'I quit my job. Drink gushed into the space I left for it': confessions of an alcoholic

After years of lying to colleagues and loved ones, could I get sober?

Late summer, 2005. A hot evening. All the windows are open and I’m watching a film in the living room with my fiancee. When the film finishes, I go through to the bedroom. Nothing looks quite right. Books that had been lined up on the windowsill are piled on the floor and on a chair. Drawers are open. My laptop is gone. We have been burgled.

As we sat on the sofa, someone had been one door away, rooting through our possessions. The shock is so intense that minutes pass before we realise we should call the police. And it is only as the officers dust everything for prints and take our statements that the implications begin to sink in. What if one of us had disturbed our guest? Someone determined enough to enter a visibly occupied home did not seem like someone we wished to interrupt. We would be contacted about victim support, the police say. An unexpected emotion surges through me: joy.

All that summer, I had been trying to control my drinking. The day we were burgled was one of my regular attempts to have a weekend dry day – typically spent in a torment of sweaty, shaky anxiety. With a body that felt like a badly made marionette, one that I had forgotten how to control, I would spend those days trying to remember how on earth I filled my mind, and my time, before alcohol. I dreaded the night. Without booze to turn out the lights, I would lie awake, quivering, tortured by heartburn and experiencing hallucinatory waking nightmares.

Against all that, being burgled was at least a novelty. And it had a wonderful payoff – I had an excuse. I could not be refused a glass or two. We both wanted a drink, so we drank. It had been, objectively, one of the worst experiences of my life and I was gleeful because I could drink again. After that night, I went into my final decline.

Alcoholism is not a spectacular disease – it can be stealthy and mundane. My experience does not include any gaudy moments of public misbehaviour or disgrace. I was fired from more than one job for chronic lateness and absenteeism. I was never violent or abusive, although my unreachable suffering and neglect of myself and others around me did inflict emotional pain on my partner, which is almost indistinguishable from abuse. Not that I cared very much – or rather, I cared, but not nearly as much as I cared about drink. Alcohol had fed my natural selfishness and grown it into something monstrous, something that only cared about popping open that next cold can of lager.

I’m ashamed of my reaction to the burglary, but it wasn’t the worst instance of my selfish behaviour. A couple of months earlier, on 7 July 2005, terrorists had exploded bombs across the London public transport system and killed 52 people. Like most of the country, my fiancee and I spent that morning glued to the news in horror. But my horror was twofold. That morning she had been due to go to Spain to visit friends. Her absence would mean I could drink freely.

As news of the severity of the attack sunk in and transport networks were shut down, she quickly abandoned all thought of travel. But I could not let it go. If the trains weren’t running, I said, maybe she could get a coach to the airport. If the coaches stopped, I would pay for a taxi. On the morning of the worst terrorist atrocity in the UK in decades, all I could think about was trying to make sure I could be on my own. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel all the other, ordinary reactions – shock, fear, anger. But those feelings simply weren’t as important as the drink.

To talk about “drink” as an external force that was affecting me might sound evasive, as if I am passing the blame. Of course, without me that lager would have stayed in its aluminium tubes in the corner shop. It wasn’t drink that cracked open the cans – from the moment I got out of bed in the morning – and it wasn’t drink that poured the contents down my throat. It was me. But addiction forces that way of thinking. I’ve used the word “selfish”, but that’s not quite it: addiction is not on behalf of the self; it seeks to destroy the self.

beer cans behind books

But there must be a moment when it, whatever “it” is, takes over from a rational, emotionally functional being who would never choose to become an alcoholic. We seek meaning in events by applying narrative rules to them: beginnings, middles and ends, motivations, causes and effects. But I could never find a clear beginning. With another drug, it might be useful to remember my first dose, but alcohol had been on the family dinner table long before it became a problem. Another story might begin with a trauma or loss, which would serve the double purpose of cause and justification. Over the years I’ve tried to play detective, interviewing past versions of myself to try to pin down exactly who was to blame and when the trouble started, but they all seem to have alibis. All I can find is a series of moments where the fabric of my life tore a little and, each time, more drink poured in through the gap.

At university, I drank almost nightly. My first job, in business journalism, was in a fairly high-pressure environment and involved a good deal of social drinking, and I drank to embarrassing excess more than once. A year or so after starting work I fell out with my flatmate and started drinking alone in pubs in the evening, in order to avoid going home. The smoking gun is somewhere here. But I wasn’t yet drinking in order to drink – the pub was just a place to avoid an uncomfortable situation. If you had said, “You have to stop immediately, you’re becoming an alcoholic”, I would have denied it and I might have been right. I could have changed course. I didn’t need to stop. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t stop. And when I changed flatmates, the drink came home, in cans.

By now I was drinking throughout my free time, and the only limit was that I didn’t get much of that. I had risen to being chief subeditor of a weekly magazine and was in charge of a small production team. As my responsibilities increased, so did my hungover latenesses and absences. I went to my GP complaining of chest pains, which I attributed to stress. He diagnosed me as depressed, prescribed pills and said I shouldn’t drink while I was taking them. I took them and continued to drink. Work was the problem, I thought, not drink. I quit my job, intending to go freelance. Drink gushed into the open space I had made for it. I was 25.

Alcoholism feeds on secrecy. It might be a disease associated with going out, but I found that it had the opposite effect. As I became more aware of the disease, I tried harder to conceal it, putting on more public displays of abstemiousness. I would leave the pub or party early. As well as not wanting to be seen getting drunk, I also had the practical imperative of needing to get to the corner shop before it closed. In company, I would clam up with anxiety and find it impossible to think or talk until I left – the first of the panic attacks that would ultimately wreck my ability to work.

I started hiding cans. Next to my desk at home was a filing cabinet, and if I left the bottom drawer open it made a neat slot for a Stella Artois, one that could be quietly shut with my foot if I heard footsteps approaching. There was another handy location underneath the coffee table, out of sight. When I did subediting shifts in an office, I became an expert at squeezing two, and sometimes three pints into my lunch hour, which I spent on my own in the pub. The real timesaver was to order them all at once and drink the first quickly. This sneaking around was stressful and, in retrospect, I doubt I was half as subtle as I thought. But I strangely felt little guilt about the deception – or rather, the guilt I felt simply didn’t feel as important as the imperative to keep drinking.

I might have appeared fairly normal, but at home the evidence was plain. You could count the cans every morning, and there were a lot. Fail to tidy up promptly and they would begin to pile up. But my veneer of normality was convincing enough for my girlfriend – who later became my wife – to move in with me. She was disturbed by the recurring sight of these towers of empty cans. I tried to laugh it off, calling it “Canhattan”. She didn’t laugh. Something would have to change.

So began the efforts at moderation and putting on an appearance of restraint. Only an appearance, mind. Fundamentally, my partner and I had different views about what the problem was. In her view, I drank too much and needed to cut back for my health and her peace of mind. In my view, her concerns were impairing my ability to drink as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted – and that was the problem I set about trying to fix. In a perverse way, I did care about her peace of mind, but only because it was a kind of motion sensor stopping me going to the fridge as often as I wanted.

Surprisingly, I had managed to get a full-time job, covering maternity leave as deputy editor of a magazine. Not surprisingly, I was making a wreck of it. Meanwhile my relationship was near collapse. Trying to keep the whole rickety show on the road, I promised to resume the dry days and went to my GP for sleeping pills to counteract the awful sleeplessness that came with withdrawal. For the first time, I was called an alcoholic to my face. Bizarrely, I still didn’t think of myself that way, not even when I opened my first can at 8am. “Alcoholic” and “addict” are curse words – hexes – and they have a binding power. Apply one of them to yourself and, well, you’ve got to do something about it, haven’t you?

A blood test showed that I had damaged my liver badly. I was told to seek detox and rehab urgently. But I didn’t. I still thought that, with help, I might be able to moderate my drinking. I was referred to an alcohol treatment service and started weekly group therapy. Funnily enough, they told me I needed to stop drinking. I was sure that what I needed was to find the magic sustainable level of booze that would keep my collapsing life together.

Instead, collapse was what I really needed. I was fired from the deputy editor job, and it came as a relief: I could seek full-time treatment, and not a moment too soon. My fiancee’s superhuman patience was at an end. We could get married and I could go into rehab, she said, or it was over.

At 9am on the Monday after I returned from my honeymoon, I stood on a street corner drinking a Stella Artois. When the can, my second of the morning, was finished, I dropped it into a litter bin and walked into a hospital, the kind of hospital that keeps its doors locked. I stayed there for 10 days. I was 28. Six months of day patient rehab and 10 years of therapy would follow. But on that day, drinking that last can, I had the strange sense that I was starting my career and my life for the first time, and that most of the preceding decade had been an unsettling and feverish dream. It wasn’t, of course, and I had burned several professional bridges, but fortunately some turned out to be only singed.

Looking back, I can see that the search for narrative order can be unhelpful. We like to find causes and meanings because understanding them helps us fix problems. Clear beginnings are, however, often a myth. If addiction always had one, there would be a lot fewer addicts. But there can be fresh beginnings. And I was lucky enough to get one of those.

• Will Wiles’s novel, Plume, partly based on his experiences as an alcoholic, is published on 16 May by Fourth Estate, £16.99. To order a copy for £14.95, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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Will Wiles

The GuardianTramp

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