An Excerpt from Drunks - A Story of an Alcoholic Couple



They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

(Ernest Dowson)

Is this going to be a love story? Yes, it is, but it’s not as you might expect. It’s a love story, all right, one of a deep, consuming, relentless, compulsive passion.

My name is Alan Markham, and this all happened a while ago, but the memories don’t go away. Looking back, I can see that our lives had been carried along like a rudderless ship in a storm. The life we had is gone. It sank beneath the ocean waves and I was powerless to prevent that. I’m controlling my problem, but I’m under no illusions. I could come apart at the seams any time, should I pick up a drink. My memories of what it was like for us – by that I mean my wife, Chrissy, and I – have at times become a blurred recollection.

They hurt.

It’s painful. But I need that to remind me of what I was and how I got to my present state.

I owe her at least that.

My condition was not always visible except to the intuitive eye of a fellow victim. They could detect it and be able to tell if I was suffering from a hangover or if my entire body was screaming for a drink.

Where did it all begin? I can only guess. There’s so much that I can’t remember. Both of us had met our mutual nemesis years back. There were no formal introductions. Neither of us could have been able to say exactly when it started or where. There seemed to be no single moment, no physical or psychological event that pushed us across that blurred line into alcoholism.

Looking back, I can see that booze is a slow insidious tormentor, possessing its own mystique. Its lure is stealthy and beckons the unwary into its sacred presence. I realise now that Chrissy had unwittingly shown me the true extent of my madness by mirroring me along my bottle-strewn rampage through life. We’d been at it for years. Each of us denied and ignored the extent of our problem. How long? One year, two or ten years. What differ-ence does it make?

One thing’s certain – we’d been on a disguised bender for the last five years.

We’d become pissheads, winos, call us what you like, but we dressed in decent clothes and lived respectable lives.

In retrospect, it seemed we could never stop. Yet somehow, I’d been able to step back from its abyss. Drinking was the only way of life she finally understood as having any meaning for her. So she kept at it, never able to stop. I can see now that it wrecked us by gradual degrees and cost us dearly. The first cracks began appearing some years back. I knew something was wrong between us but couldn’t work out what. I think I was thirty years old at the time, being two years older than her.

I should mention how an alcoholic like me operated. I wasn’t a down-and-out. I had a professional occupation, and like huge numbers of alcoholics, disguised myself in a job and work culture. I had learnt how to ignore the next morning’s hangover. If you asked me, I’d tell you I preferred solitary drinking, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t drink with other heavy drinkers. I did. Without knowing it, I would invariably be able to pick out fellow alcoholics. In spite of all the affected barroom manners and pretence at sophistication, I always spotted it. It was as if, between us, we had our own secret signalling system. We had our own terms of reference like:

“D’you fancy another?”

“Perhaps I can squeeze another one in.”

“Yeah, okay. Just one more and I must be off.”

What rubbish! We had no intention of rushing anywhere apart from into the next bar.

Us ‘professional’ drinkers defied the common definition of a drunk. The words ‘piss-head’ or ‘alchy’ characterise the popular concept of a staggering, falling down, smelly, boozed up, pants-pissed wino clutching a bottle.

It’s far craftier than that.

Go to any AA meeting and see the number of successful people there. Most have se-crets, whether they’re lawyers, architects, actors, company directors, artisans, or down-and-outs. They all have their reasons for being there but underlining it all is the effect and re-lease that booze gave them from the stresses in their lives. Alcoholics frequently drink to erase the pain of the last bender, or for other endless and stupid reasons. The more you drink, the more you have to. It’s in an attempt to overcome the last lot of anguish and hurt, because you’ve set up a domino effect of desire. How on earth can you get out of the vicious circle of incessant drinking? You have to want to, and that’s the problem. I could always find a good reason for a drink. It could be stress at work or something gone wrong between Chrissy and me. Virtually any event became a cause for a drink or two. Booze created a false image. Looking back, it gave me crazy, disproportionate views of who I was and what I could achieve.

The first shot, that initial hit, would start the euphoric ascent into overcoming all im-mediate and foreseeable problems. I was full of masterly and elegant solutions to life’s problems. What a load of shit that was. Looking back, drink stunted my emotional respons-es to life and my ability to interact with other people.

It was insidious, murderous.

It nearly finished me.

In retrospect, I can see how I got into problems with alcohol. Up to a point, I was able to master a degree of control over myself. After a few years of ruthless bottle bashing, I lost that ability. I knew also that Chrissy sat in the same boat as me, but she would never, ever admit it. We were part of that drinking mystique – the clink of glass, ice clattering into shiny clean tumblers, bars with smart bartenders in starched aprons, buzzy conversation, and the certainty of camaraderie. Add to this the constant TV and film presentations of men slamming down cold beers or downing two fingers of Red Eye in one gulp at the end of a day’s work. The advertising process falls just short of rape.

My façade at work had gradually begun to crumble and others were noticing. I wasn’t all that I seemed, and they began to talk about me. I’d become careless. The division be-tween the two versions of me – at the pub or bar and at my desk dealing with top agencies and clients – had begun to disintegrate. They were beginning to merge into one, and that the bar was winning had become transparently obvious.

The bar was ahead on points.

Originally, you might have seen me on my fifth large scotch of the night, my speech a little too loud as my senses began to blur, and you might have thought I’d had one too many. Whatever else I downed during the day – and that was a vatful – didn’t count. Yet, whatever. Overall, I was a non-violent drunk. Perhaps I smoked too much. Most alcoholics are addict-ed to extremes – smoking, drugs, or eating problems. I attempted to give an image of being health-conscious by frequently and conspicuously eating sushi for lunch at my desk, on which also sat a bottle of mineral water. Who was I kidding? I would top it up with slugs of vodka. You couldn’t tell the difference. My God, how I hated the sanctimonious culture that the wimpy, squeaky-clean mineral-water-drinking brigade had infused into the workplace.

Alcoholics are, without fail, in a form of denial, but my own thoughts on this subject I kept behind steel bulwarks. They couldn’t get out. I was always tanked, but like so many others I hadn’t lost my job … yet. I started making the mistake of visibly suffering when I came back to the office after three-hour-plus lunches. I began to receive hints that my work performance was deteriorating. Didn’t anyone understand that stress and pressure need re-lief, and booze supplied that? It was a much-deserved reward. I’d picked up clues that I was planning and plotting my work schedule to fit in with my drinking.

Not a good sign.

I guess I should now tell you how it was with Chrissy and me. I had a revelatory mo-ment much later in my drinking, which you will see. I began to suspect the culprit in my life earlier on, long before I decided on major changes. I chose to ignore the messages.

When I answered those questionnaires found in magazines and well-meaning newspa-pers on how much you drank, I always ignored or laughed at the results. Many came from scaremongering women’s magazines and didn’t seem to have any validity. They’d ask: How many units do you drink a day?

What the fuck’s a unit?

Or stupid questions like: Before going out to a party or event do you have a drink or two to get yourself in the mood?

The answer is: Of bloody course! Who doesn’t?

Questions that would have been more to the point were: When a bottle of wine is put be-fore you with friends around, do you feel apprehensive that they might drink too much and leave you short?

Or: When someone pours you a drink, do you note the level in your glass compared to others? Is there going to be enough to keep you happy? What are you going to do when it runs out?

I never failed to finish a drink, and I never refused the next offer. For me, drinking was a way of life. It was pleasurable and gave me something to look forward to. Why have one drink when you can have two or three or hopefully more?

I guess all dedicated alcoholics are forever looking for the next hit. Chrissy and I didn’t believe in rules, times, and regulations about drinking. Anywhere, anytime, I couldn’t get enough, nor could Chrissy, although she would never admit that. We were rooted in alcohol-ism, although then I didn’t know it. Both of us. Once we started, we didn’t know or recog-nise when we should stop. So many people don’t drink much, and I can remember going to functions where one or maybe two bottles were served up for a table of four. I ask you! That was never going to be enough. I would say I had to rush to the toilet, but I didn’t. I went to the bar to down a large scotch or pink gin in about two minutes flat before heading back to the table.

Nobody ever knew.

I kept bottles stashed in my car that even Chrissy didn’t know about. They were there for emergencies. Booze, for us, was an art form. For me, it allowed a release of sentiments, which allowed me to deal with my deepest fears and emotions.

Awake, my Little Ones, and fill the Cup

Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.

Those lines from Chrissy’s favourite book, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, sum up perfectly the way I looked at drinking and life. Something in me was lacking, and only alco-hol could edge me into any form of fulfilment. At least I wasn’t some scruffy wino sitting in a subway downing straight from a bottle of cheap sherry mixed with meth. Nor was I a fat, overweight, underpaid salesman holed up in a scruffy bed-and-breakfast dump, punishing himself into the night with third-rate scotch.

These were the real alcoholics. I wasn’t one of them. They were way down the line – drunken, pub crawling, rheumy, red-eyed good for nothings. I was a million miles or more from them.

So I thought.

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