‘Alcoholism continues long after you stop drinking’: my 15 years sober
The Guardian, by Tanya Gold
It is easy to get morphine in University College hospital, London, if you are a good liar. It hurts, you tell the midwife, although you can’t feel anything, being so high on morphine already that someone could hit you with a sledgehammer and you would only laugh: what else you got? It was close to midnight on 13 August 2013, and I was on medical-grade opiates; nothing else can make you forget you are about to give birth. Eleven years without alcohol or drugs, and I fell, complete, into the waiting groove. I loved it. I was having a party in the high-risk maternity ward and they didn’t even know it. I lay back on my pillow and gurned with joy: oh, Morpheus, god of dreams.
When the morphine ran out, I had a baby. He was very small and handsome, and he was an imposition. I could say I was frightened, but that would be self-serving. It is possible, even likely, that I was afraid. I was definitely high.
I stared at him and thought: I am more vulnerable than you, even if you are a baby. Then I told the midwife: my husband is trying to kill me. My evidence was that he had brought me a tin of biscuits. This, then, was the comedown, and I was at the bottom of the curve. I must have said that the baby was not important to me, because my husband became angry and I became angry, and I told him I hated him and had never loved him. I considered walking out into the traffic, or throwing myself under a train, and that was our baby’s first night on Earth. We went home and I locked myself in my bedroom, without the baby, and looked at photographs of him on Facebook, and ate a ham.
Strange things can bring you to a crisis, like realising that you cannot read Dickens out of jealousy. Or more obvious ones, like thinking: the baby should live with my sister, she will do this better than me. Or, when he was two months old: when is he going to university? In my history of alcoholism, I have been at my most healthy when I knew that I was ill. If you remind yourself that you are ill, you can do better. Now, in my son’s room, wishing his childhood away because I did not know how to care for him, I knew I was ill. I was not drinking or using drugs, but I was as lonely and frightened as I had ever been. I was back where I had started.
Alcoholism is a strange condition. If you survive the drinking stage, and many don’t, it has relatively little to do with alcohol, which is merely the drug with which the alcoholic treats herself. It is, rather, a way of thinking, and continues long after you have stopped drinking. It is a voice in the head: a malevolent voice that wants you to die. I certainly see it that way: it makes it easier to pick my way through the days if I know what, exactly, I am dealing with. Is this the voice speaking, or not? Which one made a decision, and which one doubted it? To discover the true root of any plan can require forensic vigour, and much time. It is perpetual inner warfare.
The party in the maternity ward aside, I have not taken drugs or alcohol for 15 years. You might think I would be better by now, but for the alcoholic there is nothing as prosaic as “better”. There is only a daily remission, based on how you deal with the voice in your head. (“Hello, monster. Where have you been?”)
One morning in early 2002, at perhaps 5am, which is, as all addicts know, when the night breaks, leaving you with mashed lips and mad eyes, I stood in front of the mirror in my mother’s house. I had been drinking alcoholically – that is, without stopping – for almost nine years, and I was very near the end. I pointed at myself – I remember myself as a very attractive drunk, red-lipped and irresistible, but this is the voice again, for I was nothing of the sort – and I said, very clearly, “I hate you and I wish you would die.” I knew then what the voice in my head wanted, and how powerful it was. It made a mistake by being honest and, because it made a mistake, I lived.
I could no longer blame circumstances or others; I would have to do something about it myself. It is frightening, seeing yourself wish death on yourself in a mirror, and – because you are full of cocaine, as well as alcohol – being able to remember it. Alcohol shrouds itself in blackout, and you wake to a queasy blank; but cocaine is very bright, and pointed – it is almost telescopic. I was frightened enough to attempt one year without alcohol.
I was prepared to be conscious (I loved the WH Auden line “But who can live for long/In an euphoric dream?”) but I was under the delusion I was a literary genius, even though the only job I could get at the time was as a freelance reporter for a now defunct Daily Mail showbusiness column called Wicked Whispers. Wicked Whispers was so awful that, occasionally, the subs forgot to put it in the paper and no one would notice. If the celebrities I stalked stared at me, and asked, kindly, about my pitiful excuse for a career, I was stunned. Looking askance at Gillian Anderson when she, clearly and without malice, pities you, is, for me, a definitive act of insanity.
I was too scared to drink alcohol, but I couldn’t do anything else about a condition I barely understood. I went to self-help groups in gloomy church annexes, which seemed as despairing – though less vivid – as what I had left behind, and heard people talk about “spiritual growth”. I missed my near-death, for it had not been boring. I did not know what they were talking about. I could not hear them. I said I was an alcoholic, because I supposed I must be, but I didn’t really know what it meant.
I did know I needed a new soul, the old one having broken, and I chose to build it with ink. I thought that I should be a famous journalist, so I stood outside the Daily Mail building and offered up a prayer, like Salieri: Lord, make me a great short-form showbusiness columnist, and then, if you think it right, Lord, may I progress to features. I got a job on the features desk, a job I called “Idiot Girl”. I was required to report in fancy dress – Saxon peasant, old woman – and I loved it. It was evidence of my survival: she mugs, she pratfalls, she lives! The voice was impressed, and temporarily silenced. (I believe everyone is a secret Daily Mail reader, even the voice.)
I built a career in journalism but I felt, always, that the person in print had nothing to do with me. She looked like me, but she was my ghost, and she was not reliable. I could never stop working, but I could never stay in any job; as soon as I arrived, I yearned to leave. I became marvellous at being fired and learned to soothe, and even thank, the person who was firing me, the better to start again at the beginning. It was a game I played with myself. I would procrastinate over my work to stoke the fear, but I was not lazy. I met a sensitive, clever man and married him, but I worked on my wedding day. I worked on my honeymoon. I worked in the labour ward, until I was offered the morphine. I was terrified of losing things and I would try to lose them so I could be, momentarily, at peace. My husband, at least, knew that, which is probably why I chose him. I am not a complete idiot.
I was, for a while, a columnist, but that was no good, either. To write a good column, I had to work myself into such a state of rage that the week was empty of anything else. I had a schedule of rage, which I followed dutifully; if I wrote on Wednesday, I would be numb on Thursday and would then stoke the rage over the weekend. On Monday, the rage would ebb, to be replaced by terror, which would reach a pitch on Tuesday night, after which I would write what seemed to me not sentences, but tiny, insistent stabs. That is not a job; it is a condition.
I was still at the mercy of the voice, but she had regressed to sludge. She manifested as a cloud of anxiety that travelled with me and occasionally mutated, helpfully, into dread, and then back to anxiety. I was a cartoon character with a personal cloud, Charlie Brown with a mood disorder.
Late summer in 2013, I was sitting in a self-help group. This one was surrounded by a very fine, old graveyard, like a metaphor, with many famous intellectuals in fabulous tombs; we sat calmly with the dead, as if we belonged there. The baby was at home in the cradle. I always said the same thing at this self-help group, and they were very patient with me. If I had published a good article in the previous 24 hours, I was happy because I existed in a form with which I was comfortable, and which other people could recognise and approve of. If not, I moped, and complained that I was not happy. I avoided self-help groups where they talked about their gratitude. I did not believe them.
I listened and thought about how much, then, I hated being an alcoholic. I mourned the lives I could have lived if I had not been cursed with this condition. I could have been an MEP! I could have been a chef! I wondered, in a broad way, what had happened, and what I could do. I became aware, quite suddenly in the quiet by the graveyard, of the constancy of the voice. I had waited, every day for 15 years, to wake up and find she had gone, and that was my error.
I knew then that she has always been there. When I was five, she told me my parents didn’t love me. I remember repeating, very insistently, to my parents that I knew they did not love me, because she had told me so. Evidence doesn’t matter to the voice; she kicks it away. She cherishes a passing piece of thoughtlessness, nurtures a harm. She lives in the small places beneath my conscious mind.
When I was 10, she said I was friendless at a noisy suburban school. When I was 12, and mooching about the dull streets of Kingston upon Thames, she said I was alone, and probably always would be. For the nine years of my active alcoholism, she told me to drink, first because it wouldn’t harm me – and what else was there? – and then because I couldn’t be saved.
She says only what she can get away with. She could never, for instance, convince me that my sister doesn’t love me; instead, she tormented me, when I was drinking, with the possibility that my sister might die. She wants so much to be believed, this voice, and is almost as pitiful as the other me, which is the one that is writing this story: the one that wants to live. I am quite aware how mad this sounds, but it is the truest narrative of my alcoholism that I can offer. Perhaps in 15 years I will have another one.
We coexist uneasily, today, the voice and I; she tells me to procrastinate over my work, to start fights, to give up. If I am unwary, she can plunge me into the deepest despair, and I have learned to construct an obstacle course to thwart her. It is made only of ordinary human love. Nothing else works.
My son helps me. His is three now, and knows what is important. “I must teach you to play, Mummy,” he says, and invites me, without irony, to pretend to be a monster. Then, of course, the voice whispers, “You have made him a parental child”: a creature who will care for me and not himself. I try to ignore her, because I cannot send her away. But I wonder now if it is she who is afraid, and not I.