BY JEREMY BASS
It’s that time of the decade again: school reunion night. This time round, it’s taking place at the pub in which my career as a drinker began. A career whose only heroic quality, it turned out, lay in the quantities consumed.
Not that it started that way. As an underager, my drinking requirements were modest. The pain and indignity of a night in the gutter and a stomach pump were not for me. No, all I wanted – needed – was to take the edge off my teen anxiety, to soften the odd-man-outness. It didn’t take much to relieve my loneliness or discomfort in a crowd.
Nevertheless, the signs of things to come were there, especially in the inappropriateness of my drinking, in behaviours like ducking out to a nearby pub in school lunch hours to put away a couple of beers. I knew kids had been belted, suspended and/or expelled for drinking during school. But I couldn’t resist. And once that first one was on board, it no longer mattered. Indeed, nothing mattered. Not even other peoples’ revulsion at my breath.
When you live like nothing matters beyond the next drink, your destiny is likely to fall into one of two categories: a) you’ll live a horrible life, feeling like a horrible person, and quite possibly die a horrible death, or; b) if you’re lucky, you’ll land on your backside so hard your mind will crack open, you’ll stop drinking and do whatever it takes to stay stopped.
It took me 16 years of daily drinking to get lucky, by which time it took a couple of dozen drinks a day to keep the things that matter at bay. And when my time came, it felt like anything but luck. Not that there was much drama at the end. There was no DUI. No pub brawl or police cell. No detox or rehab. I just ground to a halt with no job and very few friends, amid a haze of bewilderment at the way I’d malfunctioned so badly.
The luck presented itself in all manner of awful moments of clarity: that those I professed to love didn’t like me any more; that my friends were growing out of me and moving on; that my most reliable drinking buddies had other lives and didn’t drink much when I wasn’t around (though I drank on regardless when they weren’t around); that I had nothing to show for the years I’d been out of school; that my partner and I no longer had a sex life – or indeed a love life; that I had trouble finishing anything I started; that there was more to depth of character than misery, and others seemed to have it.
A little light seeped through the crack. Perhaps there was a reason nothing went my way no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps there was a reason the world just would not recognise and appropriately reward my extraordinary genius. And when so many bastards just didn’t fucking understand, perhaps there was a reason for that, too.
And perhaps it had something to do with my drinking. I knew people were talking about my drinking; had commented on my drinking. I’d told them defensively it was a lifestyle choice I made. I’d told them I drank a lot less now than I used to. I’d told them I was only drinking socially, or at dinner, or on weekends these days. And most of it was bullshit. Because there was one thing I never told anyone: I was scared.CON JOB
I. Couldn’t. Stop. Drinking.
“The Thirst” reached its use-by threshold the day it could no longer drown out that fear. The night I tied my last one on – alone, at home – I had no idea that was it. My first day sober barely registered as such. At day’s end, I simply didn’t feel like a drink. But over the next couple of days, something told me I’d gotten lucky and I couldn’t take it for granted. A therapist and a couple of people I knew who’d been through the same thing all said it wouldn’t do me any harm to investigate the things underpinning my drinking.
Extensive investigation revealed a conga-line of bastards from my past, swimming around in a putrid stew of unresolved anger, resentment and self-pity. There’s nothing like the pain of a quality grudge to get The Thirst up.
A lady I knew (she’s dead now) who had been through the same thing told me the secret of laying The Thirst to rest. “Darling,” she said, “your best chance of staying stopped lies with acknowledging, in your heart of hearts, the bullshit that is your primary justification for your drinking: ‘If you had my problems, you’d drink like me’. It’s like you’re the last to know. Everyone but you can see it: if they drank like you, they’d have your problems.”
And the more I looked at it, the more I could see that The Thirst had legs of its own. Yes, we drink to escape reality, to take away the pain. But for people beholden to The Thirst, the solution is the problem. That’s The Thirst’s great con job: it seeks out people with an aversion to reality and makes reality optional. And when reality becomes optional, you’re in trouble. The Thirst entrenches itself by remodelling reality into a sense of full-time residency at the centre of a deeply unjust universe.BOTTOMLESS PIT
Viewed too long through the bottom of a glass, the world goes tabloid black-and-white, finding expression in a thick stream of banal narratives about bastards we have met, their venality, their mendacity, their stupidity and the petty points we’ve scored against them.
Long on complaint, short on the mitigating facts and detail evidencing any other side to the story, it sketches a win-lose world where all roads lead to injustice. For those of us born two schooners short of normal, an opposite point of view comes naturally. Doubtless you’ve met it. One misdirected “How are you?” at a party and you find yourself looking pleadingly over its shoulder as it backs you up against the wall, squeezing the life out of all conversation with its slurred monologue of woe. You don’t have a story. No-one else has a story.
The tough-time-at-school chapter always figured prominently in my personal hagiography: other peoples’ meanness. The betrayals. Being barred from my first HSC exam by a vindictive form-master on the grounds that I wasn’t wearing appropriate footwear. The repeated spats with peers, the public pillorying and humiliation visited upon me. Poor me, pour me . . . ahhh, that feels better already. What was I so worried about? Gimme another one.
But once that stopped working, the memories and attendant resentment came back in spades.
Most of these souls I haven’t seen for many years now. I haven’t had a drink for 16. I’ve pruned most of the thorns I once delighted in inserting in humanity’s side, made my peace with the world and know pretty well how to keep it. Yet now, faced with the prospect of this little sojourn into the past at that pub, I find I haven’t emptied myself entirely of the bastards in the backwaters of my memory.
But having, to some degree anyway, emptied myself of me, I do much better business with the world working on the understanding that everybody has a story. Yes, those authoritarian figures at school were vindictive. But if I had my time again, maybe I’d have worn appropriate footwear to my exam.
And to my tormentors – probably much fewer than I’d imagined – I say: guys, I’ve never been able to work out what it was about me that you found so vexing (well, sometimes maybe . . . ).
But whatever it was, it was never intentional (well, mostly not . . . ).DELUSIONS OF POWER
Could they say the same thing back to me? It’s nice when these amends are met in kind. But not essential. The moment it becomes essential, all the old bile flows back, putting me at risk of seeking solace where I dare not go. That was another surprise that wise lady had for me. “What other people think of you, darling, is none of your business.”
Clang. There I’d been, working away all those years trying to make people like me. Without realising it’s their perfect right not to. And the harder I tried, the worse things got. And the more it’d hurt, the harder I’d try, and on it went, ad infinitum.
Because The Thirst complicates the simple and blinds you to the bleedin’ obvious.
The Thirst gives you delusions of power over your feelings. Feeling mad, bad or sad? Crack a can of instant happiness. But it’s not about the way a drink makes you feel; it’s about how it makes you not feel. Somehow, the delusion expands to a belief in your power over the way others feel. Which somehow turns into a sense of entitlement not to accept anything you don’t like. Including not being liked.
So come the evening I walk into that pub, having penned this little reminder to myself, I shall stride forth with the confidence and compassion to allow people the right not to like me. In the years since The Thirst and its attendant thinking left me, it’s been amazing how many people have happily relinquished that right and how peaceful the world has become.