What Made Milwaukee Famous Made A Loser Out Of Me

Regular readers of this blog will know that my drinking gets mentioned more than a few times. I make no apology for this. You have to understand that, for the best part of seventeen years, drink was either integral to my life or indeed, the point about which it revolved. So today’s writing is going to focus on how that developed. It may not always be a pleasant read.

I grew up in a household where alcohol was always on offer to guests as well as a cup of tea. It was part of everyday life and yet it was never all consuming. My nan had a Guinness every day, a habit she picked up in the sanatorium recovering from TB. She liked an occasional brandy too but never to excess. My dad was highly disciplined with his drinking. Down the Wheelwrights every Sunday for two pints and always home by 1.15 for Sunday lunch. A couple of cans at lunchtime on a Saturday and again in the evening. He didn’t drink on weekdays until after he retired and then it was strictly controlled. My mum drank most days but it was usually only at family parties where she overdid it at all.

Me, I suppose I got sips of beer from friendly uncles as I was growing up but my parents were quite law abiding about alcohol and I can remember clearly the day I was first allowed to have a drink in the pub (The White Horse in Framlingham if you really want to know). I was just 16 and was only able to have the drink legally because we were having a meal.

Now I deliberately used the term law abiding rather than strict because I didn’t want anyone to think I started drinking as a reaction to being forced to abstain by adults. It just wasn’t like that. Later when I was going through all sorts of processes to help me quit drinking we looked hard for a reason that I started drinking. I think I have mentioned before that HAPAS, the Hertfordshire Alcohol Counselling Service, were convinced that abuse as a child would be at the bottom of it. That was the trendy diagnosis of the eighties. Arseholes!

Drink 1

The truth is I was in my late teens, questioning everything, feeling a little hard done by that I had been brought into this world without being asked and was close to having to go out and make my own way through it. Therefore a little hedonistic pleasure with my friends was well deserved. Problem was I was quite good at it. When we first started drinking in the Green Dragon, perhaps one or two nights of the week only, two pints would last my friends the whole night. I however would have three. Smudger’s infamous inbetweeny round started from the very off. A couple of years on, my friends might drink 5 or 6 pints over the course of an evening but I had 9 or 10. And I was going out 3, 4, 5, 6, then 7 nights a week. I would have gone out 8 nights a week if I could have managed it in any way.

At first, the only damage it did to me was my wallet. From 16-18 there were several vomiting incidents usually after a Saturday night party but come 18 I stopped being ill and I became immune to hangovers. I’ve talked about some of the holidays away with friends. Well I was almost certainly the one who drank the most each night but I was also the one first up cooking a full English for everyone the next day. I don’t say this with any boastfulness but simply present it as fact.

Despite the massive intake of calories I managed to keep my shape vaguely as it was through sport. We did a bit a kick around football in the park and also played in a 5-a-side league at Waltham Abbey. Aside alert: I wasn’t very good but I enjoyed it though I did get myself a bit of a reputation. At one point I injured my knee pretty badly and had to watch the next week’s game from the gallery. It so happened one of the referees was also watching from up there and on seeing me he just said, “Oh, I see you finally got a ban then”. Bastard.

Back to the drink, it was that knee injury that led to me dropping sport and soon after the weight began to pile on and I do mean pile on.

Drink 2

I had been out to work for a few years now and had started the legendary lunch hour crawls that I have written about elsewhere, so now I am drinking all day.

Somehow I managed to go on. I had quickly become a high-functioning drunk. So long as I could keep my alcohol levels up I could do anything. In fact the problems started when I stopped drinking.

One of the first health issues (other than increased weight) was alcoholic gastritis. By the mid-80s my gullet was raw. When sober I often felt I was choking. I wasn’t but that was the exact sensation. I also started having panic attacks at this point. The solution was easy. Have a drink. It cured nothing but relaxed me entirely. So now I took to having a drink when I was working too. Pouring vodka in to coke cans behind the cover of an open briefcase on my commute, later having a stash of cans under the counter at the garage.

And at night too. I would crash out after drinking all day at 9pm, often laying still fully dressed on top of my bed but would wake in the very early hours. At first there was enough residue alcohol in my system to stop any physical symptoms but the mental torture began. I was in a deep hole. I recognised I was an alcoholic but didn’t know how to deal with it. I felt like a failure, a wastrel, and a fool. I spent the darkest part of the night listening to talk radio (only to discover that the people who called the phone-ins were every bit as fucked up as me); masturbating to take my mind off things; and awfulising. Awfulising was a word I didn’t learn until I went into rehab but I was doing it way back then.

After a couple of hours like that, the physical symptoms would start. Sweats and shakes and the choking sensation described earlier. I would try to resist it as long as I could but eventually I would track down some alcohol. It might be the remains of the cider I was drinking the night before, now flat in a glass by the side of the bed. I might have to raid my nan’s Guinness stash which involved a stealth like mission to the shed without waking the household. Or it might mean pouring half an inch of every bottle in the drinks cabinet to make a vicious cocktail without giving away the fact I had been stealing the booze.

Then I can’t tell you how quick the transformation was. Once I had sufficient alcohol inside me, everything was going to be fine. The physical symptoms were vanquished or masked and I believed that today would be the last day I would drink. Tomorrow I would quit. And I could feel that good all day as long as I kept my alcohol levels topped up.

And I’m going to leave this about here for now. I am pretty close my nadir in the very early 90s. My liver is apparently three times the size it should be. The rest of my body probably the same. I was a fucking mess although once I had a drink in me, everything was going to be all right.

And friends, to leave this on a better note, eventually everything WOULD be all right!

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