Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 5: Nerves, Sickness, Lies, Loneliness
For the first time in October 2006 I suffered what became a constant thorn in my flesh while in Toronto on vacation. Living back home in the UK, my drinking zig-zagged between consistent and out of control. During this vacation, it was steady without any day-long binges.
My holiday came to an end as I rode a shuttle bus to the airport. The driver was fond of his own voice and decided to turn the journey into a one man comedy act. No one was laughing. His routine shredded my nerves, and I suffered a strong desire for a drink, which turned into a craving. I perspired, then fidgeted, fearful that I was on the verge of swallowing my tongue. More sweats followed by anxiety. I glanced out the window to catch sight of the remaining mileage to my destination. My t-shirt stuck to me as I struggled to swallow without panic. Alongside the backdrop of the wannabe comedian driving the vehicle, the ride morphed into a nightmare.
Stepping off the bus into the fresh air brought back a sense of levity. I took several deep breaths at the curbside of the terminal. What the hell just happened? I had no idea but it was unpleasant.
From that point on I found it hard to shake the nerves and I consulted a doctor back in the UK who advised me that I was suffering from stress-related anxiety. I left with a prescription of tablets aimed at reducing anxiety, but they had zero calming influence on the random attacks which surfaced again during travel.
On a long distance flight to San Francisco, I sat calmly beside fellow flyers until an hour from my destination. Fidgets preceded a feeling of choking, followed by fear of swallowing my tongue. I grabbed my belongings and pawed at them to take my mind off my current state. It worked before they struck again making me apologize profusely to the people who had the misfortune of sitting next to a jack-in-the-box. It was an hour of self-torture.
I struggled in cars, buses and trains. I returned to the doctor who prescribed more pills and suggested relaxation techniques. Swimming and the cinema are pastimes I find very relaxing and being single, suit me perfectly.
Imagine my frustration when fits began following me to the movies and routine exercises at my local pool. Swimming wasn’t nearly as bad because the presence of fellow swimmers kept me focused on my routine. But I found no comfort in being alone in the cinema.
With the prescriptions lacking punch, I decided self-medication was once again my lifeline. Before you conjure images of me pouring Pinot Grigio into my Gatorade bottle by the pool I wasn’t that bad. Mind you, I wasn’t far off. However, the darkened cinema theater was fair game. I worked hard and wanted to enjoy my days off. Movies were my way of doing so before the familiar retreat to the cave for drinking into oblivion. During my hour-long walk to the movies I stopped at the supermarket and loaded up on miniature bottles of wine, taking four into each showing.
I preferred early morning or lunchtime viewing because they were couple-free and perfect for my bring-your-own-bottle approach. My miniatures worked a charm and provided an early hit to start the day.
When I returned to my cave, it was typically alone. I wasn’t big on chasing women in Aberdeen and found the social scene a complete bore. I’d been drinking in town since I was sixteen, and now in my early thirties, I felt old compared to the younger twenty-somethings who were the new protagonists on the scene. My social options were limited. I had great friends in the city but they were settled with a wife and children or long-term partners. So I came home from a movie, tidied my apartment - I am a house-proud alcoholic - then got loaded.
Let me just make it plain that I had no problem being alone but the loneliness of being with myself was the issue. I was happy being single because I was only accountable to myself, therein lay my problem. I disliked myself so much with my constant need for an alcohol crutch that the best way to silence it was to get buzzed. It took me away from me and made my brain numb. I could only dislike myself for a short while drunk because my focus drained away, or I fell over on the floor.
Spending so much time alone, my confidence nosedived. I was okay in work because I knew how to be Simon the public relations advisor. I was good at my job, but not arrogant. Self-assured, but not cocky. I didn’t like attention and was more comfortable with criticism than praise. Flying under the radar was fine with me.
But out of work and asked to attend family gatherings, I panicked. I needed a couple of drinks before going. My stepbrothers and sisters were settled down and little old single me felt like the odd-one-out. It became worse when asked about relationships. As soon as I was back at my apartment, I drank like a fish. Nemo was out of place in the family ocean and needed to retreat to his familiar brook.
My confidence was shot so badly at those gatherings that I made excuses for not attending. Christmas I had the flu. Easter, it was that bug that was going around, and anything else was anything else. I wanted to move on to new pastures new because I couldn’t free myself from the paddock I had created. If I freed myself in Aberdeen, what was waited for me on the outside? Greater boredom? Pressure to conform and settle down? I preferred the cocoon. I briefly emerged from it after Kazakhstan, but the boredom enveloped me, so I climbed back inside and became encased with the booze again.
It’s very sad really. I didn’t have the courage to say to my own Dad that I wasn’t comfortable talking about personal affairs; they were called personal for a reason. My failure to do so exacerbated my feeling of contempt towards myself fueling the appetite for more drink.
When I moved to the U.S. in 2011, I was elated to leave the loneliness of Aberdeen. The relief closing this chapter was huge. I drank to a new start every night before leaving.
I settled easily into my Californian surroundings, work and lifestyle. So did my drinking. At first the urge wasn’t as strong as back home because social options expanded. The number of new people I was introduced to was a marked contrast to the usual faces in Aberdeen. The drinking scene wasn’t as vibrant. Throw in glorious sunshine, no snow and a carefree attitude to singletons in their 30’s, and I had a clean slate.
But where I went my addiction followed. Sorry, that’s a lie. Where my addiction went I followed. During my first few weeks I made a strong attempt to cut down my intake and successfully did so, but I struggled for sleep and went to work feeling exhausted before the day started. Learning a new job was a challenge and doing so with short rest was an even bigger one. So I started knocking myself out with the booze again.
It wasn’t long before I awakened completely miserable. Having barely slept, I turned over and checked the clock until I absolutely had to get up and face the world. I felt as though I was back in London mode at the underground train station. Here I was in a new environment unable to shake off those old feelings.
Unlike London where I couldn’t stomach the workplace, my only respite was my job where I longed for the company of others. I found it in a group of college students working part-time for the company. My fellow colleagues were a pleasure to work with but the college kids kept me fresh and delivered a happiness to my life which I sorely needed. Before I knew it I reviewed their essays, lunched with them, watched movies in their company and met their siblings. They kept me from caving in when I was alone. It was a real Jekyll and Hyde existence. Through the afternoon I replied to their request for a snapshot of life in Kazakhstan and by night re-enacted my personal life in that country alone with booze. My duplicity only added to my growing self-loathing.
During an afternoon ride back from a meeting my manager said to me,
“Simon, may I ask you a question?”
Here it was. I felt ready too. Turn yourself in and admit that you are a functioning alcoholic working to drink. I needed help because living with myself became harder by the day. I wanted to say it.
“What do you spend your free time with the students on? They’re always around your desk. It’s very sweet how much they look up to you,” Clara smiled.
I looked at her and noticed she was not only smiling with her mouth, but her eyes too. She was 100% genuine. I was 100% fraud – I wasn’t lying to my college friends, but I was the lie. Looking out of the window at the world through the bright California afternoon I just sat there in silence. A tear rolled down my cheek.
Fighting against the lump in my throat I mumbled, “It’s just the Scottish accent.”
“Sorry?” she replied. I could feel her smile without looking her way.
Straightening up in the passenger’s seat and clearing my throat I repeated, “It’s just the Scottish accent.” She laughed and I looked out again into the freeway, wiping my cheek before listing the fun activities I covered with the students.
My discomfort in passenger seats wasn’t restricted to questions about college friends. Let me rephrase, my discomfort wasn’t restricted to passenger seats. In California I found that I had to drive. I hadn’t driven in close to eight years since leaving Scotland for New York. I didn’t need a car in Manhattan or London and in Aberdeen I walked everywhere.
Driving filled me with nerves and when I was filled with nerves, they danced around in my mind and body. Getting in a car became a traumatic experience. The first fear was a DUI from consuming so much the evening before. This led to absurd discipline – I had to be loaded and finished drinking by 10:00pm in the event I was required to drive after 10:00am.
Carpools for meetings usually saved me. But nothing could save me when I absolutely had to drive. The fear I suffered focusing on the road and furiously fidgeting and twitching was palpable. I pulled over several times because that horrid feeling of swallowing my tongue had me swerving.
Once parked at my apartment, I didn’t walk to my abode. I marched there when I knew alcohol was waiting. When it wasn’t waiting, I purchased supplies from the supermarket not only for the evening but for the small walk home because I was frazzled. My nerves were elastic and ubiquitous with attacks interrupting me in the shower, leading me to vomit while bathing.
One Monday morning I was set to give a presentation on life in the area and the workplace for new employees. While in the bathroom I suffered a panic attack. Once it passed, I sat motionless on the toilet, unaware the circulation had frozen in my legs. When I tried to stand up, my upper body moved but my legs were solid to the point where they were like concrete. I keeled over on my face. I didn’t make it to the presentation.
When I got to my desk, one of the college students waited for me with a smile on his face.
“Come on boss, how was it?” he asked.
I was on the verge of replying, I just collapsed in the cubicle which is pretty hard to do but my legs were so numb I keeled over. Before that I threw up the little breakfast I ate along with the lining left in my stomach. Then I realized he referred to my weekend in Vegas for the Manny Pacquiao Juan Manuel Marquez boxing match.
“Pacquiao on points. Close one.” I concealed my breath as I thumbed through my drawer for a peppermint, careful to disguise my actions.
He was excited.
“Let me see the pictures dude. Were you suited? You were, huh? And the women? Yeah, you and that accent. Man, I wanna be like you when I grow up.”
Those words hit me like a train. I looked back at George as I rummaged through my back pack for the fight t-shirt I purchased for him. Fresh faced, big smile, one of his spectacles’ legs held by cello tape as he had a habit of sitting on them. His desire to learn, sheer innocence and energy for life infectious as ever, even on a Monday morning. I presented him the fight t-shirt and popped the mint in my mouth as he unfurled the garment then pinned it against his frame in delight.
“No George. I want to be like you.”
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.