Over dinner I watched her fill up her glass, one, two, three, four times. And after that I lost count.
‘You’ll have to join me,’ she said. And I laughed because watching her getting drunk was fascinating. Dangerous, but fascinating.
‘Fine,’ I said.
After all my framework was in place. I was child free for that evening and the morning after. I knew we would be going home early enough so that any hangover would be manageable. We were eating a good meal and I ate plenty enough, I thought, to prevent a catastrophic disaster. But alcohol is my kryptonite. Even with those structures, I felt the tide of freedom beckon, I felt my urges rumble inside of me and the smiling shark which usually slumbers in every cell of my body, opened its eyes.
In a serendipitous twist of perspective I’m watching a vampire series this week. Not because I find the lead inevitably dark and mysterious, although he is. Not because I like to imagine immortality, although I do. Not because watching someone intimately experience history isn’t interesting, although it is. But because John Mitchell, the vampire in ‘Being Human’, is an addict. A blood addict. And addiction is part of my experience.
It’s rare that you get to see a realistic struggle of trying to live with addiction on screen. Addiction is either shown to be a character flaw, or a turning point in a potentially redemptive arc. Sometimes inspirational but mostly tragic. The stories finish neatly, with a solid outcome tied in a bow. In films, people usually fall into addiction because of stress, overwork, or other external influences, but addiction does not come from outside, it’s a part of you. There are sharks in my sea. Those sharks are part of my ecosystem. They were born long ago out of an expression of my suppressed power and pain.
John Mitchell is on the wagon, but the hunger within him is part of who he is. It dies down and flames up, it circles in his depths, governed only by his self-enforced adherence to what our society calls morality. But then he falls off the wagon…
I couldn’t help myself. I loved it. The sensation. The power. I was dead but I never felt so alive. I wasn’t human anymore. I lost my conscience. I was free. And that’s what I was addicted to.
John Mitchell, Being Human
To my mind, addicts are not addicted to substances, or at least defining it as substance abuse reduces its nature to a mere physicality which in many ways barely scratches the surface. John has human bottles of pulsing blood walking around him but their presence rarely triggers him. It’s not the blood John really craves, it’s the freedom from shame and pain. Losing it makes him feel alive and powerful. That power is also addictive.
I confess, there’s a part of me which liked seeing someone else get drunk. It was terrible yet magnificent. I liked the thrill of being on the edge looking down at the feeding shark, in a frenzy of pain but also unbridled chaos and freedom. She was free of inhibition and convention. She bit. I held her hand and listened to her pain, knowing she would forget any of my platitudes in the morning. I was close enough to smell it, even whilst I shied away from my own hunger.
Addiction might be called a curse, but that’s only one way to look at it. Alcohol addiction used to be a way of tapping into a power I didn’t have, a release of pain I had trapped inside me. That trapped combination of pain and power created a shark who cared about nothing but releasing more pain and accessing more power. There is a certain majesty and awe in such a force of nature. But that force can be destructive. I have worked over the years on both levels, to fully express my pain and to assume my power in more constructive ways so that my shark sleeps. Most of the time.
Because you cannot ‘unknow’ what it’s like to be a shark. If you’ve been a shark, it can always be woken by a shaky self esteem which eliminates your sense of power and leaves an immense craving in its wake, or by unexpressed pain which you swallow and suppress only to have it burst out in rage when you least expect it. But sometimes you can and should expect it. And that’s when you’re around addicts who are still feeding sharks. With them you will not only witness the chaos but also you will smell that intoxicating scent of feral freedom.
Staying clean for me is a day by day, minute by minute thing. How am I going to manage is he’s giving it all ‘oh let’s go on the razz, find some women, drink them dry.’
John Mitchell on why he doesn’t want a ‘feeding’ vampire in the house
We left the dinner before the shark grew strong. And the morning after I remembered something I’d forgotten, something which is so easy to forget. I can live in close proximity to alcohol without being triggered. I can witness drinking when it’s not about expressing shame and pain, or an effort to access lost power. Like those who are ‘sharkless’, I can even drink in moderation myself if I continue to do the work. But I’ll always have a shark inside me who wakes up when I’m next to another feeding shark.