden with all manner of powders and pills, and teachers, lawyers and media types craned over all the available flat surfaces, and took it in turns with a straw. Sometime in the early morning, when our noses were crusted and we were all shouting, a man told a group of us girls that he would give us each a line of Charlie in return for a lick of our you-know-whats. Without a second thought, we formed a queue.
There was no way I was going to give up my only source of pleasure in life. How do you give up alcohol for good, in our culture -- a culture where people rush to the bar like starving animals at any opportunity, and where celebration and ritual have been completely obliterated in the name of -- what?
Like so many other people, my childhood has a lot to do with what led me to alcohol. While mine was not nearly as extreme as that chronicled by Dave Pelzer in A Child Called It, or Constance Briscoe's, or Julie Gregory, whose mother had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, it damaged me enough that it has taken me this long to get over it.
The unifying theme of my childhood was that I was second best to some nameless entity, which varied according to the nearest and most appropriate example. I often wondered if there was a lost child somewhere in my mother's past; a botched back-street abortion, or a baby given away. "Oh, I wish we had a boy -- a lovely clever boy with black curly hair who was musical and good at sports!", my mother once said to me, apropos of nothing, before I went to school. This was typical of her remarks; that I would never make it in life, that I would never have a boyfriend, that I was simply useless, and always using the same taunting facial expression, tinged with theatrical wistfulness. In fact, my hair was brown and straight, and I considered school sports to be torture.
I swallowed the lot as if it was my birthright. There was no escaping it, as I grew up an only child in a little hothouse of bad-tempered misery and resentment, where people rarely visited, on the edge of a small Midlands town. Bitter, screaming parental rows were commonplace, and then terrible silences, all choreographed by my mother. I never truly fought back to her, which I regret.
Home was where I first drank alcohol, but only in small amounts. Aged 14 everything changed gear. My friends and I would sit in the park with rum, vodka and Martini. I always got served in pubs, because I was tall. But I never kept cider in my room, nor went to school pissed. Not ever.
I went to Paris in my year off and one day got so drunk on cheap rum that I tried, one lunch time, to cut myself in the shower. At university I learnt to spend money that wasn't mine. I was hung over nearly every day and hated every minute of my time there, despite my presence at many, many parties. And then I lurched into my twenties, the decade that I would really, really like back.
At 24, every day was the same. I would wake up at 4am with a head full of horror, and then fall asleep half an hour before it was time to get up.
Often I could barely remember my own name, let alone the name of the newspaper I was working for. I would sweat on to my silk shirt, and have to keep my leather jacket on to hide the patches. There was none of the sense of the sophistication that Caroline Knapp talks about in "Drinking: A Love Story", about being a career woman who comes home and has a glass of chilled white wine out of the fridge. When I left work, I was so stressed that I swore at people on the Tube, thumped car bonnets, grabbed the nearest bottle of red out of Oddbins, and swigged it straight out of the bottle.
I should stress that alcohol never turned me into another person. I did not become especially loud, hilarious, or violent. Instead, alcohol made me feel normal, OK to be with, as if I belonged. For much of my twenties I struggled with a mixture of suicidal misery and furious anger the moment I woke up in the morning. It left me drained, and failing miserably in everything I did, including getting help with what was an increasingly debilitating depression.
I became, taboo-busting though it is to admit, a victim. So-called friends became predators, and relationships were barely worth the name. Drink was my most loyal associate.
Then along came cocaine, and, a couple of years later, heroin.
There were good times -- some really good times, so good that I have forgotten the details. Sometimes what started as fun ended up as tears. One night, a group of us had dinner, danced round the rug, and then started having sex with each other. Flatmate sex is really not a good idea. Four of us made it to my bed, where one friend copped off with a guy who'd just moved in, and I, to my great amusement, tried it on with the other male flatmate, who had been playing games with me for weeks. He was totally unable to perform, and slunk away to rant in the living room.
To my even greater delight, he crept up to me a few days later and actually apologised. Time proved that the joke was on me. Not only did I pick up Something Nasty, which they all denied giving me, but I ended up with a septic nipple. It was agonisingly painful, and kept getting stuck to the sheet. Finally it got so sore that I went to casualty, on a Saturday morning, for "proper" painkillers. It was a mark of my then remaining, and totally sincere, naivety that the hospital actually gave me some.
My 30th birthday came and went. I remember lying in a bath, in a gentle rush of ecstasy, watching the growing line of cigarette ash on my chest and then fending off a voracious German stripper who got very cross that I had spurned her embrace in favour of a huge fluffy dressing gown. My thirties was when I abandoned the mainstream and headed for south London. I actually had more fun with the Brixton crowd than any other. But, despite going out partying for hours, what I was really looking forward to was getting home afterwards, however late, for a "proper" session. Just me and my boyfriend, a pile of drugs, a couple of bottles, and 40 cigarettes. Nothing beat it.
Not even sex.
For my professional-women friends, partying was like a battlefield. It needed meticulous planning, careful strategy, and endless, often sanctimonious, post-mortems. I had a lot of fun, but all my energy was going into showing everyone how much fun I was having. I wish I'd shown someone the other side of me, just once. A few weeks in the Priory (the Hoover, the Biro, of recovery clinics) might have set me off on a better road. But without the funds, I could forget that. As I walked sadly away from yet another clinical assessment, to wait weeks or months for a letter, I often wondered, prophetically as it turned out, how many times you have to tell supposed mental health professionals that you are suicidal.
I began to reach a point where I had no idea where I was going. I was a sitting target for a man with money to burn, a rack of problems, and a party habit. Life became a whirligig of international travel and coke-fests. How could I say no, when all I had at home was a stalled life, no money, and old junkie blood-spatter on the ceiling?
Given what I was allowing to happen to me, it is really no surprise that any guardian angels had probably abandoned me in disgust. Two days before my birthday, after I had woken up crying, and my bathroom mirror had spontaneously cracked all the way across, I went to the casualty department of a prominent west London hospital, one that has subsequently been revealed to have had some problems in the area of mental health. The nurse talked to me for two hours, and then packed me off home with the suggestion that I have a bath and a cup of tea. I went on to make three suicide attempts in the next two weeks.
I gave up drinking for good on 12 September 2002. The earth did not crack open and give forth fire-breathing three-headed dogs, no trumpets sounded in the sky, and I didn't get a telegram from the Queen. I tried Alcoholics Anonymous because lots of people said I should, but it didn't work out. Disturbingly, a well-known media figure, who is a recovering alcoholic, refused to give a cover quote for this book, not because they thought it was bad (they didn't, apparently), but they felt it was critical of AA. This appalled me. That kind of collusion, that kind of self-censorship, is simply wrong, and no one can persuade me otherwise.
For the record, AA has helped many, but it was not for me. I had work to do on myself. When I was newly sober, I wasn't interested in anyone else's problems. I had basic survival to think about. And there was too much tormented male sexual energy in the counselling rooms that I saw to be any kind of a safe space, especially for a woman. The 12 Steps in themselves are useful, and can be applied to almost any situation in life, but you don't have to be "in the programme" to do them. I'm aware that what I'm saying is terrible heresy. But I'm disturbed by the fact that some long-term members take on a faintly creepy mantle of priesthood that is intolerable to be around; the same kind of people who told me that my sobriety "wasn't real" because I hadn't been going to meetings.
The moment I decided to give up drinking, I put sex and relationships firmly on the back-burner, taking what amounted to a vow of celibacy. It was partly my lack of boundaries in relationships -- pardon my occasional descent in to therapy-speak -- that had got me where I was. I was fed up of having my energy drained by other people and I was determined to go it alone. So it's quite ironic that my first paid work after sobering up was a sex-advice column for Time Out. I am very, very grateful to them for giving me a break when I was still barely off the floor. As time passed, the celibacy outlived itself, and I began having relationships again. It's hard to find a sober or nearly-sober man, and I have been very lucky to find one.
Because I had such a diverse group of friends, there was no heavy peer pressure to keep drinking, and I was very lucky in that. Many, I well know, are not. Some friends, of course, fell by the wayside -- basically, anyone who I could only tolerate when drunk. The reverse also applied. For some people I had become a reliable rent-a-party -- never rude, always friendly, still on the sofa the next day, and good company for a teatime breakfast and a bit of early evening telly before getting the bus home.
There was one couple, in particular, who I always had a laugh with, at least when it was just us three together. At industry parties, however, the man would laugh nervously when he saw me, before scuttling over to stand with the pals that he bitched about at length in private.
It stung a little more when, at a party they gave for another writer, he confided to me that he was very glad I'd come, because "it showed the literary crowd that he wasn't scared to have someone like me there".
You'd think they would have been delighted to see me sober -- after all, our chief topic of conversation had always been giving up things. I was baffled, then, when my joyful "Wagon update!" e-mails were not returned.
Actually, once sober, I didn't find going to parties very difficult. I was on too much of a mission to think about being nervous, and by then I was far too good at putting a face on in public anyway. The weirdest thing about being sober is that my time became entirely my own. Sober, you can't change time the way you can when drunk or on drugs. Sobriety forces you to fall back on your own resources. And I don't have to choreograph my life around hangovers any more.
However, as with so much in life, the real problem is other people. One major piece of advice that I must impart -- for the general joy and well-being of the newly sober, and to safeguard the noses of those who have just been introduced to them -- do not, on being told by someone that they have just given up drinking, ask them if there was a "problem". It is the stupidest, most insensitive, dim-witted thing you can possibly say.
A person may have given up the booze for all sorts of horrible reasons -- they may have lost their house, partner, health, children, job, gone bankrupt, had a breakdown, tried to kill themselves, or ended up in prison (or all of the above). "Of course there was a fucking problem!" And, unless they choose to volunteer the information, it is nobody else's business what it was.
Despite all the misery, when pushed I have always been a stubborn cuss, and am unlikely to let anyone bully me into drinking again, but I am as susceptible as any woman to media pressure. Even supposedly responsible newspapers promote, without irony, face creams that cost what a family of four could live on for a week, and handbags whose price-tag would cover the deposit on a small flat. Combined with the hum of incitement to go under the surgeon's knife, it is these insidious pressures that sometimes make me think that going out and lying in a pool of your own vomit is actually quite radical. Booze makes you fat, and look awful in the morning, and while you're lying in bed with the three squaddies you picked up in the pub, you're not out making money so that you can buy pointless crap. Brilliant!
I loved getting drunk, and I miss it. But while I was doing it, I was numbing myself to my problems, some of which were personal, but others very much cultural. Women, rich or poor, are not doing themselves any good by going out and getting plastered every night, and giving their money to drinks conglomerates. I suggest that everyone goes on the wagon for three months, and perhaps more of us will wake up to the fact that women still earn less than men, and yet are pressured twice as hard to spend our money and change ourselves according to an ever-changing, and ever-plummeting, set of values. Despite the near-constant commentary about female behaviour when drunk, a sober woman makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and it's time we had a lot more of that, I reckon.
Above all, we live in a society where the greatest taboo, the greatest transgression, is contentment. By stopping drinking and standing back from the hysteria of my previous life, I broke that taboo. I'm still breaking it.