What will I drink if I can’t drink alcohol?

One of the things that I worried about, before I stopped drinking, is what on earth I would drink if I didn’t drink alcohol. It’s a common query; all the sober communities I know of have this question as a recurring topic, and we trade tips about sparkling elderflower cordial and dry ginger ale.

These days, conversations like that seem, if not boring, at least completely irrelevant.

Last night, LH and I had a ‘date night’ dinner of nice cheese, olives, smoked salmon and other nibbles on a platter. He drank red wine and made me a complicated mocktail of pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed lime and tonic water. He’s a sweetheart, my LH, but it made me realise how unimportant the whole ‘what to drink’ thing has become. I drink a lot of Diet Coke, these days, because it’s the only diet soda that doesn’t taste entirely of aspartame, and I drink a lot of coffee, and I have to remind myself to drink enough water in a way that I never did in my dehydrated drinking days.

Complicated mocktails are all very nice, but the effort involved seems disproportionate to the importance. I mostly enjoyed it for the gesture it represented, although the combination was delicious.

The process of giving up alcohol, for me, has largely been about discovering how completely unimportant alcohol actually is. I want to draw an analogy with the little man behind the Great and Terrible Oz in the Wizard of Oz, but that’s not right. It’s not right because behind the curtain is real sobriety, the thing we were afraid of, and sobriety isn’t a sad little man; it’s great and glorious and bigger than any terrible fear can be.

The mythology of alcohol is so powerful, though. Different drinks have a different effect on our moods (this is not borne out by science, by the way), there are special glasses out of which each drink should be drunk, some drinks are for certain occasions. What you drink is part of your social identity, like which football team you support or what clothes you wear. If you’re writing a hard-boiled cop character, you don’t describe him sipping Lambrusco from a stemmed glass; the latest It girl is unlikely to be drinking Jack Daniels and Coke unless she’s doing it originally; port is the sole province of musty old gentlemen in book-lined studies.

Who remembers back when smoking was still glamorous? Sobranies were the ultimate in glamour because they were long and slim and black; stylish women used cigarette holders; cigarettes didn’t live in packets but in special boxes; lighters were collector’s items. The paraphenalia of smoking is mostly gone now, but at the time it added to the allure. Alcohol has that going for it, too. It is not just about the drug, but about its accessories.

When I imagined myself as a non-drinker, it always seemed as if I’d be giving up a whole world. What would I drink with dinner? Should the answer change depending on whether I was having fish or beef? If I wasn’t holding a thin-stemmed glass, and instead my sparkling liquid was in a tumbler, did that infantilise me? So many little losses, so many little griefs.

What I realise now is this. When I asked ‘but what will I drink if I don’t drink alcohol?’ what I meant was ‘but who will I be if I am not a drinker?’. I no longer worry about what to drink, and I no longer worry about who I am. I just live.

The total surrender of self

Trigger warning: this post discusses the attraction of alcohol and drugs.  You may choose whether you want to read it today.

 

These days I am too much in the world
And in other people.
I am not with myself enough, alone.

My body moves,
My mouth opens and closes
And words come out,
Even laughter.

But I am not centered enough,
There is an emptiness to me,
I cannot escape.

Inside I am frantic,
My thoughts have no place to settle,
I need it all to stop a little.

I need it all to stop.

 

i am unsettled, f.gabdon

A friend’s husband misses the party scene, now that he’s older and a father. But the party scene – music at melting volumes, nights that bleed into morning, drinks in plastic cups and long queues for grotty bathrooms – belongs to the young. Even without the responsibilities that weigh us down in our thirties and forties, the party scene is not our country.

He doesn’t crave the drugs the way an addict does. Occasionally he goes out and gets very, very drunk; not ideal from a health point of view, but he doesn’t fit into the diagnostic spectrum of alcoholism either. It’s deliberate, occasional, planned when it won’t impact his life. He does it because he seeks the oblivion that used to come from those perfect clubbing moments, when the drugs took him higher and the music fused with his soul and all the people dancing were in love and there was no self, only communion.

He’s a good father, a loving husband, a responsible citizen who accepts that his drug days are done. But the occasional bender doesn’t feed him the way the scene used to, and he walks around with a hollow space inside, grieving without knowing it.

rave

Another friend and another conversation. She is talking, hesitantly, about her need for BDSM sex. How she tried to turn off that part of her sexuality when she met her vanilla husband, but she felt it as a loss, as if she was permanently unfulfilled. No matter how amazing their lovemaking, it wasn’t the same as when she could submit entirely and satisfy both body and soul.

They’re both seeking the same sort of transcendence. A surrender of self, a letting go of individuality and autonomy and the responsibility that comes along with that, in return for a greater, deeper communion with something bigger.

Drugs and alcohol (…so, drugs) can provide that too.  People talk about ‘getting obliterated’ or ‘wiping themselves out’.  An obliteration of self, a temporary abnegation of responsibility – at its peak, a total surrender of self to something greater.  That moment in a bar, with a close friend, when you’re finishing the second bottle of wine together and your words are a tumble of excitement, tangling with one another in the joyous rediscovery that you think alike.  The sudden clarity in a late-night club, when you see through the costumes and the poses and you feel as if everybody in the room is human, flawed, vulnerable, but no less beautiful for all of that.  Even the moments alone, drunk, when you crack yourself open to the universe.  It’s not that alcohol allows us to create deeper bonds with one another, not real bonds: in fact it does the opposite.  I feel, react and love so much more deeply since I became sober that I am constantly overwhelmed with the strength of the bonds I have discovered.  But what drugs do do is help us get out of our own way.

It’s no wonder that many people in recovery discover, or rediscover, religion.  It’s another answer to the need.  Religion (and I am not a theologian, but this is certainly not limited to Judeo-Christian beliefs), preaches a surrender of self; joy and fulfilment through submission to a higher authority. An ecstasy-taking raver might balk at the analogy to religious authority, but the joy in surrender is the analogy, not the thing to which one surrenders.

joy

I don’t have the answer to this.  In This Is How, Augusten Burroughs talks about his belief that no amount of twelve-step programs, or self-discipline, or fear, will keep you sober if you haven’t found something you want to do more than you want to drink.  For him, and for me, that thing is writing.  Writing takes me out of myself; it allows me, like the poet above, to be with myself but also, in my own small way, part of something greater.  For other people, there are good works, risky sports, music, meditation.  I don’t know if there’s an easy answer for everybody; it’s certainly not as simple as chirping ‘just take up a hobby!’.  I love to cook, it makes me happy, but cooking doesn’t fill the hole in the same way, not for me.  Because it’s not just a matter of finding something you like to do; it’s finding something that allows you to transcend your self.  

So I don’t have any answers, but I do know one thing.  Alcohol, or drugs, are really fucking bad at doing what we want them to do.  I was never so painfully aware of myself as I was when I was drinking.  I was conscious of my physical self all the time, reminded by headaches and gas and nausea, wondering if I smelt of stale wine, worrying about the red streaks appearing across my complexion.  I was never so much in the world as I was when I spent my days wondering if there was wine in the house and if not, how I could obtain more.  I was never so empty and frantic as I was as an active addict.  

I need it all to stop a little.  I need it all to stop.

They walk among us

Housekeeping: I’ve been trying very hard, this past week, to concentrate on my other writing, which is why I’m quiet here.  This is my safe place, and I need to do something scarier for a while, and that means scaling back on the blog so I can write elsewhere (preferably for money).  I still love you all!  Also, the following post is a total stream of consciousness, and it turns out my subconscious is quite annoyed today, so please be aware there are sweary bits.  I still love you all, though!

I was at a work conference all weekend.  Lots of networking, a little bit of learning, and various corporate sponsors lining up in the breaks trying to entice people over to their stalls.

I was prepared for the fact that there would be a lot of alcohol at the all-inclusive Saturday night dinner, and there was, and it wasn’t a problem.  I had my mental shields up and – to the extent that I still need sobriety tools – I was implementing them as well.  Fine.

What I wasn’t prepared for is that one of the sponsors broke out champagne and beer in the afternoon break, so at 2.30pm on the Saturday there were suddenly people everywhere holding flutes of sparkling alcohol and laughing.

It hit me, a little bit, then.  The feeling of being left out.  It’s not a time of day when I’d have been thinking about alcohol, even in my drinking days, except to the extent that I’d have been thinking about how nice a glass of wine will be after all this is done.

And then I got a bit angry.  Nobody needs alcohol in the middle of a conference, for goodness’ sake.  It was a cheap publicity stunt, and it meant that the afternoon session was completely disrupted, and it meant that those of us who don’t drink was suddenly in the middle.

Look, I understand that most people don’t have a problem with alcohol.  But some of us do.  And it’s not the occasional one unfortunate soul in a sea of normies.  One in ten Australians drink at levels considered harmful; that’s consistent with the UK and slightly higher than the US.  Within the past year, a quarter of adult Australians – 22% – experienced an occasion where they couldn’t stop drinking when they started, and the same number couldn’t remember what had happened the next day.   That’s a lot of people.

There were almost 200 people at that conference; statistically, 20 of them had active drinking problems, and up to 50 of them had, in the past year, been unable to stop drinking, woke up the next morning without remembering what had happened, and experienced guilt over their drinking.

And here is a thing that, as far as I can see, nobody at all measures: the number of people in recovery at any one time.  There are good reasons for that: recovery is often done in private, or in anonymous groups, so unless you’re court-ordered to attend rehabilitation, nobody is watching.  And recovery isn’t linear; how do you measure something that is characterised by relapse?  But I have found the latest alcohol-consumption poll, 2014, from Australia, here.  That says that non-drinkers comprise 21% of Australian adults, and 4% of those people nominate ‘I’ve previously had a problem with my own drinking’ as the reason why.  That’s not a lot.  But another 4% say that they are afraid that they would have a problem if they drank; that category easily applies to many of us who didn’t or don’t consider ourselves proper alcoholics at the time of quitting, but who can see that they were on a slippery slope.  For all intents and purposes, those people are in recovery.  And another 17% say ‘I don’t like the effect alcohol has on me’, which covers a multitude of sins.  So that is up to 25% of non-drinkers who don’t drink because when they do, they drink alcoholically.  That’s 5% of all Australian adults, abstaining from alcohol because they can’t drink normally.

That’s another ten of my conference attendees.  Standing amongst all those happy drinkers in an environment that shouldn’t have had alcohol in it, suddenly having to cope with something that feels dangerous and hostile.

You guys don’t need me to go on about alcohol-related death and illness, the cost to society of alcohol-related disease and violence, or any of the other sorry, tawdry statistics around alcohol usage.  We see those a lot.  But what I wish we talked about more are the people in recovery, walking around every day in remission from a deadly disease, exercising all the tools in their toolbox to prevent relapse, and being fucking bombarded with opportunities to fail.

Fine, alcohol is a social drug and lots of people love it very much and that’s all very nice and sparkly.  But for the love of everything that is good in the world, keep it out of the damn workplace, because alcoholics have to hold down jobs too.