Alcohol Dependence: The Drinking Story
Beware, this is a confession - of sorts.
“I don’t drink water, fish f**k in it.” W.C. Fields
That used to be my dictum until three weeks ago when I checked out of yet another rehab clinic but this time with a patch in my bum that’ll prevent me from ever drinking booze again. This is the story of how too much water with whiskey landed me there and the Antabuse implant in my body. How I danced around the problem with such self-denying dextrousness that it got so big the only way I could handle it was by getting even more out of it. The consequences of those actions and the realisation of them have made me a sober creature today, and more importantly an alive one.
Other people can talk the hind-wheels off a Solly Kramer’s delivery vehicle about Chardonnays and what kind of fish they go with; or the difference between a single malt and a double malt (I thought it simply meant they were stronger and more expensive). After a while I didn’t care about the taste or the palate or the nose or whatever. I’d have the Beef Wellington just in order to have the dry red wine. Hey man, if it was a Hamilton Russel Pinot Noir (R180 a bottle) or a Tassenberg (R8 a bottle) I couldn’t have given a damn, it was the kick that mattered. I could have probably downed Chivas Regal and Fanta Grape with impunity. I don’t know the exact moment when I crossed the threshold from social drinker to problem drinker to alcoholic - but I did.
I was never a great fan of alcohol at high school, it was only at University that I started a penchant for Hannepoot because it was sweet and made a nice break from getting plastered on Durban Poison, Obex and Coffee with ground nutmeg (a natural hallucinogenic by the way). But I never went over the top with the habit. It was while living awash in London’s pub culture that I changed from someone who could predict his behaviour every time he drank and who controlled the alcohol, to someone who was controlled by the substance instead.
Pub culture, trendy night-life and the elusive search to get laid by the likes of Kate Moss after a drinking binge at a poppy Soho eatery was the moment the worm of self-immolation by alcohol began. I was mugged once while paralytic after telling the accused “I have no spare change, brother,” (I didn’t have a cent; I’d drunk it all). He said, “You’re not my f**kin bruvver,” and promptly broke my nose.
On another occasion the Samaritan-Soak interfered with a police arrest because I felt, through double vision of course, that the police were using unnatural force in kicking their resisting suspect. I screamed at passers-by, “Look! Police brutality!” and was promptly arrested by one of the pedestrians who happened to be a plain clothes cop. I was later let off charges of obstruction because the magistrate said that being South African I had a skewed idea of the police force and authorities.
Although minor in comparison, the amount of times I fell asleep on late-night buses in a stupor are endless. The crowning moment must have been waking in a motionless empty London bus, rousing the driver who was taking a dawn nap and asking, “Are we in Zone 2?”, “Nope sorry mate had too much to drink? We’re in Kent!”
On my return to the newly democratic South Africa things only got worse. I thought that my field - journalism, broadcasting, films and television - would open up. And it did, and has, but I was either the wrong hue or too out of it to do business.
Within a few months of my arrival I had become a regular barfly at many places around town and commanded a tab in every one. The only thing that kept my self-respect, or so I thought, was that old alcoholic’s dictum, “Oh he/she is worse than me,” because their tabs were higher. Of course they could afford it. I was jobless, in fact drinking was slowly becoming my full time career. And I floated and flitted from bar to bar from freebie function to freebie function, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones and inevitably wrecking them both. For me the party became wherever I was; whether that be an art opening or a bus stop where I frequently passed out with a bottle in my hand - hell man in those days I went to so many wonderful parties, trouble is I never knew how they ended.
Sure enough I did find work, desperate as I was to keep the double Jameson’s flowing. And I even got married and managed to father a child, you’d think the awesome experience of cutting one offspring’s umbilical cord would’ve brought me to my senses.
But I carried on, this time starting to pot around noon just in case it got dark early I suppose. At least I’d arrive home with a flower for my better half, sometimes clenched between my teeth, that I’d ripped from someone’s garden on my way home from the bar. In the process I became an expert at the world’s leading indoor sport - feeling sorry for oneself.
I should’ve realised what it was coming to one night when after a bender I was playing with my three month old son and dropped him - he wasn’t hurt badly, but he could have been. That was the moment my brain should have twigged and I should have, could have stopped the dop. But like most soaks, I didn’t.
I remember at an opening of my wife’s art exhibition where I was talking to some influential critic, we were surrounded by society wannabes and the kind of chatter that just made someone like me want to gulp down the liquor more hardily - and I just flaked out, fell down like a perpendicular plank hitting myself really hard on the back of the head. My wife said to me “I envy people who drink, at least they know what to blame everything on.”
There were several of those instances - passing out, blackouts in movie-houses, passing out mid-way through a film shoot in which I was an actor (!) - and above all hangovers that were so blistering that my teeth itched and my hair hurt - my motto was “live and let liver”. Obviously everything came to a head, I couldn’t sign my name without a severe case of the shakes - it was like self-induced Parkinson’s disease and of course the only way I could get rid of them was by having yet another drink. I couldn’t face anyone , the word was out in this parochial town - I had a problem and more often than not I stank of whiskey and my eyes were bloodshot.
Working as a freelancer (yet still managing to garner enough bucks to waste on dop) I managed to get my most permanent employer to help me out with an advance and checked into Phoenix House, a well-known rehab centre near Auckland Park. But I couldn’t stand it, apart from the tranquillisers that is. I was surrounded by kids barely beyond 20 put there by their parents for smoking dagga or more often for becoming ecstasy addicts. So the order of the day was listening to rave music on someone’s cassette deck all the time while some youngster in track-shoes, hip T-shirt and a close-cropped haircut monologued as loud as he could. I couldn’t stand it; so I ducked.
Within 24 hours of running away from Phoenix house I’d been fired from my job, evicted from my cottage and my wife and kid had left me. Typical Alky story - yebo - and I’m so bright - yebo - and I’m so street smart (if I’m not out of it) - well the whole world came crashing down. And I thought, It’ll be me or it, one of us has got to go.
And so with the help of my parents and a family heirloom (who else can one count on in a crisis?) three days later I checked into yet another rehab - Riverfield Lodge - a larny place in the Northern suburbs that costs 500 bucks a day. The day before checking in though, I went to Catz Pyjamas a 24 hour Melville eatery and downed four double Jamesons at five in the morning with the cognisance that they were going to be my last drinks of all time.
What followed was a great three weeks in what was not a hospitalised prison, more like a two star hotel despite the inflated prices and like an Altman movie it was peopled by the strangest of characters from fellow inmates - the majority of whom were there for alcohol abuse but we also had our smack and crack and cocaine addicts - to the doctors and therapists themselves.
As for me, I went through some troubled times. During my time at Riverfield I was a model student, but unlike the 20% who stay clean forever I was going to fall by the wayside yet again. I’m pre-empting myself. At the rehab I thought I was cleverer than most of the therapists - par for the course - but in reality I learnt a lot from the sessions, like the one where we had to design our own coat of arms describing its make-up - where the emotional warmth in our lives comes from? (myself, my wife, my child, nature, small everyday things) , what event or who influenced you the most in the last 12 months? (my destructive behaviour, despair, dropping my kid, losing everything, and of course the Internet), if you knew you’d be dead at 10’O clock tonight, is there anything you would like to say or clear up with anyone? (absolve myself of guilt, apologise to my wife, son, parents, friends and family), what is most important in your life at the moment? (my harde-hout, my integrity, my love, my wife and kid and above all relinquishing the need to be a ‘famous’ person and the notion of long term recovery). Then there were the closed-group therapy sessions where we swopped imaginary gifts, made collages of our ‘previous’ lives and drawings of where we hoped to be in the future.
The closed one-on-one sessions were another matter. My therapist was a lanky Afrikaans bred chain-smoker who kept on nodding at me with big bug-eyes as if she was discovering something really pertinent from my trenchant self-pityingly arrogant monologues. Being an alcoholic I’ve become an expert at lip service, getting what I want and telling people what they want to hear - “No, I haven’t drunk today,” meanwhile I had had one glass of white wine for breakfast initially to prevent the shakes and then another two or three because of the craving - and I fed my therapist what she wanted to hear.
Then there was the petite lady who held the group sessions and took us for creative therapy where we’d make stain glass and leather-work in the afternoons. During one open group I said, “Jesus Christ, I really don’t know what got into me in the past,” and she was outraged that I’d used the Lord’s name in vain, so pissed off with me that she was blue in the face and I noticed the crucifix around her neck almost looked ready to blanch.
During my three weeks there, however, I did get to know her pretty well and for all her supposed up-tightness she was the best of the therapists at the place especially if you compare her to one young woman, a vocabulary challenged youngster who at one point during a seminar assured us addicts that we shouldn’t be too concerned and always remember, “That after all life is futile”. Now that’s a convenient excuse to pick up another litre of whatever’s going that’ll get one wasted.
When I checked out I felt overwhelmingly positive, perhaps I was still living in what they call “the honeymoon period” where the patient believes he has finally kicked the beast yet it’s still ever-present lurking in the background; but I was adamant that I was clean and sober and ready to rebuild my life. I attended AA meetings, read the big book, accessed Alcoholic recovery sites and saw my therapist once a week. For about ten days things went swimmingly well, but I was staying with my parents, had no money and my wife and kid were staying with friends.
Eventually I cracked and started scouring my folk’s house for alcohol, they’d hidden it all. My dad loves his evening Scotch and I knew there’d be a bottle of Three Ships or an equal imitation in the house. Sure enough, I found a bottle of port poking its cap out from between the linen and whiskey skewed in behind the trays in the kitchen cupboard and duly proceeded to gulp from both bottles during the day in a frantic gesture akin to shoplifting - the rush from stealing the stuff was almost as good as the small high I got from a sip or two. Next on the agenda was any medicine that was mixed with alcohol from rescue remedy to cough mixture.
Staying with my parents made me feel like I was 14 again, having regular breakfast, lunch and dinner, even bathing daily but rebelling all the time. It came to an end when I managed to find a flat, earned some money and regained my wife and kiddie who came to live with me. Ostensibly I was clean again; but any money I did earn was dutifully spent on trips up the road to the strip of bars and restaurants nearby were I got plastered. So fights ensued, my wife assaulted me (in retrospect she had due cause) and I spent my birthday in Milpark Hospital having stitches to close up my lacerated head.
I went to the doctor’s rooms and within ten minutes he had cut a tiny envelope in my bum-cheeks and inserted six tablets of Antabuse - a drug I had been prescribed before, but orally so I invariably flushed the pills down the toilet. There’s a cute scar on my skinny ass these days and if I touch a drink again I’ll feel instantly nauseous and could easily end up killing myself.
As you can tell I’m no angel and I did drink on the Antabuse implant. I went scarlet red, flushed and sweaty and fell into a deep sleep. The second time I tried it I vomited violently. With the attendant illness that occurred I was laid low for about a fortnight and so my income dried up, and I had no money with which to test the drug against alcohol - so finally I stopped. I’ve been completely dry for a month now; and feel great. My skin has cleared itself of drawn lines, I no longer have cold sweats and I’m working more than ever before. Occasionally I have a craving but invariably it goes away - the only wine on my daily menu these days are wine gums and I’m eating chocolate as if I was a six year old glutton.
I feel all the better for giving it up - now I’ve got to resurrect my life....