By JC Clapham
The day I write this piece marks four years since I last had an alcoholic drink. Alcohol of any kind – I don’t even use rum when I make rum balls. Four years and no drinking. I needed to become a non-drinker, and I did. It was embarrassingly easy for me to stop, because I knew for a while it was what I needed to do. And I don’t miss it at all.
Like many (most?) I began drinking when I was a teenager, at fifteen or so. I had my first proper drink a couple of years earlier in fact, but it was a cheap bottle of Mississippi Moonshine a friend’s older brother had purchased for us, and it was shit, and I felt no compulsion to try alcohol again any time soon.
At fifteen, my drinks of choice were beer (any beer) and black Sambuca. Being an amateur and lightweight I often mixed them and spewed frothy black gunk. Classy.
In Year 10 we had regular parties at people’s houses and went on semi-regular camping trips. We’d get an older friend to buy our grog for us and deliver it to the party location. At a mark-up of course, but you can’t be fussy and frugal when you’re an underage drinker.
I quickly developed a like for sculling drinks. And around that time there was a cheap, fizzy cider drink called Stark, made by the Subzero people, and it had been discontinued because it was wildly unpopular. But once discontinued, it was sold for a few months at just $18 for a slab of 24. Depending on whoever was buying and delivering, it’d cost us $15 or $20 for half a slab. Beaut!
Stark was very easy to slam down and I loved doing it. There’s applause when you scull a drink, and then a few challengers to beat in a race, and the victory in those was addictive for someone who felt inferior a lot of the time and wanted to be adored. But the adoration would only last until you either spewed awkwardly or passed out.
“Can’t hold his drink”, they’d say. I knew because I said it about others who clocked out before me.
Not being able to hold your drink was a bit of a bad label. But not drinking a lot was also a bad label. Finding a level between those two was near-impossible for me, and I usually spewed and then kept drinking, just to be sure I wasn’t ‘soft’.
As my high school years went on, my drinking behaviour continued.
When I drank, I loved the “two or three drink jacket”: that warm and happy relaxation that would settle on you after two or three drinks. It was the most relaxed I ever felt as a teenager, and I liked that state of being. But my problem was not being able to maintain that level of consumption and feeling. I always wanted more drinks and often drank like a dehydrated animal who happens upon a billabong.
I passed out quite a bit, but was always safe around my friends and we did a good job of looking after each other. We’d coax the comatose onto a couch, and let them sleep it off until the next morning when they’d be jovially ridiculed and told about all the fun they missed.
In my university years, I stepped up my game. We drank a lot, and I drank more than most of my friends. Not in terms of frequency – I usually only drank two or three nights a week – but when I did, I did. Goon, beer, rum and scotch were my poisons of choice.
Given the cost of drinking, many of us would buy a 4 litre cask of Fruity Lexia, and a bottle of creaming soda or other soft drink. We’d fill our glasses with goon and add a generous splash of the soft drink to reduce the acidity. The variation in soft drinks we mixed in made for a patchwork of colourful vomit stains on the footpaths, grass, and often carpet, the next morning. We laughed at our artistry, seeing everything as a canvas.
During these years my mental health sky-dived. I got involved in a few clubs and societies that spent most of their time being pricks to each other on committees, and I was out of my depth at all those machinations. I was a naïve country boy who wanted to make the world a better place, and I was hopeless at playing the political games others revelled in. I tried to stay above it, but eventually I fell prey to the machine and burned out.
It was after that I finally went to see the on-campus counsellor and shared my troubles. I was scheduled in for more counselling sessions and referred to a doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant, and advised me to either stop drinking altogether, or to limit myself to one or two drinks. I dismissed that as untenable, and as a result, negated the effects of the medication. What a stupid own goal.
When I drank, I rode in trolleys down hills, I said hurtful things to people who were trying to look after me, I ordered chips and gravy from our local food van while I urinated on the van (more than once), and I spent a lot of mornings and afternoons under my doona, feeling sorry for myself and because of my head space, not wanting to be alive anymore.
I used to put together playlists for my funeral, and I wrote many a goodbye note. But I never acted on it – I just couldn’t go through with killing myself, no matter how much I wanted to not feel hopeless, desperately sad, and lost. Something kept me holding on, but I spent some long and bleak nights, and dreary, lonely days hating myself and wanting not to feel anything anymore.
After three years at uni (but only eighteen months of successful course completion), far too many drunken nights and black days, I dropped out of uni and returned home.
I got a job in a call centre, and significantly reduced my drinking. But only in frequency and occasion; when I did drink, I drank hard. Still.
One night out on the town, I went really hard and drank a stupid amount, stupidly quick. I blacked out about 10pm, and woke up in my bed about 6am. I had slivers of memory.
Of landing in some water, and of losing my wallet and phone. I jumped out of bed and looked around for them. They were nowhere to be found. I had a gut feeling I knew where they were. Stupidly, I jumped in the car and drove to where I thought they might be.
Sure enough, I found them. Next to a cliff that sat about 15 metres above the river. My wallet, phone and one shoe were there. I don’t know where the other shoe was and I was still half-asleep. I grabbed my things and drove home and stayed in bed all day, feeling sorry for myself but counting my blessings I was physically ok. And crying quietly so my mother wouldn’t know.
I didn’t drink a drop for the next couple of months, but soon enough I found myself in a drinking way again.
A reunion of sorts among a group of uni friends had been organised, and I wanted to go. Partly to see my on/off ex-girlfriend. She was still at uni and although I hadn’t seen her much in the six months since I dropped out, we both hadn’t let go of each other completely. I wanted her back, though I think now it was so I had a reason to feel good about myself.
My friends and I met, had a couple of quick beers to get started, and headed off to one of our local haunts for the night. It was supposed to be a quiet night, before a big group dinner the next evening. But try telling highly-emotional and hard-drinking me to have a quiet night…
A few of us got into the spirit of things and decided to have some tequila shots. Not a shot: shots. Five shots and forty minutes later, I was well gone. We headed up the hill to another of our regular places, and got stuck into jugs of beer.
My ex-girlfriend arrived and I quickly blurted out a bunch of nonsense to her. She rightly sent me on my way, and I fell into an abyss of dark thoughts.
No one would ever love me again. I was broken and lonely and would be forever. Life was shit. Fuck it all. And fuck living.
I walked outside and ripped my belt off. I ducked into the empty lot next door, tied my belt around a branch, stuck my head in it, and dropped to my knees. I fell, but the branch broke. I landed on the ground and gasped for breath. I couldn’t even do this properly!
I stood up and walked over to a bridge. It was near the food truck we frequented (and I sometimes urinated on while ordering, because I was a dickhead). The bridge sat about 7 metres above a road, I’ve since learned. I climbed onto the edge of the bridge, and sat there for a few minutes. The same dark thoughts of being a fuckup, a loser, and doomed to ruin everything, swirled in my booze-addled brain.
I used my arms to push myself forward and off the bridge so I fell to the road below.
But just as I did, I decided I didn’t actually want to die. I semi-turned around quickly and my flailing arms grabbed a rail that ran alongside the bridge’s concrete edge. I was holding on, just, hovering above the road and wanting to be back on solid ground. I shouted out for help, heard someone else yell, and then…
I was on the road, lying on my back, with a few people around me. They said an ambulance was on its way. I remember the ambulance arriving, not much else.
When I next opened my eyes, I was in a hospital, and one of my friends was sitting next to me, talking with a doctor or nurse. I heard them say that yes, I broke my pelvis, and would need surgery on my left wrist, which had thundered into itself and shattered.
I hadn’t avoided injury this time.
I resolved not to tell anyone what really happened. I worried that if I did, I’d be sent to a psychiatric ward and that terrified me. It was easier to play the silly drunk who’d had a misadventure.
So I never told anyone. Not my family, not my friends, not anyone else. Until a couple of years ago when I vaguely referred to it during a story I recorded for a friend’s podcast. I had a word with my mother beforehand to let her know the truth and that I would be referring to it.
She understood, and said she’d always had a feeling of the truth, and trusted I would own it and share when I was ready. She’s an amazing person, my mum, and I hate that I’ve put her through some heart-breaking shit.
In the few years following that incident, I didn’t drink much at all. It was easier just not to. I was spending my time with my new girlfriend and working full-time in Melbourne, so it’s not as though I was out and about a lot.
When I did drink, I was usually ok. But on occasion, it’d get a hold of me, and the alter ego some colleagues dubbed ‘Bitsy McCoy’ would emerge. Bitsy was a hard drinking, swearing, smoking, cheeky-cocky type of fellow. And through Bitsy I feigned confidence. But I began to lose control more and more.
It all reached a head four years ago. On a few occasions in the couple of years beforehand, I’d start drinking and then drink and drink. I was out too late a few Fridays after work, and a few weeknights when I had work functions.
The event that has turned out to be the last time I had a drink was a work thing, and I stayed up too late drinking, and set a poor example for my colleagues. I wasn’t alone in that, but that’s beside the point. My drinking had affected the way people I worked with viewed me, and I was ashamed. I declared the next morning that I was a non-drinker.
And I haven’t touched it since.
Next issue: the very easy and very hard things about going sober.
If you or someone you know needs support with their mental health, please contact one of these support organisations: