Well, I’m back! Whenever I go away, time seems to take on the strange property of speeding up and slowing down all at once, so that the past three days have felt both like three seconds and three weeks at the same time. As a holiday it went by far too quickly but it was also too long. Three years ago I fell in love with the city of Edinburgh, when I first visited it with my mother. Although I spent most of that weekend drinking to blackout, I somehow managed to appreciate my surroundings enough to decide that I wanted to come back one day. This weekend’s trip to the Scottish capital was planned for one major reason: to see if I could go back and enjoy Edinburgh without getting drunk. I think I achieved my goal. I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol during my time there, though I came very close to doing so at one point, and the holiday was perhaps tainted with the memories of my last visit there, such is the significance of Edinburgh in my drinking history.
I arrived with friends P and N on Sunday afternoon, and after checking into the hotel we went back out to have dinner. We found many of the restaurants to be packed to the rafters and so ended up with no choice but to eat in a busy pub, which was serving cheap but good food. I had no qualms about sitting in a pub that night: I’d spent time in pubs previously during sobriety, and felt that I could cope with it. We didn’t spend long there. After dinner we stepped outside to find a massive street party going on, a pre-hogmanay celebration. Crowds gathered around music stages while actors dressed as monsters and aliens walked amongst them; it was surreal and lots of fun. After only a few hours in Edinburgh I believed I’d made the right decision to come back, and my desire to drink was further away from me than ever. Like me, P and N are both quiet people but on Sunday we were chattering animatedly in the midst of the celebrations. All my worries drifted away.
On Monday, New Year’s Eve, we seemed to spend most of the day shopping, as there were masses of bargains waiting to be found in the post-Christmas sales and we knew that all the shops would be closed on New Year’s Day. I came away with a lovely new top and jacket for a meagre sum, which lifted my spirits even further. In the evening, however, my mood began to wane as we ran into trouble finding a place to eat again because all the restaurants were closing early. We were forced to eat in the same pub that we’d been in the night before, and this time it was twice as busy, and not nearly as fun. P and N were OK, as they’re not alcoholics and were able to drink like everyone else. I, on the other hand, began to feel very uncomfortable for some reason. I’d known that Edinburgh would be awash with alcohol on New Year’s Eve, but until I was actually there to see it I guess I couldn’t quite prepare myself for it.
I felt like the only sober person in the city on Monday night. After dinner the three of us moved onto a small pub on a backstreet which my friends had wanted to visit because of its reputation. For them it was an amusing visit; for me it was hellish. I felt stupid drinking pepsi whilst everyone else swigged wine and beer, my once favourite tipple. I was sure someone would look at me funny for not drinking, or worse, say something to me. After an hour or so we moved onto a bigger pub in town where the music was better and the people were nicer looking, but I still wasn’t right. The streets were lined with drinkers; young girls and their pissed boyfriends carried plastic bags full of alcohol along to their own celebrations. Old men poured gin down their throats on street corners. All the newsagents and off licenses proudly displayed drinks discounts specially designed for the hogmanay party. Perhaps I was hyper sensitive to all the signs of alcohol due to my illness, but that night all I could see was alcohol. By not drinking I felt like I was trying to hold my breath all night. It was horrendous. By 9pm, I was falling apart and I wanted to go home.
We’d planned to stay out all night, to see in the New Year on the dancefloor of Edinburgh’s only gay nightclub where we’d never been before. The prospect of the main street party didn’t appeal to us as it would have involved standing in the cold for hours. The nightclub seemed far more appealing, with the promise of great music and lots of sexy, available men. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on Monday night the appeal of that had all but vanished. I just knew that if I stayed out a moment longer, I was going to drink. I couldn’t hold my breath any more. My illness was telling me all the reasons why it would be good to drink. It said things like: “Who’s going to care? Who’s going to notice? Just have a drink, it will be fun! Everyone else is doing it!”
By some miracle I was able to get up and leave the pub that we were currently frequenting, and walked back to the hotel with a concerned P accompanying me. N had stayed at the pub on his own, unwilling to have his fun interrupted. On my way out I could tell he was upset with me. I’d done a slightly similar thing to him all the way back in the spring of last year, when we went to Berlin together. At the time I was supposed to be dating him, and one night in a nightclub I got very drunk and went off with a stranger, leaving N entirely on his own without explanation. Our relationship ended that night, though we agreed to remain friends. By the time we got to Edinburgh that dark bit of our past seemed all but behind us. N had forgiven me for Berlin and had come to terms with the fact that we would never be together as lovers.
Although I was completely sober on Monday night I couldn’t help feeling like I was doing the same thing to him again. The look on his face caused me to feel that way. He’d never say that he was upset – I apologised profusely and he said he was absolutely fine. But I knew he was not fine because I know him very well. I’d only seen him look like that once before, the morning of our reunion in Berlin, when I returned to our shared hotel room after my antics with the handsome German stranger. N may not be able to say that he is upset but he cannot hide it on his face.
Anyway, I had more than just my friendship with N to worry about on Monday night. My sobriety had suffered its greatest attack in five and a half months. As soon as I got back to the hotel and P had made sure I was OK, he could return to the pub, and I felt almost OK again, though very shaken. I turned the TV on and was relieved to find quite a good line-up of entertainment seeing the New Year in. Thanks to my program, I realised I needed to share with someone honestly about what had happened, so I called a couple of AA friends in London, who were thrilled that I had managed to do the right thing. I too began to feel thrilled. I had done something that I could never do before. I’d realised that I needed to get out of a situation and I had found the strength to remove myself from it as quickly as possible. Only the AA program could have given me that defence mechanism. My sobriety was still intact, and I was going to make it to six months sober after all.
Yesterday, New Year’s Day, something still didn’t feel quite right. When I met up with my friends in the morning, P remained visibly concerned for my welfare whilst N was noticeably distant. I accept a part in that distance, given that I was too scared to talk to him about what had happened the night before. I didn’t want to hear that he was actually upset with me – seeing it in his eyes was enough. For the rest of the day we wandered around in the freezing rain, cramming in as much sightseeing as was humanly possible. Lots of souvenirs were purchased; not much was said. The rain and the cold temperatures were as much a contributing factor to our discomfort as anything else.
In the afternoon I realised that I hadn’t been to an AA meeting for three days, and that I may not get to one for another three, so I called the AA helpline to ask if any meetings were going on in Edinburgh that day. This was a brave move for me, given that I’d never walked into a new meeting where I didn’t know anyone first before. My desire to sit in a meeting and share about my experience was stronger than my fear of new meetings yesterday. So, the three of us ate dinner in subdued quietness in the evening, my nerves increasing steadily almost to breaking point. By 8pm, the time of the meeting, I was shaking and terrified. I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t want to walk into a room full of strangers. The only thing that kept me walking was the knowledge that if I couldn’t do this one simple thing that scared me so much, I’d never do anything scary, and then I’d never progress in life. For years fear has held me back in virtually every area, not least my career. For 2008 to be a success I really need to push myself hard to face these fears, which are nothing but faulty reactions to new situations.
When I got inside I was welcomed as I have been welcomed at every AA meeting I’ve been to. I sat down in a corner, kept myself to myself and waited for the meeting to start. I would like to have spoken to people, to maybe make some friends, but in reality, that’s not what I was there for. I was there to test myself, to see if I could face my fear and share in front of a room full of strangers. The main chair was given by a woman in her late 40’s, who talked about all the things that you hear about in AA. I’d heard a lot of it before but still it seemed necessary and useful for me to hear it. Just the fact that I could identify so deeply with a 49 year old Scottish woman hundreds of miles from home said something important to me.
When she’d finished the meeting began in earnest and it turned out to be round robin sharing. My turn came quickly, and I simply said everything. I couldn’t hold anything back – it all needed to be said last night, otherwise I’d go mad. I talked about Monday night, my near panic attack and my unusual decision to go home at such an early hour. Afterwards when I came out of the meeting, I could really appreciate that something momentous had happened. Not only had I left a club at 9pm on New Year’s Eve to avoid drinking – I had gone to an AA meeting where I knew nobody the next night to share honestly about it. I needed that meeting because the impact of Monday night had sat with me all day. The only way to let it go would be to share.
So, my second holiday to Edinburgh ended as a mirror image of my first. Three years ago, I went there to drink and nothing else. This time, I went to sight-see, do a bit of shopping, and lay to rest a demon. That first visit to Edinburgh was one of my demons because I’m not sure my relationship with my mother ever recovered from it. She was there with me three years ago and it was the only time she saw the worst effects of my drinking. This time I proved several things to myself which would have been simply impossible three years ago. I proved that I could make it through New Year’s Eve without a drink; I proved that I could leave a dangerous situation at the right time; I proved that I could walk into a room full of strangers and express myself freely. I wish the holiday had been more fun, I wish I could have stayed out on New Year’s Eve and dance to all my favourite music, but I can’t regret what happened, because I learnt so much from it, and it’s in the past now.
I think what it’s really showed is that I was spending too much time in pubs generally. We started off far too early that evening, at 6pm. I should have been more careful, and at least a little more assertive in telling my friends that I couldn’t spend long in any ‘wet’ places. What I’ve also learnt is that there is a big, unaddressed alcohol problem in this society. I can’t believe some of the sights I saw on Monday night. To be fair, New Year’s Eve is always worse for drinking than other nights. But why does it have to be worse? Why does it have to be all about alcohol? I don’t really know the answers to those questions. All I know is that I’m much better off out of it now.