A month or so ago I documented my descent into alcoholism. I promised I would pick up that thread and run with it again – so here I am. I think I took it up to the early nineties then but I missed a few bits so I’m going back to the late eighties again first.
I knew I had a drink problem fairly early on. Well, when they say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, they lied. In fact knowing I had a drink problem just meant I worried myself sick when I was sober so I started drinking. Once the first glow of alcoholic satisfaction had overtaken me, everything was rosy. I would quit tomorrow and everything would be alright. And so I carried on drinking until I fell asleep/down/by the wayside.
Perhaps admitting I had a problem to someone else would solve all my troubles. Well, it wasn’t going to be my family. They knew I drank of course but since I had given up throwing up and could actually function reasonably well, they had little idea quite how bad the problem was. My sister had an inkling but then she saw my financial situation in some detail. Even when I was hospitalised, I claimed it was due to stress. And speaking of medical matters, did telling my GP help? Well, not majorly but it made a difference. Dr Susan Wakefield was a model of patience and of concern. I had previously been under the care of her husband but he was already thinking about his next role at the QEII hospital (When I was there as an inmate I bumped into him looking all official and self-important). Susan though listened to my complaints about my throat and stomach (The alcoholic gastritis I think I have mentioned) and let me slowly, carefully tell her I was an alcoholic.
She even managed to get me a place at a rehab clinic in Cockfosters but I refused. At that point I didn’t know how I could explain that to my parents. So we tried some home detoxs. I was bloody terrible. Popping Librium during the day to keep the shakes at bay and drinking at night. They just enabled me to get through my day job without drinking. Most of the time a bottle of vodka in the desk drawer worked just as well.
Anyway, Susan never gave up and we actively fought my drinking together for some years. And though it was my other saviour, Penny Fitzpatrick, who actually got me into Farm Place in the end, I will always be grateful for Dr Wakefield’s unending patience and for never giving up on me.
So what was happening with my drinking. Well, I hadn’t quite isolated myself in the late 80s and was still regularly going down the pub with various friends. One memorable night, though heaven knows how I do remember it, involved me consuming about 20 pints of Guinness at the Queen Vic then going back to the house where Maggie’s then girlfriend was living. Being an NZ girl, Jo didn’t travel far without a stash and we went up to her room and for a smoke. Now I have said before that alcohol was my drug of choice and I didn’t often do anything else. Given the effect of smoking a little weed after 20 pints of the black stuff, it’s a bloody good job too. The room, which had been perfectly stable up to that point, suddenly began to spin like a top. I decided to make my excuses and leave. I suppose it was about 1am in the morning and – and this is important – it was January/February time and fucking cold.
Jo waved me off from the front door and I lurched down the garden path. At the end of the path there was a stream and a little bridge that crossed it. Kelly will know exactly what I am talking about as it was her family home. As I reached the bridge, I suddenly felt incredibly tired and I lay down on the bridge and started to fall asleep. I swear I could feel the frost forming on me as I drifted into oblivion, damn near permanent oblivion. Then a little voice in the back of my head spoke. “Get up you fucking twat”, it said. Somehow, no matter how drunk I was, part of my brain remained sensible. It stopped the worst excesses of behaviour (though that didn’t include singing Lurkers’ songs at the top of my voice whilst walking home) and sometimes kept me safe. That night it certainly saved my life.
So I struggled to my feet and set off home. I guess it was about a mile by road but I think I walked three that night. I was staggering from one side of the road to the other. The most zigzag of a route I could have taken. Which wasn’t too bad for the first bit but somewhere up St James Road my bowels opened. Guinness and weed don’t mix people. The remainder of my walk was both long and unpleasant. Once home, the jeans went straight in a black bin-liner and I climbed into a bath trying not to wake the household. Don’t let anyone tell you alcoholism is glamorous.
Let me illustrate that further. I have just rediscovered some notes I wrote back in the day. In this case, January 1995. Let me quote them verbatim.
“The death of Peter Cook last week has scared me. I remember reading in the Jack Kerouac biog that haemorrhaging of the stomach (it’s got a posh name but it slips my mind for the time-being) is the classic alcoholic’s death and I think that’s what’s gonna happen to me soon. I know the answer is to get myself checked back into hospital but I can’t afford to jeopardise the job. Classic Catch 22 or what!”
Now though, let me finish on a positive note by reproducing something I wrote back in 1998 after a Farm Place (Rehab Clinic) reunion.
I write this on the evening after the 1998 Christmas reunion. Those who were there will remember how the rain had beaten on the marquee in which we had held the meeting. It turned the grass verges up the drive into a quagmire causing some poor unfortunates who had parked there to get bogged down. I was one of those who helped push a couple of the cars out of the mud which is why there is a pile of dirty, mud-stained clothes lying on my bathroom floor. The grateful drivers were most apologetic about my getting filthy on their account but I honestly didn’t mind. In fact I found it kind of fitting because one year earlier, almost to the day, I had been somewhat stuck in the mud and a number of people from Farm Place, and elsewhere, helped me get out.
I had been battling with my alcoholism for at least 10 years before I walked into FP. Even four stays in a psychiatric ward had failed to keep me sober for more than a few weeks at a time. I read of celebrities being checked into the Betty Ford Clinic and envy rose in my throat. Then, during a particularly bad binge (were there good ones?) in December 1997, my boss, Penny, called me on my sickbed, and told me she was coming to see me. If I had had any ‘get up and go’ that day I would have started writing a new CV then and there. My alcoholism was after all, known to her, and this must have been my sixth spell of time-off that year. I would have been scared stiff had I been sober enough to care.
However, what Penny brought over that night was not my P45, it was a Farm Place brochure. It was an opportunity that I didn’t feel I deserved though Penny clearly did. It was like Christmas coming early for me. So, unlike so many people I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into FP. I grasped the chance tightly although given my track record of short-term recovery and relapse, I didn’t really rate my success. Of course, as anyone who has been to FP knows, the magic that takes place there is quite unlike anything that, I at least, has ever experienced before. I came to understand myself so much better. I learnt to be honest with myself as well as with others, and I even started to love myself a little. And I learnt the simplest lesson of all – I don’t have to pick up ever again.
Tonight I have been sober for 361 days, and today I am not going to drink. I know I shouldn’t project but I can’t help thinking about reaching my first anniversary on Thursday. I truly believe it will just be the first of many annually incrementing anniversaries I shall celebrate each December. Anniversaries I shall celebrate because someone believed in me enough to send me to Farm Place for Christmas 1997. Thanks to that person’s belief in me, I am now able to believe in myself. I will never get another Christmas gift as good as the one Penny once gave me.