Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Testing My Sobriety

After three full weeks of not drinking – not one single drop, sip or taste – I gave myself permission last weekend to start again, with a view to putting to the test whether, having proved to my satisfaction that I could go totally without, I could drink and keep it under control. During the week I’d had a long and enlightening conversation with Bubble, my Stateside friend who is in AA and has been sober now for 13 months. He – like all of the Inner Circle – has been incredibly supportive of my efforts and gave me some surprising but common sense advice: that the only way to be sure if I had a problem was not to abstain, but to drink.

The rationale behind this is that alcoholism, like all addictions, comes in many guises. Some people are alcohol-dependent; that is, they physically cannot get through a day, an hour or a minute without being drunk. For others, the drinking is the symptom, not the problem; they drink to mask or anaesthetise immediate or deeply-rooted emotional or psychological pain, so while they may not drink all the time, when they do, they do it to excess. Others still – and this is the category Bubble falls into – are alcohol-allergic; one drink, just one, triggers a reaction in the brain which removes the ability to stop, leading them to drink to oblivion for no other reason than that they cannot do otherwise.

Of these three types of alcoholism – and the list is by no means exhaustive – I felt by day 21 that I’d successfully discounted the first (cravings, whilst they occurred, were very few and far between and swiftly passed with a bit of self-coaching and a family-size mint Aero.) I took, several times, a good hard impassive look at my life to see if the second applied and decided that it did not; for all that I have, and have had, trouble in my life, I genuinely could not equate my drinking with being symptomatic of it. That left the third option, the alcohol allergy, and there was only one way to put that to the test. So it was that on Saturday last I tentatively took my first drink in three weeks.

The results were far from dramatic. It didn’t go ‘straight to my head’ as I’d thought it might, nor did it make me feel at all ill, as I’d feared it might. I felt neither relief nor pleasure; my overwhelming feeling was, if anything, of confusion. Confusion, because after so long abstaining, I’d unconsciously come to dissociate drinking alcohol from being a part of my routine, and so almost like a computer detecting rogue software, my brain struggled to comprehend what exactly a glass of wine was doing in my hands. I finished the glass very slowly, and shortly after went on to a 40th birthday party and from there, on to that classy Sarf London venue Los Dos Brewos, and not a drop further passed my lips. Experiment or no experiment, I just didn’t want to drink! Sure I was getting bored senseless of juice, Red Bull and water, but I wasn’t even tempted to vary it with something hard. (Although I was certainly gagging for something ‘hard’ but failed to find it – two weeks into not drinking, I mentioned to Glenda that on a stone-cold sober visit to Barcode, I’d been amazed at how few guys I’d found attractive without my trusty beer goggles of old. He chuckled and replied with his typical brevity and perceptiveness, “Sobriety is a harsh judge,” and how bloody right he was!)

Thinking it over the next day, I cautiously allowed myself to take the previous night’s abstinence as a good sign. But then I got to wondering, maybe I didn’t want more of the wine because it just wasn’t very nice wine? What would happen if I were to crack open a really good bottle; would I finish the lot? I needed to test this theory so later, invited to Margo and Jerry’s for lunch along with The Agony Uncles and Our Lady of Chappelle, I took with me a corker of a Cab Sauv and when the beef was served let Margo pour me a small glass. I sipped as I ate – interspersing each delicious mouthful with one of Pellegrino – and found that the one glass lasted me through the meal and indeed dessert. Cometh the cheese board, cometh the port, and I partook of a thimbleful; again, I savoured it, enjoyed it, finished it – but felt no urge at all to refill it. I still felt somehow guilty that after three weeks (sounds like nothing, doesn’t it?) I was ‘back on the bottle’ again, but I reassured myself that it was for research purposes and felt a lot better for that.

So where am I with it now? Well, I think it’s too early to say that I’ve got it fully under control. Sure, I managed to stop at one glass of wine; but I have yet to try that test on one beer, one cocktail or – my real Nemesis – one vodka. And try it I will; I need to know that I can control my drinking, as opposed to my non-drinking, for myself, and if I can’t, I need to think again about what I’m going to do about it.

So far, so damn good – I feel great, everyone says I look great, for the best part of a month I’ve not done or said a single thing I’m ashamed of, and as a very pleasant side-effect my money’s going a hell of a lot further. The support I’ve had from the Inner Circle has been, if not surprising, amazing and affirming. From regular words of encouragement and expressions of their pride, to the more subtle gestures such as inviting me for ‘a juice’ after work, the gang have accepted and respected my need to not drink and made sticking to it so much easier. Drinking responsibly though is, I think, likely to be a greater challenge yet than not drinking has been. Watch, as ever, this space!

Thursday, 16 November 2006

Answer me this...?

I knew I’d need something to replace the booze and sure enough I have a new addiction – Yahoo Answers. I signed up a week ago and have already answered nine questions, ranging from one word (‘Campanology’ since you’re asking) to several paragraphs, and have now twice had my answer chosen as the best answer by the asker! The idea’s quite simple; you go on the site, look for open questions - or you can pick a category to browse – and if you know, or even think you know, the answer, you type it in and get points in return. If you want to ask a question, you pay with points to do so and just sit back and wait for the answers to start rolling in. The idea is that the bank of resolved questions will build up into a kind of searchable online oracle (or Orac for the Blakes 7 fans amongst you) covering everything from bell-ringing to bell-ends.

Some of the more straightforward questions I’ve answered so far include,
‘What are gay saunas all about?’ (God knows I should know enough about that particular topic) and ‘Where can I buy mens Prada shoes in a size 12?’ (ditto: I have five pairs) One of the more esoteric was, ‘I’ve been seeing a psychic and she told me my mate Scott’s gay. Should I tell him?’ (I said, in so many words, mind your own business; that got me best answer!) There’s a certain pleasure in sharing ones knowledge with complete strangers, as well as an arrogant satisfaction in thinking that you have the answer to someone’s dilemma, be that about shagging or shoes. I’m trying to limit myself to ten minutes or so a day, but as your points start accruing it gets like Nectar – you’ll never actually use the points, the fun is watching them build up. The more points you earn, the higher your level – I’m still a level 1 but believe you me I’m aiming for the top – and as you move up the levels you can rate other people’s answers, post comments…all too much fun for words.

It’s silly, it’s time consuming, but boy do I love it, and it’s a hell of a lot better seeking life’s answers online than at the bottom of a bottle of vodka!

Monday, 13 November 2006

I'm drying out

At midnight on Saturday, standing (or rather, bobbing along to the music) in Barcode Vauxhall, I looked at the can of Red Bull in my hand and secretly toasted what for me was a major personal success. No, I hadn’t pulled the cute lad in the polo shirt (though heaven knows I’d have liked to) nor had I been snapped for the fashion pages of the gay press (though God knows I deserved to – I was looking fabulous). No, this success was altogether more meaningful than that – at midnight Saturday became Sunday and that meant I had gone a whole seven days without alcohol.

A week ago Sunday I woke up, for about the fifth consecutive Sunday, feeling as if I had gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, against a particularly vicious opponent. Pounding head? Check. Nausea? Check. Cold sweat, shakes, mouth as dry as a nomad’s flip-flop? Check, check and check. Worst of all, I realised to my horror that my liver was throbbing. Not figuratively, but actually, throbbing. Attaining some sort of consciousness, I began to scan my memory banks for details of the previous night, and almost instantly wished I hadn’t, for far from having blanks in my memory, I remembered far too well just how drunk I had been the night, and indeed day, before and just how terribly I had behaved. Why this particular occasion should have been the watershed I don’t know, but I realised there and then that something had to give.

For a couple of hours I sat (or rather, slumped) on the sofa, asking myself if I had a drink problem, and eventually the answer came back ‘Yes’. I went so far as to look in the Yellow Pages for my nearest Alcoholics Anonymous group; I wasn’t labelling myself an alcoholic but felt so unsure right then that I figured going along to a meeting might help me find clarity. After some more soul searching I decided that, no, AA was a step too far; I didn’t want to make more of this than I needed to. I resolved instead that I was going to try an experiment – to stop drinking, for a week, to see if I could do it. On the basis of my success or otherwise, I would then decide what action to take from there.

You know of course that I succeeded – and I even succeeded to keep off the bottle for another day, to make a proper week, having decided that Sunday last couldn’t really count as a) I’d been drinking into the wee small hours so had technically had alcohol on that day and b) it doesn’t really count as abstaining when the only reason for doing so is because you can’t keep anything down, liquor or otherwise. So now that I’ve done it, what’s the verdict? Do I still have a problem? The honest answer remains ‘Yes’. I base this on just how much of a challenge it was to not have a single drink – or even sip – of booze. Sunday was fine – as I’ve said, I felt so ill I couldn’t have even contemplated boozing. Monday - usually a booze free day anyway – was fine, and Tuesday likewise, having dinner round at Big Sister’s where booze is usually available but never pressed upon one.

Wednesday however was when the demons descended. By about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I’d started to fancy a drink – red wine to be precise. In the same way as I can tell when I’m craving a cigarette, I could tell that I was craving a drink. I was thinking about how it would smell and taste; how it would make me feel. The warm glow, the slight squiffiness…I could already feel it. Like a Tom & Jerry cartoon I had good and evil over respective shoulders, the one telling me that I’d gone three days so one drink wouldn’t hurt, the other saying no, you said a week and a week it shall be. The wrestling went on well into the evening but I made it through the evening without buckling. Thursday saw me giving a talk in Cambridge (no memory stick disasters this time, thank God) and although afterwards I was tempted to reward myself with a quarter bottle of Rioja for a job well done, I was able to resist and rewarded my self with a nice cup of tea and a family size mint Aero when I got home.

Friday was always going to be tricky – a long-standing invitation to dinner where I knew wine, and good wine at that, would flow freely. I had two choices; go, try to tough it out and not beat myself up too badly if I failed, or cancel so as not to put temptation in my path. The latter striking me as being terrifically self-indulgent, and knowing how much my hosts were looking forward to my company, I went for the former, but warned them in advance that I was off the sauce and would be grateful if they were to not even try to tempt me otherwise. It was certainly a test of will-power (something I have never had in spades) especially when the other invitee arrived bringing with him a very good Sirah which I could smell and even, vicariously, taste as it was poured. It would have been so easy to give in; I knew for a fact that my hosts, and certainly the other guest who I’d only just met, would certainly think no evil of me if I were to throw up my arms and say, ‘Oh sod it, I’ll have a glass with you.’ But I didn’t, I saw it through, and I travelled home feeling the most amazing sense of achievement.

Saturday came and, knowing this was Day 7, I was resolute in my determination to make it through the day dry. Even a bigger than expected attendance at mine for X-Factor, where I watched soberly but jealously as the boys got steadily drunker and drunker, didn’t break my resolve (although I nearly took a sip of vodka and tonic when I mistook it for my glass of water but smelled it in time before it hit my lips!) And after that, off we went to BCV, the boys all promising to not let me go to the bar lest I get tempted, and to not pressure me into staying should the temptation to drink get too strong and I want to leave. Which brings us full circle back to where I started – midnight, and the completion of my first 100% dry week since as long as I can remember.

Where I go from here, I don’t know. Week 1 felt so good that I’m going to try for week 2. I won’t be joining AA, or seeing my GP, or checking into rehab just yet. I’m going to take it one week, one day, one drink at a time, not forever, but until I can be sure that I’ve got it under control.

Watch, as ever, this space!

Thursday, 2 November 2006

Attack of the seven-foot phallus

I have had many embarrassing experiences in my life. Being shouted at by Mrs Bradley in front of the whole class to stop running down the school corridor, aged 5. Not realising I had tissue paper stuck to my face whilst attempting to cruise Ian Roberts in a Sydney cocktail bar. Having my mobile go off - 'The Dying Swan' - in a memorial service. But none of these could have prepared me for what happened on Tuesday.

I had been asked to stand in for the Chief Executive at a high-profile national conference, giving a speech to about 150 leaders-of-tomorrow, and went along suited, booted and nose hairs trimmed ready to knock ‘em dead. All had been prepared for me, the organisers said; my biography distributed, the microphones sound-checked, and my PowerPoint presentation loaded onto a laptop. I was impressed – in fact a little awe-struck – by the scale of the hall I was to speak in, the grandeur of the lectern, and the cinema-sized projection screen aforementioned presentation was to be shown on. It was a damn professional set-up, but like every good speaker, I thought I’d just do a quick check before starting, and was glad I did; they’d loaded the wrong presentation!

"No need to panic," said I – "I’ve got it on my memory stick," and pulled it from my bag and handed it over. The organiser plugged it into the laptop, clicked on it from the menu, and up on the laptop screen in front of her eyes came the contents of my memory stick. Not just the PowerPoint presentations, oh no – the photographic contents as well. The shot of my erect cock; the shot of my erect cock held up for comparison next to a beer can (500ml since you’re asking) ; the full frontals – one nude, one in football kit; a veritable pornucopia of images that I had, I confess, forgotten were even on there.

But it gets worse. Remember the enormous screen I mentioned? The one facing a hall slowly filling with delegates? The one the laptop screen is projected on to? Oh yes. The projector was on, and there, in seven-foot glory, was each and every image. I leapt for the ‘Escape’ button quicker than a Heather Mills leaps for a headline and as God is my judge I cleared that screen before too many people can have seen it…but some did, some must have…and I stood there and delivered that presentation – from memory - like a true Chief Executive-in-waiting knowing that somewhere in that darkened hall, there were delegates who a few minutes before had seen a hell of a lot more of me than just the upper part of my Richard James-clad torso that rose above the lectern.

I finished - in forty-five minutes flat - and after an impressive round of applause and questions from the floor (none of them “So, how many inches is that monster?”) I fled from that room and like Lot leaving Sodom didn’t once look back.

Two days later, and the Chief Executive hasn’t called to extend her thanks yet. I am deeply, deeply concerned…

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