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A Successful Ascent to Alcoholism

Four and a half years ago, I was 30 years old, physically sick, mentally unstable, deluded, bloated, permanently hung over, completely obsessed with alcohol, constantly promising to quit and plagued by recurring night terrors, cruelly book ended with acute heartburn and leg cramps.

I was opinionated, a questionable influence on others, far from a model employee, unscrupulous and fearful. Fearful of everything. I had become scared of looking after my own children and all of my time seemed to be spent either blind drunk, half cut or sitting with my head in my hands in a pit of incomprehensible despair. My hangovers were not tempered with breakfast and a brisk walk like my contemporaries. They lasted days and featured hallucinations, insomnia, itching and panic attacks. As wretched as this sounds, it had become a familiar and almost comforting normality.

Alcohol was always my medicine. It gave me the ease and comfort that I could not give myself. For my wife and others, the soporific effects of it were obvious but for me it was like spinach to Popeye. The notion that I could live my life without it was preposterous. I envisaged myself as a mischievous old man drinking a good bottle of Chablis probably in a warm and exotic climate. Much more likely was psoriasis of the liver or an early death from a needless accident.

At a very early age, it was explained to me that if I were to find myself in the unfortunate position of not having a good time then a good drink would rectify this problem. This became the logic that steered the next twenty years.

The good times had been declining for a while now. It was becoming apparent that this reliable old friend was deserting me. With it or without it, I’d become uncomfortable in my own skin. I hated being me and I masked this with bravado and an oversized ego. Despite a fantastic wife, healthy children, a well paying job, a car, a house and friends, I was dissatisfied and lacked gratitude for everything. It wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough.

I was desperate to control and enjoy drinking as I saw others doing. Even though I secretly coveted the qualities of these restrained drinkers, I also hated them and found them to be boring and dull. I had no comprehension of how somebody could consume two drinks at lunchtime and go about their day without finding themselves buying drugs at midnight. As much as I wanted light social inebriation, my default setting seemed to be set to oblivion. I drank as quickly and as much as I could. The fear that time or booze would run out was palpable.

I drank at home, I drank in pubs, I drank before I went out, I sometimes drank in bed, I drank to celebrate and to commiserate, I drank secretly whilst getting a round in at the bar, I drank in dive bars and five star hotels, country houses and shitty flats. I continued to drink in my kitchen when my family had gone to bed, being sure to cough loudly as I opened another can. I sometimes drank in the shower before going out as I thought this to be very rock n roll. I drank because that’s what I did. It was who I was.

I could no longer endure the withdrawals, the panic attacks or the impending doom that was always around the corner. Eventually, I saw that there were two common denominators in all my woes – alcohol and me. These were actually my wife’s words after I’d spent all night crying and vomiting on the bathroom floor due to enormous red wine intake and then in the morning started a wine shopping list for a dinner party that coming evening.

I had stayed up the latest and drank the most. Stood my round, propped up the bar, been the loudest and most provocative. I’d been knowledgeable in my chosen field and demonstrated dedication and stamina. I’d trained hard for twenty years. I exceeded all expectations I had put on myself as a child. I had made it. I was a successful alcoholic. But now time at the bar had been called. The off license shutters were down. I was fucking miserable. I was done.

I came from a family where alcoholism and heavy drinking was the norm. I spent much of my childhood in pubs, rugby club bars and restaurants watching adults drink, waiting for their dregs or, if I was lucky, my own illicit glass. I quickly learned that acting mature and grown up got me the recognition and praise I desired. Other children were often seen as immature and babyish. I knew that emulating the adults was vital and I set about this with conviction.

My first dalliance with alcohol came at aged three where I purloined a bottle of red wine from the Sunday lunch table and drunk as much as I could before passing out then being held over the bath with my mothers fingers lodged down my throat. I don’t recall this event but what I do remember was the ‘boozy medicine’ I was given as a child. It came in a flat brown bottle with a white label. There was great reverence that came with the administering of it. What I do know is that I really liked it. A lot. It had to be hidden in different places, as I’d become a keen hunter for the tonic. I doubt it contained any actual booze but the ‘boozy‘ moniker it went by certainly helped to shape my attitude towards alcohol; forbidden, exciting and bloody tasty.

Every Sunday my grandmother would cook a big Sunday lunch for the family and any stragglers who’d been lucky enough to get an invite during pub drinking. I had the ultimate responsibility – pouring out the Martini Rosso from the crystal decanter. I remember how the light would shine through it and the promise of the mysterious ruby liquid that sat inside waiting. My Grandmother would shout ‘ MARTIIIIINIIIII TIIIIIME’ and like a dog hearing it’s name, I would spring into action, carefully pouring out a glass for each of the adults and then my favourite part of the week; my own glass. My aperitif was usually followed by a glass of warm white wine at the lunch table.

Later in my childhood, I became obsessed with Amaretto Disaronno. This was reserved only for when I was with my Grandmother, our special drink. On my seventh birthday, she took me to a New Forest hotel and we sat in the bar, our glasses of sickly liquor in front of us – mine slightly out of arms reach so not to arouse suspicion from the bar staff. From then on, she would buy me my own bottle of it every Christmas and birthday.

I spent much of my time at my grandmother’s house. Opposite was a large and popular pub called Harahan’s. At the weekends, it seemed that every 16 to 25 year old in the south would descend upon this place, spilling out on the street with drink in hand. This became my weekend cinema. I was completely enthralled by the melee, the noise, the fighting, the urinating on my Grandmother’s rhododendrons and sex in her front garden. She was furious. I was definitely not. This was all seen through the keen lenses of my binoculars whilst I stood on an upturned washing basket. I told my grandmother that I had made a commitment to myself to go there on my own by my 13th birthday.

My obsession mutated. My bedroom walls were adorned with promotional beer posters given to me by bemused landlords; my desk was covered in beer towels and mats. I collected empty bottles of spirits I’d found in the house or round the back of pubs. I had created a shrine at which to worship. I would sit in my bedroom practicing skinning up with tea from the kitchen cupboard in preparation for the magical day when I would convince someone to sell me actual drugs and I’d wow everyone with my rolling prowess. I wasn’t yet ten years old.

At my grandfather’s wake soon after this, a local drinker bought me five bottles of Stella with the preface ‘ you won’t feel sad if you get these down you, there’s a good lad’. Numb from beer and with a pocket full of cigarettes, I wasn’t particularly bothered about his death or anything at all really.

By this time, I felt that there was a large imaginary clock above my head, slowly ticking down to the moment when I could enter a bar on my own and order my own drink.

That fateful night came on my thirteenth birthday in The Westgate Tavern. The elation I felt after purchasing my first pint and turning around and seeing a sea of teenagers all with drinks in hand was overwhelming. I had arrived and I had no intention of going anywhere. Ever.

My life now consisted of applying mascara to bum fluff, doctoring photocopies of my passport and wearing suits in the attempt to breeze past bouncers. I would regularly skip school to go on reconnaissance missions. This would involve entering a selected hostelry at opening time with a tale of my car being fixed in the garage, the astronomical cost and the worry of not getting back in time for a pressing work meeting. Throughout the day, I would divulge all sorts of rot so that there would be no doubt in my credibility. I hoped they would feel sorry for a 19-year-old man that looked like a 13-year-old school boy (and with such bad transport problems too).

My sense of self-loathing was fogged by daytime drinking sessions, drug benders, different girlfriends and plans for the weekend. I told myself that I had no concern over my future and this was partly true. My plan once I got to college was to carry on as before. My friends joined me in my antics but most of them seem to have one eye elsewhere on vocations, dreams, and university. I had a locked focus on oblivion and experience had taught me that this was going to surely serve me just as well.

On my eighteenth birthday I received a very welcome cheque for £9000 that had been held in an insurance fund since a near fatal car crash aged 11. I hired a bar, invited 100 people and had an almighty party for two days then drunk solidly for five more. I got alcohol poisoning and I spent the next six months living the high life. Instead of learning to drive, I spent money on taxis. Instead of traveling the world like many of my friends, I caught the train to London and went clubbing with older people.

The money soon ran out but this persona I’d created had firmly been cemented in my being. I look back on this time now with not fondness but with sadness. A sadness for what could have been. When I played rugby for the county and people said that I had a sporting career ahead of me, I thought that they were lying. I was a good photographer and given opportunities in London studios only to sabotage them from the outset by staying out all night drinking with older woman and turning up late and in no state for work. I felt worthless unless I was playing this hedonistic, no fucks given role. I was offered an opportunity by a rich and powerful acquaintance to photograph a wedding he was involved in. Faced with such self-doubt, I didn’t even turn up. I was rightfully held to account for my actions and made to see the repercussions of my actions. I wasn’t much keen on this. More cocaine and a different girlfriend would sort the shame out.

I took jobs that mainly relied on charm instead of actual skills or qualifications. The remit was that they needed to generously fund the lifestyle I had become accustomed to.

In amongst this, I found love, got married in a very grand fashion, traveled to exciting countries, made friends, lost friends, bought a house, renovated a house and had children. The presence of alcohol was always there, wherever I went and whatever I did. There were definitely three of us in the relationship. I used to take solace in the fact that I was never maudlin, bad tempered, violent or aggressive but by being drunk or hung over most of the time, I was never present.

Four and a half years ago, my uncle visited from abroad and told me in great detail about his alcoholism; what it was like, the torment and anguish it had caused him and what he had done to get well. I listened transfixed. I had a few friends badger me over the years to join them in recovery circles. It always fell on deaf ears, as I knew there was no drinking there but this time it was different. He was telling my story. I tried to ignore his message and carry on as before but I couldn’t unhear what I’d heard.

Two events happened shortly after one another. A cancelled trip to Verona due to a hung over anxiety attack and losing my sister in law on her eighteenth birthday after blacking out and spending the next day phoning hospitals and police stations in a sense of panic I haven’t felt before or since. Two nights before I quit for good, I punched an old adversary in the face after allowing myself to be taunted. This concerned me, as violence had never really been in my repertoire.

I had to change. The fear of carrying on as I was became far greater than the fear of doing something totally different. I took a leap of faith and it turned out to be the best decision I’d ever made. I had also just found out that a writer I admired greatly had got sober aged 30. His life seemed brilliant. Maybe mine could be too. I held his image in my head as I drove to my first AA meeting.

For the next three years, I put as much effort into my recovery as I had done my drinking. I attended support groups five or six times a week. I changed everything of what I had done previously – where I went, whom I socialised with, my routines and with all of that my priorities had changed. I really wanted to be sober and I started to see some hope that spurred me on. Going back was now not an option.

I got an opportunity to evaluate my past in a rigorously honest way. I learned to accept help from people and in turn help others. I also got to make amends to people I had harmed and looked at my resentments towards myself. I became much more self aware, physically fitter and mentally much sharper. I sometimes experienced clarity of thought that I didn’t know possible. I recognised the importance of community. I made deeper connections with others and saw the necessity of this for continued growth.

I’ve now chosen to no longer be involved in twelve step recovery circles but I really value my three years spent in them and the process that I went through. Without having done this it would be unlikely I’d be sober today.

My life is almost unrecognisable to what it once was. I still live in the same house with the same people as I did before but my lifestyle and outlook has changed dramatically. I am grateful to be alive and excited by the world. I now have meaningful and deep relationships that nourish me. I have found the ability to be open, honest and vulnerable in a way that was prohibitive before.

Some people now view my life as boring (all vices have had to stop through necessity, from caffeine to sugar) but I’m the happiest I’ve been. I have a sense of purpose, interests and I’ve surrounded myself with wonderful people. I try and live as honestly as I can, coming from a place of accountability and integrity and not fear and resentment. Today I’m as present as I’ve ever been; I spend everyday with my children and no longer feel the need to take a drink.

I can struggle with self-compassion and self-doubt and the feeling that I’m not wanted or loved can plague me. I can also see my addictions popping up in other ways sometimes but all of this is OK as I know things can and will change given enough willingness, time and right effort.

So what caused all of this carry on in the first place? Probably lots of things but one thing that I’m certain of is that I set out to achieve the life I had. Perhaps I should have paid heed to that old adage and been more careful for what I had wished for.

2 thoughts on “A Successful Ascent to Alcoholism”

  • Really touched by your story Clayton; the madness and misery of alcoholic drinking, & then the huge turn around when you put as much into your recovery as you did your drinking & drugging. Great piece, thank you for sharing 🙏🏻😊

  • This is such a raw and honest piece. I am so impressed that you managed to pull yourself out of the dreadful depths of alcoholism. My mum was an alcoholic, I remember at about 12 years old telling her I was scared that if she had kept drinking she would die. At this point she was not yet ill with her drinking. 10 later she died at only 42 years old. You have done an amazing thing for your children. Xx

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