I never thought I’d hear those words come out of my mouth. I suppose nobody ever does. They come fast and fluid, like water dribbling down my mouth. I still don’t know how I felt as I said them, a little apprehensive and tense, maybe. I’d been sitting in the meeting, asking myself what I was doing there. That I was a fool. That I wasn’t really an alcoholic. But I knew that wasn’t true. I felt no pride in saying those words, only remorse at being my age and having to say them, and mean them.
In High School we were given a talk as a part of our PSHE curriculum, on the dangers of alcohol and alcoholism. The speaker talked of how they couldn’t get through the day without a drink and soon everything around them collapsed. We all thought we were far away from that, joking and laughing about it during and after the presentation. We were given some interactive bits to fiddle with, each of us seeing if we could walk in a straight line with the beer goggles on. We all could, we said with pride.
The day I attended a meeting I googled the location of local meetings. There was one that night, starting at 7PM close by. At half six I was pacing my flat, convincing myself that I didn’t need to go, that I had work to do, that I was tired. Eventually, jacketed and with headphones placed firmly in my ears, I headed out. This was it. No heading back now, I remember thinking. What was awaiting me? Were the movies I’d seen true? Do you really all sit in a circle and say you’re alcoholics and just drone on? I didn’t know what awaited me.
What drove me to a meeting was that I was aware that if I achieved X amount of time in the dry, arid land of sobriety, then I could get cocky. I could imagine myself thinking, yes, I’ll just have the one drink. I can handle it now. I know that wouldn’t be the case. I’d get plastered and that would be that. So, I felt, I needed the reminder, a small pin prick telling me why I can’t do that, and what I lose if I do. That isn’t to say I went with the intention of being savage to myself, or beating myself up too much.
You never stop being an alcoholic. Bill W., one of the co-founders of AA, begged for alcohol on his death bed, which he was denied. The temptation, at least for me, never goes away. You merely learn to manage it and take control, not allowing the inclination to drive. You’re acutely aware that you could slip back, off the precipice you’re always staring down, at any second. It’s easily done and only takes mere seconds. The first drink does the damage, as they say in AA.
Every day I walk the same narrow corridor to the bar that used to be my pilgrimage, my stairway to peace and harmony. Only it didn’t take long for this gate to truly reveal itself for what it was – a black hole, consuming and crushing all matter in the vicinity of it. I could tell you the name of every bar on the university campus and in town. K-Bar, Mungos, Origins, to name a few. Mungo’s charged twenty pence more for vodka and cokes, and K-Bar was the only bar that served black/white Russians. Vodka and Coke was £2.80 for a half pint, so I’d simply throw tenners and fivers at the bartenders and they’d bring me pints of vodka and coke. If I’d started early I’d often feel my drunkenness wearing off, and would order doubles to make up the shortfall. It was just over four pounds or so for white or black Russians. I wish I didn’t still know all this, yet I do.
K-Bar was emblematic, and a stone’s throw away from me. The most agonising walk I’ve ever taken was the walk to that bar. The first drink would relieve, and inevitably deepen, depressive/suicidal thoughts and feelings. It took a chunk of time I didn’t like and simply erased it. I couldn’t have asked for something better. K-Bar was dark, dank and either empty or jam packed. It was furbished crudely, with steel bar stools and couches with ripped leather placed around the room. Two pool tables were parallel to one another in the larger, social area of the bar which I never frequented. I came to recognize the faces of the bar tenders, the young faces, laced with prickly stubble, and the old ones, used to seeing me and serving me with a zeal I could never fathom.
There was no hiding in K-Bar. Nights often started and ended there. No hiding behind the veneer of respectability and university socials, no hiding behind art deco furniture and TVs on the wall. Here you could only see yourself, and I never liked what I saw. How did I eliminate this feeling of shame? Drink more and more until I black out or simply drop down dead. That was always the plan anyway. As I enacted my slow suicide again and again, night after night, the faces around me changed. Sometimes the bars would be empty, sometimes a group of people in suits would form in a circle and take part in a ritual that looked as though it belonged to some ancient cult. Friends, family and lovers all crowded around tables, all staring into the pitchers they’ve just ordered, laughing, joking and holding conversations that mattered and that they inevitably wouldn’t remember.
Yet, every so often, I’d recognize a fellow regular. Never drinking alone like me, but drinking in a group or in a social setting enough for me to notice. My eyes would meet theirs and we’d exchange a silent, sad look. The look that says we both know we’re going to get fucked up and regret it royally in the morning, but that we don’t care. We don’t know what else to do and we’re trying to do the best we can. We believe we’re good people, but we’re not sure if we buy into that myth just yet. We hate ourselves on a level other people just can’t comprehend. We feel like parasites, gorging on our hosts until they rip us off their skin, or until we’re satisfied, ready to jump into oblivion.
I would often begin my circuit at K-Bar. Each night (and often in the day) I did a circuit of the university bars, which ran in order of location in relation to where I was. First K-Bar, then Mungos’, then Origins, at the other side of campus. I would then reverse the order and go again, repeating this pattern all night long. This would often involve a sabbatical at the cash machine, where I would drunkenly withdraw as much money as I could to fuel the circuitry. More often than not I would spend seventy pounds a night and often more than that. Obviously, if allowed to continue for long enough I would have bankrupted myself or simply died.
The other bars shut at eleven P.M., but K-Bar was often open until midnight, perfect for when I got desperate and the night was dark, cold and dragging along like a cadaver. I often stumbled in ten minutes to last call, determined to have as many drinks as I could stomach in the time before the bar closed. I’d slip out as the bar was being cleaned. I’d often come back after having done a few circuits, with my empty glasses still being there from when I’d left before. The glasses would stare at me like totems from a forgotten age. An age that seemed far away and that I’d already blocked out.
Sometimes I’d see people I’d obviously met the night before, when I was drinking in the day. One instance stands out. I was in a university bar at lunch time, thoroughly drunk as I was at the end of the circuit, and about to begin another as I felt my world (and drunkenness) was slipping away. A couple flagged me down and said hello, I vaguely remembered meeting them the night before in a bar. We get to talking and they’re eating and I sit unashamedly with my vodka and coke pints. “What’re you here for?” they ask. They look down at my drink. “The drinks huh?” I look down and drink. I don’t look them in the eye. We sit in the sad silence as everyone knows what’s happening, especially me. It was the elephant in the room, and we all knew it. They knew I was in the bar day and night. They knew. What they didn’t know was the mental health issues, the suicide attempts and the way my nights would end, stumbling into my dormitory room armed with alcohol from the university shop, aching for oblivion.
A friend of mine told me one night about a flat that was always guaranteed for a party. If I ever got desperate, if the bars were closed and the university shop was shut, this was the last resort. I knew that if I ever went there I would die. I would die in an alcohol fuelled frenzy. I knew if I ever went there I would die. The flats existence hung over me like tantalising fruit. I considered it many times, and often got to the door. For some reason, I never went in and instead clung to the cold.
All of this was pushing against my brain in my meeting, the geysers were about to burst. Bizarrely, half way through my first AA meeting, I doubted if I was in the right place. Was I really an alcoholic? Or was I simply a student who liked a drink, as everyone assumed? My anxiousness as to whether I was in the right place or needed AA were quickly squashed. I was given a questionnaire that contains twenty questions. If you answer yes to three of them you’re almost certainly an alcoholic. I scored seventeen or more, if I remember correctly. It was settled then. I’m an alcoholic at nineteen, I remember thinking to myself. Oh boy.
I was resistant to AA for a fair few reasons. I was very wary of taking the twelve steps as gospel, it reignited an anti-authoritarian and rebellious attitude that I long thought was a remnant. As a university student I’m sceptical of virtually any theory or concept that I’m presented with, ever ready to criticise anything that’s handed to me. The wording of some steps made me uncomfortable too. Such as Step One: Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, it begins. I wasn’t comfortable with this. It felt as though by admitting I’m powerless, I exonerate myself of responsibility for my actions. The later steps are also littered with religious language and mentions of a deity, which people often reconfigure in a new age way to simply mean whatever they’re comfortable with. Many, however, aren’t comfortable with this. And that’s fine, you’re under no obligation to follow a twelve step program. You can come for the conversation and the support, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can come once and never come again. It’s no strings attached and it’s up to you. These are semantic problems that I’m still figuring out, and only time will tell where I end up intellectually with them, or if I adhere to a twelve step program or simply forge my own way.
So, how do I feel about all this? I’m sad that it happened but it is what it is, it happened, end of story. Being my age and having this problem is somewhat isolating, but the same is also true of mental health issues. It’s isolating, monolithic but also true, and thus it must be said, regardless of how much I wish it was not the case.