Saturday, 3 January 2009

A sober night out

I managed it without too much incident. Constructing the night as a bit of fun, a "first date", distracted from the overhanging knowledge this was the first time I'd been out for the night not planning to have a drink. We met in an old favourite, a pub which has just reopened but is full of memories, the vast majority based around drinking, naturally. The half of lemonade was sickly sweet, but it passed okay.

Three games of bowling down and the three glasses of wine are visible in her nature. I hate this bit. Not in her, but in me. I seem to become hypersensitive to all the signs of drunkenness in others when I'm out sober. It's probably why I've always felt too uncomfortable to do it; drunks irritate me in a million ways. My English sensibilities make me shy away from their exuberance and beg for a little dignity, but it's not forthcoming so I'm forced in the company of the sort of person I am not.

We ran into four of her friends in a quiet pub and a flash of panic kicked in - would this be the first time I'm fully exposed to a group of drunks? I'm not looking forward to it at all. Shouts and laughs from every direction and none of them making sense; I really want a drink to help me make sense of the noise, or at least just cut out the noise and help me focus on one. As it was, they were pretty sedate themselves, to the point where I was carrying the conversation - so much for sober reserve. If only the pounding headache would go, most likely a reaction to the awful sugariness of the lemonade. What else is there to drink? I feel like I have a hangover and all I've had is four lemonades.

We finished the night in a loud pub - a bad choice on my part. It's past midnight and the noise and the lights are feeling quite enough, and I feel my concentration drifting. Fewer and fewer thoughts are popping into my head and I begin to feel the first pangs of self-consciousness in a pub, as if I've a sign on my head making it clear I don't belong there. Time to go, I think. I'm sure the significance of the night hung in the air as we went our separate ways, but it went unmentioned and I'm happy about that. There are no words to really say about it all that don't just seem to attract unwanted attention.

It's only one night, but at least I've an idea what it's like being the designated driver now.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy new year

I was on the bus over on New Year's Eve, the last one from my side of town to hers. It would get me there at just the right time. I wasn't too keen on the whole thing to begin with - an hour or so with her friends, mostly middle-aged professionals or businesspeople, and her parents - but it was only the usual kind of head-sighing we all get. That heavy weight of resignation that you're doing something you don't want to, but for the greater good. Then I got a message... looking forward to it, fancy hairstyle, cocktails poured... cocktails poured... cocktails poured.

You know how images pop in your head, and stick? All I could see, wherever I looked, was a cocktail tray glinting in front of me. There were masses of people around me and a dull noise of chatter but the shining tray flashed wherever I went and caught my attention. That was the image of that new fear I had when I pictured all these other people merrily drinking away in front of me.

I guess I'm still very self-conscious about it at the moment. It's an identical memory to how I felt the first time I did a speech at school. The first time was horrible, the second just awkward but from then on I settled on a level of competent mediocrity. I suspect the same will happen with this but I made a mistake yesterday in saying I could go and mingle with so many people drinking wines and cocktails and bottles of fancy lager in front of me; I can't, and I got off the bus at my grandma's and went for a cup of tea. That may sound like a Morrissey-esque embellishment but is no word of a lie; the simple sanctity of a cup of tea and being around someone who knew me was all I needed at that point.

I made my apologies, and turned up later in the night. Passing parties and pubs on the way, I wondered how stupid it was to commit to stopping altogether, especially on a night like this when people come alive and forget their troubles; but I stuck it out, passed the music in the snow. For a moment, I thought about stopping off for a quick gin and tonic, but then I thought: what's the point? I'm thankful for that. There wouldn't have been a point, and I'd be sat filled with self-loathing now. My inability to face the crowd put a dampener on the rest of the night, and it was the worst new year of my life but then hey, I've never really seen much significance in that night anyway. I left some time past midnight before the crowd returned, the people who are suddenly your friend, the people who laugh at rain, the people who develop advanced psychiatric insight in the space of four hours. I couldn't face more apologies or self-analysis with her, or questions from them.

I must say thankyou to coincidence. Not fate, no, not a power above, no, just coincidence. Friends who could normally be relied upon as a cert to be sat trashed at home at 1am on new year's eve were in fact sat sober as judges playing on the Xbox. If an anecdote to the trials of the night could ever be prescribed, it is sitting with two of your best friends, sharing in your sobriety, sharing in the blessed distraction of a kid's video game.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Small reminders

I've tried not to make much mention of me stopping drinking because I loathe people reminding me about it. Part of the battle in giving something up is removing it from your thoughts, which isn't easy when it's not only a mental compulsion but a physical one. (I don't get cravings as such but there's a definite alcohol comedown I've noticed in my body, partly good and partly bad.) As I mentioned last night this is the reason I haven't mentioned it to her yet as I don't want it to be the dominant subject of the day; I feel I can handle things much better by thinking about them properly in my own time and switching off from them the rest.

There was a little comment this morning that sparked the briefest flame of defensiveness. I say that word because it wasn't anger, or resentment... it was me, not taking enough time to think and be calm, feeling an impulsive reaction. Three of my friends have been made redundant and today is their last day, so everyone's going to the pub at dinner to say farewell. Normally I'd probably have a couple of pints of bitter over an hour. She said, "are you going for a lemonade at dinner then?" I'm not sure yet what it was about this that made me feel defensive. There is nothing wrong about the statement as I was fine in my head with popping over for a bit and having a brew or whatever. It was probably one, or both, of two things:
  • it being spelled out loud that I'm one of those people who has to cut down on drink so who goes and has a soft drink, explicitly - not "for a drink" or "for a beer" as is the norm, but "for a lemonade".
  • a vague first impression or suspicion of being patronised, of having the piss taken out of me, of being seen as a weak case. Or more accurately, a side swipe at my image as being one of the lads here who go for a pint.
The second is probably true, to be honest. It's been one of the things I've enjoyed about working here, with a good bunch of people and right in the town centre. Once or twice a week we go to the pub at dinner and it's been a great way to get to know everyone. I've made some great friends here, and not just drinking friends: I've been abroad with one, another one has been adopted by my parents, another took me to Glasto, and that's not to mention meeting my girlfriend at work. To tell the truth, I'm scared of losing all that. It's always great when I see my old friends but they're around less and less as the years go by and I can't get through the days with just a girlfriend and a passing acquaintance or two to keep me going - I like connecting to lots of people and getting to know the ones I like deeply, and I worry that by stopping drinking I'm going to see people less socially, and... that scares me.

It's funny how lemonade can trigger an avalanche of thoughts like this.

Quiet before the storm?

Today has been a respite with plenty to keep me occupied. A quiet day at work spent reading up on a million bits of science, politics and philosophy, home to cook with the vast array of new pans and knives I got for Christmas, and then a few hours with The Next Generation in the background as I researched a load of computer stuff. Put down like that it sounds like I have a load of interests, and I guess I do; but then, it's how deeply your interests fulfil you that matters, right?

I ordered A Liar's Autobiography yesterday so hopefully it'll come tomorrow or Friday and give me another thing to look forward to. Knowing anything about him invariably sends you down a path of reading up on every possible consequence of alcoholism to the point where your liver develops the vocal talents of a X-Factor finalist and screams its way out of your body. Every illness of your past ten years suddenly has a clear and direct cause - your drinking - and will inevitably end in one thing - a sad and lonely death. Perhaps it's fatalism that makes me desperately want to know what it was like for him despite this, but I have only days to wait, either way.

I'm not feeling too much fear about tomorrow. Most likely I will spend all evening at her house - I have been invited to a small house party, but I'm not sure if I'll go. Being visibly uncomfortable around friends I know would bother me far more than looking clearly sober around a bunch that don't make much difference to me. I imagine that it's that question of cohesion again - how I need the group to be together - and why I feel so awkward being sober around drunks. I feel like I'm the spoilsport and no fun and forcing the rest to take me into consideration. I might pop along for a while but more than likely I'll stay with her and escape before the rest come home drunk; I don't like that scenario at the best of times, never mind when all this is on my mind.

I haven't mentioned this page to my girlfriend yet, even though we've spoke almost word for word about everything I've written so far. She knows I was considering doing a secret blog, but I haven't let her know yet. A lot of me wants to, but an over-riding factor stops me: it is because I would wake up every morning knowing she'd have read it and it would be on her mind, and at some point last night's topics would come up, and the last thing I need when I'm battling something like this is to be reminded of it in those precious rare moments of the day when for whatever God-blessed reason I'm thinking about something else, and she steals that away from me. All of this is on my mind so possessively, so consumingly, that I am selfish about the times I have away from it. I don't want to begin to begrudge her for bringing this up when I don't want to talk about it, so for the moment at least, I feel it's better to use this as a way to speak to no-one, but still someone: catharsis.

Monday, 29 December 2008

There's no ale in supermarket, but there is in an aisle

After finishing work today, we went to Aldi to get in a bit of cheap food. (Well, cheap depending what you're looking for, as I've never known a place so closely resemble both Harrods and Help The Aged from aisle to aisle.) I'm guessing they rely on alcohol for a lot of their sales because the final stretch as you desperately veer your trolley of German sausage and proudly British potatoes around the course is like walking up to the pearly gates of alco-paradise: light shimmers from bottles of rose, reflects into glimmering yellow cider, and dies in the earthly browns of two litres of ale.

This moment had crossed my mind when I first made the decision to stop because, I think, it's a pretty obvious moment which I'm sure I've heard others speak about before. It's the kind of thing a 9pm ITV drama would have Nick Berry doing: winning a battle by staying in on a torturously dull Saturday night (watching a 9pm ITV drama) only to suddenly find himself in the sherry aisle during his family's Sunday shop, smashing a bottle over his head to feel the sweet licquor drip from strands of hair into his mouth as he systematically bludgeons six out of ten customers in fruit and veg.

My natural disposition is to take this little tale down a path of tears over wine, sobs at ales gone by and desperate hugs from a tramp heavily laden with industrial cider. However, I must disappoint myself, as the experience was if anything just other-worldly - I was partially conscious of her far behind me and glad for that, then conscious of the shockingly nasty stuff they sell in there, and then, well, it was all behind me and down to that insane scramble to somehow empty your trolley and have it at the other end to fill again, all while in a queue of 12 car thieves.

This is a good thing, and gives me some insight into my views of that kind of drinking - drinking at home, basically, either for that evening or just to "have something in". I felt a reminder that I rarely just buy something to have around the house, as I've said for years that drinking on my own simply ends up depressing me and it doesn't help me "chill out with a film" as that's something I don't want to do anyway, so it's always been a last resort, desperate solution to a night of solitary boredom. I feel that when I have no reason to buy drink from a shop, it doesn't enter my head. As I walked down that aisle there was no urge to buy anything.

There is a caveat to this, though. I didn't want to buy anything because I wasn't drinking any time soon. I know from the past that when buying something for a party, say, that I really hate running out and either having to go out for more or borrow drinks - so I always over-estimate to be safe. This, more often than not, ends with everything being drunk anyway, which usually isn't good. I don't know what the answer to this is. Drinking when it's freely available in front of you is totally different to the phenomenon of paying per drink, and I think might be one of those things that will be addressed by, hopefully, an eventual change in that compulsion I feel to drink if there's no immediate reason not to.

All in all, though, a good day.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The first social occasion

My greatest fear, by far, is how not having a drink - I'll stop using the horrid Americanism "alcohol" right from the off - to hand at any kind of social occasion will fill me with that great unease around people which I've known all of my life. It might seem I am confusing my discussion of drink already by bringing up a personal character problem, but it is those very problems that are at the core of what drink has come to mean in my life. It is how a drink interacts with my character that causes all of this, every last bit.

But, to return to that unease at the core of my soul. It's a part of my very earliest memories, which are all alone. From those very first days I couldn't interact with kids how they did with each other. I seemed to take everything so seriously and was very hurt by conflict and anger, and so found it much easier playing on my own.

Twenty years later that hasn't really changed but for the past ten, I've had a drink to hand to help me fit in with the kids just enough to get by.

In a group of people I feel some kind of deep, absolutely necessary need for balance and harmony. It takes over everything else in my head and changes my actions. For example, I despise sitting in the middle of a group having to switch attention from one side to the other - I have to be at the end so I can take in everything, take in the group.

In a group of people I am affected very much by the group spirit. If just one person seems unhappy, I don't get any pleasure from the occasion. My abiding memory will be of what was wrong and what I could have done to fix it - to get that harmony back. I can pick out days I remember from holidays a decade ago when one person was unhappy, and it upset the balance of the group.

In a group of people I do not see a person, I see the people. Perhaps that sums it up most succinctly.

And in a group of people, having a drink switches those things off. It's such a relief to be able to... be different, and not have that silly sense of unity floating around my head. I can feel what it's like to be selfish and make sure you sit next to the person who you want to rather than the person who needs it. And you know what? You always end up having a better time for it, and that feels good.

The first time

All that preamble said, I just got the first time out of the way. Just a dinner at her parent's, but not just a dinner to me, so it's twice the fear - having dinner with people I barely know, and sober at that. I've never really done "round for dinner" - it's just not a family thing. Even eating out has been a rarity, not for anything like money but just because none of us enjoy sitting across from someone while they and yourself are eating - it makes us all uncomfortable and more importantly non spontaneous. I get so angry missing one liners because I've a mouthful of food - is that silly? I don't know. When I'm finding it hard to figure out someone's sense of humour in the first place, it's infuriating missing the odd funny thing you do come up with because there's half a courgette hanging out of your mouth.

I don't really do polite conversation well, either, and these things seem to be based around that - I begin to get quite frustrated, wondering if I'll have anything worth saying at any point. It is taking some getting used to and my style of humour is very hard to slip into that, but I know it's a mutual process that time will deal with.

In this kind of eating-around-a-table situation I feel like I'm in a really alien situation and don't know how to adapt at all - it makes me uneasy and kills my sense of humour. Having a drink removes that level of inhibition that, well, stops me caring so much. I'd risk saying something I found funny and just ignore an awkward laugh back, or find myself able to feign interest in something trivial. I guess I'm just a fish out of water in that sort of situation, so it was pretty hard trying to fit in tonight. I don't know if I managed, in the same way my grandma who doesn't drink is awkwardly out of place in a pub environment. In this kind of group situation, without a drink to numb the senses, I become overly-concerned with the happiness of the group and am unable to relax at all. It was not a difficult night, but as the first signs of drink began to appear in the other's eyes and voices became overly-animated, I felt a huge sense of fear I would begin to drift even further away from safe ground and needed to clutch for home.

A study of the self

This diary can be summed up in one scientific sentence: a record of the process of abandoning alcohol under effect of another mental compulsion.

In an expanded form: my environment and associates lead me to believe my alcohol consumption is problematic both to myself and them, and after moderate measures failed to resolve this problem, my remaining option appears to be a period of abstinence; the hope here being this period of detoxification will free the body of its urges over the mind and the mind from the shackles of habit and routine.

And in the moral form: my girlfriend cannot tolerate my moments of alcoholic excess and attempts to moderate have not been enough to quell her disappointment. Three solutions to this seem evident:
  1. Question her feelings of disappointment and intolerance and highlight her own actions which I find fault with.
  2. Continue the path of moderation and hope for success in time.
  3. Abstain completely with the aim of ending the physical and mental bonds I have formed with alcohol.
And the relative merits of each:
  1. She may develop a greater tolerance to what I see as a relative problem in the big picture. But highlighting her own flaws only sets us down the path of resolving conflicts by beginning a different conflict. Fundamentally, conflict goes against everything in my world view, so I cannot do this.
  2. The moderate path, the one I would normally choose. But it requires time and for us to have an agreed view of what might happen in this time, and the patience to tolerate mistakes, and... a hundred other variables, all of which I have become tired of contemplating.
  3. A drastic step, one which can seem insane to impose on oneself, but one which seems to have the greatest chance of addressing the fundamental matter.
And what is the fundamental matter?

I haven't written about my feelings for alcohol since I was in my teens. As soon as work became involved, there was always the chance a manager would somehow stumble upon it, all would be laid bare and the consequences would be faced. As with many things in life, then, it has been better to keep my mouth shut. I am changing that now because I feel the urge to talk about it openly and with the utter level of honesty needed to really explain to people what a problem of any kind is like. How can someone who hasn't known a problem be expected to understand it from a few half-truths and vague descriptions?

Perhaps the motives for this run more deeply than I originally admit. Perhaps there's a sense of wanting to explain myself, and show that I see reasons for the way I am, for others to empathise with me so I don't have to be seen as a simple failure. I think the latter point is most important of all. For reasons unbeknown to me, it means very much that I'm perceived as someone who understands. When that sense of understanding breaks down then a quest begins to heal it, and this diary is a chronicle of that quest.

I guess I should get the self-pitying stuff out the way now, and not mention it all again. I feel to those of you without this problem, you'll see it as something the majority of the world copes with just fine, so what am I taking so seriously? But yeah, I know, we all have our own vices. This is just mine. I feel stupid for having it, and not having the willpower to just switch off, but that's the way I am. I feel my fears are ridiculous and weak, but I have never killed a single fear in my life, so what am I to do with the conflict there? I fear I will fail, and be at the lowest of the low - then the fear turns to anger and rejection of other people's views - then the anger dissipates into self-loathing and contempt for everything wrong with me.

I can't list everything now. Part of the reason for writing this is that I hope someone facing the same problem in their life might read the odd bit they identify with and not feel so alone. That's a cliché, but it's true. I hope it goes some way towards helping my girlfriend understand my thoughts and actions, as words jumble in my mouth in a way they don't on here and actions are hidden behind my steady face. I hope, perhaps more than anything, that despite all the lows I know this change will throw at me, that it is ultimately a change for the better.