Thursday 19 February 2009

Road to Cazenga

My Name is Thomas and I’m an alcoholic.

It’s hard for me to say at what point in my life I became one, the deceptively slippery slope from social drinking to alcohol abuse being so insiduously gradual. If the ‘beginning’ was one or two drinks every other evening, maybe a blast on the town once a month, and ‘now’ is the first large scotch at ten in the morning and a dead bottle by midnight, when exactly did I cross the line?

I tried to remember the last time I had not drunk whisky in any 24 hour period. I couldn’t. Not with any accuracy. I had to go back decades to a period when I knew that drink was the last thing on my mind, a period when I always seemed to have something to do aside from work; fishing, ski-ing, cycling, driving down to the Black Forest with some mates just to buy an ice-cream. It must have been a long time ago because my first wife called me a ‘functional alcoholic’, and she left me sixteen years ago.

My second marriage lasted about six years by which time I was nothing other than a very hardened and to be honest, embittered drinker.

Still, the work kept coming in and I got paid, promoted and get my bonus every year. I met Marcia and we have been together ever since. In addition to the adorable Dominic from my second marriage, I now have Alexander, a truly delightful little boy. I have a nice house, a good job and lots of business prospects. With a loving family and no real worries, what demon had possessed me and was now driving me inexorably down the path to self destruction?

I have reached the stage where I can polish off an entire bottle of whisky in a day. I always have at least three bottles on hand scattered in places I might end up and minimum consumption averages two-thirds of a bottle a day. I buy whisky like other people buy beer, by the case. For every-one’s safety, I gave up driving ages ago and for years have employed a driver. Add that to the cost of two cases of scotch a month and it becomes an expensive habit, certainly a lot more than Dominic’s school fees.

And how did all this affect my family? I don’t know, you’d have to ask them because that’s the thing about serious alcoholics, they wander about in that self delusional fuzzy mental state, confident that everything is OK. In the meantime life, both theirs and those of their growing families and ever wearier friends, slips them by. Normal people, looking in from the outside, would say, ‘God, what a selfish bastard’.

I am not saying I have only just recognised my problem. I have been very worried for years. I desperately wanted to give up alcohol, to kick that monster in the teeth, but no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t just lose the battle, I was routed. I couldn’t even manage a day. The worst thing was, having abstained for a body and soul torturing six or seven hours, my feeble will failed every time and I would collapse onto the bottle as a shipwrecked sailor would a flagon of water and over compensate, sucking a bottle dry not gradually over the course of a day, but in the remaining hours left to me before sliding into temporary oblivion. If I was lucky. If not, I would spend the night thrashing in the mire of self-revulsion, haunted by the demons come to mock me.

But, I would be up in the morning and ready for work so I couldn’t be that bad then, could I? I might have the slowly fading evidence of carpet pile pressed into my face and the itchy bumps where mosquitoes fed all night free of the risk of slapping hands but, all in all, I was always in pretty good shape and could do my job. A functional alcoholic. That rare breed of Real Man who works and drinks hard and can take it. I have had a tough life at times; an exciting, sometimes very dangerous life so it is hardly surprising I do some things to excess. Men like me are scarce. In times of war, they come looking for blokes like us.

Thus fooled, and fortified with a quick slug, I would start yet another day. My life cycle had reduced to about the same span as my memory was reliable. A day. People loved borrowing money from me.

We are all intelligent enough to understand the effects of sustained alcohol abuse on an individual, apart from making them generally very unpleasant to sit next to. But try pointing these out to an alcoholic. Unless you hit him at that awful maudlin stage (and if you were still around by then you are either a masochist or a Jehovah’s witness) he is more likely to chew your head off than listen to reason. I know I have a beautiful family and I know they would rather have me around than bury me and I know that one day my employer’s patience will run out and I will get the sack and we will all starve ‘cos I’ll never get another job, my wife will leave me, again, and my kids will grow to despise me so why don’t you just fuck off and let me drink my whisky in peace instead of reminding me, you postulating pustule?

Gits. What do they know? I bet I am doing better than they are. I bet they have a huge mortgage on their house. I don’t. Bet their car is on HP. And besides, my job is crap anyway, I’d do much better concentrating on my other business interests. I’ll be a millionaire by the time I am 40…45….50?

Then there are those, even more crass, who become unwitting allies to the ever increasing hopelessness of the afflicted who, having no apparent relief in sight, gradually accept their fate and give up. These are the self styled ministers of the hospice. They can be found beneath every turd. My miserable end is unavoidable. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. I will beat my children and murder my wife. And the postman, because as my son grows older, to my alcohol sodden brain, he will start to look like him. There follows a gruelling monologue, a detailed list of damned souls and the suffering that preceded their passing, their futile attempts at self salvation, of once sane men strapped to hospital beds being intravenously fed vitamins and Thiamin, their central nervous sytems suppressed to stop them going mad with fright at the little green men clawing at them, the inevitable tragic outcome. They point out that with the amount I consume and the period over which I have done so, I stand no chance and all the aforementioned evils, especially the withdrawal symptoms will, for me, be the severest imaginable.

‘Is that so? So, no point me even trying then. Aah! That hit the spot! Sorry, you were saying?’

OK, I understand that at my post-mortem, the mortician would marvel at how God managed to stuff a liver the size of a bouncy castle in my gut but that’s only fat. I’ll start exercising in the morning. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for the walk he keeps asking me for. I will even try to be good and not take my hip flask with me. Just a short walk then. A breath of fresh air might be all I need to give me the energy to cuddle up to Marcia tonight. God knows I haven’t done that for ages.

We have been very busy at work lately and I have not been home for a while. Instead of a romantic meal for two with Marcia, I was bouncing over Luanda’s roads on my way back from the new site to the Cazenga site. For some reason, I was really sad I wasn’t going to see marcia that day. Somehow, that day seemed important and it being Dia das Namoradas had nothing to do with it.

The boss was in the car with me reeling off a list of things categorised as ‘urgent’, ‘fucking urgent’ and, ‘we’re dead if it doesn’t happen, urgent’. I wasn’t listening. It had just dawned on me that I had not had a drink that day. We had started early and it was now sometime in the afternoon. The thing that really struck me was that this realisation had been sudden, not the gradually increasing ache and anxiety I normally felt when my blood/alcohol ratio fell dangerously close to the legal limit. The fact was, I had not noticed. I had gone hours without a drink and I hadn’t noticed. Gosh.

The boss had stopped talking and was gently snoring as we weaved our way between the rusty Toyota Hiaces and clapped out Corollas that make up ninety per-cent of Luanda’s traffic. I knew I had whisky in my room and with every yard we covered, I was getting closer to my first drink of the day. I looked at my watch, eight waking hours without a drink. And then it hit me. I pulled the sun visor down and took a good look at my reflection, maybe I had finally gone mad. Instead, I saw myself wearing a stupid, lopsided grin. I knew exactly what I had to do. What a Valentine’s present for the family. I sat back in the seat and willed the driver on.

As soon as the car stopped, we piled out. ‘Boss, I need to see you in my room, thirty seconds, that’s all I ask’. On the way I saw Manuel, and then Rodrigues. ‘Hey! You two! Come with us, it’s important’.

Bewildered, and not a little bemused they shuffled uncomfortably in the small bed space a twenty foot container allows. ’So what do we do now?’ the boss says, ‘start dancing?.

I reached under my desk and hauled the bottle of whisky out. ‘Ah, we’re celebrating!’

I cracked the top off, stepped over to the sink, and started pouring. The bottle had one of those plastic things in the neck, the kind of bottles bar owners stock to prevent over serving a client, and it seemed to take forever. The golden liquid splashed this way and that and gurgled down the pughole. The air was pungent with the aroma of scotch. Rodrigues, the man who every day for the last two years had faithfully gone to the bottle store to get me my ‘medicine’ murmured a breathless, ‘Wow!’

I dropped the empty into the waste basket. It hit with a loud thud, something final about the bang. I said, ‘That’s it’.

I had been unable to remember a single day without whisky. Tomorrow will be the start of my sixth day free of the bloody stuff and I feel fine. I am doing what they all say cannot be done, go from a bottle a day to zero in one hit. I was due to go on leave this weekend and was looking forward to spending some time with the family. Instead I must go to Kenya and then on to Dubai. Before I go though, I will nip home. It won’t take long but there is something very important I must do there as well. In front of the family.

The road I travelled didn’t go to Damascus, it went to Cazenga. But on the Road to Cazenga, the light doesn’t blind you, it shreds the veils of self delusion.