This is a long story, which I will split into two parts. I had been drinking for a very long time – 44 years – before I reached the point where I accepted that I had to stop and then before I was ready to actually stop. I knew it for a few years beforehand, but I considered it to be an impossibility. I could not live without drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. These were the main sources of pleasure in my life without which any other source of pleasure was unthinkable. I knew, for a very long time before I stopped that eventually, if I carried on at the rate I was going, my way of life would kill me.
I had my first alcoholic drink at age 13, a shandy or lager and lime, I can’t recall which. I don’t even remember what it was like, how I was affected by it, I was so surprised when the glass was placed in front of me. I hadn’t asked for it, or been expecting it at all, an older friend (16) and I had gone to the next town together in the hope of meeting up with some of her friends, and ended up in a hotel lounge with no windows where she sat us down in the back, as far away from the bar as we could get, and bought the drinks. I might have been surprised that she didn’t ask what I wanted – probably a Club orange – but I didn’t complain or resist, I drank it and felt very grown up and included, I had arrived.
What I remember most clearly about that day is the journey home. We were hitch hiking and got a lift from a middle aged man in a Volkswagen beetle. I sat in the back, she sat in the passenger seat next to the driver. Once we were on the road he started to drive very slowly and she asked him if he could speed up a bit, we’d be late home. With that he turned the car left into a little side road and she pushed open her door, yanked the seat forward and pulled me out of the back, shouting at me to hurry up and get out. I was flabbergasted, I hadn’t a clue what was happening, that we were in danger, or what that danger consisted of. The point here is that I had had my first alcoholic drink before I was even aware of sexual danger, I was a complete innocent. Like many people I have encountered in the Soberistas community, I had sampled alcohol long before I’d had the opportunity to learn how to live without it, or why it might even be preferable for a young woman to do so.
I didn’t get the opportunity to drink again until I was approaching my 16th birthday when we went to my sister’s wedding in London. I was smitten by the DJ, a friend of my brother-in-law, about 7 years my senior, who kept me supplied with vodka and cokes. It was a while before my sister noticed this and put a stop to it, by that time I had discovered the magic of alcohol. This older guy with cool clothes and great taste in music, found me interesting, paid attention to me, listened to my conversation. This simply would not have happened if I’d been sipping soft drinks. I would have been a wallflower, dancing with the children or the girls. Alcohol transformed me into a woman, and an interesting one at that. Six months later I would be back in London and meet up with the DJ again, this time without a sister to chaperone me, and he would take my education to another level with the help of vodka, charm and a red Alfa Romeo sports car. I wasn’t complaining, I was all grown up at 16 years old.
I associated alcohol and sex with sophistication and fun, they were indelibly intertwined and became the focus of my social life for years to come. I couldn’t turn it off, I didn’t have an off switch. There was no leisure activity in my life that did not include drinking. I shunned the theatre and the cinema, sport, the beach, everything that didn’t involve drinking. People who didn’t drink were boring and summarily dismissed. I did, however, have a saving grace: I lived away from home and needed to work to keep a roof over my head and feed and clothe myself. Lack of disposable income curtailed my drinking for the first 10-20 years of my drinking career. I drank often and to excess, and yet it could be described as sociable drinking amongst friends.
I never lost a job through drinking. Being a trained shorthand secretary I could move around, yet I stayed in one position for 7 years and another for 5 years without any problems associated with my drinking. On the other hand I didn’t apply for the promotions that would demand more of me than I was prepared to give, I did not achieve my potential, and my sickness record was pretty awful. I married my best friend when I was 21 and we bought a flat, only to get divorced a couple of years later. I bought my own flat on a mortgage and, although I struggled with it from time to time and had bank loans that were growing, I never risked losing the flat or the job despite my drinking. I had a stream of unsuitable boyfriends for a while, always people who liked to drink as much as I did, generally guys who didn’t match me in intellect – that wasn’t a consideration in choosing them, but regularly resulted in one of us walking away.
It doesn’t sound too bad if I don’t include the darker aspects of the story. This is the narrative I have constructed to contextualise my introduction to alcohol and its progression through the first 20 or so years. It is all true, but like any narrative it could have started at a different point, the focus might have been stronger in some areas than others, I could have included the darker aspects. There were many occasions when my youth and inexperience of the world led me into dangerous situations, too many and long-winded to recount. For example, I was plied with plenty of free alcohol and sexually exploited by a group of blokes, acquaintances I worked with, out for a good time. I didn’t call it rape at the time, and I know now that they wouldn’t have called it rape, yet I was certainly taken advantage of and in no condition to give consent. Another time I was raped in my own bed in my own flat, after a party. I couldn’t wait to move on from that, but I did report it to the police on the insistence of my GP. They did nothing, as far as I know, and I received no support from them. I dealt with my feelings about this by telling myself that he didn’t rape me, he raped a woman, any woman, it just happened to be my body. Fortunately I had good friends around me at that time and my employers were very supportive, I didn’t go through it on my own. If I hadn’t been intoxicated from too much alcohol I might not have been vulnerable on either of these occasions. I am not by any stretch of the imagination condoning rape, far from it, but nor can I deny the role of alcohol in the circumstances surrounding these events.
Alcohol allows dangerous things to happen. It is an enabler, it loosens inhibitions and in some cases leads to blackout. I was a young woman raised in a village let loose in a city without experience or guidance, a girl in fact, who took everybody at face value and couldn’t recognise malicious intent, let alone set healthy boundaries for myself. I had developed an unhealthy taste for alcohol, in retrospect things could have turned out a great deal worse than they did. The turning point that took me and my drinking out of danger, yet ironically enabled it to progress further, will be the topic of a future blog.
Thanks for bearing with me and Namaste
Nana Treen xxx