Last drinks

My Last Ever Drink, a long anticipated and much scoffed at affair, took place on the stroke of midnight, October 2nd, 2006 — nine years ago today. Later that morning, I finally took the bed in the much sought-after Melbourne detox facility I had reserved several wildly booze-soaked months earlier. Tremors of withdrawal and craving made it impossible to scrawl my signature on the admission forms, but the kindly male nurse — Canadian, from memory — told me, with the knowing smile of a seasoned pro, we could wait until the 20 milligrams of Valium he had just administered took effect.

By the end of my decade and a half long bender, the DTs had become so severe I couldn't get the first couple of drinks from receptacle to mouth without spilling it everywhere. The trick was to make a quick diversion home en route from work to the pub, improvise a sling from a bath-towel or t-shirt to hold one arm steadily in place, and wrestle to my lips a sufficient quantity to quell the shakes: precisely two cans of beer. 

Newly settled, steady as a surgeon, I would arrive minutes later at my favourite watering hole – the Rising Sun in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond turned out to be the last in a series of locals – whereupon I would consume twenty or thirty pots of Carlton Draught. That’s between fifteen and eighteen pints –  or roughly eight litres of beer.  One day in twenty, perhaps having pushed my luck at work to the nth degree, I might convince myself to take it easy; this meant staying clear of the pub and keeping my intake to a dozen or so cans – or until I was drunk enough to sleep.  

A futile but insistent habit of my so-called recovery is to sort endlessly through the debris of what came before, rearranging shards of memory like stray jigsaw pieces, scarce and scattered across fifteen mostly unremembered years. Little reveals itself, unless you count a stubborn ambivalence: drinking, and ceasing to drink, are totemic events in my adult life, but the familiar narrative arc, with its crescendo of recovery and redemption, eludes me. Instead, the question that burns most, and shames me to put into words, is not why I chose to drink myself to an early grave – the reasons for doing so are abundant and obvious – but why instead I stopped. 

Before booze, in my late teens and early twenties, I was outwardly ambitious and supremely self-assured; enough to irritate myself considerably in retrospect. Active in politics and elected to my local city council at nineteen, the future brimmed with promise. And yet I was paralyzed in mute turmoil over my homosexuality — a source of deep foreboding I refused to confront until I was twenty-seven, after three years of marriage.  Even with the superhuman equanimity of my former wife, and the love and acceptance of friends and family, coming out was a profound trauma. I hated being gay – everything about it – and had convinced myself, to unreachable depths, that it ended any prospect of a congenial or purposeful life.  

And so, escaping my hometown of Wellington for Melbourne, I gave alcohol my undivided embrace; days into weeks into months into years, drinking through and over and underneath everything. As consumption escalated, health, finances, career and relationships duly suffered – but nothing before or since has matched booze's knack for coaxing me into believing all is right with the world.  I was a good drunk, insofar as there is such a thing — never weepy or obstreperous; until I blacked out (every night, without fail), I was generous and sociable and reliably euphoric. In that mission, booze never once let me down.   

The view that alcoholism is a disease for which abstinence is the only cure has congealed into accepted wisdom over the past century, not least among many "recovering addicts" themselves.  The disease theory,  propagated most aggressively by Alcoholics Anonymous and its offshoots, works much better, in my opinion, as a metaphor than as scientific or medical truth. I’ve long been troubled by many of AA’s foundational ideas: that they grant quasi-mystical powers to the abused substance – alcohol in my case – while downplaying the psychological factors that compel the addict to abuse;  the insistence that the sufferer engages in irrational and self-destructive acts for reasons beyond their control; and, most egregiously for a devout secularist like me, subservience to a “higher power” which, for all their dogged denials, really means the Protestant conception of God.   

AA has doubtless saved many lives by offering addicts respite, positive reinforcement and camaraderie, but its core assertions strike me as all wrong. Alcohol has the power only to sit, inert, in bottles and glasses until free agents pour it down willing throats.  I did not drink in spite of its mind-scrambling effects, but because of them – consciously seeking out the haze. Yes, drinking in such reckless quantities was killing me, but such a death was far less troubling than the prospect of a dreary sober existence in all its pitiless clarity.  Inebriation makes perfect sense to a distraught mind. 

Unlike cigarettes, which I surrendered around the same time, I do not miss drinking. Even as bouts of depression have grown in frequency and duration, I’ve barely endured a single craving. Don’t ask me why. For all that I reject the claims of AA, Ifollowed their prescribed abstinence path – in part because I haven’t been tempted otherwise, but mostly because“moderate drinking” alternatives carry no appeal whatsoever.    

A few years sober, I moved from Melbourne to New York City, taking an apartment on the Upper West Side and a job in Greenwich Village. Later, I picked up some consulting work in Central Africa, moving back and forth between Rwanda and New York. It was, on paper, living the dream. Hitting the gym with the monomaniacal focus only a recovering addict can summon, I lost 20kg, grew a fleeting six-pack.  I even managed a semi-serious relationship until his patience ran out.  

Appearances deceive. For all the surface accomplishments, the past nine years have been mostly unhappy ones, often desperately so. It often feels as if I've merely traveled full circle, back to the point at which I first deemed drinking myself into a daily stupor preferable to not doing so. Except, today, I am a fraction wiser. I imagined recovery from alcoholism would transform my life, inject it with meaning and purpose. A necessary delusion. But, these days, I have learned to lower my sights. Being sober keeps me alive, gives me a chance to salvage something from the wreckage. It’s not much — but it's something. The rest is up to me.