When I was a young teenager, fourteen or fifteen, I used to go out in the early evening and walk the city streets. I would fantasise that I was escaping an abusive household, that my cheekbone was shadowed with bruises, that I no longer hoped. I would revel in being cold, or hungry, because my physical self was just a shell, encasing the turmoil within. I wore baggy black jumpers with holes in the sleeves and made up my eyes to look hollow and bleak.
In an astounding coincidence, that was also the year that I read Wuthering Heights four times.
My adolescent self was roleplaying, as adolescents do, a far more chaotic and painful life than the one I actually led. But I’ll be honest with you: I can still taste the frisson of arousal that accompanied these fantasies. There is something about pain that holds a deep attraction.
I didn’t want to live an abused life, of course. Nobody ever does, and nobody ever invites that sort of behaviour; abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser.
What I wanted, I think, is the feeling of stepping outside. All these people, in their normal suburban lives, lamplight spilling out of windows while the nuclear family gathers around their chops and mashed potatoes and talk about the latest episode of Big Brother. And me, outside, literally and metaphorically, unseen, unwanted. Unrestricted.
I was a nice middle-class girl, in real life, and I have lived a nice middle-class life. I have a degree, a husband, a house. My daughters attend ballet lessons and sleep under blankets of vintage floral. I help out my disabled mother. I’m going to keep chickens. My parents are proud of me.
Also, I’m an alcoholic.
I knew that I had a drinking problem at least five years before I did anything about it. For at least the last two of those years, I used the word ‘alcoholic’, but only to myself, and never out loud. Those were my hiding years, my guilty years, my scared years. On the days when the problem shone so brightly that even the veil I drew over my own behaviour didn’t block out its glare, I was horrified.
Even as I recoiled from myself, this creature who hid wine boxes in her fabric stash, who sometimes woke with that uneasy feeling that you get after an unresolved argument but unable to remember if one actually occurred, who poured a glass of wine at 4pm while her daughter played with a friend upstairs, and washed her mouth out with mouthwash at 5 before the friend’s mother came to collect, there was something else.
The feeling of breaking the rules. And getting away with it.
Once, some weeks before I quit, LH took the girls out for the day so I could get some things done, and at 10 in the morning I poured a glass of wine. Not to get rid of a hangover, not because I even particularly craved one – although of course, it wouldn’t even have come into the head of someone without a problem – but to see what it felt like. That last taboo of the alcoholic, drinking in the morning. Would it tip me over an edge? Would I feel different? It didn’t, of course: it didn’t even taste good. But I finished it anyway. You know; for science.
Addiction has its glamorous side. Not the actual reality of addiction; puffy eyes, red-streaked cheeks, the faint odour of vomit lingering in the hair. But the idea of it. It steps outside the rules. The adolescent nihilist in me – and I’m not alone – is fascinated by heroin chic, by Trainspotting, by Hemingway, by the dark spiral of destruction that consumes lives.
I’ve talked before about the leap that many alcoholics make, where they stop fighting and moderating and trying to maintain control, and just swan dive down to the terrifying, dark bottom of their disease. That’s surrendering to chaos, but by then the chaos is already there, lurking under your feet, waiting for the ground to give way. By then, you’re already outside the rules.
So many of us call ourselves high functioning. Not just high functioning alcoholics, in the sense that our drinking hasn’t (yet) made our lives unmanageable, but high functioning people. People with high status, high stress jobs. Women juggling family commitments and careers.
I don’t know if that is you. But I know that is me. I know that I have spent my entire life being the sensible one. Ticking the boxes. I turned away from a course in creative writing so I could do a Law degree. I spent my childless twenties paying off a house; I’ve never travelled overseas. I am polite and I am correct and I keep to budget and wear appropriate shoes.
And sometimes, I want permission to not be that person. To check out of being that person. To lose the trappings – trappings – of respectability.
This is what people worry about, when they worry about sobriety being boring. It’s not that it’s boring day to day. It’s not that sitting at home, drinking a bottle of wine and playing on line Scrabble, is particularly glamorous. In an objective sense, there is nothing at all inherently exciting about drinking too much.
But on the other hand, it’s not allowed. It’s deviant. It’s irresponsible, and self-destructive, and threatens to tear down our whole lives. We could lose everything. People do.
Now that’s exciting.