Hello. My name is Toby and I am an alcoholic.
Five years sober today.
I’m normally very coy about this. Just a picture of the coin and a number. So enigmatic. Don’t look at me, I’m not after your attention.
But it is something of a landmark, I suppose. And I’ve come to believe that all we are is the effect we have on other people so if I’m going be attention seeking I may as well try to be helpful.
So here are ten things I’ve learnt in my five years of sobriety.
“It’s a bit of a cult innit?” “There’s a lot of God isn’t there?”
Well, if you want there to be. And there isn’t if you don’t. There are 12 Steps, sponsorship… all sorts. But, for this (still) atheist who definitely isn’t part of a cult (and doesn’t even have a sponsor) AA is just a place to go for a mental MOT. It has helped me to keep perspective and has been a place to open up, to share, to offload … all without having to pay a shrink. Listening to other people, and supporting them, helps too. Plus, there are biscuits (bloody Tunnocks Teacakes in one of the posh London places I go – but even in Chorlton it’s not unusual to happen upon a Viscount from time to time).
It doesn’t work for everyone – that’s fine too, but it’s easy to find excuses not to go. But they’re usually just excuses to keep drinking. Instead, I take the bits that do work and ignore the bits that don’t… and use AA to ensure that I do not have a drink today. And that’s enough. Not having a drink today is enough.
2. I was a functional alcoholic.
I never missed a day’s work through booze, I never worked drunk. I just liked a drink. I could put it away. In my early days as a comic I’d get steadily more sozzled as an MC the longer the night went on, but after a while I noticed that and so proved to myself that I didn’t have a problem by laying off it until I’d got the last act on. Then I’d “reward” myself with a drink. And not stop. BUT – my restraint up until, say, 10.20pm, proved I didn’t have an issue with booze. I never drank when on an acting job at all. I was the model of professionalism.
And yet… I’d rush the kids to bed so I could pop the cork out of the first of my evening bottles of wine and be very irritated if they needed tucking in or attending to in the night. Oh yeah, the stuff that was important to me (gigging, acting, work – ergo ego as my self-esteem and work life have always been linked) was never interfered with by my desire for a tipple… but family? Friends? Oh yeah, I was never gonna show restraint because of them.
And I could take it. I could drink a lot. And I’d wake up in a panic most mornings because I’d forgotten huge chunks of the night before. Now usually I wouldn’t have done anything too bad, but there were occasions when I had been a dick. Maybe because of the booze, maybe because I’m a dick. At least if I’m a dick now I can’t blame the booze – but I also no longer wake up and immediately go into a state of panic, checking Facebook in a cold sweat to see if anyone I was with last night has dropped me a message of the you-were-a-dick-flavoured variety.
Oh, and I liked alcohol. I wasn’t an addict. I had a wine book. I’d try out different, matured whiskies and marvel and their complexity. That surely meant that I wasn’t a drunk? I was – and this is a brilliant phrase I encountered via a wise fellow at AA – an “unfortunate connoisseur”. I wasn’t like all the sad pricks you see staggering about and looking pathetic. My drunkenness was refined!
BUT, and this is important – to the end of my drinking career my functionality got seriously compromised, and very quickly. I actually gave up for 11 months prior to this successful run, and when I started again after that 11 months (I was celebrating an achievement – I DESERVED a drink) within a week I was hiding booze and cracking open cans of G and T before midday. It’s a progressive illness, and I progressed towards Bedlam with increasing speed. I know if I started again now it wouldn’t be pretty – one harmless drink would turn quickly into an onsluaght of dangerous intoxication. If I ever drink again, I think I’ll lose everything pretty quickly. I was in a parlous state.
3. It’s not just the booze.
AA has helped me with more than booze. “Come for the drinking, stay for the thinking” indeed. I think the thing it’s helped with most is perspective. I have always been a proud pessimist (“then you’re not disappointed”) and taken rejection and professional disappointments very personally. I think sobriety has helped with both. I mean, it doesn’t make it hurt any less but having to sit with difficult situations, rather than cloud, avoid or drown them with booze has made me deal with them better.
The big lesson I think, is that life isn’t unfair because it’s got it in for me. The universe doesn’t hate me. It’s worse than that: the universe doesn’t give shit about me. I can’t use unfairness as an excuse to be angry with the world. As an excuse to drink. Not only am I not the centre of the universe : I’m not even on the map. Bad things don’t happen because of this or that – they just happen. It’s unfair? Yeah, probably, but fixating on that doesn’t solve the problem? And what’s fair anyway? Being resentful that you’ve got a flat tyre doesn’t fix the tyre and get you back on the road. Fixing the tyre does. The rest is a distraction.
You can either try to deal with rejection, disappointment and failure or you can use them as an excuse to feel sorry for yourself and get hammered. It shouldn’t be a great surprise to learn that the former is probably more sensible.
4. The present is the only one you can do anything about.
I’ve always fretted about the past (things I cannot change): reliving past woes, wishing I had reacted to certain situations differently, replaying injustices (sometimes minor ones, tiny little interactions I’d have loved to have played out differently). And if not looking back with regret I’ve looked forward with worry. What if this never happens, what if that goes wrong? And it means I have usually failed to appreciate what I am doing at the time (“this job is going well, but what if no-one notices and it doesn’t lead to another, better job!?”). If you spend all your time looking forwards and backwards you don’t appreciate what is in front of your eyes (and sometimes that’s just a nice cup of tea or a lovely dog).
5. There’s no magic solution.
I think I thought I’d find somewhere that – like those miracle diets that are never as effective as Eat Less, Do Exercise – might offer some shortcut to sobriety, some option which required no effort from me. Bad news is, there isn’t one. You don’t walk into AA and someone says something wise that suddenly makes you go “Oh I see!” and decide never to drink again.
And whilst AA is a support network it is remarkably unsentimental – the bottom line is you have to do it yourself, put the work in. I can read all the fitness/diet books in the world but unless I go to the gym and refuse the cupcakes, I’m not going to get into the shape I want. Ditto sobriety: you have to put various things in place, and summon a huge effort of the will, to do it properly. And it’s really hard. There are people who are prepared to help and guide and listen, but you have to ACTUALLY listen to them, and sometimes do the things that sound really hard (avoid that pub, that person, that event). I no longer do some of the things that I used to love doing, I don’t see some people I used to love seeing, and I don’t go to some of the places I used to enjoy frequenting – it’s not all one big love in, this process. You lose things – and people and places – but, the good news is, you gain others. Now, they’re not necessarily exciting ones, or ones that provide good stories, but that’s OK : stories tend to be better to hear than be a part of anyway, as the people on the Titanic will tell you. I think I’m probably a bit duller than I was when I was a drunk, but as we’ll discover in Point 9, I was probably pretty boring when I was drunk as well, I just didn’t realise it.
I tried other things by the way. I tried various official, state-provided resources. I found them a bit patronising (“next time, we’ll all practice writing a CV”) or designed for people really on the skids rather than a bon vivant in need of a bit of steadying like myself*. But anyway, they didn’t work. AA didn’t work the first couple of times either – I think I expected to go in and be sorted at the touch of a button. It took a bit more graft than that. But it’s working today and that’s enough.
(*reader, I wasn’t a bon vivant in need to a bit of steadying, I was a prick who was drinking whisky for breakfast).
6. It doesn’t make all the other shit go away – but sometimes it makes you deal with it better.
I thought there’d be a moment when sobriety hit me and life became like some advert : all the weight would lift, there’d be air in my lungs, a spring in my step, and I’d cartwheel towards enlightenment, turning everything I touched into gold as I did. Nope, life still does what life does – jobs don’t go my way, people are unkind, bills drop through the letterbox, the wrong person goes out of Strictly. My one small achievement, though, is that when it does, I have the tiny consolation that I haven’t made it worse by getting drunk.
That’s all. But that’s enough.
7. Hell Is Other People
Not really, but I have spent most of my life seeking the approval of others. I have a pathetic need to be liked. I want everyone to enjoy my work, think I have talent.
If I meet you I’ll spend the next two days worrying that you hated me. If I do a show I’ll fixate on the bits that didn’t work. If someone is a dick to me I’ll have a sleepless night going over all the things I SHOULD have said. All these nagging doubts and fears and regrets … in the old days I’d drown them out with booze. Can’t do that now. But what I CAN do is make sure I am not responsible for making other people feel the same way. I don’t expect to make anyone’s day better, but I can at least try not to make it any worse.
I try to put cheerful stuff out there not because I am some cloying optimist. Just the opposite. But just because one’s own glass is half empty it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try to half fill everyone else’s (unfortunate metaphor but there you go).
Being in a profession which causes me to continually seek the affirmation of total strangers on a nightly basis is perhaps not the best decision for someone who has always needed to feed of external approval. I’m not hugely confident – alcohol definitely acted as a social lubricant. I’m terribly nervous in social situations … in fact I need an afternoon to pluck up the courage even to just phone someone. And I am plagued with insecurities – the best metaphor I can think of is that my head is full of wasps… and booze definitely dampened the buzzing. But then in the morning I’d wake up and slowly start to feel all the stinging they’d been getting up to whilst I was too pissed to notice. At the stings are much worse than the buzzes.
One characterises all of this, internally, as low self esteem : but it is its own form of narcissism. To fret that people are spending their time being down on you, it does presuppose that they are thinking about you AT ALL, which they probably aren’t (because they have their own crap to worry about). So even when I am wracked with insecurity, it is actually a form of self-indulgence and I need to get over myself.
And it’s an important link. Because booze was part of my self-esteem. I was never very sporty, not particularly good looking, and never had the confidence to be a lothario. But “last man standing”, “you can put it away”, “you didn’t seem pissed when everyone else was rat arsed” : they were great stripes of affirmation for someone who couldn’t necessarily acquire them on more traditional fronts.
But everyone is a product of their own issues. AA isn’t full of saints spouting wisdom (although there are so many kind, supportive, wise people there who have helped me immensely): some of the people there are idiots, and as they speak about their catalogue of woes you think: “Well, I can see why your life is rubbish… and it’s all your own fault.” But if you keep listening, you realise that even the most annoying person has more in common with you than you care to think; the most twattish dolt has the same vulnerabilities as you; the most clueless or inarticulate bore can be the most instructive. Because at AA you can’t look down on anyone. You’re there because you’re a drunk. No loftiness from you Whisky For Breakfast guy. If you were so fucking smart you’d be running a marathon or inspiring your kids or learning the trombone. But we know that if you weren’t here you’d be drinking a can of G and T in a park and crying because you think your self-indulgence is somehow romantic if your tears taste of Chablis.
The listening is as important as the talking. And most people are, like you, just trying to get through life the best way they can and – hey, you’re not the only one beset by the insecurities, fears, and sheer bad luck you think only afflict you.
Also, I have begun to notice that people (not drunks, normal people) whom I consider ridiculously successful are prone to just as many worries as I am. Because the things we think will solve our problems – money, work, status, the approval of others… they don’t actually provide us with the happiness we seek. That can be found much closer to home if you’re prepared to look for it: but it’s a solo mission. You only find it if you’re prepared to seek it out without anyone else looking.
Now, I may speak a good game here, but the minute someone says something mean about me or I don’t get that job, or I see someone else doing something I wish I was doing, then I’ll be in bed for two days hoping the ground will swallow me up and thinking everyone hates me and I’ll never work again. But that’s OK, sometimes I am VERY good on theory without quite cracking the practice part of the test.
And none of us is as clued up as we’d like to be. I remember being told very sternly that having alcohol-free lager was a ridiculous thing to do and that it wouldn’t help and would lead me back to the Gates of Damnation. This by a guy who three weeks later was lamenting the fact that he’d had to swallow a bag of cocaine when the Bizzies had kicked his flat door in. Now then, as it happens – apart from the VERY odd occasion – I don’t do the alcohol free lager any more (the load I got in last Christmas is now OUT OF DATE!) but for a while, in the early days of my journey, I needed it. Now, I am sure some people who have used it HAVE gone back to the booze – but I (and plenty of others) have used it and haven’t. I did what was right for me at the time. It didn’t make me seek out the harder stuff, and nor have I ever had to swallow a bag of cocaine. So there. But everyone will have opinions on what you should do … in the end, the only right way is the way that works and the way that (join in at the back) stops you having a drink today. Because that’s all I need to do. Not have a drink today.
8. One Day At A Time and other cliches.
They are cliches for a reason.
I remember saying to a friend (who had dropped everything and driven over from Liverpool when I was at rock bottom – see, people are nice!) as I nursed a cappuccino and thought it’d taste better with a slug of whisky in it – “I have a mountain to climb” and he said “don’t look at the mountain, just the next step, the next base camp along the way.” Typing that just now felt like mainlining a cliche, personifying a Lesson Of The Week – but those words, at the time, really helped (thanks Allan).
Because I haven’t been sober five years. I have been sober One Day At A Time and somehow managed to accumulate enough of a consecutive run of sober days to hit this milestone. And when even a day seems hard, there’s another useful cliche to invoke – Breathe In, Breathe Out, Don’t Have A Drink. Considering all the drinks I can’t have, thinking about all the events at which I’ll have to avoid booze, worrying about all the tricky situations I can’t now navigate with help of a social lubricant and confidence-boosting stiffener… that’s really hard. That seems like a whole range of mountains.
Avoiding just that one drink though – just the next one – that’s easier. I’m not thinking about never drinking again. I’m thinking about not picking up that one drink. If I can avoid that, I might just be OK.
9. Cynicism is over-rated.
Specially in my business – “that’s shit isn’t it?” was provably 90 per cent of my material for years. Dismantling things is funny. You like that? It’s awful! Hahaha.
I’m not a very happy person. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m just stating it as a matter of fact. I wish I found it easier but I struggle to be content, to not be anxious, to be worry-free. I’m not proud of it, I don’t think it makes me special (I have no intention of entering the Affliction Olympics that everyone seems desperate to compete in these days). It’s not a badge of honour – it doesn’t make me deep or interesting – it’s fucking annoying actually. I have many demons snapping at me. Wasps a-buzzing.
I think we like cynics: their caustic nature is quite cool. A nihilistic attitude can be sexy. Well, in films, yeah. On stage maybe. But in real life, someone pointing out how crap everything is is a bit of a bore. Always seeing the shit side of something isn’t some act of beatnik wisdom, it’s actually pretty tedious. Like wot drunk people are. Oh yeah, I HAVE learnt that – all that time I was pissed and funny and hilarious and just saying everything that everyone absolutely had to listen to because I was on such form and so funny… well, newsflash, I was annoying : and if you were drunk with me, then so were you.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Most drunk people are having a great time and good luck to them. But as someone on the outside can I just say (no offence)… you’re boring and you talk shit. Just FYI 🙂 And that’s perfectly fine. It’s my fault I can’t get into a state where I am boring and talk shit with you. And most of you can have a great time being boring and talking shit and you don’t need to get up the next day and start drinking and being boring and talking shit again immediately. So you win. And five years sober I am still boring and I still talk shit. So, actually, you win twice.
But worse than boring, and to my shame I didn’t put this in the first iteration of this post, my noble suffering was unedurable to those close to me. I may have had to deal with an easily romaticised plight, but to the people I am supposed to love I was furtive, dishonest, selfish and diffciult. Hard drinking wrecks fancy themsleves as afflicted philosophers – but the sad truth is that they are actually self-destructive, frightening and unpleasant to be around.
10. I’ll know I’m doing REALLY well when I mark this occasion privately.
THAT will be the real breakthrough.
I STILL care too much whet other people think. I STILL take rejection very badly. I am STILL full of self-doubt. Those things don’t go away. But I think I see those parts of me a bit better and I understand them because I have a clear head. Again, this process, this bumpy five year road I have taken, hasn’t been about making life’s problems go away, it’s been about understanding them and sitting in them even when they are uncomfortable. It’s about dealing with them rather than avoiding them via the medium of oblivion.
But I am still reluctant with this business of sharing because I know it appeals to the worst side of me. Yes, it can help others. Yes, there is a certain sense of achievement and nowt wrong with being a little proud of that. But being inwardly proud should be enough. This world in which we all share and we all need our “well done yous” and “you OK huns” and “I am being true to myselfs” isn’t one that helps this malaise – because that’s all part of the same problem. The whole thing about being properly sober is that you’re not so self-involved that you need other people to tell you you’ve done OK. The achievement can speak for itself and I shouldn’t need to declaim it from the Heavens – because any true happiness has to come from within rather than being sucked from others because I’m some needy affirmation vampire.
But I have seen very wise, sober people who have got it cracked disappear from meetings and come back a few months later, confessing that they’d fallen off the wagon : these people sometimes 8, 12, 15 years sober. So five is nothing. I’m only one drink away from fucking it up. I don’t know everything, but I do know that it’s a wise man who knows he’s not nearly as wise as he thinks he is or needs to be.
I’m alright though. I do my best, I try to make other people happy, and I think I am good at what I do. I just know I’ll be much better when I shut up about it, and learn to find some satisfaction from within rather than without.
I hope to get to ten years. But do you know what I hope even more? That when I get to ten years, I don’t need to tell anyone about it.
That’ll be worth drinking to. (Tea, though. Tea).