TALES OF JOHN BARLEYCORN
I’m an alcoholic. When I tell people at parties, they usually don’t know what to say. Some smile as if they already knew; others look confused or worried. Often there’s a pause while they work out their reply. ‘OK,’ they’re thinking, ‘what do I do next?’ or they’re wondering whether I’m joking. Occasionally they say something like, ‘Oh, but you’re all right with drink now?’ and offer me a glass. That’s when I explain that alcoholism doesn’t go away, adding that though I haven’t indulged for twenty years, when I did one Christmas it soon escalated. Even after that there are still a few who won’t take no for an answer — probably first-stage alcoholics themselves — but for most people what they find odd is the idea of total abstinence. To them, saying no to pleasure just isn’t done. It has a nonconformist edge to it, a kind of disrespect for ‘do as I do’ and playing by the rules. You can almost hear them asking each other, ‘Well, would you say no to a drink?’ Of course they’re all perfectly well-intentioned, but in a materialist age you grab what you can get, calling it your right to party. Anyone who doesn’t is an oddball who needs careful watching. Because to step out of line seems dangerous to those who fear the cold sober eye of judgement when they’re at their worst.
But for me renunciation is freedom. It keeps me inside a charmed circle and out of harm’s way. When I drank I knew no limits. It was as self-punishing as any high-performance sport. And I thrived on its highs and lows because they made me feel alive. I had my dream, an unreal bubble surrounding me, and as long as I remained in there I was important.
In fact I was more of a spectator, watching myself going under. When I looked in the mirror I could see I’d changed. My face had hardened in a way that wasn’t obvious to the world. It had a subtle mask-like quality, a defensive stillness, like a patient after an operation. There were other changes too, mostly physical:
♪ I had what they call marmalade eyes.
♪ My hands shook slightly when they came close to a glass.
♪ I drank too quickly, all evening, and sometimes from the bottle.
♪ In the morning my body ached all over.
♪ Occasionally, I wet myself.
Like many addicts, I developed defensive strategies. So I hid my empty bottles or added water to the dregs to give the impression that I’d hardly touched a drop. I looked up recipes such as coq au vin and chicken marsala because they allowed me to have shots in the kitchen without being seen. And I brewed my own, filling the cellar with brown popping mixtures in bell jars and vats.
Drink kept me busy. To ensure my supplies, I bought in fermentation kits and memorised the opening times of all the local ‘offies’. When shopping, I studied the labels to get my fix of alcohol, calculating proof against price. I developed a keen interest in wine with meals, celebrating birthdays and going out to parties — where I’d lurk in corners, ‘tanking up’. If challenged, I lied about how much I’d had, or I’d turn it back on my first wife, telling her she was over-reacting and being bossy. My line was that I would handle it — not now but soon, when I was ready. The unspoken corollary was, ‘don’t bother me, I’m too busy living’.
In fact I used a long list of mental evasions to keep the truth from myself. So the voice in my head was busy saying things like:
You know you can change, tomorrow will be different.
Just remember Blake, ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’.
Someday you’ll write it all up, as a warning to others.
At other times I saw it as a mission, exploring the places other people didn’t dare go. On that journey I’d a secret belief that my luck would hold and I’d find a way through. Recalling my childhood, I pictured myself hiding in bushes and crawling unseen behind back garden fences. But the mornings-after were different. Words like damaged and broken filled my head. I’d been foolish, I’d lost my way, and now I feared there’d be no turning back. I was also afraid because I couldn’t seem to stop and the threat of running dry was an ever-present danger — and what would I do if I ran out? It would be like stepping into darkness without a torch. In any case, I told myself, quoting Keats, this was my ‘vale of soul-making’. So I came to accept drink as a calling, and I fantasised about living wild and running in the woods, about rescue, rebirth and personal greatness …