Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Beer stories #395

Hell, if I can't talk about my own beer career, other people's will have to do!

From Reddit: Funniest thing you've ever heard in a bar.

The deed is done

For the last couple of weeks I've been wrangling over the best way to proceed. It basically boiled down to two choices - either try to learn how to moderate better, or totally pack it in. I haven't wanted to speak about this choice yet because one of the problems I've had so far is that my mind has hardly ever been made up about what the best thing to do is, so when I've said things I later have a change of heart about they end up coming back to bite me and creating their own set of problems I really don't have the time for.

I've no doubt that my opinion will change again and I'll just have to go with the flow on that when it happens; it's really impossible to set anything in stone since I'm going into this virtually blind and with one person to talk to once a week about it. Nonetheless the inescapable conclusion I must draw from the time when I most recently realised I had to do something about all of this, is that for whatever reason I still have times where I lose self-control and so trying to moderate myself isn't very likely to work. I'm always wary of extreme solutions as I think they tend to provoke a rebellious response but as I mentioned earlier today, I've come to see that stopping altogether is a safer method for me to control it than muddling along clinging to a vague self-belief I might be able to manage it.

When I've talked about this in the past, people have usually tried to change my mind and tell me there's no need to be so extreme. I think that's just testament to the decent job I manage of hiding how much it sometimes affects me - how even on nights where I can seem fine, I'm either on the way down into a spiralling mood or I'll be such a wreck the next day I have to put aside days to get over it. I don't intentionally do that to myself - I don't enjoy the after-effects at all. I seem to have been blessed or cursed with a remarkable stamina for self-abuse up to a point, before which I feel on top of the world and after which I'm six feet under. Do you see part of the problem now? - it's that I can't even trust my own body to give me any pointers, so I'm even in a fight against myself. Even while I've been trying to moderate recently, the same thing happens - I feel absolutely fine and dandy until the moment comes when it all catches up with me in an instant. That isn't an easy thing to learn how to live with or work around, hence the decision to take this war nuclear and cut it out altogether.

I am tired of all this, and I know it seems silly - at least I'm not drinking MRSA gel, eh? But it has a big effect on me in its own way, and it's a hard thing to shake once it has its grip on you. If you see me at the bar, do a friend a favour and get me a lemonade, yeah?

A new year

I think I've finally managed to come completely clean about all of this to all of the people to whom it matters. The only remaining thing left to say is that I know I've still got a long way to go with sorting it out because over Christmas I got the usual moments of either feeling close to losing control or actually losing control. This wasn't helped by telling my parents over this period which, naturally, wasn't very easy and after which I got the usual green light in my head to "reward" myself for doing something hard by having a drink to help get over it. Silly, I know, and one of the things I need to talk about to change.

Moderating it is very difficult for me. I feel that something has physically changed because it just sneaks up on me from nowhere these days, and I go from doing fine and feeling quite good about myself, to making the same old mistakes again before I know it. I think then that with Christmas out of the way, now's the time to stop. I've been searching for ways to cut down without making me feel isolated and alone by losing social time with all the people I know, but even if I managed it some times over the holidays, at other times it just seems impossible; drinking is so deeply entwined with most of the people I socialise with that without a drink involved, I feel like I don't really know them. The logical conclusion is that I should abandon that policy and accept that I'm really not much better than the rest of the people in my boat, and try whatever they try to get over the problem.

To be honest I'm pretty worried about how hard I'll find this, but at the same time I've actually just become very bored of talking to myself about all of this and seeing myself as someone with a problem - and other people seeing me as weak. I'd rather have to deal with a bit of loneliness when I'm not seeing people because I'm lonely anyway. And the idea of seeing this alcohol adviser is that I can get this off my chest without affecting my day to day life - perhaps this blog is subverting that idea so I might have to cut back on this. Sometimes I think I spend endless hours thinking about answers to problems when all I really should be doing is being a man, taking them on the chin and getting on with things.

I don't really have a grand statement to end this with, other than that I'm bored of all this and want it to end.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The importance of perception

Not so much an interesting article here but an interesting chain of comments: Why I will let my children drink alcohol, from the Telegraph.

Have a quick look through the first 25 or 30 comments and see what impression you form of the debate. Mine is that it immediately seems like the old class war - the middle class mums happy to have their children drink a glass of "pink water" around the Sunday dinner table, while feral working class kids drink alcopops on park slides.

One thing I've found though is that the class explanation is a very superficial one; it immediately seems to make sense and because of that it's a widely accepted "reason" for many things, this apparent alcohol problem one of them.

The superficiality of using class to describe problems also extends to my arguments; for example, I could quite truthfully say that there is a large degree of blinkeredness and "shut-out" attitude about the middle classes seeking to dispose of their problems on the poorer class, but equally there is an unwarranted contempt in the opposite direction, the working class feeling their problems can always be blamed on someone else. The point is, very often the real root of a problem transcends our concept of social class and applies across the board, just manifesting in different ways.

With that impression out of the way, I was struck by the number of times people said "I...". It's almost universal. I know that it's a comment board and it takes a moments thought to come up with an interesting opener to a sentence that doesn't use "I...", "The problem..." and so on, but it's still a striking impression.

What this makes me feel is that the use of alcohol is a deeply personal thing. Based not just on this one article but my whole life experience around people who drink, I've always found that people have a fairly strong opinion of some sort on alcohol. The middle ground is sparsely populated by the few who really just have no opinion, of whom I'll shortly be making another post about elsewhere.

It being a very personal thing, then, accounts for one of the biggest problems I've had in dealing with my views on drinking - it's that understanding between people is really pretty weak. In just the same way that I struggle with being in a pub environment and watching people get drunk, people don't get why I keep on drinking. It seems to be an almost inate thing that contradictory behaviours really aggravate, which is perhaps why it's a difficult problem for people to resolve.

Monday, 21 December 2009

First meeting

I had my first meeting with the adviser today, and it went okay. I'm not going to say very much yet since it was literally only an hour ago and I need a lot more time to think about things first. In the space of an hour though we covered quite a bit, much of it a repitition of what was said at the first appointment, but the odd comment here and there gave me food for thought. Most importantly it dispelled the lingering fear I had that it would be totally futile; even on the steps towards the door, I was thinking I surely sit somewhere in that horrible middle bracket of people with problems that are neither too extreme to warrant a bluntly extreme response nor too bland to warrant solution by rote, instead sitting somewhere on a vague middle line of irritating uncertainty for all concerned. However, the effect of the meeting was to remind me that sometimes I take my self-perception too factually and that other people can have useful input now and then.

From what I gathered it will be a fairly informal thing, just an hour or so of talking and trying to understand the causes of my thoughts and behaviour. That was pretty much exactly what I was looking for since for so many years I've hardly ever spoken about any of this and even until very recently I've been keeping things secret because of the damage that being honest does to the rest of your life. Even now, you can tell I still have doubts about whether anyone else can help me - my instinct (as with everything else in life) is that if I need a job doing, I'm best doing it myself, so I have a resistance to asking for help from anyone. I think she understood the benefit of me being able to be free to talk without it coming back to make things worse, though. There'll be analysis of the problems and the patterns and aims for the future; that kind of thing. I didn't have a long time to explain why I was there, so the message I got across was that in the last five years or so, my whole social life has become entwined with drinking and now I feel both trapped and lost whenever I try to cut back or stop - and that's something she understood straight away, so it's a start. From what I briefly mentioned about how hectic my social life is at work and home I think I sounded like an international playboy so the stuff about how I drink to overcome shyness will have to be a surprise for another day.

My one real hope from it all is to know the truth about the way I am. I have my own views about what I do but I don't know other people's and I certainly don't know those of people who work with alcoholics every day; there must be something I can learn from them that'll help me in future.

The German trip went okay, in terms of drinking. I could have done a lot better, I could have done a lot worse. I suppose it depends very much upon what better and worse are, and I think one of the problems here is that my perceptions of that very often collide with other peoples'. I must get far too wrapped up in my self-analysis sometimes to see what my behaviour looks like to other people because I'm sometimes baffled by how I'm told I looked compared to what was going on in my head. That's getting off the subject and into the realms of analysing the sober me, though.

Christmas will be a funny one, I'm sure. I'm not entering into making predictions and binding myself to obligations, because I know for sure that it's in my character to rebel and that includes against myself. It seems better then to just go with the flow and try my best. I'm not going on a few things I normally do, but the lessons of the last few weeks are that even then I can still come close to ruining things, so I'll just have to keep biding my time until the next meeting.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Dangerous situations

I'm pretty sure a big thing I need to do is lose trust in myself and keep myself out of dangerous situations. I came close, pretty damn close, to losing control of things at the weekend - the work's party and a trip to Manchester. It was mostly because I was stupid enough to put myself in situations where my sense of self-control is challenged by my surroundings. I suppose, as I mentioned a week ago, I'd been feeling buoyed by doing pretty well, and thought I could keep hold of control. As it was I came pretty close to getting messy; I only just clinged on.

I shouldn't have been so confident I could manage it, but it's hard to describe how you get filled with self-belief when you've managed something good for a while - only to have to accept that you're still just part way into the fight.

I'm off to Germany for a few days now, the home of beer.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Two light ales, please

It seems that it takes about a week for the physical cravings to pass, that peculiar longing inside to sit down with a pint and read the paper in a quiet pub. The thought normally crops up during moments of boredom or anger, when it seems by far the easiest and most comprehensive solution to whatever problem is at hand. However, once this week or so has passed, during those times it isn't the first though that comes to mind; instead, it seems to be "so what can I do with my time instead?" I'm glad to be over the first hurdle - physical craving.

Exactly the same thing happened last time I stopped drinking normally, and I remember thinking how easy it all was. As ever, with experience you notice differences, though, and one thing I'm learning this time is to spot the first signs on complacency creeping in. It seems to be a natural response I have to how (relatively) easy I find it to just stop getting drunk - "well, that was easy enough - you can't have had a problem at all!"

Of course this is flawed reasoning as my problem has never been an inability to pack it in when I choose to, but a serial failure to recognise when I've had enough and stop drinking before I disable one too many of those switches in my head that keep me as the normal me. To this end I haven't been congratulating myself in the slightest and indeed my perception of the situation is that I'm about four battles into what may be a hundred year war.

Those four battles have been won, I should say though; I've put myself in social drinking situations four times in the last ten days and either not drunk at all or spread a couple of pints out over a course of hours. I've been to the Rovers twice and somehow avoided my usual impulse to abuse the occasion as a drinking opportunity with the odd bit of football crammed inbetween. I've been out in a pub and had a night in, and not touched more than a shandy. So, I suppose, I should take mild encouragement from that, but not to the point of overly reassuring myself as I can feel the temptation to.

Some time this week I should be hearing from the alcohol team about getting a case worker, and from there going to some kind of sessions. I don't know exactly how it will all work, but I'm finding the whole thing pretty intriguing. It's the kind of thing normal people never get to know about beyond the immediate preconceptions of what it's about (some of which I'm sure I wrongly subscribe to myself) so to actually be able to go through the system and see what it's really like is, in a perverse way, a bit of a gift.

I suspect the hardest part about it I'll find is that I'll feel "above" it and a big part of me will want to dismiss these people's advice as weak. I got that feeling the first time I went, when I was sat in a room of four or five smackheads, and I thought, "Jesus H Christ, all I do is drink too much now and then, I don't belong with these people!" And I could see how a drug counsellor would be able to help someone coming off heroin, but I couldn't imagine for a second what use they'd be to me. Quite a few years ago, a friend said that there didn't seem much point in going to see a counsellor or therapist since they just help you see what your problems are, and if you've already spent all your life cataloguing those problems precisely then they've nothing left to offer you. I worry this forthcoming experience of mine may go along the same lines so I'm not going into it hoping to be hand-given some blinding piece of wisdom that will blow me away, but really just to use them as people who won't belittle me when I talk about all the difficulties I've had around drinking, and who I don't have to worry about affecting my day-to-day life.

I guess to summarise, this stage can be tricky for me as a small part of me is rebelling and trying to convince me there was never a problem in the first place. That, however, would be to forget the mistakes of the past decade so I've no intention of going there.

Tomorrow's weekend special: send your kids to the 'sitter and draw the curtains, as your screen comes alive with a writhing, groaning mass of flesh and ale.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Real ale

As I mentioned last night, one of my aims in all of this is to essentially recondition myself into someone with saner drinking habits by means of breaking down my current habits until I have room to form new ones. It's one of my core tenets that humans boil down to very little more than advanced chimps, so in the same way you can train an animal over time, it's fairly straightforward to train a human once you know how to circumvent their defences. In this case "their" is "my" but the principle still applies.

Drinking shandy is a good starting point for me as it helps to combat one of the habits I have, that I naturally have a fairly fast drinking pace. By that I mean my hand seems to move of its own accord towards the glass in a regular rhythm, emptying the vessel at a pace I'm accustomed to. Therefore, reducing the ABV of what I drink makes this whole job easier for me by removing the need for me to spend the whole night battling against my own arm's will. I will be adopting this tactic this Friday at my cousin's party, in tandem with alternating drinks: one lager shandy drunk slowly, one lemonade, and so on. The result is drinking half a lager over the course of more than an hour, but it takes a whole load of family pressure over the "not drinking" thing off my back.

One of the other problems I have is that I genuinely do like beer. I must qualify that by saying I like real ale, which is as important a distinction as saying you like Fentiman's Curiosity Cola versus Rola Cola or Weston's Organic versus White Lightning. If I didn't have a problem with taking drinking a bit too far sometimes I'd very much likely be a fully signed-up CAMRA member, possibly even a ticker. I intend to give a full post or two to the subject of why real ale and good pubs mirror something intrinsic in my character that I never want to lose touch with, but I think it is important to distinguish my passion for real ale from my wider drinking habits - the former is drinking for taste, sociability, contentment and bonhomie, the latter as a tool to help with other problems I have.

The second tactic I've been thinking about, then, is not a new one and indeed is something I've made some efforts to try to move towards over the past year. A few times I have thought to myself that my body doesn't lie to me, and if I don't feel in the mood for a pint of real ale, then I shouldn't be drinking. By and large I have managed this but it does unfortunately conflict with the hectic schedule I have and sometimes I find myself out and about in rapid succession and a possibly-dodgy pint of ale isn't always the most appetising prospect. After a week plus of hard thought on this, I can say with good assurance that it is nearly exclusively these times when I have ended up over-drinking and causing a problem. I've found that I'm normally a good-natured drinker when sticking to real ale but when I begin to add other drinks on top of that on a second or third night out, I begin to lose that control I cling to.

My aim with this extended period of very light drinking, such as the two shandies on Saturday, is to break the habits I've formed of becoming bored in the week and wanting to go out and do something. I have looked at many of the people I know for inspiration and a common theme seems to emerge, which is that they have a stronger sense of being able to wait for designated occasions when they can drink and perhaps have one too many, but it doesn't impact on their day-to-day lives. This is something I've never really learned, probably because I feel like everything I do runs at 200mph and slowing down is just against my nature. I do think though that I need to take a step in this direction.

What prompted me to develop this thought was hearing about The Rat Race Ale House in Hartlepool. What a fantastic venture, something I could easily aspire to myself. Everything about this sums up the vision in my head of what I think drinking is about and want to be. The pub is my natural environment and I love nothing more than sitting around with friends and a good pint of ale just having a natter. I can control my drinking with ale because it's a very predictable drink, quite smooth on the up and with few if any lingering effects the day after. It's also a pleasant drink, full of interesting and changing flavours, which I have never been able to say about Strongbow or cheap red wine. Seriously, when I picture where I'm at my most content, it's with a really good pint of ale in an old-fashioned pub.

So what is the tactic? Well, I aim to gradually move entirely towards sticking to ale whenever I find myself in a pub. It isn't always possible, so the commercial bitters must come next. And dare I say it, if I find myself in a pub with a really bad choice of beer, I'd like to think I could get through half an hour in there with a lemonade or a lager shandy rather than hitting the cider or spirits. Rather than a drink being just a drink, which I think is an attitude I've picked up from my dad, I want it to be something to be enjoyed and remembered; and since subscribing to a ton of beer blogs recently, I've found it's an area I'm genuinely interested in.

I would also like to travel a bit more to places like the Rat House, as it combines two of my favourite things: travel and ale. Maybe if I could do something like that once a month, in the week after payday, say, it'd give me the thing I need to look forward to to help me avoid just drinking any old time because I have nothing up ahead to keep me going. Again, I must repeat to myself, I do not want to project myself into being a social outcast by stopping completely, but I do want to treat drinking as something that should be enjoyed at the right time and with the right drink, and not just something to help me forget myself.

Tomorrow: racier than a greyhound strapped to a pigeon's back, Brian Blessed reads in deeply sensual tones a passage from Her Knickers Are On The Dancefloor: The Strongbow Years.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Party animal

It is very difficult to say whether my gradual change from a shy young lad into the fairly normal chap I am today happened because I began drinking or if it would have taken place anyway. I lean towards the latter but I think it was prodded into motion by the odd red wine or three. I certainly remember the first group social situations I was in being tremendously easier with the aid of a couple of pints.

Looking back, it seems very masochistic how I put myself in a succession of difficult situations every weekend. I found being out around people very hard work and nothing came naturally, yet there was still a social instinct dragging me back. One of my clearest memories from the time is Millennium Eve, when I woke in a haze at 6pm, dusted myself down and went out in search of a ticket to the party my friends were at. When I didn't find one, I spent a couple of hours stood on my own in a cess pit of a pub, and I distinctly remember thinking that's all I had to do for someone to come up and talk to me (oh, the folly of youth). In these early days in pubs I recall the first feelings that I had to keep on drinking just to get by.

Some parts of my website were lost to time a few years ago but I remember writing at the time that after going out, it seemed to me that having a drink just dragged me down to the level that a lot of other people were at sober. It made it possible for me to tolerate conversations about everyday things, which normally I would never engage in. I remember being in one of these and drifting off halfway through, thinking, "but why do I want to talk about this?" Even when my tongue loosened enough to talk to people, my head couldn't let go of the fact that it wasn't anything that interested me in any way. I think in recent years I've partially overcome that but at the time, it was something that bothered me.

It was experiences and thoughts like that which made me accept for the first time that I enjoyed drinking not because it made me a better person, but because it switched off a lot of everyday problems I was tired of living with. Self-analysis is in my nature (like you hadn't guessed) and it gets bloody wearisome after a while; drinking took that away. The price I paid was that after a certain amount it took away my mental edge, and made me prone to calamitous decisions, but it was still preferable to just plodding along every day living with the same old me upstairs.

I think that once that habit had taken hold, and I'd created a link between drinking and being someone else, it became quite deep rooted and led me to where I am today. The question I'm faced with is whether I still need a drink to be around people. Based on the last six or seven years, then no, I don't. I think the habit just overlapped the time when I would have naturally grown out of my awkward stage and been fine on my own, but I continued to think that I needed a drink just to get by. It takes a conscious effort to think about your habits and question whether they're right - the default is simply to do whatever comes to mind first and presume you're right.

I won't pretend that I'm a fundamentally different person - I do still find a lot of conversation utterly pointless and am socially most at ease in the world sat in my parent's living room in silence - but I have learned the social skills necessary to get by, and I don't think I'm an embarrassment in company. Just like those early days, having a drink lets me strike up conversation with people, but the pointless words I mutter should be struck down for violating all known principles of good humour, intelligence and purpose.

Tomorrow: in a thrilling departure from moribund yarns of woe, we look back at the glory years of ultra-drinking (2004-06) and cast a light over several sticky pages of titillating tales.

Two men and a baby

Never one to do things by half, I spent last night avoiding the perils of a drink-fuelled trip to Burnley by sitting in with a takeaway curry watching Match of the Day, babysitting. With another man.

Michael Palin's Pole to Pole could equally have passed as a program as a cursory insight into the minds of those who, like me, react to perceived wrongs in extremes. At one pole, hardcore ultra mega-drinking leading to marital ruin. At the other, discussing the fine blend of spices used in tonight's madras while a small child lays next to you, merrily booting you in the ribs now its stinking nappy has been changed.

Perhaps I exaggerate the extremes but I'd be lieing to say that the obvious contrast between what I could have been doing and what I was doing didn't cross my mind at any point. I wouldn't say I found it a problem - I was sad not to be out on my sister's birthday, of course, but the previous night was meant to cover that and she had plenty of other people there. I think the most difficult part of me not going along on things like this is that it confronts me with the role I've built up over time as quite a few people's "link man". I began thinking about this as I left the Rovers game yesterday, which I managed fine with a pop before and after and a tangy, £1.80 coffee at half-time.

Over all the years I've been out and about drinking I've probably cultivated an image as "the one who's always around" - the one who people can rely on to be up for doing something. And that's fair enough, because I always am up for something. This isn't to say I'd always be people's first choice, but that I'm someone they've come to know they can probably count on to come along to things and organise everyone else. I was reminded yesterday that when I stop going to things, it breaks a link that people expect to be there, and makes me feel tremendously guilty. An example: a friend had been invited on the trip yesterday, but upon finding that I wouldn't be going, it became a different proposition - that socially important link between him and another group of people was gone. This is a fairly straightforward situation you've all experienced: a friend invites you to a party, and it's fine if they're going as they're your link, but if they're not, then it's an entirely different scenario.

Even between familiar groups, such as close family and my friends, over time I've entrenched myself into a position where my absence rather than my presence is noted. If I turn up then all is well with the world, and if I don't then I must have some reason for not doing. What this boils down to in terms of the thought process I go through when I'm deciding whether to go along on something, I think, is back to my near-obsession with the group dynamic. My first thoughts are always: who will be there, how do these people get on together, will I fit in and will my presence make for a better time for all? I nearly always find that it would, but the thought's just occurred to me that it may just be me actively seeking out or imagining conflicts I could resolve or conversations and jokes I could help carry - if you like, me seeking out a role and purpose for myself in the group, carving out a niche which leaves me feeling useful and fulfilled.

A problem like the above sounds, in isolation, like a pretty trivial thing. So you think you're so important people are gonna miss you every time you're not there? - get over it! That answer doesn't really say much about the effects my stopping drinking has on how I feel about my usefulness in the world and how someone's night is changed in lord knows what ways because this person decided not to come, and maybe that person too. They're real effects on people other than me that are easy to dismiss but doing so doesn't really help anyone except the kind of person who would think to say in the first place, "just get over it". There was a fascinating study done that looked into the difficulties heroin users with families had getting off heroin. Rather than the family acting as a support for the user when they stopped using, in many cases it was seen that the family actively pushed the user back on to heroin to reinstate the sense of usefulness and purpose in their own lives. The children, for example, had found approval in stealing to fund their dad's habit, and the wife had grown accustomed to her life looking after the man. Confronted with the loss of this, they would rather stick with the heroin dad that gave them purpose than an unknown quantity. Saying "just get over it" is rarely as simple as it sounds.

I don't think I will ever actively choose to pull back from this position I've made for myself as someone people can rely on to be active and on the scene. I never want to be forgotten about and fall down that subconscious list in people's heads of who to call first, because I'm an active person and I've no plans to vegetate in a living room for the rest of my life in a sober dystopia. But at the same time, if I'm to succeed in controlling the crazy drinking that comes part and parcel of saying yes to every invite, I know I'm going to have to get used to disappointing people sometimes, as much as it makes me feel terrible for doing so. You know, maybe it's a case of over-empathy, but every time someone rings me up and asks me if I fancy going out, I just remember the times I've done the same and got a "no" back, and I can't do the same to them.

I think over the weekend I've made a couple of insights with regards to the above and the link between drinking and my view of the group, so it's been a good one. Myself and my friend had a couple of shandies in front of the football and I think that might be a way to go whenever I next end up in a pub situation, because it seems a very useful way for me to get over the embarrassment and fear in my head of standing in a pub with a soft drink, while having the physical effects of just drinking pop. It was a good suggestion on his part, and at two and a half cans over six hours there was no question of being drunk from it (indeed there was no time to be drunk inbetween all the trips to piss out that sodding lemonade), but for now I'm just going to think it over for a few days and weigh it up in a future post as one of many strategies I could adopt in future. As I think I've said before, rather than make a post here celebrating going x days without a drop of alcohol, this time I'm taking a long-term view of things and trying to find some answers that will help me be a normal person around drink for good.

Tomorrow, in a sizzling tome upon which early drafts of Caligula were based, I discuss the perils of throwing beer and sex into a blender and setting it to "Explode".

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The first sober pub experience

A brief respite, tonight, from the ceaseless deluge of reminiscing that this has all begun with. It's getting a bit late now due largely to me having been out until about 10.30. Tomorrow is my sister's birthday so we went out for something to eat after work.

I didn't expect this to be a problem as it was meant to be my mum's side of the family, who by and large don't really drink. As it turned out, it was essentially the normal crew along with one aunt and cousin from the other side. Hmm, I thought. This is going to get tricky at some point down the line.

As it was, it was a relatively dignified evening and I had myself dropped off just down the road at about 10.30. A pint and a half of lemonade down the hatch and I'd got the usual sugar headache, but otherwise there were no side-effects to the night. I was only asked once what I was drinking, and I blustered it off with a non-sensical muttering of "well, you know, it's, isn't it, tomorrow, taking it easy, work and that, isn't it". It's such a rarity for me to go in a pub and not get a pint that I don't blame people for commenting, though.

I left at a good time as I could hear voices rising and conversations about car engines becoming strangely exuberant. There is a point at which, when passed, sober and drunk people can no longer effectively communicate. The point I feel most resigned by is when a comment with a vague hint of wit is lost amongst drunken noise. The point I fear the most is right before the crossing, when I realise what stage the night is at and soon I'm going to have to make a move. I do think this is for the best though as in my eyes, sober and drunk people belong apart and attempting to mix the two serves no purpose - it just isolates each group. My answer is to be sober in the group up to that point and then make my exit before I become an antagonist of the group harmony.

I'm pretty sure I found tonight easier than when I did this last year because of the very fact I did this last year. Nothing beats experience, eh? Tomorrow, my sister is going on a minibus trip to a nearby town and I'd naturally have gone normally, but I've re-arranged things so I can still see her but not be involved in the serious drinking later on. A mate has been very kind to hang around with me before and after on the "weak stuff" so I'm not the only sober one there. The night, along with going to the football and not having a couple of pints before the game with my mate, will be harder than tonight, I'm sure, but I've put a lot of thought into making sure I don't end up in a bad situation so I'm hopeful it will pass well.

If I'm back at a reasonable time tomorrow, I'll scatter some sex feed across your coop for your gossip-hungry mouths to peck down.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

I'll have another beer. I'm not driving.

Good evening readers, and welcome to Thursday's memory-puke. Tonight's little think-back, I've concluded, should tell the other side of the story of those early years in my drinking career - not of how other things affected me, but of the effect my character has on my behaviour.

I won't go into a long self-psychoanalysis here because that belongs either in a room with a therapist or scrawled on the front page of a 17 year-old's Livejournal, but one fact beyond debate is that as a kid I was somewhere on the introverted side of the scale. My music teacher once asked me to play the flute in class and I was worried what it'd think of me. This kind of distant, withdrawn behaviour that manifests itself to other people as many kinds of social awkwardness, geekiness and so on, continued as I grew up and I only really began to chip away at it towards the end of secondary school. I say that not through some vaguely nostalgic recollection of my youth, but because I remember plenty of specific times when I made little breakthroughs that meant a hell of a lot back then. As sad as it sounds, roleplaying games really helped me develop my confidence in a group. Hell, we're only talking a room of four or five of my good mates, but I always found it really hard being heard and being funny at first; then one day, I remember GMing a session that went really well and I realised I wasn't so bad after all.

That's a horribly sickly tale and I won't slip back into regurgitating that kind of pus-dripping nostalgia into your eyes again, but you get the point. I was the quiet one. This carried on until I began drinking and then bam, well, you can imagine the effect that had. I'm no different to anyone else in that way - a couple of drinks opens up a whole new world in my head. One of the reasons I'm naturally pretty quiet is that I constantly run about 10 seconds in the future in my head, predicting where the conversation is going, with varied results - most often it helps me keep things going, but sometimes when people say something I've anticipated I feel like I've driven down a dead end and it kills things temporarily in my head while I reverse and think of new avenues.

If that sounds like hard work, it is, but I gave up trying to change that years ago. The only natural time I can really escape from that incessant buzz in my head of constant thought is by being alone; classic introvert behaviour. Being alone means I don't have to devote such a massive chunk of my time to other people, and can just think naturally. It's a relief for a while, and then I feel ready to go back into the world and deal with people again. It's just the way introverts work.

The only un-natural time I can escape the never-ending serious thought is by having a drink. Pretty quickly it flicks off rows and rows of those characteristics that make me appear quiet, withdrawn, hesitant and so on. The feeling of relief is probably what I like about it most. It's a very conscious thought: "Thank god - I'm someone else." I don't have to live with two people in my head, one beyond my control and the other always trying to control it - there's just one person I don't have to worry about.

Sometimes I actually resent people, in a very petulant way, for not recognising that for all the other God-be-damned times I'm around them my brain has been doing overtime wondering how they're feeling and whether they're happy and what they'd like to talk about; and so, for me to have a drink that lets me clock off from that, I see as my reward. I say that that's petulant because obviously, no-one can know the strange neuroses ever-present in my head while I'm sat talking to them. I guess it's a sense of self-justification: I have put a lot of work in for you, now let me have some time off to recover.

Returning to the time this was going on, probably around 1999 to 2002 or so, I found that drink was such a great help to me around people that I worried about seeing people without a drink to smooth things over. This is even with close friends, people who now I can handle myself around sober, but at the time were relatively new acquaintances. Perhaps a mental bond formed then? - that I only felt confident enough to be funny when I'd had a drink. The rest of the time I felt happy retreating into my personal time where nobody expected anything from me.

The importance, then, of a person's character in terms of their drinking is, I think, very important. At this stage of my life I found that drinking allowed me to socialise without the restraints of my normal character, and later in the night would let me think about the really dark thoughts I had back then. It was quite seductive, really - such an easy way to escape my everyday self and become someone new and interesting to myself.

Perhaps that's the key point explaining why I slipped into it so easily back then. I was sick of being angry at myself for my own weaknesses, and a drink allowed me to escape that and become someone new. It's very much like having a room mate you hate, but who you get a few hours away from in the evening - it's such a relief.

Now, while that little ramble accounts for a lot of things back then, I'd be a fat faced liar not to mention the big thing that was going on back then - women. Tune in tomorrow for a detailed analysis of the male sexual psyche with relation to alcohol (1999-2002), with a few knockabout shagging stories thrown in for good measure.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Where it all began

And tonight's subject, ladies and gentlefolk, is how this all began.

A chronological take on things is probably the most fitting as I can picture changes over time that are only really relevant to each other in terms of what happened before and after. So, I suppose this all began the first few times I went out with my dad.

The habits I formed then have stuck with me to this day. The things I'll list now do sound absurd, and I'll make the comparisons you might imagine yourself - but I'll also show the differences, the reasons why these things matter.
  • I imitated the speed at which he drinks. It took a while to catch up at first, but it was something I was trying to do as it seemed it was normal. I didn't have any concept that people drank at different paces... it was just pint for pint. So why didn't I just treat it like a coffee - people sup a brew however they like? Well, there's the physical act of getting up and going to the bar. There's also the querying of whether you want another pint. And there's the image pressure I felt of not wanting a comment about "struggling with my pint", like I was weaker than the others.
  • I drank as regularly as he drank. When I was very young this was five nights a week, but by the time I was 18 this was down to three at weekends. By the time I started drinking most of my friends had moved away so I naturally went out with my dad - Friday night was a big event, something I looked forward to after a week at college. And then Saturday was empty with another night out at the end of it, and usually Sunday too. Why didn't I just do this with him as little as I did everything else? - well, it was the first time I'd ever really done anything alone with him and been able to speak to him. I liked how the drink made it possible for us both to talk - we do have a lot in common.
  • I developed my sense of being "the organiser", the chief morale officer, the one responsible for the happiness of the group. Before this I was very individualistic but from this point on, my contentment became very closely tied in to how the group was doing. I would then put myself in situations that weren't the best for me, but for the group. He did, and does, the same. Why didn't my happiness just derive from myself? - that's just the way I am. I'm very sensitive to people's moods and don't feel happy until others are.
All of this isn't an attempt to blame him, or anyone, for the way things turned out. Short of someone pouring beer down a funnel into my throat (which only happened once at that frat party in San Fran, '04), the only person I can blame is myself. What I'm trying to do is look back and see how it happened - I'm genuinely curious of the process.

Now, all of this carried on for a few years, as I remember. I was mostly around Blackburn and I don't think things were too bad back then. This was right at the beginning of what we called at the time "the experiment", wherein Blackburn was the country's guinea pig for late licensing laws. Prior to this, 99% of nights would end when the club closed at midnight, frequently earlier. Post to this may well be what was the real start of my problems. You see, when the Napier began staying open later into the night, as well as a few other pubs in town, it became a viable option not just to get a taxi home and have supper before bed, but to get that taxi into town with a few other people and carry on the night.

And this just progressed, over time, into today's situation of entirely unpredictable opening hours stretching absurdly late into the night. That whole debate is for another time, but I can say it was not in my best interests. Prior to this I had been doing a reasonable job of drinking normally and going home, eating, having a brew and sleeping at a normal time - if, you will, the "old" way of drinking. Suddenly these extra hours extended that and none of us could resist it.

The constant argument that comes back when "cafe culture" is mentioned is that it's for the continentals and doesn't suit us. I firmly agree with this. Having been all around Europe I can attest that it's a great thing over there, where the culture has had centuries to adapt to it and has social rules firmly in place to work alongside it. But for the British? - we are historically a nation of hard drinkers who have needed to be controlled. See for example the 1830 Beer Act which was designed to end the gin plague the country endured at the time, with three quarters of London homes a dram shop. This in turn led to 40,000 homes turning into "public houses", the forerunner of today's pubs, which themselves had to be controlled during World War I with the introduction of "last orders". Historically, British drinking has needed control to avoid becoming self-destructive.

I digress. The point in question here is that the new late opening hours acted simply as an invitation, to me, to drink more. It was an easy way to extend the night and have more fun. From this time on, I think I've struggled with a sense of self-control any time after 11 or 12 - it's like the habits of those early years are hard-wired in to my head, and anything afterward is prone to end badly.

I'm fully aware that talking through these events can easily be interpreted as my attempt to rationalise and justify my behaviour today by events beyond my control. I'm not doing that. What I wish to explain is how events that at the time seem perfectly harmless or even beneficial, can in time turn out to be harmful. This early sequence of events in my drinking career (which is by far my favourite expression used among the beer blogging community) did, I think, set me on a path towards where I am today.

A discussion of the pro's and con's of that licensing legislation is well worth a post, even a book, on its own - I think that was really the beginning of the death of the pub scene, far before the smoking ban. But that's by the by. Tomorrow, I'll have a think back at the following stage of my career.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Rock bottom

These confessionals are tricky to know where to begin, so it seems best to just state a few facts and let this flow from there. When I started this a year ago, writing about what was going on at the time proved as cathartic as writing always has done for me. I hope this is still the case as I've contributed very little to the web since then - mostly, I think, because I've been a predominantly happy chappy.

Alas that is the case no more, as a problem has reared its head. (I wouldn't say I'm intensely unhappy either, but then a deep down analysis of the vagaries of my mood isn't what this page is about.) If you've read any of the prior posts on here, you'll know that I've had a problem with drinking for a while now. If you haven't read them, go have a look for an idea of where I was a year ago with it all.

I did a month off drinking and at the time that felt like a success. Unfortunately, since then my drinking has caused problems to me and to others and it finally hit breaking point this weekend just passed. Cue one very drunken argument with her dearest to me, a day spent coming to terms with thoughts of being alone again, a day off work laid motionless thinking about things, and then today.

Today I went to see one of Blackburn's alcohol misuse teams (yep, one of). The first trigger for this, to be honest, was the intense sense of panic I felt at the thought of losing her. My immediate reaction, as always, was to assume blame and think logically what I should do to fix the situation.

A little later, going on in to a long sleepless night characteristic of a body recovering from a binge, I laid thinking about what had gone on, trying to piece things together. It's one of the most difficult parts about drinking too much - sometimes you can't trust your opinion of whether you were in the right or wrong. Over the next few hours I drifted back to events from the past. The same conclusion threw itself up more times than not - I'd caused a problem by being so drunk I didn't have any recollection of being in control of my actions. These times stand out to me because I'm normally quite a peaceful man so they bob up and down in memory like a flashing buoy in the ocean.

I think I've never had to face up to the way I behave because I maintain a large circle of friends and family so any one person's exposure to this kind of mad behaviour is limited. The exception is her, who over more than a year has witnessed a fair few incidents.

The sense of guilt and remorse I've felt since I seemed to see those incidents in a new light for the first time, is difficult to express. I think it explains one of the two motivations I have for taking this so seriously this time, and involving professionals and by extension my GP and people close to me, which is that I need to know fully again what kind of person I am sober. People tell me all the time that I change, and my reaction is always "well yeah, everyone changes after they've drunk" - but like I said before, I can't trust my drunk opinion enough to judge other people's opinion of me. I need to know things against the great leveller of being sober to know how right or wrong I am. I want to know if me drinking too much is the cause of our problems, or if it's something else - that's probably an extension of my desire to fix everything and get a true answer at all costs. My belief at the moment is that the variance in my character and behaviour after a drink probably accounts for two thirds of the problems we have, with the rest being either down to her being in a crap mood or one of those genuine disagreements that crop up from time to time. I can't know or prove this, though, until I remove them from the equation.

The second motive is, well, a kind of grim acceptance that I'm hurting myself. I've been able to ignore certain things for quite a while now, for various reasons, but recently they've all begun to catch up with me. I've developed an excellent talent in keeping the separate parts of my life ticking over just well enough to avoid messing them up, to give me enough time to fit drinking in too. Alas, even after perfecting the art it becomes so intensely wearsome at times that I can't take it any more. I've also developed a strong sense of self-loathing in a way I'd grown very unfamiliar with in recent years. I think I despise weakness in people so much that seeing myself being weak and lieing to myself constantly makes me feel sick about myself.

My intention at the moment is to stop, indefinitely. The guy today said doing that can be dangerous, but I've done it before and indeed it's two days since I've touched anything already. It feels like a bad time of year to do it, but I honestly feel like a long break is the best way for me - and I know I need someone's help to manage it, because intellectually I always reason that I can do it myself, but drinking isn't much of an intellectual opponent and usually beats me down with iron fists after two rounds. I need to know whether this fear I've never lost that I'm boring when I'm sober is true, or if it's just a remnant from how shy I was 10 years ago. I think I've been weak in relying on drink to carry me through social occasions and give me a break from the whirlwind in my head 24/7, so I need to experience life just as I am naturally. My aim with this blog is threefold, really: 1) to stop me keep on lieing to myself, and bring it into the open, 2) as a way for me to keep in touch with the people who I've chosen to share this problem with, and 3) for me to explain and look into a lot of the things I've always wondered contribute to a problem like this.

In a funny way, for a split second today while I was sat answering questions about whether I was planning to self-harm and whether I'd ever used a weapon, I thought that all of this at least gives me something constructive to think and write about, and it might even make a good dissertation topic. We'll see what comes out over the next few months.

Tomorrow: where I think all this began.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Easy enough

No problems so far in having this little break and I can feel already that the physical urges have passed. That's the hardest part for me, when I feel something inside, not quite a craving but an urge, to go and sit somewhere with a pint. There's an almost visible link in my head between that action and a feeling of contentment, which is probably one of the main reasons I find stopping difficult.

It's going fine this time though and I'm making the most of it by pouring my time into a bit of web design. The hours fly by when I'm doing that and it's something I never have the motivation for if I'm tired, so now's a good time while I have a very regular sleep pattern and am waking up alert. The 5-HTP seem to be doing their job too, so all's looking good at the moment.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

An attempt to learn from the past

One of the difficulties I've faced in the past is that my character is such that I feel a strong need to blend in to my surroundings. I don't like to stand out and garner attention. This means that when I've made some kind of proclamation or announcement, I feel very uncomfortable about it afterwards because it draws attention to me.

Therefore, rather than make a big announcement this time, I'm just quietly going to have a little break from drinking. Just a couple of weeks after this Friday, while (for once) I'm not committed to being anywhere or doing anything. I'll just take it easy for a bit and see if anyone notices or comments. I imagine someone will since it'll mean I won't be out and about as normal, and I'll probably curse myself halfway through, but it's in order as festivalling has depleted my batteries a bit recently. I did one all-nighter and it killed me the whole day after - how's that for a sign of age! I've found I need stark reminders like that to help modify my habits, and they are, after all, habits of a lifetime.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Something of a setback

I'm feeling pretty low at the moment. To cut a long story short, it seems she doesn't like me much at the moment, because I've been having a few drinks. Even just something moderate, which is what I've been doing. I haven't been drunk even though I've had a couple of things on this week, and it was good getting through crappy wintry days at work knowing I could relax with a pint and a natter with people at the end of it. I've missed that over the last month and I thought everything was going okay with it (because we'd been out together a couple of times and she seemed fine with me, even said she had a good night) but she's since been funny with me all week and it turns out she'd got the idea I'd been secretly drinking, or keeping it quiet, or something - not sure of the specifics of exactly what I'm supposed to have done, but you get the idea. It all stemmed from a misunderstanding over an empty wine bottle - I'd had a glass and as the recycling had just gone out, I put the bottle back in the cupboard rather than start a new pile straight away. Didn't give it a second thought really, it was just one of those things with a simple reason that you do a hundred times a day and forget about. I don't know why she's gone looking in that cupboard at my house to find this bottle and get angry about, and I haven't asked since it would detract from the main issue, but it's just spiralled from there. I asked her last night what was up and when she said "if you'd finished with a bottle would you put it back in the cupboard?" this massive wave of gloom washed over me, it felt like we were back at square one and I'd made precisely no progress with her at all. In addition, I have a very low boredom threshold with absurd arguments and that misunderstanding just left me so exasperated I was almost laughing out of delirium.

I'm trying to be rational about my feelings because I'm very wary of being defensive. But I think I've broken that defensiveness down already, by going on this very mission to change things. It would have been easier to reject her opinions and carry on regardless of the end result, but I like her too much to risk that. I feel really disappointed. I don't know if I've kept so much of this to myself that it hasn't been obvious the effort I've put in because I care about her, but a little bit of compassion from her would have been nice. Instead I find I'm still not acceptable, and I feel very much on my own and thinking I may as well keep it all in my head since people like her have the empathy of a disinterested pebble quite often. It was hard for about four or five days when I first gave up, but that was mostly boredom kicking in and I got over it and did a month sober absolutely no problem, in fact it was a really good way to get through God-awful January and I might try to recruit someone to try it too next year. So yeah, I did that no problem, and have been sensible in the past week and either gone home early or really slowed my drinking when I can feel it. I know I've said I don't have an off switch but I'm not a fucking junkie and I can stop when I want to. So it seems like I was right in what I said a few weeks ago, that she's inevitably formed a comparison between me not drinking at all and me having a drink, and prefers the former. That original problem with drinking too much has become drinking at all, because she prefers the other. I am now in the situation where even moderate social drinking annoys her. I think the root of the problem is that she doesn't like that part of me that I wrote about earlier, that I become a bit more extrovert in a group situation and pay less attention to her. I thought she'd know that's how I am in a group and indeed how all group situations, by very definition, work, that there are more people so you can't pay as much attention to each one. I haven't had enough time yet to develop my thinking beyond that, but from what I've managed to get out of her that area is the real problem and the other things that have come up are extraneous symptoms that have been distracting from the real point.

I am disappointed. It feels shit to try really hard at something, and think you're doing okay, and then still be told you're not good enough. I can't help feeling a bit down about that. I sit questioning myself and what I'm like after I've had a beer, and I know I change - that's the very nature of it! But it changes everyone, so I guess the question is what I'm doing or being that she doesn't like. I am a bit angry too, I must admit. I've known from the start she's not the most tolerant person around and her character is pretty aggressive sometimes, but that's part of the deal in being with her and it doesn't usually bother me much at all. I used to get annoyed at her ranting about work straight after work, but then I realised I'm lucky enough to be able to forget about it straight away whereas she needs to vent it, and I shouldn't stop her doing that. Part of me thinks that she is being intolerant of me and wanting me to change rather than accepting things about me, but there's also the other (dominant) part of my nature that presumes I am in the wrong and tells me I must change to accommodate her. I did it a lot with my last girlfriend, bended and gave in on a lot of things so that we fit together, but in the end of course you can only change so many things in your nature before it makes you serially unhappy with what you're trying to be. I hoped the sober month showed that not drinking wasn't a big deal to me, and the odd bit of social drinking would be fine since it's something I enjoy like most people do, but if even that's a problem... I don't know. I'm not going to bother even telling myself I might lose patience trying to accommodate her because I know I'll assume blame here and set about fixing things, but it does spark a series of thoughts about what my path to inner contentment is and whether my desire for peace and love (maaaan) is inadvertently causing me distress.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A sober month completed

I haven't added anything new for a while because the past couple of weeks blurred together. The impulse to do something at the weekend wasn't there and I was quite content passing the time doing odds and sods, bits of nothing really - I watched a lot of TV, not much else.

I did a month without drinking and had a few drinks at the weekend. I'd been out on Friday for a birthday, but found it really boring by the end. I'd never really thought of it that way before, but I couldn't imagine going round to a mate's house and sitting talking for four hours solid, but that's kind of what I was doing by going to pubs sober. I'm still not the biggest fan of going out and not drinking, although I know it's not that bad really, so in future I think I will be happier just not going out if I am not drinking. I don't enjoy the company of drunks and feel bad for making people awkward and self-conscious by having a sober person sat there with their brains fully switched on while they begin to relax and get silly. I don't like putting people in that situation by my presence, so I'll probably just stay at home more often than not.

I had a few pints of bitter and felt fine - no "going to my head" episodes! I was paying attention to the speed I drank and managed to control things okay. It was a pleasant night and although I went out again on Sunday I was tired and didn't have many. Yesterday was an interesting one. I was curious to compare how I would feel then as opposed to the past month. And I could feel the crooked fingers of gloom trying to paw at me. It is a combination of the depressant effect of alcohol with having to be up too early to go to work, meaning the first part of the day is spent fighting against its effects. I take two things from this - firstly that I am at that age now where my body doesn't recover as quickly as it once did, and that drinking more than a couple of nights in a row is probably the point when I begin to get a bit boo-hoo afterwards. It certainly didn't use to depress me quite so much but that doesn't change the fact that it does now, so to keep that at bay I'll have to give my body all the time it needs to handle things properly.

I think I'll pass this on to my girlfriend now. She's been good for the past month, and any time I've got defensive I've realised after a moment that it was just me being silly. I hope the past month showed her that I take what she says seriously and that I'm not a slave or addict to anything; the thought of that repulses me so I can understand why she wouldn't want it that way either. We come from different backgrounds and trying to adapt to her ways is really difficult sometimes, this being just one of them, so my hope is that the changes I'm making help us meet somewhere in the middle. As I said right at the start, conflict goes against everything in my nature which is probably why I've gone on this masochistic journey in the first place, but to people like me, well, it's better to take the hits yourself if it keeps the peace. The next step is to work on keeping things moderate. Everyone knows that silly voice in your head that says "just another one", and everyone gives in to it sometimes, but it seems to piss her off so much if I slip that we stop liking each other. I know where she's coming from since I don't like her much either when she's had one too many but I've never known it be such a problem to someone before. So, well, the great experiment I started a month ago continues and I keep on trying to re-program myself to be a better man.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Tempus fugit

Good lord, Thursday already? I'd done a good job of writing daily until now, but as always seems to happen with these things, it's proved impossible to keep up the pace. Truth be told, anything in the last few days would have only been filler. I have been busy every evening and by the time I'm home I rarely have the energy to sit and muse.

By Saturday it will have been two weeks. As I said to a mate yesterday, I'd half-hoped I'd be leaping about with excess energy by now, but it seems that all alcohol does is cream off the top 10% so you still end up feeling pretty much the same. I was curious what effect it would have on my other little ailments, namely my chronic heartburn and strange little pain around my hip. So far as the heartburn goes, it has proved helpful in offering a little support to my belief that I'm not so much suffering from persistent heartburn, but rather a burned or damaged oesophagus which is irritated by occasional heartburn. It feels vaguely better but that may just be psychosomatic. As for the hip, well, that's just the same so it's probably unrelated to drinking completely.

My girlfriend wrote a note on the internet last night that causes me to ponder where to go from here. She was full of praise for how over "the last week and a bit" - what a coincidence! - something "has clicked". In these situations, I become WOPR and fly into the future to predict as many scenarios as possible. Invariably, pessimism wins and I then have to conjure ways of defeating what has not yet happened. The future with the highest likelihood seems to be one where she associates me not drinking at all with things being great. I do not want this association to form as I'm tired already of even thinking about the long, dull conversations about moderation, temperance, a little bit of everything, etc etc etc...

Undeniably, things have been mellow over the past fortnight. But then again, things are smooth 99% of the time anyway so it's not much of a change, really. All it's done is stop those times when I've had a drink (not anything excessive, just a normal few drinks) and it sets my mind free from the normal routine of how my head works, I lose myself and begin to think extrovertly rather than introvertly; a consequence of this is that I want to do and feel things I normally can't so I lose interest in the touchy-feely stuff and pay her less attention because I want to communicate with other people. I guess that's not just down to drink but also my attitude to a group situation, that I don't want someone next to me niggling away all the time while I've got the group to think about. She doesn't seem to think that way and in the past has probably blamed it on drink but perhaps Saturday night may have shown her that it is how I need to be in a group.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

A full day out

Something of a victory, yesterday. To follow the analogy of the speech at school, the second time was by no means perfect but it was certainly easier. I will not look back with the advantage of hindsight as in these cases it is tainted and useless; the temptation is there to break yesterday down into small chunks and look back on them thinking hah, what on Earth was I worried about? Yet that would be to ignore the very real fears I had at the time. I would suggest that an important part of this process of changing my feelings toward drink is not to forget completely what my old compulsions were like, but to remember and understand them as a warning for the future.

I had to field a few questions about why I wasn't drinking. The stock answers worked well enough - I'd had enough after Christmas, I was saving a bit of money (and Christ, have I saved some money), I usually try to have a bit of a break in January. It worked well enough in the whole. I think it depends a lot on who's asking the questions. With people I know well - and yesterday I was lucky enough to spend the whole day with people I know well - I can laugh off any silly answers I get back without feeling I need to explain myself. For some reason, with people I'm not too confident around I get an urge to explain every last detail of why I'm doing this, as if I'm an innocent terrorist suspect having to justify my every last action.

It was good to spend the night with people knowing I could do it without a drink. At times, I felt a little tired by the effort it takes to be outgoing while sober, and had to have a quiet moment. I felt like I would have had a better time with a few drinks, but probably only because it would have taken that edge off, that constant awareness that I had to make an effort to stay on the same level as everyone else. I was with a good bunch, though. Wit is the order of the day rather than drunken outrageousness, so it wasn't too hard to fit in; indeed, my mind is sharper while sober so I caught more of what went on. If only the headaches would go! Sugar pounding through my head from the lemonades and fruit juices... only at the end can I muster the will to get a glass of water, a moral point deeply rooted in my head from years of the stance: pubs are for drinking!

This weekend has given me some confidence. It would be easy for this to become a depressing chronicle of my fears and woes, but it's important to mark the high points too, and I'm pleased that a week into my attempt to rid myself of the old habits, I've broken through one of my main fears: being incapable of seeing people socially without a drink to help me through.

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.