In his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, acclaimed author James Joyce traces the religious and intellectual awakening of his younger, fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus.
In a contemporary, modern take on this classic, Nikki reflects on her own early experiences with alcohol – a fascination with pubs, ladette culture and smoky fish… well, you should probably just read on to see what I men.
Nikki – you’re a star. Thanks!
At the end of my last blog I told how following a drink binge five months into sobriety, I had gone straight to an AA meeting the next day. I’ve not learned too much about AA just yet. I’ve attended a few meetings, shared, and I’ve read The Big Book (albeit skim-read, if I’m honest, I find the biblical tone of the BB a bit wearing). I’ve read Russell Brand’s version of The 12 Steps (far more easy-read and if I get bored I can stare at his image on the cover for few minutes to cheer myself up), and I’ve chatted to members of The Fellowship. Aside of AA I am learning a lot.
There have been two huge revelations for me: firstly, characteristics of my alcohol addiction are evident in lots of other areas of my life, I take everything I do to the nth degree. Secondly, if I’m going to follow a Step Program, it is going to require a lot of introspection. When I realised these things, yesterday, I cried. I cried solidly for an hour. I am not a crier. I’m not even a sniffler. For me, I’m not sure I want to introspect, to “go there”. I’m a simpleton, I can’t drink so I don’t drink but the reality of that mantra has been that I’ve often been unhappy as a non-drinker, lost. I don’t want to be unhappy and lost so maybe, unfortunately, “there” is where I need to “go”.
I’m a drinker. A lush. Being a drinker has been a fundamental part of my identity since being a teenager.
I’ve wondered where it all began. If there was silver bullet that drove me to drink. The conclusion is that no, there wasn’t. I’ve had my fair share of life issues but there was no one trigger that specifically tipped me over that boundary of social drinker to the dogged, determined, obsessive drinker that I became. For me it was probably a combination of things: my personality, my relentless desire to have fun, my tendency to take everything to the extreme, my constant need for distraction from boredom and my intense dislike of negative feelings and emotions – they were to be kept firmly squashed down. I used an external power source – alcohol – to deal with life, to deal with the relentless boredom I find in a “normal” life. What I do now know, is that that power source is more trouble than it’s worth, time to find a new one.
To say I’ve always been an alcoholic is a bit harsh (unfair to me as a toddler) but I certainly always had an obsession with pubs and drink. My parents weren’t big drinkers, we didn’t go to pubs as kids (I was a kid in the early 1980s, well before the heady days of Whacky Warehouse and kids menus in Wetherspoons), and there was rarely alcohol in the house but I had a bizarre obsession with pubs. I have an early memory of being involved in a school project to interview local shopkeepers. It was a council estate with a traditional row of shops and a 1950s brick-built pub in the middle. I was about 8-years old and was ecstatic when I was allocated the pub landlord as my interview (a sign of things to come?). We 8 year olds were dispatched to do our interviews (this was long before the days of Operation Yewtree), and I was beyond excited to finally get a glimpse inside this denizen of adulthood, and to finally see behind the smoky windows, to understand what a “snug” was.
Even as a child I would cross the street to get a whiff of that salty mix of stale beer, fags and rancid carpet as a pub door swung open, I was desperate to get inside one.
So you can imagine my disappointment when the landlord wouldn’t let me in as “it was no place for a little girl” (I now know that to be true and that that pub is a shit hole), and I had to conduct the interview on the front steps. My obsession rolled on.
I was always desperate to stop being a kid and become an adult. I couldn’t wait to grow up and for me the biggest symbol of that shift from kid to adult was to drink. I went to a posh secondary school, an all-girls-bitch fest. It was a grammar school and I’d got in on merit, the only kid from my school, but with my rough council estate accent I stood out like a fly on a wedding cake. Yet I always had lots of friends, I was clever and mouthy and from an early age found that I had the ability to make people laugh which always served me well. But I always relied on these personality traits, never talked at length with my friends and hid everything beneath the jokes. I never really fitted in, even after compulsory elocution lessons to take the edge off the accent.
As a teenager I started drinking. From the off I was really, really, really good at it. It took me ages to get properly pissed and I could hold it. I loved that. Wore it like a badge of honour. I could hold my booze and what I really loved was how drinking threw off any inhibitions. I could be funnier, more confident – and I was a favourite with the boys, and I liked them (sounds awful, but it was true, sounds awful, but some things never change). That behaviour too I now see as symptomatic of my addictive tendency.
I had a mouth like an elocuted Tourette’s sufferer. I drank and smoked liked a smoky pissed fish, and I could hold my own amongst any crowd. I was popular, and in my twisted head, that was due to my drinking prowess. I was fun, up for it Nikki and as the late 1980s rolled into the ladette culture of the 1990s I was “trendy”. To end this portrait of Nikki as a youngster, I went to university to study History. On my first day I turned up at the halls armed with 24 bottles of wine that my aunt had given me (“to help make friends”), in a nutshell, when the wine ran out, I left.
Writing that mini history of my early drinking has made me realise that I got stuck in that thinking: that drinking, holding your booze and being fun is symbolic of young and trendy. But what gets you going when you’re 17, doesn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be what gets you going at 45. In reality the fun drinking changed from being fun to an intense, unhealthy, dogged, determined obsession. As with everything I tend to do, I took it to the nth degree and spoiled it. It became a compulsion to drink to squash down every emotion and to drown out dealing with the realities of life and facing the decisions I’d made along the way.
Drinking strips from you your ability to deal with life, strips you of your natural personality and strips you of your self-respect.
What I struggle with now is that all those raw emotions have been unleashed and I don’t have my go-to tool to drown out the constant internal dialogue. I relinquished my power to deal with life the day I started drinking and now I live in constant negotiation with the idea of manageability over abstinence and that’s what makes me unhappy. I struggle to live happily with relentless boredom. So I’m willing to give AA, a program for living, a go because I know, really, that it has to be abstinence because for me, once I start, it becomes very, very, very, very, very, very hard to stop.
About our author, Nikki: