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".