Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 3: Drinking
I didn’t become an alcoholic overnight.
My journey, if you can call it that, into dependency began in my mid-twenties. I started drinking at fifteen and despite finding it as attractive as swallowing sludge, my worn down taste buds lost the fight. Gradually, it became tolerable. I transitioned from being a teenager hiding in alleys drinking cheap cider to a young man enjoying an active social life with alcohol at its core.
It was part of the fabric in almost every social setting. Soccer matches. Drink. Date. Drink. Holiday. Drink. Friend’s Birthday. Drink. Family celebration. Drink. Family Funeral. Lots of drinks. You get the point. However, I should have heeded a couple of early warning signs.
I could put a lot of the stuff down my throat and at quite a pace too. When I was seventeen, a friend and I ventured out with real men for our first proper session in the company of grown-ups. Before doing so, we decided to count the number of drinks we’d consume throughout the evening.
Twenty-four shots of vodka—about half doubles—and four Budweisers later, both drunk, I hauled my buddy home. Scott had fallen on his face and looked like he’d been in a prizefight and lost badly while I could barely pronounce a word. I woke up the next morning and felt no affect from the night before, thereby ushering in the second alarm bell. I didn’t suffer hangovers. I remember thinking I could handle another beer, but Sundays were non-drinking days back then.
The social drinking and occasional over-the-top session carried on for several years as I graduated from university and began working in the real world. If you can call the media industry the real world.
My only brush with alcoholism during those early working years came through my first job in public relations. I was informed about the high rate of alcoholism within journalism in particular and on meeting several veteran writers, I found that statement endorsed.
I noticed one scribe, a softly spoken business reporter in his 60s, struggling to keep his hand steady while note-taking at a client event. Showing my naivety, I mentally attributed it to nerves, the poor man. Later at the dinner table, that naivety faded as I witnessed the pace and volume at which he devoured beer, wine and then whisky.
I had nothing on this fellow’s drinking ability but distinctly remember my confusion at his obvious desire to put booze away at such a speed. It was free, and he didn’t appear to be going anywhere in a hurry. Little did I know then what I know now. A couple of years later I found out that the gentleman’s voracious appetite for drink led him to his grave.
A turning point in the surfacing of my own addiction came when my girlfriend and I were living in London as I awaited visa approval for a job in New York City. I spent three months during the summer of 2003 working in Manhattan and later at the company’s London office while my application moved through the process.
I looked forward to returning to New York. My public relations career was developing, and I felt my dues-paying days of working three jobs to stay afloat in Scotland coming to an end. The company I was employed with in the U.S. was a huge improvement on my junior executive years following graduation.
Those hopes and dreams were dashed when the application was rejected on the basis that the job should be filled by an American citizen. I didn’t reach for the bottle in a wave of depression, although I imbibed several. It was important to think about the next move for my partner and me.
Deep down I developed ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ sentiments when my girlfriend stated her wish to stay in London and pursue a career in public relations. I was born in London and knew the city well, but it offered no particular attraction to me as a place to set up home again. My preference was a return to Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which had a thriving media scene. In the end I relented to the lady’s wish because I understood her desire to make it in the big city, even if she was seduced by the lure of London’s bright lights. Still, a feeling of foreboding persisted.
Living in London was very enjoyable. By living I mean it has so much to offer and is a beautiful city to explore. But working there was an altogether different experience, particularly in public relations, where I found it one big crab bucket. I was well-versed in self-serving industry types before working there, but I’ve never met such a collection of overinflated egos in a relatively small geographical space and thankfully haven’t since.
To handle the BS, I hit the booze. It was such an easy way to drown everything out. It didn’t have an ego, and it removed thoughts of egos. After a long day, I sank four cans on the train home with more back at the apartment where my partner was unaware of my transport tipples. I noticed an increase in my drinking during the week but I could stop when I wanted, so I felt good to proceed. It was helping because work grew worse by the day.
Immediately following my morning commute on the subway to central London, I needed ten minutes of alone-time on the dusty platform at Bond Street station before climbing the stairs to face the crab bucket another day.
Sitting 120 feet below street level in the bowels of the underground station, I stared at the concrete platform, felt the swoosh of the next train arriving, wind whistling by my face, followed by stomping masses departing the carriages as the P.A. announced, ‘mind the gap’. Then a silence as the tracks cleared. It lasted for all of five minutes or so. I enjoyed that moment of calm before the next train roared in, and I decided it was best to get up before the next load of stompers arrived.
I didn’t drink before work but managed two swift pints on lunch which quickened the afternoon and drowned out the noise of screaming adult workers. I changed agencies but kept moving from one dressed up bag of shit to the next. I began to think it was me.
The drinking continued and I started feeling out of control. Soon it was six cans, and on several occasions I fell asleep on the underground train, missed a connection and awakened in South Wimbledon when I should have been in Canary Wharf –19 miles away. I could have been mugged, beaten or even worse, but still managed more drink when I got home.
How did I feel losing control? Numb to the world. Cocooned and happy to be. Useless when out of work and valuable when in it as we grew client accounts, won new business and scooped accolades at industry awards. I resented those trade gatherings so much that I was usually hammered halfway through them.
On one of those award nights, I awoke at dawn the next day accompanied by a woman from a rival agency in a central London park, both of us confused and embarrassed how we got there. Still in tuxedo and stinking of stale booze, I rode the train home as commuters headed to work, scoffing at my disheveled appearance.
I didn’t care an iota. All I was concerned about was the resulting ear bashing from my girlfriend, getting in the shower, throwing on my shirt and trousers and sitting at my desk by respectable o’clock. But deep down there was a fear that the wheels were coming off and fast. A park bench with a stranger was cause for serious concern.
I wanted to talk to someone but pride held me back. I kept telling myself it was a phase. My girlfriend was enjoying a good start to her career, and I was never one to take my frustration home. Instead I was happy to bottle it up, pardon the pun.
In December 2005, I was demoted overnight from Account Director to Admin Asst – not alcohol related I’d like to add – my Jerry Maguire moment. After a particularly painful new business pitch where we talked through forty PowerPoint slides, I decided to challenge management and asked them to consider a different approach to attracting prospects.
I was told it would be considered and was thanked for my suggestion. The next morning I was persona non-grata and removed from all accounts. So, enough was enough. I decided that with four years’ experience under my belt, it was time to go freelance and call my own shots. Soon the resentment and heavy drinking subsided as an air of clarity started to form.
I still drank during the week but not the same volume. However, the beast was very much alive and well and really enjoyed itself on weekends. It reared its ugly head then, masquerading as ‘binge drinking’ which was the new fad among the young work types. I was a binge drinker. Attending soccer matches was no longer a sports experience but freedom to indulge my demon whose real estate in my body and mind continued to expand.
By full time at the soccer on Saturday, I’d negotiated some eight beers and wasn’t ready to stop at five o’ clock. Binging on weekends balanced the booze scales following my reduction in weekday guzzling.
Before I knew it, I spun out of control again, and struggled to maintain the ‘no drinking on a school night’ mantra. I became cute at hiding my drinking from my partner. It was even better if she worked late or went out with friends after work. I partied in my little cocoon, tossed my empties into the trash and was asleep, or knocked out drunk, by the time she arrived home.
My “text me when you are on the way home so I know you are safe” concern had a double meaning.
By the time I left London in 2006, I was a fully functioning, closet alcoholic, skilled at hiding it from friends and family whenever they called or were present.
“How is work going, Si?”
“Good, thanks. Busy, we’re out of the door with work at the moment but enjoying it, beats watching the clock.”
“Are you enjoying life in London then?”
“There’s so much to do. Feel really settled here and work is going well, so can’t complain. But if I did no one would listen right?!”
We decided to return to Scotland, but the irony was my partner, so initially in love with London, pushed for it. Her PR career took a turn for the worse and she went from one bad experience to another in Central London. I could identify with her frustration.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed better fortune as a freelance and was open to staying but happy to leave on my terms. I felt I had taken a beating from London but had risen to my feet and conquered it. Heading home to a place where heavy drinking was second nature, I was facing another monster. We left London for Scotland on the 10:45am train, but the clock had barely struck 8:00am when I started drinking to get my day going. The seven hour journey was one can followed by another. Stumbling off the train, I staggered toward the hotel. When I awoke the next morning, I couldn’t remember checking in.
Not long after returning to Scotland, my partner and I went our separate ways in an amicable split. It was the epitome of the cliché growing apart and was the correct decision for both of us. I’d never once confessed my growing demons to her, foolish pride winning the day. For the first time in my life, I lived alone, enjoying it like a breath of fresh air. License to do as I please and sole ownership of a remote control felt just fine.
I would like to claim the break up helped me shift the focus of my life—rethink, retool and refuel. It didn’t. The only rethink was whether I could really fit a third bottle of wine into the refrigerator with the rest of the groceries as it crushed the bread. The only retooling was the purchase of a bottle opener after exhausting the latest one. The only refueling was a daily thirst for more alcohol. My new found living helped me add more bricks to my house of booze. The initial feeling of freedom started fading fast as my alcoholism demonstrated more tell-tale signs.
My egotistical, self-driven alcoholic mind plotted a rotating alcohol purchase route on my way home from work as I began to be known in certain stores due to my regularity. The store assistant would make a harmless remark such as, “ah, another drop tonight.” I felt as though he was telling the world my dirty little secret. I was never rude in reply, but inside I was embarrassed.
A daily reminder of my prolific drinking was the burgeoning black garbage bags which groaned under the weight of empty bottles and cans when they didn’t bleed the dregs. I staked out the communal waste disposal unit in the building I lived in before creeping downstairs to dispose it. To watch me, one would be to think there was a mutilated body inside. The only murdering going on was to my mind and liver.
I started telling myself that when I took my work home, alcohol was the perfect partner to enhance creativity and efficiency; it loosened me up. What crap. Perhaps it works for a number of talents in the literary world. I was writing opinion editorials on behalf of executives and then reading it the following morning thinking, they’d need to be as loaded I was last night to write such garbage. A complete waste of time and, dare I say it, effort. The sad part is that by the end of the same working day I geared up to perpetuate the cycle.
One truth began to emerge. Without heavy doses of alcohol I struggled to get proper sleep. This was a juncture in my addiction and I knew it, but didn’t want to give it the proper thought it deserved. I wish I could write that I sat down and had a heart to heart of some sorts with myself. Nope. I tried sleep enhancing pills from the supermarket shelf, but they were useless. The closest to some form of sleep was a hallucination after taking four times the suggested dosage in desperation. So I started to self-medicate. To get some sleep, Si, you will need two bottles of wine and four to eight cans of cider. Follow this prescription on a nightly basis and you’ll be just fine.
My drinking led me to feel as though I was living in a box. It seemed that was all I did. The irony of leaving London when I felt I’d cracked the working challenge was not lost on me. One Saturday morning I went to see the movie The Departed at the cinema. One of Jack Nicholson’s opening lines stood out as I sat there alone.
“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
Aberdeen is a city where drinking is part of the culture. I was now the person my mom swore I’d never turn out to be. But I didn’t understand it.
Where had it come from?
Still, people here drank regularly, so why weren’t they living in a cocoon of sleeplessness and growing anxiety?
Why were they not like me?
How many of them get past midday on a weekend without lusting after that first drink?
How did they manage to not drink on a Sunday?
Sundays had a special draw for this alcoholic mind. Lazy drinks with the lads down the pub watching soccer all day is a weekend routine shared by many in Aberdeen, Scotland, and the wider U.K. My problem was the routine destroyed any opportunity to invite alternative platforms for excitement into a life drowning in alcohol.
Actually it was one problem. My friends sipped their Sunday beer still nursing a sore head from Saturday. I was eager to turn a new page. Because alcohol was still in my system from the night before, it didn’t require a great deal to get me going. Not having a partner to be accountable to or a notional cap on my drinking, I’d typically be drunk by 6:00pm, staggering out of the bar as the sun dimmed and my brain’s ability to function began to darken. Where did it go? Not just Sunday but the weekend. More confusion.
Why did I buy the ticket to the rollercoaster when I knew it would end up with me being sick, queasy, dizzy and breathless at its end?
Why did I suspect I’d buy another one next weekend?
Typically, I woke up the next morning after a horrible sleep feeling guilty about another lost weekend. When asked by colleagues about my activities, I’d make up the first nonsense which entered my brain. Mondays have a reputation for being miserable. They certainly weren’t cheery.
To say I needed a change of scenery was an understatement. God smiled on me with an offer of a temporary four month working assignment during the summer of 2009 - a chance to break the cycle. I was seconded to an assignment in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, the largest land locked country in the world, seven times the size of Texas with a population of a mere nine million people. I was warned before going there about the beautiful women and the boozy lifestyle which seduced many an ex-pat in the Caspian region. They should have added ‘sheer boredom’ to the list.
Undertaking a fifteen week project I wasn’t allocated an apartment, instead living in a compound containing luxury town houses for families and a guest house for visitors staying up to two weeks. The latter would be my abode for the upcoming stretch. After a week of reading personal literature, learning basic Russian and meeting neighbors and their children, I grew restless. How many times can you go to the gym, pool, read up on drilling techniques, or hear about what number 47’s boy Jamie learned at school?
I quickly met like-minded, ex-pat singletons living in apartments on the other side of town which was a blessing and a curse. They were great company, but they drank heavily and I saw a familiar pattern recurring in my life, a foreboding of hopelessness. On the first night with the male contingent, I got a fright when they ordered vodka, the national drink, not by the glass but by the bottle. My tumbler was barely empty when it was full again. The girls were no slouches either with their sprees. Even the compound hosted a party on any given night. Drink seemed everywhere.
I desperately made a pledge to spend more time at work during non-working hours. This was derailed as my project took a back seat due to ex-pats leaving for three week vacations, other issues taking priority and the arrival of the annual conference season. Going to work on a weekend with very little to do was even more boring than staying in the guest house with very little to do. I could drink at the guest house.
Nights not spent socializing were spent with a half bottle of Russian standard in my room, watching movies and music videos and bored out of my skull. We were encouraged not to walk alone at night outside the compound, and I pounded the compound’s concrete enough when I got home before finally giving in to drink.
Then the wedding season crept in hastening my slide. Six ceremonies in three weeks, some of them lasting two days, which tested my physical and mental stamina like never before. During one evening celebration the toasts crashed into each other time and time again. At night’s end my line manager’s husband and I looked at each other in surprise and disgust. We discovered we’d consumed four full bottles of vodka between us.
The next morning a beautiful young Kazakh friend of mine knocked on the door of my office. On entering, she recoiled at the smell of vodka emanating from me. This was at 4:00pm but the smell lingered on. I was humiliated by Diana’s reaction as we had developed a close working relationship. She went out of her way to help my transition be a smooth one. She didn’t drink, and I felt ashamed to be in her company.
That night, I lay on my bed, noting my feelings in my journal. Sorrow, sadness, regret, misery, fear, guilt and anger leapt from my brain on to the page. I composed a letter of apology to Diana who was wonderful in her response. I shared my drinking issues and that in Kazakhstan I felt like a conveyor belt of alcohol.
My final four weeks were spent in Diana’s company, mainly alcohol-free and out of the tailspin I was in. I felt a small glimmer of hope that, in the right company, I could shed the skin which had enveloped me during the past few years.
It lasted a week or so after I returned. I readjusted to life in Aberdeen as the contrast to Atyrau was so huge I could fill several chapters on it. But after saying ‘hello’ to the same old faces and enjoying a few drinks, just a few, honest, I was back in the saddle. The same haunts beckoned on the way home from work. The same overloaded black bags. The same sloppy Sundays. The same nerves and loneliness.
I wrote at the beginning of this book that I didn’t want it to be tales of debauchery and I hope I have honored it in this chapter recounting the first steps of my alcoholism. Nothing was glamorous or fun about my descent into hell. It happened over a relatively short period of time, generally alone and all my own doing. London was full of jerks, but all places share their quota. In a cunning way, it crept up on me. Like one of those ‘don’t look it’s behind you’ moments in a horror flick. Before I knew it, I was hooked, moving it - along with me - from London to Aberdeen and then to Asia.
I taught myself to drink, graduated to drink hard, and I was powerless to stop it.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.