I wonder if all us alkies – and addicts in general for that matter – have that one friend we point to when we’re telling ourselves we’re not that bad. As a smoker I’ve often cited the old lady I met when I was doing work experience at the local hospital at the age of 14. Martha, her name was and she was in her nineties. Thin as a rake and with skin five sizes too big for her frame, she would head over to the smoking room along the corridor at the ward. Oh yes, even in my native country Sensible Sweden, there was once upon a time smoking rooms in hospitals. I’m also old enough to remember when you could smoke on an airplane but that’s a story I might write about if I ever decide to conquer my fear of flying. Let’s focus on alcohol and addiction for now.
So back to Martha. She’d smoked all her life, told me in her scratchy, wheezy voice that she started at 13. In Martha’s case, that meant she’d taken up smoking before World War One. So I have at times referred to Martha when I’ve felt defensive and pointed out that oohhh well look at Martha who started smoking when Hitler hadn’t caused any atrocities but was just a mediocre, struggling artist on the streets of Vienna, she’s fiiiiiiiiine. Isn’t there always someone like that, who we can point to only so we can look a little better ourselves? Someone who has the same addiction but is a bit further down the line. Or a lot further down the line, even better as that gives us hope that perhaps we can just keep going too and be fine. Like Martha.
There are two people like that in my life when it comes to alcohol – let’s call them Elaine and Linda.
Elaine and I can have so much fun together. We met via work and she’s a little older than I am. We’re quite different in some ways but click anyway. I can visibly see the harm she is doing to herself these days. She’s rather accident prone due to a dodgy leg, but the bruises and injuries she has amassed over the years I’ve known her makes my own look like I’ve just been to a girl scout meeting. Elaine does all the stuff I do too – embarrassing posts on Facebook or other social media, and I’m sure she starts cooking or other random stuff too. In addition to those things, she does go further – one incident involved going for a swim in the sea after finishing off a box of wine at home. Downright dangerous and perhaps that’s why Elaine is one of the two people I point at whenever I need to reassure myself or others that I’m not so bad. I’ve also never ended up falling flat on my face acquiring a black eye drunk or otherwise.
Then again, I don’t live by the sea like Elaine does and I did bang my head the other night. All it is, is that I need someone like Elaine to be worse than I am. I need her to drink more and do worse things in order for me to keep on going without having to take responsibility. And for someone with a serious problem myself, I’m incredibly good at spotting it in others. Elaine definitely has a problem but I’m sure she’s just like me and knows it deep down too. Also what makes it a little worse in Elaine’s case is that she is suffering from depression and on medication. Adding alcohol, which is a depressant, just cannot be good. She’s a tough cookie, has been through a lot, but I genuinely worry about her drinking.
Still, Elaine’s drinking makes it easy – or at the very least easier – for me to cling on to I’m-not-so-bad. The thing is though, no matter how hard I try not to see it when Elaine and I drink together, that I put away more than she does. This is hardly surprising – she is tiny, shorter than I am and skinny. I’m much taller and bigger than she is physically so that I can hold more than Elaine isn’t so strange. I also smoke more than she does. What I don’t know is what happens with Elaine when she is alone, if she is the same as I am or if she does have some level of control or is able to stop.
She’s looking frail at the moment. She’s gone through more crap recently and from her already slight frame she’s lost even more weight. I know her depression is her biggest worry, but I do want to shake her and yell STOP DRINKING! But I don’t think it’s Elaine I need to shake – it’s myself.
And then there’s Linda.
Linda and I only met in real life the once. Before then we were both members of a network for Swedes living abroad, a forum for discussions ranging from where to get hold of fresh yeast in Zimbabwe to how to renew your Swedish passport in Sydney. Linda lived in the south of Spain with her rich Spanish husband and she was always quite feisty in the discussion threads, sometimes even aggressive but I thought she was fun and although sometimes a little offensive I enjoyed her brutal honesty and strong opinions. There were times when I’d click on something she’d posted and hold my breath in anticipation, she really did go to war at times but I always felt there was a golden soul and genuine heart in Linda. Still do.
On this network it wasn’t unusual for people to meet up if anyone of us happened to travel somewhere. “Hey, I’m going to Paris for the weekend, any Swedes around?” That sort of thing. Linda was going to come to London with her husband and wanted to see who of the London-Swedes in the network might want to meet up for a drink. Because I liked the spirit Linda showed in the discussion threads, I just knew she would be a complete hoot and that we’d have endless interesting conversations so I immediately replied saying I’d be up for it.
“Great!” Linda’s message read, “you’re just the person I’d hoped for!“
I arrived early, like I always do, at the hotel where Linda would be staying. We had agreed to meet there as it had a lovely bar and a beautiful outdoor area. It was a warm June evening, so a garden bar seemed the perfect choice. Half an hour after we were supposed to meet, there was still no sign of her and when I’d waited nearly an hour, she finally appeared. She looked disoriented, her hair was a bit of a mess and she gave a very confused impression. Still the great lady I’d “seen” in the discussion threads, but messy.
“My husband had to go straight to meetings and I ended up going to the wrong hotel, they have another one in Clerkenwell,” Linda rattled off after giving me a hug, “Can you help me get my bags up to my room and then we’ll find somewhere.“
Linda’s thoughts were on something else, that much was clear. I seemed to be something peripheral, as did everything else around us. She was fidgety and seemed unable to focus when the receptionist was checking her in and her attention span was too short to keep any one line of conversation going as we went up the lift and walked down hotel corridors to her room. When we got in through the door, Linda immediately got her suitcase on to the bed, opened it and fished out a bottle of Jack Daniels. Then she looked around, still distracted and in a rush, then found what she was looking for.
“Go get ice,” she told me, handing me an ice bucket.
It was abrupt, almost unfriendly and I inside I did think how I wasn’t used to being ordered around like that, but I thought what the hell and just went in search of ice. When I got back to the room Linda had poured two huge glasses of whiskey. When I say ‘huge’ I’m talking about a standard size hotel glass, the ones you find in the bathroom. There were two, one for each of us, and she’d filled them three quarters full.
“Oh God, not for me, I can’t stand strong liquor neat,” I laughed.
“Do you want some coke?” Linda asked.
“Nah, I’ll wait, I’m more of a wine person.“
It took Linda less than 15 minutes to polish off a glass that at a glance must have been the equivalent of five or six shots. And with each sip, she became more and more present – suddenly she was no longer distracted or fidgety, but instead relaxed and engaged. And it’s only now that I can draw the parallel – that is exactly me, and the plumber’s visit is a glorious example, how I was getting restless and irritated because I just wanted to drink.
From that one time I met her it was pretty obvious that she was a heavy drinker and everything unraveled from there. Now some of her outbursts online made more sense – they were drunken outbursts, at least some of them. Linda ended up in a spot of bother and in connection with this also “came out” as an alcoholic. Because I cared about her, I ended up being the one she could always call. Now I can see that I probably made it easier for her to drink, but I also knew that if I’d told her to only contact me when sober, she’d stop contacting me full stop. It’s an impossible balance. And Linda called me quite often. I don’t think we had a single conversation when she was sober. I only knew she was drunk because she’d tell me – I was the one from whom she didn’t have to hide anything, so when she lied to the rest of the world about getting sober (with her husband backing up her story publicly on the likes of Facebook) it was me who listened to all the horrifying detail. On the same day as Linda put as her status that she had been dry for a year, I spoke with her just after breakfast. She was drinking wine.
There was absolutely no doubt that Linda was worse than I was and to my addict’s mind it was very reassuring to witness someone drink so much more than I do and seemingly still be fine. Linda was a lovely looking lady, didn’t look older than her 48 years, always looked well put together in all Facebook photos, and with her husband ran a successful online business. She’d seemed in disarray that one time I met her, but that was only until she’d got hold of a drink. Their life looked fantastic, the front they displayed a lovely one. I knew the other side of it but even I thought she managed to function, even thought I by this point knew that she’d sometimes have sunk a bottle of whiskey by lunchtime.
Linda also told me of having fits on occasions when she hadn’t been able to get hold of alcohol to ease her withdrawal the next morning. In March 2014 she told me about two serious incidents, terrible relapses one during which she’d ended up forcibly admitted to a psych ward for three days and another when her husband had ended up calling the police on her. I really don’t know what one might get up to that’s so bad one’s hubby decides he needs police back-up.
Oh yes, Linda was worse and she was solid affirmation that I was JUST FINE. Even after I admitted to myself I had a problem, Linda was so much further down the line and I could always take comfort in that. Except you can’t go on drinking like she did and be fine. Linda wasn’t fine at all and on her 48th birthday in April that year, just a few weeks after those awful incidents, she drank herself to death.
So I don’t have anyone to point to anymore because I no longer know anyone who drinks more or is a “worse” alkie than I am.