22 September 2006

Five Years

Today marks an anniversary of sorts: five years free from alcohol and drugs. Actually, I'd given up marijuana, the last of my drugs, quite a few years earlier, but at the Reading Festival in late August 2001, I let Tre Cool, in the name of Mendocinio homeboy-ism, talk me into taking a couple hits off what turned out to be a very poweful joint. I went into full panic attack mode, strangely enough the exact same reaction I'd had the last time I'd smoked a joint, in 1993.

That and a couple other minor irritations - somebody screwed up my backstage pass the following day and, well, I can't remember what else was bothering me, but no doubt something was - set me off on my last drinking binge, which carried on to and through September 11 and the first couple days of its aftermath. I was parked there in front of the TV with my bottle of Jameson's, blubbering like a baby as though I were somehow the principal victim - never mind the thousands who lay dead in New York, or their families and loves ones, or the brave souls who died trying to rescue them.

Suddenly one of those moments of clarity arrived: what would you do, I asked myself, if that terrorist attack were happening here in London? What if were right across the street? Would you be able to help, to be responsible, or would you be sitting on the sidelines drunk and crying and feeling sorry for yourself? I knew what the answer was, and I didn't like it. I'd been trying to quit drinking all year - too many vicious hangovers, too much morbid depression, too much of my life slipping away into a vague morass of self-indulgence and self-pity - but could never seem to stay off the stuff for more than a week or two.

And despite my best intentions, that was the way it worked out again: by September 21, I was starting to feel pretty good again, almost clear-headed, in fact, after eight or nine booze-free days, but that night an old friend was coming back to town, and I couldn't imagine meeting up with him at the pub without sinking a few pints, as we'd always done. It ended up being five pints of especially strong lager, not a lot in the scheme of things, especially considering that I'd often been getting through a bottle of whiskey a day, not to mention wine with (or without) dinner and a few pints down the pub.

But it was more than enough; I had one of the worst hangovers of my life, lasting all the way through the weekend, and by Monday I was pretty sure I never wanted to drink again. And so far, for five years now, I haven't.

It's meant a lot of changes in my life, but the ones I was most worried about - what do you do for a social life, for example, or what will your friends think? - turned out to be minor issues at best. Socially, you do anything and everything you want, apart from drinking, and as for friends, the ones who genuinely care about you are interested in you, not your potential as a drinking companion. But the real changes are mostly internal. Sometimes people will notice, and ask things like, "You seem different, have you been away on holiday/lost weight/joined a gym, etc.?"

But mostly they don't, leaving it down to me to observe and record the differences, and it's something I can safely say I've been conscious of for at least part of every day for the past five years. When you've been using alcohol - as I was - to anaesthetise your feelings for so many years, it can be unsettling, even terrifying, when some of those feelings come flooding back. I started drinking heavily as a 15 year-old, and in many ways my emotional development froze right there in mid-adolescence. As the booze-induced fog began to lift, I found that the problems, dilemmas and insecurities of that age hadn't gone away; they'd been sitting patiently waiting all those decades for me to get back to them. It's hard enough being a teenager when you're young and strong; believe me, it doesn't get any easier when you're in your 50s.

If what they say is true, though, that we begin growing again once we stop drinking alcoholically, I should have reached my early 20s now, and I can't deny that life is a lot better and easier than I ever imagined possible. It's not that anything dramatic has happened in the material world: I haven't fallen in love, got a great new job, inherited a fortune. If anything, my life would probably look rather drab to most people, especially when compared with my earlier adventures - running around with rock stars, making and squandering fortunes, being there at ground zero for so much of the hippie and punk rock revolutions - but I'm experiencing something I've really never known before: a generalised sense of well-being and peace of mind.

You might not think it to read some of the diatribes I unleash here, but very little really bothers me these days. Yes, I have a strongly developed sense of what is right and wrong, and perhaps am too ready too speak out about it at times, but ultimately I can usually accept that there will always be people who will think and act in ways very different to what I think is appropriate. And that it's all right. I can't control the world - if anything, I can have only the tiniest effect on the little corner of it that I inhabit - but neither can the world control me.

And that's the truly vital change: for most of my life, I saw myself as a constant victim of circumstance and luck. Sometimes the luck went my way; sometimes I tried to twist or bend it in my direction, but in the final analysis, I always felt as though life was something happening to me rather than through me and in me. That gave rise to a lot of my bad attitudes - I was like the little kid always whining, "It's not FAIR!" - and also handed me a built-in excuse for my failures and my inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility for my actions.

Enough self-analysis: let's just say things are a lot better for me now. As you will have noticed, I can still find plenty to complain about, but my predominant toward life and the world is now one of hope and quiet optimism. To anyone who knew me in my darker years, that's got to come across as no less than a straight-up miracle. I know that's what it is to me, and not a day goes by now where I don't take at least a few minutes to reflect on that miracle, and how incredibly grateful I am to be alive and well and living the life I live today.

P.S. In honour of this special occasion, we'll now pause for a couple hours before resuming normal service. Then, never fear, I'll get back to griping about anything and everything, and you can get back to thinking what a grumpy old bastard I am.

1 comment:

Wesley said...

Congratulations on 5 years. Glad to know you in your prime.