Above an old mahogany bookcase in the living room, my housemate has put up the barometer she inherited from her father. It is a late 19th-century mercury barometer set in dark wood and monitors air pressure. Ship’s captains once used measurements of air pressure to help find surface troughs, high pressure systems, and frontal boundaries in order to predict storms at sea. These days most of us just watch the television weather forecasts.
The barometer is falling and that means we are in for more bad weather even though the skies are deceptively blue and cloudless. I have decided against taking more plant cuttings to pot up until I get back from holiday. I don’t want the cuttings to drown or dry out while I am away.
Last night Paul P came around to fix a new gate at the entrance to the long stoep or verandah, so that the puppies can play out there and watch people going past in the street. An attractive little wooden gate. Paul is a good craftsman but interminably slow, so I made him cups of black coffee and encouraged him to keep going while he dithered and talked about his neighbour, who is a lonely woman alcoholic. Paul has all the stern disapproval of a former drunk, white-knuckling his way to sobriety. He thinks it is all about will power. Most of the year he is teetotal and proud of himself. Then he goes on a bender and leaves unfinished jobs all around the village and his wife goes to stay with her mother and he makes himself horribly ill. He drags himself back to life and goes around completing his carpentry tasks and mending gates and sash windows and putting up shutters, working with a hangdog expression until his wife returns and he settles into his dry period.
Everyone else can see the pattern and spot the next bender coming, but Paul never suspects a thing. He would consider it a sign of moral weakness to ask for help. He is not an alcoholic because alcoholics can’t stop drinking and he can stop most of the time. Except when he can’t.
His neighbour, whom I shall call Elsabe, is a daily drinker, sipping away at glasses of sweet wine from dawn to dusk. She rarely seems fall-down drunk, but she is never sober. She just sits in her house all alone, living on a tiny pension and spending most of it on sherry and wine. She doesn’t eat much and Paul says that if she ate properly, she wouldn’t get tipsy.
As I sat and listened to Pul last night I thought that here we are in 2008 and so little is known about alcoholism that we might as well be talking about a rare disease only seen once in a blue moon. There are active alcoholics living on every street of this quiet little village. The more I understnd of my own ‘arrested’ alcoholism and sobriety contingent on a daily reprieve, the more cunning, baffling and powerful it seems to me. I once thought that only alcoholics were really in denial about the nature of alcoholism. Now I know that those closest to alcoholics share the denial. Most public educational institutions share that denial, Church pastors and congregations share that denial. Media is as blinkered and ignorant as anyone else, in part because many media workers see alcoholism as old-fashioned and to be conflated with all kinds of other addictions.
I tried to talk to Paul a little about the way in which patterns of habitual drinking get worse. About the commonality to be found in all kinds of alcoholism. He just smiled at me and shook his head. He has never seen me drunk, he would never think of a respectable woman active in the community as alcoholic. He doesn’t think women can be alcoholic unless they are prostitutes or feeble-minded. Alcoholics are unshaven smelly old men begging for money outside the bottlestore.
He doesn’t know there is bad weather on the way.