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How to Deal with Death without Alcohol

Two years before I got sober, my young cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

He was nineteen, had just landed a great job, and was passionate about his friends, riding his bike, and life in general.

“We had to throw chickens right into the engine,” he told me, about his new job, training to be an engineer at Rolls Royce. “Check it would still work!”

He grinned and stepped from foot to foot, mimed throwing a chicken.

He had been just the same when he was a toddler, would blast this cheeky smile at you in the most irresistible way. Within seconds of seeing him, I’d find myself laughing.

After he found out he would lose his hair, he dyed it bright purple. Then his friend shaved it off.

I lived in a different city by then, but each time I returned to my home town, the news was worse.

More tumors; treatment not helping; my cousin requiring a stick to walk.

I’d recently moved more than a hundred miles away to Bristol where I was writing full time — something I’d always dreamed of — except that wasn’t exactly true, because I couldn’t write. Or rather, I couldn’t write anything my editor would accept.

“Too depressing,” she said — and in hindsight, I agree with her.

It was hard to create fiction when you hadn’t yet managed to successfully build your own life. Bristol was my sixth move in the last two and a half years. I’d tried four different towns and cities, burnt through four and a half relationships.

I was starting to feel pathologically unrooted, almost thirty and yet I owned no furniture or crockery, besides a small desk and a mug a friend painted for me. Putting up shelves felt as arduous and imprisoning as a mortgage. My clothes were stored in fruit boxes under my bed.

At some point, I had slipped into a subtle depression that felt like my natural mood. I couldn’t easily recall what stories were for.

And then my cousin fell ill.

Telling friends about his diagnosis in the pub, I felt despair rising.

Was my beautiful, cheeky cousin really going to die? I couldn’t get a straight answer from my family. Even the doctors didn’t seem sure.

It didn’t seem possible that he was doomed, but the Internet said people with his condition didn’t make it past eighteen months. Had he Googled it? He must have. But he never broke his cheerful attitude.

I agonized over the situation, powerless and desperate to find something I could do.

“I could raise money,” I told my friends, between voluminous gulps of lager. “Hire this place out and get bands to play…”

“Yes!” Kitty said, encouraging me as I blinked back tears. “You should do it!”

My mouth started to tremble and I couldn’t talk anymore.

“This requires more alcohol,” John said, heading back to the bar.

What a relief it was to throw shots back. First the burn, then the numbness. Then the hangover which stopped me from being able to do anything useful whatsoever.

My fledgling writing career, the thing in my life that had been going well, began to sputter.

Fears that the first book had been a fluke began to seem founded. Being a writer wasn’t what I’d expected; I felt more like a traveling saleswoman. I felt like a fake.

And all the while my cousin’s health diminished.

I went back to Derby to take him out for dinner with my mum. He wore a sandy-colored wig to the restaurant, his scrawny teenage body thickened up by the steroids he was taking for the cancer. We drank pints and ate steak and laughed, and I felt sure we wouldn’t lose him.

Infinite Sky was finally published and my cousin attended my first book signing. He had tickets for an event at the local football club but he wanted to come to Waterstones with me instead. That meant so much to me. Most of the afternoon, he sat beside me, scrolling through his phone.

I hugged him occasionally and tried to make him laugh which was the easiest thing in the world, and felt winded by the fact of us having such different luck. I badly wanted to take pictures of us together but wasn’t sure how he would feel about being photographed. I wish I’d asked him.

Long forgotten school friends dropped in to buy the book, and my face ached from smiling.

I eyed the champagne a friend had bought, desperate for a drink.

As soon as it was over I demanded we get beer. It was my thirtieth birthday and Mum had surprised me by inviting old friends of mine to join us at a restaurant to eat pizza.

My cousin and me walked together, arms linked, and I could feel him leaning on me slightly as if he were drunk. I prattled on about all the social faux pas I’d made during the signing and he laughed at me, chainsmoking cigarettes.

The restaurant was decorated with bunting Kitty had made and my smiling face hung everywhere. For me, it wasn’t a happy occasion. All I could think of was drinking. I needed to take the edge off. More than anything I wanted to be alone.

The intensity of my first book signing along with the shock of seeing my cousin struggle to walk made me want to sleep forever.

But my mum had gone to all this effort, and my friends had traveled miles to see me. The day was supposed to be a celebration, but I’m not sure I’ve even been so sad.

“It’s your first book launch and your thirtieth,” Kitty said to me when I confessed how I felt, on the verge of crying. “Let’s go for one drink, and if you’re not feeling it we can go home,” she said.

“Alright.” I nodded.

Eight hours later we were still dancing to Blondie and the Smiths in the Bless, powered by jager bombs. 

Back in Bristol, writing got harder.

I missed more deadlines. I felt trapped inside my book deal, body, life. I continued to drive back to Derby when I could manage it. Mum and me made a mini tradition of taking my cousin out for steak. This time he was in a wheelchair, but we drank pints and ordered pepper sauce and laughed just the same.

Still, the news kept getting worse.

The tumors were not slowing down. My cousin’s bed had to be adapted. A stairlift was installed. His friends came round in the evenings to smoke weed and watch Family Guy. I sat at the end of his bed, feeling awkward, but wanting to be close to him. I fetched him Frij milkshakes and set him up with a straw.

Brainstorming stories for a teen audience was a kind of torture. What was the point in novels? What was the point in being alive? I’d lost faith in redemption and transformation and hope. I didn’t know a single joke.

Life seemed worse than meaningless. Every exhibit was destined for decay. Everything seemed like landfill to me.

Your body is destined for landfill, I would think as I drifted through the mall by my house.

I could feel my face sliding off my skull, gravity’s fingers grasping at my body, hungry to pull it underground.

Visiting my cousin had begun to traumatize me, but I didn’t have the courage not to do it.

Returning home to see him again, I found myself stuck in my dad’s local pub. Mum had arranged to pick me up in the morning and I’d intended to have a couple, which generally meant five, but I couldn’t leave. Barstool paralysis struck and struck hard.

Usually, the place was full of men around my dad’s age, but this time a bloke I went to school with was in the bar. Someone I had been mean to when I was a cocky teenager. For some reason, though he negged me more than once during our bad catch up, I invited him back to drink more with us at my dad’s.

We got a taxi out to the 24-hour garage to buy Jager and red bull, then on to my dad’s house where I poured shot after shot until I couldn’t feel anything anymore. 

The next morning I woke sick as a dog. Mum had already text me several times.

“What time shall I pick you up?”

This man from the past was there, though I didn’t remember getting into bed.

I was fully dressed, which was encouraging. The man threw his arm over me, and I felt very nauseous. I moved out from under him, screwing my eyes shut.

“You’d better go,” I said.

I couldn’t look at him. My head was spinning and I could hardly stand up. Somehow I managed to shower and dress. The man got rid of himself, going home to his wife without saying much, probably as confused as I was.

Remembering things he’d said to me and my dad, I realized he was not a good person. No doubt he was thinking the same about me.

Mum suggested we stop for breakfast at Morrisons. I managed to swallow a cup of tea, but couldn’t put any of the breakfast food in my mouth. The sausage looked like poison to me. The smell of egg made me gag. Mum stared at me bewildered. I could hardly sit up in my seat.

“At least try to eat something,” she said, but I couldn’t.

My hands were shaking and I felt like I was going to die.

I reeked of alcohol. It was hard to remember that I’d done it to myself.

My beautiful, hilarious, teenage cousin was bedbound now and could only move one arm. His facebook status updates had been full of typos for a while. Now they were increasingly muddled. He talked about things that weren’t happening, and it was hard to understand his words.

It was difficult to compute that this immobile man in the hospital bed was the sweet little cousin that I’d carried around since I was ten years old. But I knew that he was.

“Hello cuz,” I said. “I’m sorry I stink, I drank way too much last night. Jager bombs, ugh. I love you.”

I fed him biscuits from a teaspoon and cuddled him, while Meg and Chris Griffin argued on TV.

In the early hours of the next morning, my beautiful cousin died.

We were all invited to wear purple at the funeral, and the cemetery streamed with it.

My cousin’s coffin was purple. Pop music blasted out of the crematorium. I wrote something, but couldn’t manage to read it. The registrar stepped in at the last minute.

In the pub afterwards, my brother and I brought rounds and rounds of tequila, circulating with trays, like badly trained waiting staff. I tried my best to blackout, but flashes of memory remain. They aren’t for your entertainment, but I will tell you this.

I got so drunk I forgot I was at a funeral. And my dad got so drunk that my mum sent him home. I finished the night crying on the floor about something unrelated. The next morning I woke to a searing and horrible clarity.

I remembered everything.

I apologized to my mum for behaving badly, and she said she forgave me, though she shouldn’t have.

Perhaps she didn’t really. Nonetheless, she hugged me in the kitchen, and her body felt very warm and safe and familiar.

My reliance on alcohol to deal with the pain of that period was intensely counterproductive, and not only for me. My mum told me she felt very alone. She thought that I might have thought of her a little more, made more effort to see how she was doing.

I wish I had.

The worst thing about my drinking was that it made me selfish, but with no concept that I was being selfish.

It was only recently I was able to draw the connection between alcohol and the way I consistently let myself and others down.

All I noticed, back then, was the way that booze made me feel better. The success with which it removed pain. Even as I poured shot after shot of Jaeger, I had no clue I was taking booze as a painkiller. My drinking was unconscious and automatic. 

It is only now, three and a half years sober, that I see how drinking to kill pain also exacerbated that same pain.

There’s a photo of my cousin and me that I really love. We have our arms around each other and are both grinning very wide. He is making rabbit ears behind my head, and I look so happy.

I’m still learning how to process pain without alcohol. How to talk about it, share it, feel it. How to turn it into something useful. Last year I ran 10k in my cousin’s honor.

Training helped me to feel close to him because it fucking hurt. Pushing past my own resistance to the physical struggle of getting fit helped me to assimilate what happened in a way that alcohol never allowed for.

My family and friends were generous and we raised £780 for the Teenage Cancer Trust. It was a sunny day when I ran, and I pretended that my cousin was supporting me the way he did at my book launch. 

I sprinted faster than I have since I was a teen and imagined that he was there in the crowd, cheering me on, feeling proud, ready to tell a story.

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