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.