I am sitting in the office of Dr. Mithu Pallet, the doctor overseeing my rehabilitation programme. He listens intently, occasionally locking eyes with me, his darkened gaze boring through my eyeballs and into my very brain itself. He nods and occasionally speaks in vague affirmation of what I’m saying: “yeah, sure, uh-huh, oh, that’s when the double vision came in, definitely.” I finish, and there is a full half-minute’s silence, his eyes still boring into me as my own dart nervously around the office, trying to find something, anything to affix to. I wait in terror and the thick of his silence for news of my fate.
“You definitely shouldn’t drink for at least a year,” he says, eyes still tearing into me. “At least. So that makes it… October 17, 2015, correct?”
I nod in affirmation. Somehow I’m just relieved he didn’t comment on how stupid an accident it was – though I probably did that enough to relieve him of the duty. I don’t imagine that it’ll be a particularly tough period of sobriety, though. I very much don’t feel like alcohol anymore, even the very thought of it sends my stomach into knots of fear.
And I am standing with three gorgeous friends – Michael, Laura and Robbie – in a bar in Berlin. This is the night of the accident. I have a gin and tonic in hand – the prices are cheap, extremely cheap – and I nurse it with gusto. My head’s not spinning so much as sinking, and I’m happy, somehow – pleased as punch to be with my lovely friends in a lovely European country I’d never visited before in a lovely bar with a lovely drink and a lovely Australian expatriate drag queen with the lovely name of Olympia Bukkakis.
Later, much later. Some four hours later it’s nearly go-time, and I’m standing in between some brittle foliage on a median strip snaking down the middle of a relatively quiet road. In front of me – the endgame – I see the bright white light of a German bakery, somehow still open as if a sign from God him or herself, and I blurrily think that I might finally get to try a German-made pretzel – and before that bright light, a collection of smaller, fuzzy, white, red and blue headlights darting around like mechanical fireflies, somehow buzzing ‘round my head from far away like bizarre mechanical vehicular ventriloquists.
I take a breath. I can almost taste the bakery’s produce. With gusto and certainty, I step out onto the road in an attempt to cross. Of course, I never made it. I also never got to try that German-made pretzel.
2005. I am standing in the kitchen, helping my mother with dinner.
“You know,” Mum says, “your birth-mother has problems with alcohol, so you just need to be careful with that.”
“With what?” I ask, making her spell it out like the petulant teenager I am.
“With alcohol,” Mum says, matching my tone, “it’s written in your genetics. You might find it hard to deal with.”
“Hard to deal with?” I throw back at her, ever the little shit.
“Hard to give up.” She returns the serve over the net with sudden force, her vocal gymnastics far overtaking my own. This time, I remain silent.
Three weeks ago.
“I’ve heard about this drink,” mum says, “This pretend wine; Grapetiser or something, and, given it’s your birthday coming up, I thought we might get you some so you have something to drink when the occasion comes.”
I’m reading the Sunday Age, or attempting to, but my brain won’t focus and the world, it seems, is conspiring against me and my attempts to read.
“No thanks,” I reply, knocking her offer back a little too quickly, a little too rudely.
“Why not?” Mum asks. “It’s not alcoholic, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Not worried,” I shoot back. “I just don’t see the point in having fake wine if I’m not allowed actual wine. It’s fine, I don’t actually want wine, but I don’t see the point in drinking “almost wine”. It’s like someone on a diet trying for low-fat McDonalds. I’d rather just have Diet Coke or something.”
“But Diet Coke has artificial sweeteners and they give you cancer,” Mum replies, voice sharp and cracking.
“Fine,” I reply, hand holding open the newspaper at the article I’m apparently not allowed to finish. “I’ll just have water, then, it’s not a big deal.”
“That’s no fun, though,” Mum says.
I’m aware, I think, but not much in life is; and booze got me in to this situation, so I’ll be damned if fake booze’ll get me out.
I wonder idly how best to explain to her that if I’m to abstain, the best way to do it is to simply to cut all alcohol-related products out, way out, that even when I could drink, one glass of wine or beer would lead to a desire for more, and that that’s what needs to be quashed within me, and the consumption of an alcohol-adjacent product won’t help
I decide instead to leave it be.
In Spandau Hospital, Berlin, they often gave me – whether I liked it or not – a product with meals entitled Maltz Beer; the country’s leading brand of alcohol-free-alcohol, a honey-esque thick brown substance that only resembled legitimate beer if you squinted while you drank it.
On the few occasions that an English-speaking nurse was delivering the meals, I’d get asked if I’d like something to drink, and by force of habit I began to ask for Maltz – not particularly because I desired it, but because the hospital, it seemed, was a soft-drink free zone and I’d find myself rather often not in the mood for hospital coffee and tea (both had the subtle flavour palate of dirt peppered with chopped up earthworms and despair).
I fear in this regard I may have given my parents the wrong idea with regards to my soft-drink habits, but when it comes to it; anything’ll taste good on a 35 degree day when you’re crammed in with an array of stale patients without the joy of airconditioning.
Some disturbing facts I googled myself in the midst of a curious phase one night last week:
– patients in the midst of recovering from a traumatic brain injury who return to drinking too soon are up to 8 times more likely than any other kind of person to repeat said traumatic brain injury.
– as a brain injury patient in the midst of rehabilitation, I’m up to 8 times more likely than a mentally healthy person to develop depression across my recovery period.
The thought of going through depression – a disease I’ve seen many of my friends struggle with across the years – or having to do any of this a second time chills me to the bone.
My Mother’s reaction to these facts: “Don’t worry, you don’t need to be depressed; you have your family as a support network and so many people have to go through recovery without any kind of support network, so that must be why it happens.”
I consider telling her that depression takes no names or prisoners, and that if you’re going to get depression, that it’s in no way a matter of need, you’ll get it regardless of mental strength or support network or whether you deem it “just”.
But then she smiles at me, an earnest, wide smile, and hugs me, and I decide to drop it.
The hardest thing isn’t my own abstinence in the situation, which has been actually incredibly easy, it’s been the reactions of the people I’ve told. Reactions so far have included:
“Oh my god.”
“But you love wine?”
“Chris not drinking? Wow, okay.”
“A year? That’s such a long time.”
And the reactions of some of my closest friends:
“That sounds like good idea.”
“That makes sense.”
“Wow. Yeah, you actually might find you never drink again.”
And as my birthday came around, numerous messages filtered through my way:
Happy Birthday you beautiful boy! I hope your day is great and you have heaps of wine and cheese and cats to brighten your day!
It reads to me like a bizarre check-list of things I’ve been vaguely known to enjoy: like, these are things you like, yes?? As these messages shot through, hypertext bullets made of writing and half-good intention and sheer facebook laziness, the one thing I couldn’t help but think when I read them was: Really? You’ve known me for four years and all you can remember about me is that I like wine, cheese and cats? Right. Clearly I need to be more memorable or start making a more genuine impression.
I’m standing on rehearsal break in a nearby Brighton supermarket, scanning the aisles for ready-made cans of Campbell’s Soup for dinner. I am 19. My phone, a colour Nokia stuffed messily into my pocket, bursts suddenly to life, vibrating and singing out Ocean of Noise by The Arcade Fire, some three good years before the “indie” craze would really hit off and ruin most of the things I liked by violently stamping the word “HIPSTER” on them in bold red letters.
I retrieve my phone and pick it up, not bothering to check as to the identity of the caller but instead pressing it cold to my ear. It’s probably my director wondering where I am, I think.
“Hello, Christopher speaking,” I say.
“Christopher,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice slurs. “I was watching Charmed just now and it got me thinking of you,” the voice says.
“Who is this, sorry?” I ask listlessly, eyes still scanning the countless cans of soup.
“This is your mother,” the voice says, sharply.
My birth mother, and by the sounds of it, she’s drunk.
“Sorry,” I say, heart racing in overdrive. “But I can’t really talk right now. I’m just on a break from rehearsal and I need to have some dinner.”
“Okay, fine,” the voice snarls and hangs up.
Five minutes later, still in the supermarket, a text message:
“I think its really rude u dont wanna talk 2 me cos ur with ur friends. Im your mother, u cant switch me off.”
I think: I wish I could. And then I begin to formulate a reply.
My world is painfully foggy from too much wine. I am twenty years old and standing with my housemate Jacob in the main hallway next to Monash University Clayton Campus’s Student Theatre. My world is currently contained in the takeaway latte coffee cup sitting hot in my hands. Our good friend Tess approaches us with trepidation, greeting us as she comes nearer.
“Hi boys,” she smiles.
“Hi,” I reply, and massage my temples.
“I’m curious,” she begins. “How many times a week do the both of you drink? It seems to me like you’re always hung over and I’m just a little concerned you might spur each other on.
I try to think: why did I drink last night? And then come to the painful, bitter realisation: to quell my feelings.
“I just want you both to be okay,” Tess says. That’s funny, ‘cos so do I.
What am I gonna say? I think to myself. The truth? I’m finally processing the enormity of my recent break up; two years now seems like a hugely long time to be with someone and I’m weirdly scared and suspicious of everyone I meet and that I’ll never like or be liked by someone, anyone again? I drank last night to try and do what I’m apparently unable to do which is control my emotions? That sounds fucking lame.
Tess smiles and hugs me, her strength wrapping round my torso and filling me up.
Could be a start, I think.
From 2009 to 2011, I spent a good four months of every year abstaining from drinking – partly just to prove to myself and the world that I could, and partly as a weight-loss booster, even if I had no weight to lose.
One day, in late ’11, I read on Wikipedia (that bastion of internet truth) that high-functioning alcoholics will often take a month or two of their year without the booze just to prove to themselves they still can, and because if they can this gives them free reign to go harder the rest of the year. Whilst I never did that, that still scared me enough to (weirdly) cease my abstinent periods altogether and instead instigate a new rule – that of drinking only during weekends, and only when out with friends at parties. That rule, like the factoid on Wikipedia, didn’t last as long as I felt it should, and now neither are in effect.
Call it low self esteem, anxiety or simply shyness, but I have needed, in the past, to be intoxicated to even have the strength and mental fortitude to make new friends or to tell a boy that I have feelings for them or, god forbid, to actually instigate anything, as positive an experience as that clearly is. As the years have gone past and I’ve matured, this crippling insecurity and idiocy has still held me tight, but I’ve also in many ways began to move past it as I’ve realised how little each rejection (or acceptance) actually has meant for the related relationship or friendship, and how much this attitude I held actually stood deeply in my way. Be that as it may, the most fulfilling experiences of my romantic life have all taken place as I can remember them: stone-cold sober, feeling the fear and anxiety and heatbeat and sheer excitement of it all and allowing it to all come crashing down around me.
I think, perhaps, there’ll always be some part of me sitting in the dark with this collection of faceless, beautiful boys, holding on to my terror and attempting to send signals their way; hoping for some back in my direction. But I realize, now, that there’s nothing romantic about this – regardless of how much you think you are, you’re actually not being aloof and mysterious. You’re shaking, cold and in the dark, in a park or at the beach or in the dark and warmth of your bedroom, too chickenshit to commit to kissing someone you really feel strongly about.
I’ve realised, after much thought on the subject, that what I’ve been given is a chance: not to break the cycle of alcoholism because I never bought into it, but to teach myself some real life-skills.
There’s a voice, floating at the back of my head. Not the voice of Dr Mithu Pallet, or my mother, but of something else entirely: a voice that says: it’s time to take chances, to push yourself, speak the unexpected and speak what you really feel. You deserve this
And I realise, with that voice, that I’ve put alcohol in control of many emotional situations simply because I am afraid. I am afraid of people, when I have no reason to be; I am afraid of what they might say should I speak my mind or divulge some honest feeling. The ironic thing being, of course, that although I initially used alcohol to quell my fear in general, the biggest fear in my life, at present, concerns my near-death on a cold Berlin road and that I almost ended up a stone-cold corpse or drooling vegetable; completely unable to do the thing I love.
This time has come, this voice says, to speak up. To stop being afraid of people and of what they might think of what you have to say. You have nothing to lose. Take a chance and see what happens.