Was it John Lennon who said life is what happens while you’re making other plans?
Anyhow, the supper did not come off as planned. My friend Char’s cat ran away after being chased by a wicked little Jack Russell. We all abandoned any idea of supper and went out searching through the village, calling ‘Liefie, Liefie’ (which means Lovey, Lovey) even though the 12-year-old cat has never liked that name and prefers not to answer to it. He is the kind of white-nosed, black-eared and cold-eyed cat who should have been named after Julius Caesar or Caligula.
We searched in vain and Char was very upset. Came back home and predictably enough, there was the cat Claudius Nero waiting for us and in a temper because his water dish was empty. ‘Oh Liefie I am so happy to see you!’ said poor Char in a choked-up voice and the cat curled his fine line of lip at her. Then we had reheated and somewhat less inspiring food out in the garden, yawning and listening to the owls in the tree at the edge of the field.
‘Why bother to call yourself an alcoholic when you no longer drink?‘ asked my friend Monique ( not her real name).
Well, it is a challenge to speak with those who are not alcoholic and don’t claim to know any alcoholic except me. I have to think outside the shared AA discourse.
My friend Monique is a linguist at a local university and so I talked to her experience. And I’ve been thinking through this question of identity for a long time, discussing it on another mailing list, looking at what it means to take on a stigmatised identity resisted for so long. If you don’t like speculation, scroll on by. My friend Char fell asleep as Monique and I talked and the owls hooted in the darkness.
I told Monique that I don’t believe in the essentialism of an alcoholic identity. It is in some ways an empty construct — but no more so than gender. When I look closely, it is all mist and mirrors — and when I am not drinking it sometimes feels as if I have never drunk at all.
In early sobriety I found my cravings to be surprisingly empty at core, insubstantial, nothing there. Like the anguish I would go through in the dentist’s waiting room — no pain, nothing happening, just me sitting on a chair finding the waiting unbearable. Once I was in the dentist’s chair and having a tooth drilled or extracted, it was different, the relief of getting on with it, knowing it would be over soon. So I would notice the agitation, recurring desire for a drink, the desire not to give in and get drunk, the way the desire could be deflected or distracted, but would return. The encouragement of others who had done this before me was a beacon and bedrock. The slow ebbing of that desire to drink over weeks and months – a desire consisting of nothing very much in itself, like wanting to feel happy or missing out on animagined experience, a desire with no object.
In those first months I did realise my physiological addiction is not pronounced, not as it is for other alcoholics I have known: I do not thirst for alcohol, salivating for a cold beer or the taste of hard liquor. I did not shiver and cramp and suffer physical symptoms only relieved by alcohol, [not yet anyhow] – but the emotional yearning for oblivion, temporary reprieve from the flatness of sobriety or a longing for even a brief moment’s euphoria seemed to ambush me at times — and that too dissolved into a chimera when examined — no ‘real’ longing, no ambition to drink, no hope that drinking would unlock some door or help me cope — that dream of drunken inspiration lay in the past. I had pursued the dream of drunkenness as far as I could go.
And yet. It does seem to me sometimes looking back that I could not ever drink enough, that I would have liked to have consumed oceans, to have stayed drunk for a year and a day, the old dream of never waking from drunkenness, to always be intoxicated, transported, other than my sober self. And that desire is nonsense when looked at more closely, a desire that made/makes no sense at all. Monique looked at me as if I had confessed to being an axe murderer.
Because although I liked the taste of alcohol, it was the effect produced rather than the substance that held me in thrall. I would drink anything to get drunk, had few preferences. Alcohol could do something for me that nothing else could do. It promised something of a transformation, it was not unlike falling madly in love with an invisible elusive soul mate. Alcohol was just the doorway to the land of bliss, that union with the Beloved, that unending ecstacy of union. If I could get drunk enough I could reach the state of nirvana, I could cease to exist, I could escape for ever, I could dissolve into that ocean, become one with the ocean, no longer separate, no longer apart.
I could never ever have enough alcohol. If you created a great wine cellar with caverns measureless to man running down through the earth to a sunless sea, that deep wine cellar with bottles of elixir reaching to the ceiling, endless unopened bottles, would be my Xanadu, my pleasure dome.
InXanadu did Kublai Khan/a sacred pleasure dome decree/ where Alph the sacred river ran/through caverns measureless to man/down to a sunless sea.
And Coleridge was writing of opium, of intoxication, of drugged imaginings. The dream that always fails us.
I failed as a drunkard, I could never drink enough to satisfy that longing within. If I began again to follow that dream, the drunkard’s fantasy of myticism, of oneness, I would find myself again on that infernal quest yet again, drinking myself into one sunless cavern after another, cursing to wake sober, cursing to find myself still alive and suffering, longing to drink and die, to cease to exist.
In the same way of thinking, to wake each morning now as a sober alcoholic, a non-drinker, seems absurd when I say the words to those who have never known the infernal quest — a sober alcoholic is a paradox or joke rather than an identity — it only makes sense when referred back to and contrasted with the memory of myself as a drunk, an alcoholic drinker. If that memory of stigma fades I would be somebody who may or may not drink. Except that the memory is not mine alone — it is held and shared by friends and those who knew me back when… — and by others including the bloggers and posters and other recovering alcoholics, sober former drunks who remind me why not-drinking matters. And each time I see or hear or read about someone still drinking, struggling, floundering, divided, choiceless, I am reminded why I will not drink today.
‘What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, coincidences? Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which is beyond our comprehension? ‘
And when I do look back at my own personal past I think of the poem by AR Ammons that begins ‘I have a life that did not become…’ Not just a sentiment of regret but a noticing of the gaps, ellipses, lacunae — an adult life that was drifting, unsatisfactory, troubled, secretive. And many aspects of the question ‘what happened?’ or ’what did you do with this one precious life?’ can only be answered by reference to alcoholism, that I drank instead of…
While I was drinking in order to have fun, in order to have freedom from self-consciousness, in order to belong, in order to numb pain, in order to be less me, in order to become more of a person – my life slipped away and vanished. I woke up in a dark wood in the middle of my life to find I had never lived, I had only become a drinker, a person moreover who could not drink, who could not drink for fun or bliss or forgetting. I was a drinker unable to drink, a drinker unable to stop herself drinking. I had an identity that made no sense drunk or sober. And at the end of the day I could not live with myself as I was. I had to be relieved of that self, that spurious identity. The drinker had to surrender, give in, give up.
‘So that a phoenix might arise from the ashes?‘ asked Moniqque.