Words & lead pic by Ed King
‘As long as that’s here, I’ll be OK. I can drink that; by the time the line gets below the bottom of the red shield, past the emblems, the cursive and the thick bold type, I’ll feel OK. I don’t need a mixer but I have orange juice or lemonade. There’s even ice in the fridge. If there’s time.’
I would have this conversation with myself at least once a day. Usually at lunchtime or as I’m lying in bed. I had no bedtime anymore. I woke up earlier too – an odd by product of addiction – with an inbuilt alarm clock running on fear or necessity. Life was a drawing of Gin Lane and it’s a cold Tuesday morning when you’re waiting for Victoria Wine to open.
In the end, the precise cut lines of the Smirnoff logo turned into the rounded edges of Grants. The world became numb. Anesthetized. The colours stayed the same, as did the schedule and as did the fear. But the necessity got worse as the price tagged dropped, like some symbiotic downward spiral. My ability to ration found levels almost as frightening as my denial. It was around this time that I began to question my drinking.
Vodka and orange in the morning, first thing. Then another. I’d make one for the shower and have a forth with toast. With a healthy pour, this could be a third of a litre gone by breakfast. Then I’m ready for the day. I’d struggle through the morning, taking a half-and-half bottle to work and hiding behind the same masks as everyone else, and then get back on track at lunchtime. Or just before if I could conjure a meeting. Order a beer, drink it quick, pretend you don’t notice, then order another one before your colleagues have time to say “…but you hold it well”. We all knew I didn’t. But I could order a shot at the bar both times, and there was always the vodka – hiding and ready should oblivion ever be needed.
I was eighteen years old. I kept this going until I was at least twenty two.
It started with abuse, neglect and aggression. As many acts of obnoxious self destruction will. Locked in a house with a sexual bully for a step brother and the ‘Ice Queen’ for a stepmother, although pantomimes were ultimately a lie. I was six, when Andrew made me play the games I never understood. The ones that always ended with me getting beaten up and made to hide under his bed. The rest of the house was even less fun – three floors of cold anger, radiating from our weekend matriarch as she stalked from once acerbic non sequitur to another, threatening my eight year old sister like a violent hybrid of Sylvia Plath and Cruella de Vil (I would honestly like to find something positive to say about this time and place in my life, and I guess it’s either ‘Mojo’ or ‘Chris’. But one was a cat, the other was ten, and neither has sanctity on their job descriptions).
I remember my childhood best by houses and the ‘weekends at Leamington’ were when, and where, it all came together. Or undone. But eventually every weekend became every fortnight, before sliding into the forever to be blessed ‘occasional days’. The wild stab of parenting poking fun at itself with an oddly honest moniker. I didn’t care. With every step I was freer than before.
By the time I was fourteen I never had to go back, and had already discovered blotter paper acid (my wings of mercy, then hell) and smoked much more than I drank. But when peer platforms and public expectations/acceptance kicked in, around that sweet sixteen spot, I found alcohol much more than reliable. It was legal, kind of, and I could sit on a park bench with a clearly visible reason. I could share it, even if only to dilute the guilt. But no one would call the police and a bottle of Bulgarian Cellars was the same price as a Blue Penguin. I probably wouldn’t have even have been expelled. And I could eat.
I functioned highly for several years – an existence not as fun as it sounds. You get away with very little. But I was earning money, having sex, and being successful in interviews; I grew up, of sorts. I built things, I destroyed things, and I still have friends left. I even gave up drinking. Twice. I went to AA, Aquarius and numerous third sector councilors, before my mother locked my in a room with nothing but a bottle of Jacob’s Creek and my own face to stare at. Three months later I emerged like a shaky butterfly, torn and frayed by still just about able to fly. I still remember the first time I went into the town centre sober.
Now that broken boy is a long way behind me. The wounds are scars. And although I can knock back the shots, and the angry is ‘still there mum’, I am nothing of the shadow I once was. It’s Boxing Day and there’s alcohol all around me, but I’m not drinking. I had two glasses of Malbec at Christmas dinner without realising, and the champagne on arrival is still sitting half touched on the window sill. The cheap French stubbies are unopened and there’s a bottle of rum in my kitchen I’ve used only for baking. Tonight I’m staying in, watching The Goonies and Gremlins back to back. I’m not thinking about New Year’s Eve until New Year’s Eve and I’m already scaling back my ideas for that.
It’s also on days like today that I remember one of the ‘moments of clarity’ from my early twenties – a man who had come to speak at an Aquarius meeting I once attended. He was ‘an inspirational speaker’ who had ‘survived’ the ‘disease’ that is alcoholism. He was very animated and very angry, and wouldn’t walk on the same side of the road as a pub beer garden (or even an off license) because of the ‘blind addiction that is ruining society, being sold and taxed by a government that doesn’t want to care about its people.’ He didn’t care about us, and even then, as I dug chewed nails into weak skin, I could at least see that. There was nothing in this man to admire or to aspire to be; he was ‘full of shit’ and still ‘broken’ by his ‘personal choice’. The Feudal System. The East India Company. The National Lottery. Your own life. His was no more a freedom than my previous daily routine.
I’m writing this to get ahead of New Year’s Eve Resolution #3 – be more honest with my writing. And start at the start, right? But in this time of orchestrated celebration and endorsed excess, I say find your peace. Your peace. Be merry, if you can. Don’t be me or that man. Be happy.
And if you can be a happy drunk, one who’ll wake up sober with just the right amount of regret, then I’ll raise a glass, deck the halls and sing along. Hogarth be damned.
Ed King is a writer and editor of Birmingham Review. Follow him @edking2210