Updated: Jul 16, 2019
And if so, how do you live in reality without alcohol?
When I was six I found a pink and featherless baby bird that had fallen from its nest.
I’d never seen anything so sad or so beautiful, and I was transfixed. Its beak moved like it was asking for help.
I’d been told off for touching dead creatures before and so I picked the bird up using the bottom of my t-shirt, and snuck it up to my room.
By the time we got there, the bird was dead. Its soft beak was no longer moving, perfect apostrophe nostrils completely still.
Big black eyes still covered by a layer of skin, it had never even gotten to see the world. Tiny, defenseless, barely out-of-the-egg. Its first experience had been to fall a long way. To land, hard, on the earth. To die, alone, on concrete.
I wrapped the bird in toilet roll and hid it in my pant drawer. It was too precious to bury. Too important to risk telling anyone.
From the start, the world is crueller than you would like, and you just have to get used to it.
But what if you can’t?
“You’re too soft,” my family told me, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like everyone else was too hard.
Books offered some respite from the senseless cruelty and indifference that the world doled out: the abandoned baby birds and homeless men and starving children. I read and re-read my favourite stories losing myself in their perfect morality.
For some reason, I was soft and unable to defend myself. Life in the playground, even sometimes at home, felt frightening and painful, like falling from a great height and landing somewhere hard and strange.
So when an older friend who I loved and trusted introduced me to Diamond White mixed with Castaway it was a relief.
Blastaway, she called it. And I did.
I was rocketed into the most exhilarating night of my young life. Alcohol gave me the toughness that the fun people seemed to have been born with. I forgot my all encompassing fear, and spoke, acted and played with a thrilling lack of fear.
Waking the next morning I was sick, with mud on my clothes, but I didn’t care; I had discovered the most wonderful secret. This world was too hard, but there was another one. Safer and yet somehow more exciting too, and so easy to access!
Unlike reading and rescuing doomed creatures, drinking made me outgoing.
Eager to revisit that other world and that other girl, I initiated my friends in the art of binge drinking. I developed a taste for escapism beyond books and moved onto new drugs that insulated me even more. At last, I’d found a way of being with people. That sensitive little girl began to seem very far away.
For the next five years, I lived for parties and hedonism, with no dreams for the future. Maybe I would get a job in a shop and party at the weekends. Maybe I would save enough to get to Ibiza.
As my social, substance-fuelled persona grew more dominant, my substance-free-self withdrew more deeply. The high times began to seem like real life. The low times felt like waiting. If I’d ever known emotional equilibrium, I soon forgot it. Intense ups and downs became the norm.
And then something changed. Instead of entering that other world of ease and adventure when I dropped or sniffed or smoked, I sank into a psychological purgatory.
My natural sensitivity reasserted itself as if making up for lost time. Suddenly, no amount of drugs was safe. My home town began to seem haunted, and I dreamed of escape. I applied to study Journalism in Cornwall, and a month later, was starting over, swearing never to touch drugs again.
After a while, the baby bird began to stink.
I slept with the window open, and hoped I was imagining it. Something rotten at the top of the in-breath.
“What is that?” my mum said, sniffing as she brought me a cup of tea in the morning.
I shrugged, feeling a bit frightened, unable to speak about it.
When she’d gone, I wrapped another layer of loo roll around the bird. The death smell lingered. There wasn’t enough toilet roll in the house to hide it. No matter how many layers I added, the stink worked its way through. I began to panic.
And then one day I got home from school, and the problem had disappeared. My bedroom window was open.
Maybe the baby bird had gotten better? Maybe it had flown away? Maybe I had imagined the death smell?
For days I wondered about it. I began to convince myself that it had never been dead in the first place. That it had been resting. But then what about the toilet roll? Could it have flown away, with it streaming from its leg? I wanted so much for it to be possible.
Someone had found the bird and moved it. It was the only explanation that made sense. But not knowing left me room to imagine. I pictured the tiny bird, flying above our semi, toilet roll streaming like a vapour trail, and I was grateful.
An adult had stepped in to soften the world for me, to protect me, however nominally, from the realities of death.
University softened the world’s edges, though in a different way.
Learning about the injustice in the world incensed me, but it soothed me as well. For the first time in years, I listened, rapt, as an adult talked, discussing the absence of women in our literary history, and more mind-blowingly, the reasons for it.
I learned about the means of production and the class system, and the invisible and complex power structures that kept everyone in their place. The world and my role in it began to make a little more sense. Cultural Theory seminars unpacked far-out ideas like that women weren’t inferior but oppressed, and that racism and homophobia were systemic and institutionalised. I learned about Marxism and Imperialism and Post-colonialism.
And apart from that: everyone was so nice. The relentless piss-taking of my home town wasn’t so welcome here. We were polite and conscientious and respectful with each other, and my sensitive side didn’t feel like such a disadvantage.
Light came pouring in. I wrote impassioned essays about the construction of femininity and the burden of representation. I talked the ears off anyone that would listen about Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer and Karl Marx.
My newfound passion didn’t curb my drinking, but it made the sober parts of life feel more meaningful. The world was a slaughterhouse, but learning the vocabulary to articulate precisely how lessened the pain of it.
Writing lightened some of the heaviness of reality. Booze took care of the rest.
Deep down, I always felt my sensitivity could be an asset, but I couldn’t work out how.
In the last years before I quit, when things in my life were improving, psychologically and materially, I volunteered for The Girl Guides, to be a Mentor for kids in care, to be an advocate for looked-after children, but in spite of my strong desire to help these causes, I never made it past the volunteering part.
“I’ll do it!” I offered. But I couldn’t follow through. Hangovers, anxiety, apathy and depression made long term commitment impossible.
The pain of failing to live in line with my values led me back to drinking. How come I was so far from the woman I knew I could be? For a long time, it was a perfectly closed circle.
Since I got sober, my mental health has improved, and a world of time has opened up. Volunteering no longer feels so difficult.
Unexpectedly, helping others has become one of my main tools for living in reality. By trying to improve my small part of the world, I become the kind of person that I don't need to punish.
I am still too soft, but my ways of coping no longer render me as useless. Living in better alignment with my values allows me to better handle reality. It makes me crave oblivion less.
Looking back at the homophobic, racist, misogynistic world I grew up in, I’m not surprised that I needed alcohol and drugs.
Let's face it, in 2019, drinking might be the sane choice. I just can’t do it safely anymore. So I’ve had to find new ways to live in reality.
For years, alcohol insulated me from the harshness of the world, in the same way that my mum tried to when she removed that wedge of tissue, in the same way that I tried when I scooped up that baby bird. But the truth is, nothing can protect us.
Uncomfortable and wonderful and boring and miraculous, reality is the only place there is. And so I choose to live here.
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