Alcoholism IV: Big Boats and Icebergs

Friends are important, and I’m lucky enough to have some very good ones – Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon and James.  They live in a very different world to me, partly because they have their own TV show, but also because their life just seems to run along different tracks to mine.

Thomas the Tank Engine

My mate Thomas, yesterday

Image: James Hall – CC BY 2.0

And my real name, of course, isn’t ‘Corax’.  My real name is Cody the Cargo Ship.

These days I freely ply my trade routes, mainly shipping light goods like marshmallows and buttercups.  But for a long time I was indentured to the company of Vladivar, Tyskie and Glen’s Plc.  Back in those days, they’d load me absolutely full to the brim with their bottles and cans, so much so that sometimes I’d be overloaded and some of it would just pour out of me again.  This happened less and less often as time went on though; I got more and more used being laden with so much booze.  The strain of carrying such a heavy load took no less of a toll though.

Constantly loaded up, a lot of me was invisible to the world, below the waterline.  I’d plough my way through the waves, with the largest part of me out of sight to everyone, struggling against the currents underneath.  People would see my cheery red funnel and smile, and I’d give them a friendly toot.  They thought they knew me, but they had no idea what I really looked like.

Having escaped the clutches of Vladivar and partners’ slavery though, I’ve slowly started to rise up out of the waters.  More and more of me emerges each day.  The truth of what I look like becomes ever more apparent, and my profile against the skyline is bigger now, a new presence in the visible world, above the murky depths.  Each day I’m increasingly sailing over the top of those enduring currents, instead of constantly having to fight against them.

But Vladivar, Tyskie and Glen’s are still always searching for me.  They’re tireless and unremitting in their efforts to bring me back under their control.  No matter what else I face on my voyages, no matter what obstacles I have to navigate, or stormy weather I must bear, I always need remain vigilant for their traps.  They’re sneaky buggers, and I know that if I let my guard down and think that they’ve given up, then that’s just when they’ll pounce.  And if I’m ensnared once more, there’s no guarantees that I’ll escape again.

You’ll be relieved to hear that my rather tortured analogy breaks down at this point, so I’ll have to break character.  So long, Cody!  Happy sailing!  Toot toot!

The same principle applies not just to individual alcoholics, but also to alcoholics as a set.  No doubt you’ll be overjoyed to learn that I have another analogy to take Cody’s place.  I refer to it as iceberg alcoholism.

Ask The Man in the Street© what an alcoholic looks like, behaves like.  I don’t mean the alcoholic Man in the Street©, nor the family or close friends of alcoholics.  Ask someone with no direct experience of alcoholics.  You’ll tend to get some fairly consistent responses.

Man in the Street

The Man in the Street, yesterday

Image: Chris – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There’s the comedy drunk.  Much beloved of film and TV, from Charlie Chaplin’s drunken antics through to more recent creations.

Video: BBC2 – Fair Use

Hilarious.  What you don’t see in that clip is the bit three hours later, when Rowley’s doubled over with abdominal pain and bleeding out of his arse.

Then there’s the park bench drunk.  During all my many years of alcoholism, whether actively drinking, despairingly relapsing, in rehab, recovery, or AA – I’ve rarely met anyone who has spent more than the odd night here and there sleeping in a hedge.  I’m not saying they don’t exist; they clearly do, and I’ve spent time chatting with several who were in this situation.  However, they amount to a very small proportion of the UK’s vast alcoholic population.  Yet they make up one of the principle archetypes of an alcoholic in the public’s minds.

Newcomers to AA meetings sometimes express surprise that many of the people they find themselves sharing a room with have jobs, careers, families, children, cars, clean driving licences and no police record.  They often say “I didn’t know what to expect”, but I suspect they really thought we’d all be wearing raggedy patchwork coats and have bits of last night’s kebab stuck in our unkempt beards.

NotAA

Not an AA Meeting, yesterday

Image: Paramount Pictures – Public Domain

When you step into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting of course, you’re actually entering a country more dry than Brunei.  I doubt that there are many places in the UK where you’ll find so many people gathered together with a collective blood-alcohol reading of zero.  And for many AA members their exterior appearance isn’t some new-found change that’s come with sobriety.  They presented no different a face to the outside world even when they were drinking.  They were clean-shaven and well dressed, and guarded their secret masterfully.

The other major mental model of an alcoholic that many people carry around with them, and in my view the most damaging one, is the angry drunken thug.

The one fighting in a pub car park, dishing out shockingly brutal violence on a downed opponent with no hesitation.

The one yelling at the kids, and sending them to school with unexplained bruises.

The one that beats their girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife.*

Video – Various – Fair Use

Of course these people exist.  Some of them are angry, violent people to start with.  Others can be the sweetest-natured souls until you put a drink in them, and then alcohol somehow flips a switch and they change beyond all recognition.

Those archetypes though, are just the visible part of the alcoholic population’s iceberg.  The far greater part lies beneath.

For a vast number of us, we’ve never harmed a soul, even when so paralytic we’re barely human at all.  We never caused any trouble to anyone.  We were never in a position to.  We knew our drinking wasn’t normal, and we hid it away.  We were never angry, just ashamed.  We drank on our own, in front of a screen, in the basement or the home office.  We picked the kids up from school, cooked them dinner, put them to bed and only then fished out the bottles we’d hidden behind the pots and pans.  We didn’t feel rage, we felt guilt, we felt fear, we felt alone.  You never saw us.  As far as the world was concerned, we didn’t exist.

Many therapists and substance misuse specialists will confidently state that every alcoholic has a problem with anger at the root of their illness.  Sure, okay.  But it’s not generally called anger given the mark we’ve selected.  Self-loathing.  Our anger is targeted exclusively at ourselves.  Our hate is directed only inwards.

That type of alcoholic, that sorry, scared, lonely individual, makes up by far the greatest proportion of alcoholics in my experience.  Many started off as the life and soul of the party, but over time they slowly retreated from the bright lights and laughter.  They stole away into the darkness, clutching at the only thing that felt solid any more, a bottle.  Those invisible drunks, the part of the iceberg hidden beneath the surface – far greater than the part you can see.

There’s no drama there, no arrests, no battered partners or abused children, no fights in the pub car park.  It doesn’t make the news.  It doesn’t make good telly or film.  But believe me it’s there – probably right on your street, right now.  It may be the woman who delivers your mail, or the bank teller, your vicar, or your son’s headmaster.  It might be the nice bloke who sit at the desk next to you at work.  You’ll never know – but believe me, it’s there.

Drunken, alcoholic violence captivates audiences.  But for a great number of us it’s never who we were, ever.  No matter how much vodka had gone down our throats.  And it’s horrifying to us, and painful, that the Man on the Street© assumes that we were.

*I’ll not make much comment on gender here, and I’m certain that women are substantially more the victims than men – but I also know without doubt that it’s not uncommon for men to be on the receiving end of violent domestic abuse, and I strongly suspect that this goes even more unreported than for women.  After all, men are supposed to be big and strong, able to ‘defend themselves’ – right?  Patriarchy damages everyone, of all genders and orientations.

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4 thoughts on “Alcoholism IV: Big Boats and Icebergs

  1. Wow! What a brilliant piece, Corax. You successfully were able to navigate (!) the waters (!) and cover the gamut of what REAL addiction looks like. That, by the way, is one of my life bucket list goals—to successfully show people how REAL and painful addiction is as opposed to the cardboard cutout media’s depiction.

    Nicely done!

    Danno

    Like

    • Thanks Danno – much appreciated!

      Would be nice if more people were reading it – eleven views today. Eleven.

      I’m putting an associated FB page together, but after that I’m fresh out of ideas… 😦

      Like

  2. As a partner of an alcoholic I can relate to all of this. I can recall the times I have heard a sharp intake of breath when someone new knows about his affliction: My family and friends reeling back when they learn of it, the pitying looks from the doctors, ambulance drivers and health professionals we take him to see to try and heal him of it. Their empathy is not because they are concerned for him but because they are also concerned for me. Each round of rehab, each cancelled family event they are checking for the bruises. Some of these know my partner well – he is the veggie one who wouldn’t hurt a fly but in their minds drink must turn him into a raging monster because that is what drunks are like right? I’ve reassured them till I am blue in the face, no matter. The dark truth is that drink turns him into a suicidal wreck. The only person he wants to hurt is himself. I stand by him not because of this but because of the wonderful man he is. Like I said it is an affliction and one that I would not wish on my worst enemy.

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    • Very well said gosilently. Here’s hoping and praying that your partner can find a lasting answer, a way to peace of mind and sobriety, and a full life lived once more.

      Like

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