The drinking years, or ... part three of how a man can change his mind ...
Jack London wrote in his autobiographical book John Barleycorn, where he describes his drinking career, that he couldn't really explain what it was like to anyone who was not a "fellow traveller". And how can you expect anyone who hasn't been there to understand that your life can be exactly like a Dan Fante novel?
I started my drinking career when I was at school. It was common in those days to get a part time job, which usually meant delivering newspapers before going off to school in the morning, then delivering the evening papers once school closed for the day. And in those days you used to get a gill of whisky, which contained six measures. So I used to take a gill with me in my paper bag. I can remember standing outside one of my houses and having a drink; I can still taste that whisky, I remember exactly what it felt like, all these years later. I could drive to that spot right now, today, and say there, that's where it happened. So that was me at age fourteen.
When I started work things got bad fast. Drinking at work. Drinking and driving. There was a big drinking culture; a lot of guys used to work on the west coast, away from their other halves. A lot of drinking went on, and if we went out there to work, we'd join in, then drive back again to the other side of the country. I remember one occasion when I was lying out of it in the back of the van among the tools and spares and was woken up by a blue flashing light reflecting off the inside of the van. What could that be, I wondered ...
We were working in the Highlands once, and stopped on our way back to the east coast at a deserted-looking hotel. It had petrol pumps out front and we needed to fuel up. Two of us went round the back of the hotel to the bar to find someone to come out and give us fuel. It was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere. When we opened the bar door it was jam-packed with teuchters who'd descended from the hills to get their drinking in. We fought our way to the bar and waved over the barman. Any chance you could come out the front and give us some fuel, we asked. No chance, he said. The two of us looked at one another. Well, give us two large vodka and cokes then, I said. When we got back to the van I was barely conscious, and someone else drove the van to Inverness.
When I got time off, I would strap my backpack on and go on drinking tours of Europe. Once I got drunk in Germany and woke up in Holland, in a phone box. I was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Another time I drank a bottle of vodka with a picture of Lenin on it in under half an hour, and woke up the next morning in a white room. It turned out to be a German hospital, and they hit me with a bill for the ambulance pickup and the overnight stay. I'd lost my leather jacket too. All in all, that binge cost me around twelve hundred pounds, and that was back in the mid-eighties when that was serious money. The thing that really got me though was that I'd missed a Helloween gig, and those were the days when Kiske was on fire.
There was violence. I was an ex-rugby player who hit the gym regularly, and did manual work. Anyone who fancied their chances was welcome to try. I caught someone picking my pocket once and gave him a real beating, I stamped him flat with my boots, and enjoyed doing it. I was charged with "assault to injury" after another incident outside a nightclub, a charge that stayed on my record for a long time and caused me some real grief. The last fight I was in was years ago, a dealer was thrown out of a pub as I was standing on the pavement, he landed on me and started throwing punches around. I took him down and assumed side control then started elbowing his nut off the paving stones. Gave him a few dirls to alter his outlook, then started in on his junkie mates, who'd decided to pitch in. I was working away to good effect when suddenly a blue-sleeved, uniformed forearm grabbed me from behind in a choke hold. The bobbies had arrived, too late as usual. Fortunately, when they saw who I'd been up against they told me to make myself scarce, which I duly did. So I came out of that one pretty much unscathed, unlike the boy.
There was craziness and blackouts. I woke up on a kitchen floor once in a town twenty five miles from where I started drinking. Another time, I woke in bed with a skinny blonde I'd been after for ages (a fellow drinker.) I used to travel in to Aberdeen regularly so I could catch the early morning opening pubs. All the night shift workers and all the alkies, seven thirty in the morning, lager and Jack. Breakfast. The drinking went on all day in a series of different bars, right through till closing time at night. Those were real sessions.
One time I was drinking down by the harbour and there was an AC/DC tribute band playing, which was right up my street. I was in a booth with my back to the stage and the singer, wearing a schoolboy uniform, decided to stand on a chair with one foot and put the other on the back of my booth, and that was when I discovered he wasn't wearing any drawers under his shorts. A moment to remember. Not in a good way. During another sesh, I was in a bar along the road and the band were jamming and inviting guys up; they got this old geezer up, your typical old guy with coat on, bonnet on, a nip in hand, and he started singing the blues! I mean singing, the guy was as good as anyone I've ever heard. The band were in awe of this character, I have no idea who he was, but I've never forgotten that afternoon, in a wee backstreet pub.
I ended up in a harbour bar one evening on the edge of the red light district in Aberdeen, and when I exited I spotted a brunette standing along the road in a doorway and took a sudden fancy to her. She spied me right away and gave me the spiel; so much money, back to her flat, et cetera. I was right up for it so we walked back to her flat; I was just wasted enough to not care about anything, in a compeletely disinhibited state of mind, and she was game for anything as well, since I was paying the bill she didn't mind where we went, or ended up. At least I wasn't in a blackout that day, so I can remember it all.
All that morally dubious, self-destructive behaviour was nothing though. Like Val Kilmer said once in that movie Tombstone, I had not yet begun to defile myself. I woke up one morning and decided to really go for it. I drank a can of Tartan Special right there and then, sitting on my bed, and that was another brain-melt moment. I can remember that one too, it was a key event in my life.
I was on a completely different road now, and I was going to keep going till I ran out of fuel. I spent almost a year and I never drew a sober breath, apart from days when I was too poisoned to actually lift my head up off the carpet, and I had no option but to lie there and wait for another day to dawn, so I could start drinking again.
That went on until one fine night, when I ended up in hospital after a double suicide attempt. That slowed me down for a year or so. I attended AA meetings and kept off the booze. Then I thought I'd have another crack at it.
It's true what they say, you do go right back to where you left off. The craziness returned, the benders and the blackouts; I spent days and weeks absent from my own life. I gradually came to understand that when I went into a blackout something fatal could happen, and I wouldn't even know about it. My tolerance was gone; each drink I had could trigger a blackout, and that could be it for me. So, I thought, one drink could kill me. I stopped drinking altogether. Cold turkey, no meetings, nothing. People ask me now why I stopped and I tell them the truth, that I decided that I wanted to live.
That was twelve years ago.
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