Coffee Shop Sermon (Sober observations special)
[Trigger warning: Discussion of death and alcoholism]
The interesting thing about being sober in a society that largely evolves around finding ways to forget the society we have created, is how people interact with you when you have chosen to take another approach. Welcome to my sober observations 'special'.
Alcohol has been a part of British culture for thousands of years - the first recorded reference was by the Romans in 55 BC as they noticed the locals made apples more exciting, getting quite into the produce themselves. Celtic tribes are known to have been producing Cider as far back as 3000 BC, so it is fair to say we have a well-developed tolerance for the stuff. I guess it was a much tastier and entertaining way to create something to drink that wouldn't give you dysentry. It's tasty, addictive, makes you (think you are) fun at parties, so why throw myself off the fast flowing boozy log flume of fun?
Well, there are also the downsides. As with anything that is mood altering, it is addictive, and some people are better at reigning in the impulse to become a staggering, super-sexy, ultra-witty dance machine on a regular basis. When life gives you stress, the urge to change your reality with a quick trip to Tesco for a box of Shiraz is exceptionally simple to full fill - hell, you could even set up next day delivery through Amazon if going out is too much hassle. Access to booze has never been easier, though efforts such as the alcohol minimum pricing act passed by the Scottish Parliament is having some positive effects around these parts.
It's easy to become a 'functioning alcoholic' where you maintain a job and family without acknowledging there is a problem. The old adage that 'you don't get something for nothing' certainly applies here, and all those good times don't come without a cost. Diet tends to suffer and though you might eat less, the calories in alcoholic drinks (like wine) or associated mixers soon pile on the weight and help speed you down the track to diabetes. That crappy diet and dehydration also brings other joyous side effects, like haemorrhoids and more serious effects, such as fatty incursions into your liver. There are also the simpler effects - though you may pass out for hours after a sesh, alcohol is one of the few things that has no positive influence on sleep and energy recovery. You think you are killing it at work while being a party animal? Possibly - but you're probably capable of a whole lot more. It will also crush your ability to deal with adversity in a reasonable way - you'll become a tetchy, reactionary nightmare, little by little. And you won't even realise it till you stop and look back, if you are able to.
Dying from alcohol abuse is a horrible, painful and undignified way to go. It has been nearly two years since I lost my friend, Neil, to alcohol. We only met up once or twice a year, speaking regularly online, so it was easy for his struggles to go un-noticed or, like when he came to visit me in Scotland, explaining away the bruising on the side of his face being caused by tripping over his friends dog leads rather than the issues he was starting to experience with being unable to bend his legs properly and balance. When he gave up drinking, I soon followed suit; when he started drinking again six months later, I stayed sober. He never told me that he had given up because it was his last chance to kick the habit and his Dad told me, after his passing, that Neil was pleased to think he had encouraged me to quit. The truth was a bit more complex, and I remember testily rebuking him for claiming, during a group conversation, that he had inspired me to quit; I was irritated by what I perceived to be him trying to own my journey and take the credit, which I regret. It was actually a Louis Theroux interview with Frankie Boyle and an increasing self awareness of my deteriorating health that was the trigger but, there is no doubt that knowing Neil had managed to quit, as a product of the 1980's "check the size of my bank balance" hard drinking, middle-England, Thatcherite generation proved to me it could be done. Thank you Neil, rest in peace.
The last weeks of Neil's life involved me talking to him by telephone from my back garden after work - I still find it hard to enjoy sitting in my garden around this time of year. We would talk about the menu choices at the hospital, the diet he was on, how he was helping other residents on his ward place horse-racing bets (successful, of course) and always how I was to be positive about this and that he would soon be home. He was very convincing. He was still taking part in weekly pub quizzes online with us through his iPad, giving rise to the legendary misspelling of kookaburra as 'kakbo' as he fought to use it with drips in his arms. Neil didn't realise his headphones were not working properly (and neither did we) until a nurse asked him to turn the sound down to stop the music rounds and our colourful language disturbing the other patients. I cringe to think that anyone's last memories were us laughing "For fuck's sake Boff, what the hell is a Kakbo?!?! HAHAHAHHA". It wasn't until the last time I spoke to him that I heard tired fear in his voice and he properly described his situation - I think by that point he had finally accepted this was a battle he was not going to win, though he wouldn't say it out loud and I didn't want to hear it anyway. It was along the lines of "I've got to go now. Food just goes right through me, and I need to wear a nappy. And I am tired." That line knocked the wind out of me and he kept the conversation going as long as he could, which was different to all our previous conversations where he was keen to get away for dinner. He sounded a little scared, but still determined. The indignity of how his failing body was acting finally brought our conversation to a close. I was the last person he spoke to, and I can only hope I was a good enough friend to him.
The symptoms for cirrhosis of the liver are not a pleasant read and, after losing Neil, enough to convince me that my addictive personality doesn't need alcohol in my life anymore. I undoubtedly get that trait from my family (my grandfather on my father's side was an alcoholic I never met) though it hasn't particularly manifested itself in my father - my mother keeps him in check- so perhaps his struggles were a product of his environment rather than his DNA. My parents do occasionally ask in awe "still off the drink?" as if I am some sort of modern miracle, and it's interesting how that plays out with the rest of my family and friends. People are hesitant to ask you 'out for a drink' despite this being a boom era for alcohol-free alternatives. It's a curious thing to observe - a strange concern that a non-drinker somehow won't be able to participate in conversation without a skin-full. There seems to be a subconscious worry about how a sober person will integrate and take part in an alcohol-fuelled gathering; I don't even think it is a concern about having a sober person remembering what happens during the evening as their own memory becomes impaired (though it is funny to watch people's stages of inebriation and evolution into a self-centred social hero), rather a jarring sense of having someone around that's not conforming to the norm. It's curious, and as someone not given to performative pleasing of others, I probably don't help to overcome that.
As well as these social awkwardness consequences that aren't anyone's fault, giving up alcohol can also reveal what, perhaps, it was employed to mask in the first place. Your personal awareness gets dialled up, like suddenly discovering how to use the camera on your brand-new phone properly for taking close-up pictures of a flower. Personality traits and behaviours that were smothered by the confident, totally-amazing-dancer-honest persona created by alcohol are allowed to run free for the first time in years. Perhaps they were always there but, like you, were just bumbling along as a low-level version of themselves, and suddenly they are running free. It can be daunting to realise that, what you thought was a consequence of booze and its effects, was just a dull version of the real thing which is suddenly free of the weighted blanket that smothered them and they are now crying out for your attention. It's not something I expected that advice might have prepared me for.
Sobriety after so long on the boozey log-flume of fun is a journey of discovery, and though I managed to go cold turkey without assistance, I wasn't prepared for the cluster-fuck of knock-on effects that accompanied it - it's easy to see why people easily relapse. I don't crave drink and can happily chug Heineken 0.0% on a night out till I am going to the toilet regularly to not only piss, but to conceal that I am farting like a gassy elephant. I am lucky, and perhaps stronger than I give myself credit for. There are plenty of organisations out there to help, and catching people like Frankie Boyle or Alisdair Campbell (choose your own 'personality' of interest) talking honestly about their own battles with addiction helped me get into the mindset of giving up without needing the help of strangers. Everyone is going to be different in what interventions they need, and it might take you a while to find the right fit for you but despite the challenges that may follow, it's worth it and if you are determined, you can do it.
I still send Frankie Boyle a short message on the anniversary of my giving up alcohol and to be fair, he (or his social media manager) replies each time - it's a little reminder to myself that I am doing well, which I cherish. Typically, in my over-active imagination, I now feel that if I don't send that message each year, Frankie will be wracked with worry about what has happened to me. He absolutely won't, but isn't it funny what our brains do to us?