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.


  1. You're a bit longer in tooth than I, though not much, with similar backgrounds of sorts as I'm a yank rather fond of working and playing on the "dark continent".

    I wish you all the best. I tend to manage for a while and get bored and it comes back, slowly at first, and then I'm back where I was. Never had DTs like people always say you will, though I've had friends who ended up in locked wards when they quit over the years.

    When I think about all the planning and time required to make sure I get my work done, keep driving privileges legally, and such, it's amazing how much of life has passed me by in spite of all my adventures. But there's the part in me where I remember times like when I couldn't decide if I could make a killing shot at range a bit south and east of your state and had a few drinks and drilled it in the ear and my Portuguese PH buddy said "You must always have a few before a shot like that, was magnificent..." The times when my weary bones from the days march or toil welcomed the numbness. I'm glad you've figured out how to let go. I guess I'm not there yet.

    I was reflecting on the whole thing a few weeks back when a person booked me for combat pistol instruction and I carefully kept track of my intake the evening before, making sure I'd have a 0 blood alcohol before going off to earn some money. Sometimes it feels sad from the inside as well as looks sad from the outside.

    All the best and good luck,

    Some fellow who corresponded with you once or twice about Angolan technical and security jobs.

  2. I feel that last posting ended on the wrong note.

    I've a friend long quit now and he was a 2 bottles of scotch a day every day man who had a day like you did and decided to quit.

    When asked how he did it he simply says "I stopped pouring it in my mouth", which is truthfully about as sophisticated as his quitting method was, and then looks for more pleasant topics of discourse. No meetings, no shrinks, no drama. Just decided and it was done. Going on over ten years now.


    That Anonymous fellow

  3. Update: Morning of Day six

    The first recognisable withdrawal symptom appeared last night, nightmares. Every time I dozed off, I had the wierdest dreams, none of them pleasant. Oddly enough, they all took place in Kenya. I have never been to Kenya before but am travelling there next week so maybe I was sub-conciously preoccupied with that. I have a six hour wait in Johannesburg for my connecting flight so I am a bit worried. Can I maintain my resolve to stay out of the bars?

    The nightmares were horrible in their clarity and this morning I feel as if I had been on a bender all last night; tired, aching and not quite with it. Still don't feel I need a scotch, though, so that is good.

    I have a chest infection and am coughing a lot so that cannot be helping the sleep problem.

    In spite of my fatigue, I seem to be mentally alert and able to make decisions far quicker than before even though, as I say, I don't feel 100% with it. Spooky.

    I shall just take each day as it comes.

  4. Tom. You look vile when you drink. And you stink like a pig. And you say dumb things. And you behave like a wanker. Don't start again. You're so much nicer sober. So very much nicer.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Pardon the deletion but it came across as a bit over the top on second reading..

    I toned down my speaking.

    Anonymous number two: beating up on people or causing themselves to beat up on themselves more than they already might be doing generally isn't helpful. He's made a choice and being supportive makes more sense than insulting him for past acts.

    Best of luck, Hippo

  7. As you can see, the comment did not delete. Leave it there, I thought it both funny and very, very sobering, just what I need right now!

    Anyway, update, morning Day 7

    After an uneasy start to day six, I gradually felt better and by mid-day was flying. I had a very good day and caught up on loads of outstanding issues. The difference in me is now very obvious to those around me and I feel so much better in myself. I am beginning to realise what a twat I must have been all these years and have difficulty looking some people in the eye. Sometimes I feel as a thief would on first encounter with an old friend he had swindled.

    I had an excellent night's sleep, the first one in years. I woke up once but that was because of the chest infection, nothing to do with bad dreams. I was woken early this morning with a call from the client and was able to deal with the issue swiftly and effectively.

    I have noticed that the lads are not drinking in front of me in the evenings. Usually, once they are off shift, they stitch into the beers and always have a few with their dinner. I feel bad about this but also flattered they all care that much (maybe they consider it a small price to pay to avoid getting the old Tom back..). I shall have to have a word with them and tell them that it really will not bother me. If anything, it is me that should retire to my room and let them get on with it. They must be drinking somewhere, though, cos the bin is still full in the morning!

    Busy day today. Good.

    Good old Mary has managed to get me a flight out of here on Monday that still gets me into Kenya in time on Tuesday so I can spend the weekend with the family. I shall pick Dominic up from school this evening and then do the whisky pouring deed as soon as I get home. Marcia still does not know I have given up. I did not want to tell her until I was sure I could do it. She will never believe it has been a week...

    As an aside, Anonymous Tom obviously knows me, both drunk and sober. Try as I might, I cannot figure out who he is. I guess there are a few people who know me who I can't recall, alcohol really fucks you up.

  8. Ah, maybe I am not yet as sharp as I think I am, I have just realised having read through all the comments again that Anonymous (you look vile...) and Tom (over the top comment) are two different people. Derrr...

    So Tom, go on, post the original comment. What could be worse than being called a vile stinking pig dumb wanker?

  9. Oh God. Maybe this IS a evidence of withdrawal symptoms...confusion (or just being plain dumb).

    Having read through it all AGAIN, I now realise that Tom in his deleted comment was probably having a go at Vile Anonymous.

    Tom, Vile A's comment, while a bit hard to take, is exactly the sort of stimulus I need. If you read my post, you will see how unhelpful I considered the two types of advice I had hitherto received: Type one, the 'think of your family/can't you see what you are doing to yourself' type advice, and Type two, the 'once an alcoholic, always and alcoholic' type advice. Vile A's remark, however, was straight from the hip and much appreciated.

    Sometimes people like me need a good kick in the teeth. Playing softly softly and trying to appeal to my better nature would be pissing into the wind.

  10. Good for you!

    I'm an English teacher in Austria and my students and my classes and I have been reading your blog for a while now as part of our 'Britons Abroad' project. I just wanted to let you know that there are at least 40 people in Austria who wish you and your family all the best.

  11. Gruess Dich, Henry und freunde, und vielen dank fuer Ihre nette unterstuetzung, es wird mir bestimmt helfen!

    Werden wir mal sehen, wenn alles klappt, dan komm ich euch besuchen!

    Oesterreich gefaelt mir sehr, besonders Ober-Salzburg.

    Schoen Gruess aus Angola!

  12. Ah now theres a story to warm your heart.....a pickled liver on the way to redemption....

    judging by the rate at which bottles of whisky passed through my house at christmas, ......
    good food and a smashing visual dispay of 800 rockets and other diverse exploding items...

    we might miss the old bugger but welcome the sober replacement.....

    Nice one keep it up....dont loose your touch

  13. You were sometimes scary when drunk (though I'm referring to a time quite a few years ago). Is that worse than being a wanker? I guess it depends on just how scary . . .

    Keep it up Tom.

  14. To be perfectly honest, I must have always been scary when I was drunk, not because every time I was drunk I would do something scary, but that when I was drunk, everyone was scared I would do something scary...

  15. Tom

    You are right, you were a twat but that made you a welcome rogue.

    Rest assured your battle to stay on the wagon will be worthwhile. I've been onboard for 12 years now and the ride is certainly more comfy than the drunken flashbacks - although they were fun too!

    Hang in there twat, I mean fella.

  16. Life does have an habit of sneaking up on us...

    I'm sure Marcia will like the whiskyless new Tom!

    Best of luck.

  17. Du bist immer bei uns willkommen! Wir sind in Graz, aber da Österreich sehr klein ist, ist alles (inkl. Obersalzburg) sehr nah. Wieso kannst du so gut Deutsch?

    I think you're quitting the right way. I know that smoking is not nearly as destructive to an individual as the drink, but after smoking for years, I had an epiphany while drawing on a cigarette. I said to myself, "this is filthy, it makes me stink, it's expensive and it's bad for me". I felt like smoking was simply a silly thing to do. Haven't even been tempted to light up since then - nearly six years on. Forget all the self-help psychobabble. Until you actually WANT to quit you simply won't - doesn't matter whether your vice is drink, cigarettes, gambling or Big Macs.

    See you in Graz sometime for a glass of alcohol-free beer.

  18. Advice that worked for me was eventually becoming unemployable except by long term friends, and even then they had reservations about it.

    Still never liked people kicking me in the teeth because it makes me kick back as often, if not more often, as change tack. Whatever works for you.

    Good Luck,

    The one who had a go at the other anonymous...glad you had a laugh and appreciated it, but I preferred not to have my name on it if it's all the same to you, and I did mean it, just didn't want my name attached for statute reasons.

  19. The first week down!

    Now I'll make it a fortnight.

    Picked up Dominic from school last night. To pick him up I must leave work at 1700hrs to get to his school by 1800 hrs. If we are lucky, we will then get home by 2000hrs. Normally, I have a bottle and a glass in the car to keep me company. Dominic never noticed its absence.

    Sure enough, when we got home, there was a bottle there. I asked Dominic to get the plastic device out of the neck (there is a little glass ball in there which he collects from my empties, he has quite a pile) and then pour me a scotch. So far nothing unusual for either Dominic or Marcia.

    I then poured first the glass down the sink and then the bottle. It never occurred to Marcia that I would not want the whisky. Her alarmed reaction was to ask if she had bought a bad bottle.

    Talk about jumping up and down for joy when I told them I was dry for a week now!

    This weekend will be a good test. I am at home and therefore not as busy as I was at work. It is also the place where I traditionally settled in with a decent sized drink and relaxed.

    I think yer two bottle a day man's technique will work for me. I have simply stopped pouring it in my mouth.

  20. Wanted you to know, for what it's worth, that you are one of the few men that I've ever respected.

    Whatever difficulties you are having at the moment I have faith in you and hope you can push through it.

    Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.



  21. Hallo Tom,

    ... ich bin so glücklich und freue mich für Dich und Deine Familie ... bleib stark, es lohnt sich ... wir glauben an Dich

    Deine sister-in-law

  22. I joined the party late! But Thomas, I think you are on your way to something big here! And I'm proud of you man!

    One thing I would like to suggest is this - try and build up your spiritual self (find God, man). This is a moment that it will make some sense to you actually, and it will yield good dividend if you try, particularly when you need to find that inner strength to get through another day. Good luck and God blessings to you and family.

  23. Tom

    As promised:

    Wanted you to know, for what it's worth that you are one of the few men that I've ever respected. Whatever difficulties you are having at the moment I have faith in you and hope you can push through it.

    Anything I can do for you ever - just call.

    Remember - schadenfreude is ugly and regressive.


  24. Tom - from Zurich. I'd like an update. How goes it? Fingers very much crossed.
    Best wishes
    PS Hi Kieran!

  25. Hippo,

    Just found your blog through I don't know where!

    Keep on keepin' on my man! One foot in front of the other as they say.

    I'll be checking in daily here from know on!

    Albert A Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
    The Rasch Reviews: Tactical
    Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
    Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator

  26. Hippo,

    It's a long road, but worth travelling. There is a dangerous voyeurism in friends admiring your excesses and cheerfully characterising all that as 'very Gowans', or 'Gowanseque'. No one want to reminisce with shaking heads about a guy who checks out early because of a lifestyle that they couldn't keep up with, or make sense of. You do have an easy charisma that often benefits from being on lower wattage, which I guess survives pretty well without alcohol.
    You are probably getting loads of anecdotal stuff and words of warning at the moment. Not much to add from here. I lost a distant friend to cirrhosis of the liver last year. Not seen him in years but had heard vague warnings. Soft drinks tend to be extremely tedious in large quantities, so probably are AA programes. I've never come across anywhere like Angola for telling your body and psyche to drink more. But none of it has anything to do with your essential character. I suspect it all dulls the brightness and gives you precious little enjoyment. New kid, new start. Go for it.


Please feel free to comment, good or bad. I will allow anything that isn't truly offensive to any other commentator. Me? You can slag me without mercy but try and be witty while you are about it.