I’m in the company of the great ones. Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, & Dennis Hopper, not to mention countless others. Alcoholics. Winos. Drunks. It’s yet another label to put on people, to classify them away from yourself and away from the norm, as if there is such a thing. My mother’s voice used to drop to a whisper when referring to people ‘like that’.
‘He’s – you know – an …’ she said, cupping her hand and tipping it towards her mouth to indicate frequent imbibing. The shameful word didn’t even come out. The gesture itself was enough.
But here it is from the horse’s mouth. Being an alcoholic is frequently exhilarating. Sometimes dangerous. And always an adventure. Sure, it is also a nightmare. You are spurned and adored in equal measure. People know that you can be counted on to create party, drama and a spectacle (albeit sometimes at the expense of yourself), whilst also providing the fodder for endless gossip. It can kill relationships and in the worst cases, damage innocent bystanders. Thus in no way do I advocate it. But my journey through alcoholism allowed me to uncover who I really was. And that has ironically saved my life.
For years I argued that I wasn’t. Alcoholics had to have a drink every day. Alcoholics couldn’t drink with moderation. Alcoholics are weak, pitiful and misfits. None of which were me. I was a successful business woman, a great friend and a wonderful partner. Hollywood would have you believe that this isn’t possible… but my alcohol dependency allowed me to function. I even stopped drinking totally in 2003 in order to get a postgrad qualification. But boy did I celebrate afterwards. After some years of heavy drinking I could admit that I had a problem … but not that I was an alcoholic. It is only now, after years of not drinking every day, and drinking in moderation (with only the occasional but very enjoyable bender, let’s say once a year) that I can look back at my battle over the course of 20 years, proud to finally say. I’m an alcoholic.
Alcoholism isn’t a constant. My intake has had highs and lows. Nowadays, it’s hardly ever. But alcoholism is different for every individual. Some are chronic, some are sporadic. It’s a transforming agent but you remain the core. Me, I never liked the taste (it took years of persistent drinking before I finally got to like wine, now I love it). Initially it was the escapism I adored. Freedom from my repressed, disliked and needy self, a journey from meek to great over the course of three glasses. I adored this person. The person who could talk to anyone she chose and attract anyone she chose (and I did). The person who laughed and loved. The person who could philosophize and bond with anyone, but especially that lonely character in the corner because secretly, that was me. Alcohol made me love myself. No rose tinted glasses for me, they were bright neon pink. I was amazing. And because I thought so, everyone else did too….until I’d had too much.
The switch between personas was dramatic and always recognisable. Once when on holiday my husband filmed it and when I saw it, my stomach curled in fetal pain…so much so, that the next night I had to blot the memory out with more drinking. Ironically I sought oblivion from that person by drinking and yet it was alcohol which helped her get out. On one hand there was the party girl, beautiful, lilting and laughing. And in an instant, late at night, I changed. A stranger with my face. This person was in pain- ugly and blank. My features were twisted into a belligerent mask. My eyes didn’t recognise the world and what I did see, I hated. And this is how I came to know and uncover my subconscious. Most people don’t get the privilege to see it. ‘Happy drinking’ as we named it, was me ‘unrepressed’. And because I loved being her, I continued. But when the switch came, some inner subconscious pain body surfaced and took over. My inner child. This person was still me. Deeply unhappy, deeply angry and deeply desperate to come out. So desperate in fact, that she forced me to drink and drink until she could get out and ask the world the all important question.
‘Why don’t you love me?’
That question was for my adoptive mother. Only those who knew me well, recognised that this person was the subconscious me. Waking in the morning after a binge and suffering badly from the night before, the only way I knew that she had come out was if I had memory loss. Great yawning black holes in my night meant that she had come out to play, and lord knows what she had done. Those holes taunted me with possibilities of shame and I would hear the stories. Fortunately where I dared to go, others would follow…successfully disguising my disability and allowing me to remain in denial. I was, after all, only the leader of the pack. Whether it was 5 of us dancing on tables, naked… or organising a kissing competition between 10 men… or skinny dipping at midnight. The wild girl that came out invariably wanted love (usually naked love).
Because however alcoholism manifests itself, there is only one common denominator. That you do not love yourself. And worse, the stigma and shame associated with alcoholism makes you hate yourself even more, and that does no one any good.
My mother knew. Her stock response was
‘Pull yourself together. Have some respect for yourself.’
My father knew. And his only comment was.
‘Christ, you smell like a brewery.’
Neither of these reactions were very helpful. So now I take it upon myself to destigmatize the word and explode the myth. When you drink to release the pain, it is not a disease, unless pain, shame and control are diseases. I have no alcoholic gene and the only thing that is inherited is patterns of behavior or values which have repressed parts of my humanity. Alcohol liberates. It liberates the repressed part which wants to be free, to be healed one way or another.
Today I meet many alcoholics on their journey through their repression. It takes one to know one. I love to meet these people…they are fascinating. Multi-layered and complex. It’s my opinion that you can’t help them actively. Telling them you love or accept them is not enough. But you can help them by being totally shameless. Laying your soul bare. Sharing your ugly secrets and your pain. Making yourself as vulnerable as they feel. Embracing yourself in front of them so that they know, if they were to show themselves, that they too would be accepted.
That’s why I will stand tall and say, I’m an alcoholic and I still love myself.