1. My mate John
I’ve known John since secondary school. We used to hang around together as teenagers and talk crap into the wee small hours. He was bright, funny, artistic and so, so sweet. Even then, he was ‘the drinker’. It wasn’t even as though he drank a lot, he just seemed to get out of control more quickly and more spectacularly than the rest of us. He’s a ‘nice drunk’, affectionate and vulnerable. Over the years we’ve lost touch and hooked up again several times and each time, John had a bottle in his hand and a slur in his voice.
I used to try to stop him drinking in the early days - no idea what I was doing, of course. I tried cajoling, bribing, distracting, sulking, sex. Nothing worked. By our thirties (he was living in Denmark and I was living in Holland), both married, he seemed to get totally pissed on just one beer and would repeat the same story endlessly, usually forgetting the punchline. His marriage broke up soon after that.
I suppose he’s always been at the root of why I’m interested in alcohol. He’s still around, still drifting, still repeating the same stories. My son met him for the first time a couple of years ago, having heard about his legendary antics. Afterwards he said: ”OK, not what I was expecting, he’s just a bit of an old drunk, isn’t he?” Well yes, I suppose he is, but he’s my mate and I love him.
2. The women I worked with
I used to work at a Rape Crisis Centre. I met beautiful, brave women from all walks of life, with one thing in common of course - that they’d experienced sexual violence. Then I noticed another think that many of them shared – drinking. Some drank to forget, some as a form of self-harm, some because they were still in abusive situations and it allowed them a few hours of relief or made them feel more brave. I engaged with a lot of sex workers and underneath everything they’d been through was alcohol. Even those who were addicted to ‘hard’ drugs - actually, I think alcohol is the hardest thing out there – had an ongoing relationship with the bottle. Whether it was about their own drinking or that of a parent, each one had an alcohol story to tell and none of them had a happy ending. They were the reason I studied for a degree in addictions and moved into working with drug and alcohol use.
3. The man who cried
I was already working as a consultant in 2012, when, sitting in the Alcohol Concern office, the receptionist shot me a panicked look and said, “Can you take this call? I think he’s desperate.” I picked up the phone and asked if I could help. The man at the other end, (I don’t even remember his name, now) sobbed for about a minute before explaining to me that his 42-year-old wife had just been diagnosed with Korsakoff’s syndrome, an extreme form of alcohol related brain damage. He couldn’t find any help for her or for himself or his family as he struggled to raise their three children. I foolishly promised to get some information about local services and get back to him. A week later I was still looking. There was nothing out there. I found some American studies but that was just about it. I did get back to him and promised him I’d try to find more resources but wasn’t able to.
I’d really like never to get another phone call like that but sadly, they come in more and more often, so I suppose a lot of what I do is about trying to help people to make changes before they and those who love them are put in that position.
4. Why I don’t drink
Why do you think I don’t drink? In recovery? Health concerns? Too much knowledge?
In reality, it’s because it makes me feel sick, fall over and pass out. Literally, one small glass of wine will do that. It’s probably psychological, given what I do for a living, or it may be because I drank a lifetime’s worth of dodgy cocktails in the ‘80s and now I’m full. Either way, I’m a total lightweight, so it was a small step for me to give up completely. I do occasionally take a sip of someone else’s margarita if it’s on offer but then I make the scrunchy face and remember why it’s best not to go there.