Mike Golby – Tells It Like It Is
The Interview, Part Four
This is an “interview” in the loosest sense of the word. I asked Mike Golby to share his insights in five areas. He has done so and the album cover art below provides links to the separate pieces of this interview…
Only rarely do I encounter a person who really speaks my language, a person whose clarity and depth of experience make me stand in awe of his or her abilities. Survival is at the foundation, but it’s a random chance. The world could have lost Mike Golby and never known his brilliant wit nor shared his wisdom. Creativity is built on that foundation and that’s another random chance. Creativity is a gift and Golby has been given it. How he has shaped his creativity, how he shares it with the world is a choice. I am proud that he consented to share these profound insights through the vehicle of this Web Log. Thank you Mike.
Addiction. Here in the United States there are so many self help programs based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that the currency seems debased. Besides AA and Narcotics Anonymous, we have Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, and Codependents Anonymous (as distinct I think from Al-Anon). I have my own story about addiction and codependence and serious substance abuse and spoiled relationships, so I know this is not a pretty area. But you have been through some difficult times recently and you and your family have emerged to a brighter time, and I wonder if you would like to touch wood and share some of your experience, strength and hope about the matter of alcoholism and addiction.
The Worm is the Apple and the Serpent is the Worm
Let me into your worm world
The place of dark imaginings
Where we touch ourselves
And hold the finger of God.
… the insanity of alcoholism is a particularly horrific affliction, usually leading to death [much like life]. I can’t begin to do the disease or the never ending but amazingly rewarding process of recovery any justice here. But, what the hell, let me reminisce some, tossing in some drink-driven drivel I wrote as a practising substance abuser.
Alcohol as an agent for exacerbating an already bad situation, and alcoholism as a disease leading to an insular, self-centered view of the world, fascinates me. Fifteen years ago, I would not have considered blogging. Now, safe in the anonymity of the face I use to meet the faces I meet, i.e. my humanity, I can write freely, knowing that, while the fact that nobody understood me as a kid caused me much pain, today I thank God none of us will never understand ourselves or each other.
Secondly, I think you’re right; the currency is debased, globally and in AA itself. However, I think that has more to do with the people practising the program than the 12 Steps themselves. It’s not just the spread of the 12-Step program to other areas of life – it’s the spread of a diluted program*. Within AA locally, we see the development of smoking and non-smoking groups, women’s groups, gay groups [“Cock Tails”], old-timer’s groups, etc. In my day, the only requirement for membership and access to any group was “a desire to stop drinking”.
I’m speaking from the experience of a couple of meetings in the past few years and an aborted attempt to ‘fit in’ with a local Alanon group. Also, I’m basing my criticism on my wife’s experience of several meetings with my experience of the countless meetings I attended from about 1984 to 1988. My jaundiced view is also enhanced by my recollections of a bunch of people who saved my life. That period of my life certainly colors my views of today.
Mind you, in my day, all alcoholics were male, heterosexual, over 40, and smoked like chimneys. I was a kid, a fast-tracker. Also, at open meetings, when the Lord’s Prayer was said [about the only overtly religious aspect of an AA meeting], very few people would continue after “…and deliver us from evil.” There seemed to be an inordinately disproportionate number of Catholics at those meetings.
From your phrasing, Frank, I’m assuming you mean the program’s been trivialized, commercialized, or disingenuously repackaged to suit our fast-food lifestyles – detracting from its intrinsic value. AA’s 12-step program is one of recovery, more specifically, spiritual recovery and the book, ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, makes no bones about it nor brooks any ‘watering down’ [heh]. The physical, mental and emotional recovery kinda come with the package which, it usually turns out, is the person working the program. It’s a lifelong trip and, although I no longer attend AA meetings, I’m quite comfortable popping into one and calling myself a member.
I’m not shy of saying I think alcoholism tends to generate more misery for more people than does obesity [especially in an obese society] or ‘love’ or sex or spending too many hours at the office. I guess the life-threatening nature of the rock bottom informs my view. That said, I’m also not shy of saying I believe there are countless ways, other than by attending AA, to come to terms with one’s alcoholism. I can only speak of what worked for me.
My experience was that, once I’d taken to the program, only a conscious and determined counter to it would displace what I regard as a simple yet incredibly effective way of keeping my head in the virtual vicinity of my shoulders. My old man was an alcoholic who sobered up in AA when I was about three. He died close on two years ago, not having had a drink for close n 40 years. But we are picking nits and hair-splitting here – perhaps I should cut to the chase and share some thoughts of yesteryear from hazy recollection and ancient scribblings [mostly in pencil, for some strange reason].
We sometimes share and that’s about as close as we can get to being together – otherwise we are all alone, set apart from each other as surely as fence posts set in concrete. Our touching, sharing, communicating, provide the strands of wire that go towards completing the fences of our lives – fences separating what from what I don’t know. Even the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall don’t have to be faced. As soon as we’re born we set out on our separate paths and the road that brought me here can only be different to yours and the future will take me to go banging off in a totally different direction.
I still hold to that, but positively so. We’re networked, wired, connected, all of us. But some of us are like wandering axons, essential pieces of the global nervous system seeking to get a picture of the whole, dissatisfied with a role as a link in a chain of universal command and control. There are huge benefits to having people like us. We form random bridges connecting different worlds at different times. It makes a lot of sense to me that I identify with that drifting astronaut in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. I want the big picture and I want to know and experience it all.
Why, especially when I’m a conservative person of sedentary habits? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because I believe we all have it within us be anything we choose to be.
I was an incredibly sensitive kid. Dark too. I’ve worked hard at dulling the sensitivity and, to a degree and with the help of socially acceptable drug, have managed to become something of a selfish boor. As a kid, though, I had no way of knowing that anybody was any different. School, a Catholic upbringing that stressed children being seen and not heard, and my parents’ reticence at showing physical emotion taught me they were. In my second year of school [I was seven], I contracted a virus manifesting a sore throat and fever. It lasted six months. As the old man was a doctor, I had the best of pediatricians and was confined to bed. I was put on penicillin [why, I don’t know, but ruling out rheumatic fever had something to do with it].
My confinement was great because I discovered books. I soon ploughed through the stuff the library stocked for kids and the local librarian used to stop by on a regular basis to pick up or offload books she selected from the adult library. I read novels feverishly until my early twenties. In high school, we were supposed to read a certain number of books each year; five or something. One year, I tossed onto my teacher’s desk a list of 365 titles ‘culled to impress’ from the batch I’d read that year. I did no schoolwork, but I read like a demon – two or three a day.
I remember having read one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories in primary school. My father had given it to me. I gave it back to him in the evening. So, he questioned me on it. I answered his questions. He seemed quite chuffed and somewhat amused by what I later came to realize was a penchant for something most people didn’t do, i.e. read.
Interestingly, it was during my high-school years that I read every book I could on Israel, identifying strongly with the one-sided view put across by the likes of Uris, Wouk, Malamud, and Singer. A nose for the news and South Africa’s situation taught me shortly afterwards that there was a flipside. Nonetheless, I’ve always harbored a fondness for that crazy little state and that’s why, today, it pains me to see it destroying itself and the Palestinian people.
Back to the books. I don’t know when he wrote it, but my parents locked up Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather’ in their sideboard for fear I’d get my hands on it. Being good Catholics, they could read it but I could not. They went out one evening. I picked the lock and was busy finishing the book by the time they came home. “Have you read the wedding scene?” my mother asked, trying to get the book from me. “Mom, I’m just about finished. It’s a good book.” That seemed to satisfy them. I’ve yet to see what they saw in Henry Miller though. His books and several others shared the cabinet with Mario Puzo but I enjoyed ‘The Godfather’ more than I did ‘Tropic of Capricorn’. Chrissakes, I was in my teens. I was no longer a kid and I was open to anything and everything.
My mother was a commercial artist and I’d spend time in her studio, drawing. I was a natural at about seven or eight and, to this day, my mother bemoans my having gone to school at all. There was something in me that sought conformity and this was most apparent in my art. Years later, in my twenties and when drunk, I’d wake up to stunning murals that appeared on walls only Wendy and I had had access to during the previous evening’s drinking. Wendy wasn’t into biblical imagery, ravens, crucifixions, winged beasts and daemonic creatures drawn surely and with a clarity that knocked my socks off. I’d think, “Shit, I still haven’t lost it” and scrub the walls down before the landlord, a neighbor, or the bottle store called. I should’ve taken some photographs of those murals. They were good.
Six years into school, I was writing books rather than essays. Some things never change. It made my teachers most happy and I excelled academically. When I got it wrong, though, either through me fucking up or a lack of insight on their part, their criticism hurt.
I had in me a deep-seated idea that I was somehow different to others and it didn’t sit too easily. Although shy, I was gregarious. Although introspective, I was always loudly in the thick of things. Although painfully self-aware, I didn’t give a shit. This sense of heightened inner tension came to a head in my first year of high school. I wrote the tests and got the answers right. I should have been happy with this state of affairs but one incident rocked me. We had written a science exam and I’d top-scored. The teacher made something of it and I was asked to stand while the class applauded me. It was non-threatening, popular applause. It scared me shitless.
During the second half of the year, I awoke one morning to a horrible knowledge. The world was out there. Whereas the night before I had been in the world, a part of whatever was going on, on waking, everything was on its head. I think it was an abrupt introduction to reality. My reaction was to drop social convention to the greatest degree possible without disrupting others’ lives too much. Call it alienation, depression, whatever. I was 12.
The lifestyle deemed acceptable by the society in which I lived was anathema to me. It was a world of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’, a series of tests, an unending string of possible failures. It was a behemoth over which I had no control. It was a giant microscope under which every action performed by me under its terms, conditions and rules was subject to the closest scrutiny. Right down to the way I looked, spoke, dressed, drank tea or wrote my name. It terrified me. So I avoided it.
I avoided examinations by not studying for them. I avoided study by keeping no notebooks. I avoided school altogether by adopting “Fuck you” as a silent, credo. The importance of the piece of paper I’d spent twelve years of my life at school for was not at issue. I knew as well as my parents, my school teachers and the university authorities just what that piece of paper meant. But its acquisition required obeisance to a system of living capable of destroying me. I could not, or would not, accept adhering to a code of conduct designed, as far as I could see, to reduce me to a nebulous reflection of a world devoid of meaning, one in which I saw only shadows instead of substance, specters instead of things.
I took to Camus and Sartre like a duck to water shortly after I left school five years later and Kafka was my standard fare. Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’ became my personal creed [I don’t recall the piece’s content now but it meant a lot to me then]. Not understanding what these guys were getting at [I reread them later], I got sucked into an existential mess of individual angst.
None of us can ever understand each other. We are all fucked, doomed to die. Firing squads and bodies on the beach. It’s all so fucking senseless it just can’t be true. I’m fucking tired – fucking scared – and I feel like crying my heart out.
I was ostensibly a normal kid with an attitude. But since that day when I awoke to a different reality, i.e. the world being ‘out there’, I was painfully uncomfortable. I was aware of everything and that included a sense of being out of synch with the world and other people. Inwardly I knew I was a fuck up and potentially dangerous. My dual nature led me easily to socializing but, in social situations, I became decidedly uncomfortable. I found other people to be superficial and fake, playing a game for which I hadn’t been given a set of rules. Because of this, I discovered the benefits of booze early on. I’d always been fond of the stuff at the dinner table but one evening, after wandering off with the boys to Sea Point on the Atlantic coast to watch a surfing movie, ‘Pacific Vibrations’ or something like that, we came out into a hall that had just seen the end of a political party’s convention.
There was booze all over the place. Alcohol was no problem to me. It was to become my solution to most things; it loosened me up. A couple of hours later, I caught a lift home with parents of a friend. Traveling in a miniscule Mini Cooper is not a good thing for a teenager who’s poured enough ‘hooligan soup’ down his throat to start a riot. I felt queasy. Somewhere around central Cape Town, I projectile vomited onto the head of my friend’s mother. Bad move. I found myself crawling on the highway, spewing sweet red wine all over the place. I’ll say this for the Browns. They put me back into the car and bravely continued the journey. I vomited again, really making a mess of Mrs. Brown’s head. She swapped places with my friend. The third time, I figured the floor was the best place to offload the alcoholic excess.
I was also a polite kid. I slept about four hours before waking up, getting dressed, and telephoning the Browns to apologize and volunteer to clean out their car. They were grateful for the apology but declined my offer of a visit. The thing is, I wasn’t phased by this incident. I was sure I’d screwed up and would manage better next time around. Whenever possible, I’d practice and usually ended up puking out of the windows of moving vehicles. Shortly after turning 17, my old man had a word with me. “If you ever need help, get along to AA.”
Once again words, empty words. My self is concentrated, squashed within, and perhaps it’s better for those everyday walking-in-the-street cigarette and ashtray people. For an anarchist lurks, a brooding monster is caged, my faces swim uncontrollably in front of me. I am to others what I want them to see. And yet, still I long to be free. I like the edge, but fear it. God made me and I made him. No me, no God; for me. I watch people and I don’t know what I see. I’m disgusted with life; the last Roman on his purple couch. But, still I love, along with the coldness. There are two me’s and the one’s going to come out on top. God and His Child, and I will attain a lasting happiness and everything will just be. “The river is at its source and at its mouth.” At the moment I’m at my mouth and there’s a cigarette stuck in it.
He and I had already entered the phase in our relationship where the unconditional love of a child becomes the unconditional hatred of an adolescent. Yet, I admired my parents. My father was a great teacher, had interesting friends, despised his dead-end career as a pathologist, was studying philosophy, and wrote prolifically. He and my mother had chucked the Church when I was about fifteen. They were into yoga, meditation, and every other kind of eastern crap washing up on our shores, having been tossed into the Atlantic by Americans unable to ‘commodify’ such things for mass consumption. I was proud of them but hated them because, naturally, they did not “understand” me.
But, years later, my father’s advice to look to AA stood me in good stead. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my friends and I discovered dope and alcohol took a back seat for three years while we smoked dagga through every conceivable device known to man. I found the brandy bong the most effective way to induce a form of psychosis whereby I’d lose all spatial orientation and sense of reality. I recall, while walking down a street with my friends, being unable to bear the weight of my greatcoat [forerunner of the trench coat] and, as the thing became heavier, I slowed. Eventually, my buddies had to return to collect me. When they understood that my overcoat was crushing me to death, they took the thing off me and we continued on our way.
At the time, I was fast losing interest in a life most people considered normal.
We are alone, pushed around by fate and other people. We live in flats, houses, shacks or blocks of cities, see the vagrants in the long grass outside sunk into oblivion with discarded bottles of empty time scattered around them, or they stand their lives away on Main Road, sleeping nowhere, in doorways, unlit subways that give them a roof over which the intermittent train rumbles telling them that somebody is going somewhere for a while. And when they die, these vagrants, the state burns their bodies and somebody else takes up their post in the long grass or on Main Road and so, whether physically here or there, the soul of the vagrant lives on and the people that occupy those positions are the skin and bone and methylated brains wrapped around the soul of God’s Only Vagrant who is forever there.
The short story is that I copped out of life altogether. I remember reading, as a kid sometime in the late sixties, of people who were “allergic” to life. Life’s vagrants, unplugged. I understood them. If only those unfortunates knew what I did. Drugs made it bearable. I lived many lives between 18 and 21. Doing my stint in the navy, I was working on plans to make a wife of the love of my life. I was usually straight when I went to her place but loused up a couple of times and, now that I’ve seen some of the young crack heads coming to visit my daughter, I can imagine what her parents must have thought. Yet, they liked me. Perhaps that was a part of the problem. I got away with it time after time.
By the time I was 21, I had left the military, had made a feeble attempt at studying for a degree by correspondence [I’d set up quarters below the University of Cape Town so that friends attending that august institution could pop down anytime they liked to drink and smoke dope and I had developed a taste for reading around subjects rather than studying the subjects themselves] and was busy sabotaging a promising three-year course in speech and drama.
I’d met and fallen in love with Wendy and, within a couple of months, we were living in a rent-controlled commune with friends overlooking the sea. Pressured for a technical writing assignment about four years ago, I sent the following e-mail to my writing manager:
When you’re young and run out of money for drugs and drink, you’ll resort to anything. I did. The motley crew littering the floor of our Three Anchor Bay flat (rent-controlled, R46,00 a month) were in no condition to face the ugly reality of the outside world. They were fit only to greet the day with the greedy sucking of a smoking bottleneck, the gurgling of a bottle of sparks and the resumption of a game of cards.
I went to Old Mutual to become a computer programmer. My friends were counting on me. One silly woman, the only other person in the place capable of work (Wendy was studying, sort of …) had left a month’s pay on top of a Main Road public payphone. She later married a Norwegian who couldn’t speak English, became a Christian fundamentalist and now watches the fiords freezing over from her home in Trondheim. Serves her right.
We were left with only fond memories of chip rolls, occasionally supplemented with a slab of hake from the Fish ‘n Chips shop on the main drag. Things were desperate. We had many blotters of Chinese dragons in the fridge but, for food, were reduced to picking shellfish off the rocks and boiling them in a huge pot on top of which floated a scum that would’ve inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth II.
At Old Mutual they gave me an aptitude test. It’s the only one I’ve ever failed. Apparently my motivation and latent ability to operate machines that depended on holes being punched into cards was not that high.
It was a dark day for the little community on the side of Signal Hill. We lay on top of the garage roof, made a couple of pipes, and watched the hang gliders circle like vultures above us. But things always work out for the best and I decided that my future lay in becoming a clerk [grade 3] with the South African Airways. But that’s another story. A sad and tragic one, too. SAA have not yet recovered.
But time heals most things and within ten years they were pushing out APIs that even I could handle with ease and, dare I say it, dexterity. DB2 is no different. It’s just taken a while to get the hang of it but I have no reason to believe that the rest of the week will be anything but productive.
The nub of the matter is that it’ll probably take me most of this week to get this unit out. Forewarned is forearmed.
Also, I no longer feel a yen for Chinese dragons. Strange how things work out …
That place was chaos. And remember, we were kids with social consciences. We made a mockery of the university-centered left and carried the battle to the Nats. After bruising political meetings [literally in one instance] we’d retire to a hotel on the beachfront, rock to live music, smash and grind glass bottles into the floor, and have a good time until somebody, usually Wendy, went psychotic. She was a runner. Literally. She had some terrible memories from her past and they’d come back to haunt her after enough booze. So she’d run. One night, after she’d disappeared into a fog-laden night, my urging the police to get of their fucking asses and do something landed me in the slammer. Boy, was I hacked off the next day when I returned to our flat to find her waking from a deep sleep to ask, “Where’ve you been?”
Alcohol was not an issue for me in those days. I could handle it. But the dope was getting to me. I was becoming paranoid. And forgetful.
Wendy’s parents would pop into Cape Town from Malawi for an occasional visit. On one such occasion, her father wandered into the lounge. We didn’t have much but we did have a plastic laundry bag full of dope on the main table. My friend Max had a habit of stealing his mother’s car, driving seven hundred miles up to the Transkei, buying sacks full of dope and bringing them down in the trunk. He’d sell most to the local merchants and keep a substantial amount for us.
On one trip, he collided with another motorist and rolled the car with two sacks of dope in the back. The other guy was all for calling it quits but Max had the police travel miles into the hills to record the accident. “It wasn’t my fault,” he explained. “I had to have the details for my mother.” “Yeah, Max, but what about the sacks in the back?” “Well, they didn’t look there.”
Max’s elder brother studied medicine and diagnosed Max a psychopath. Given Max’s later behavior, I concur. Anyway, Wendy’s father didn’t expect to find a laundry bag full of dope in the middle of the sitting room so he didn’t see it. We were drinking and drugging to such excess that, after about six months, Wendy and I decided to call it quits. She was admitted to Groote Schuur’s psychiatric unit for a three-month in-patient program and I attended a three-month out-patient program. We cut the drugs. They were doing us no good and I resolved not to return to the house on the hill.
However, when Tony died of an overdose of Welcanol [a pain reliever for terminal cancer patients], the little community collapsed and it was found that the lease was in my name. I returned to clean things up. This was the post-punk, new wave era and the place looked like it. I cried going through Tony’s stuff. He worked at pharmacies to get his drugs and among the syringes and needles and packets of God-knows-what, I found a letter to him from his younger sister. It was a letter written by a sister who had no clue as to what her older brother was up to, but she loved him dearly and was inordinately proud of him. Mark had told me of how he’d seen Tony through his last hours and it was too much for me. No more drugs.
I cleaned up my act in those three months, and found a tough job as a production manager at a cool drink manufacturing plant. The next year, the day after my twenty-third birthday, Wendy and I married.
It was then that I really started drinking.
Okay, you see where this is going. I haven’t given a talk at an AA meeting in fifteen years. You get twenty minutes to share your experience, strength, and hope with others that have been through exactly the same shit. I used to be able to do that, but speaking is somehow different. Writing takes too long to even begin to address the insanity of alcoholism. So let’s skip the details. Anyway, I’ve blogged many of them.
By 25, I was a prisoner to fear. We moved often but, at one stage, rented the ground floor of a house in Fish Hoek, a coastal town and the only suburb in Cape Town that did not allow the sale of alcohol. I had a glass of wine in one hand at all times. Our only regular visitor was the delivery guy who delivered wine to the door from neighboring Kalk Bay. His van would criss-cross the ‘dry’ suburb, dropping off consignments of liquid solace. Although I was isolated, trapped in a hell from which I saw no escape, struggling to keep a job so that my wife and son had food, I had reason to believe there were others like me caught in the four-walled confines of their irrational fears.
I know, almost imperceptibly, I’m going mad. The thought frightens me. I am becoming ‘un-attached’, the world is floating away from me and all I have left in my head for company are empty neuroses sticking sterile pins into the rawness of my psyche. Drink offers solace but its rewards are destructive.
I would not open the door. At every ring, I would move to the bedroom and Wendy would open the door. The telephone terrified me. I would not answer it. When the call was for me, I’d take it only if absolutely necessary, replace the receiver, my hand cramped from holding it in an uncontrollable, vice-like grip. When I was sober, Wendy would have to take me for walks, leading me along the quiet avenues like a dog, reassuring me there was little chance of bumping into anybody we knew, crossing the street in choked-breath, sweat-soaked anxiety whenever a stranger approached. Eventually I could no longer enter a shop for fear the assistant might speak to me. When I had to, I would, in panic-stricken, wax-faced horror, emit strangled instructions and grab my goods, fearing the moment I would be crucified on the cross of my terror, struck dumb and down.
I’m in a low stage of death. I’m away and, in a sense, free but as yet I’m not sure I can accept it. I can’t take the plunge. I cling desperately to sanity, hating it but knowing a tenuous security. I have not been a part of the world for as long as I can remember, but in its own very brutal way, it has forced itself upon me. My development of defense mechanisms has been misdirected for as long as that long ago day I realised my alienation. My mind has done everything in its power to reinforce that alienation and it now no longer needs to carry on its sordid work.
There appeared, in those days, to be no way out. The passion and sensitivity that had brought me love was, with alcohol, threatening to take my life. My job was going to hell. My outgoing, laid-back, and friendly personality combined with some smart ideas had landed me in marketing. [This remains, for me, one of the great mysteries of my default persona. Twenty years on, people still take me as casual, relaxed, comfortable, a great guy to listen to and a guy who will always listen. It’s a crock. I take every kind of medication under the sun just to stay sane. I’m so wired with ideas most of the time, I feel as though my head should explode or my heart give in. Weird. And still, I always end up in Marketing.] Anyway, marketing meant people and that’s not a good idea for a drunk. I was coming home at lunchtime to have a bottle of wine to steady my nerves. Couldn’t these fuckers see I was out of my tree?
I’m alone and don’t want to have anything to do. With anything. The only thing I’m certain of that in moments of lucidity I reject my loneliness for the sordid, self-pitying idiocy it certainly or most probably certainly is. I hate my insecurity, hate with a raging blindness that sees everything my state of transference. I’m a furious traveller, going nowhere at a desperate speed, not quite here, not all there. Objectively, I watch the image I present to the world, talking, thinking, expostulating, protesting, doing all in its power to resolve my detachment from my psyche. It has an unenviable job, but it certainly has its moments of happiness, usually when it leaves the solution of those periods of unhappiness to some abstraction. But we cannot cling to abstractions forever. Our gods are as vulnerable as we, destined to return to ashes tasting foul on the tongue.
In desperation, I looked around for another job and landed one in the field I should have stuck with, publishing. It was a good day for me and the appointment was early. I was a kid without qualifications and they could pay me poorly. I didn’t see it as such back then, but I have learnt a great deal over the past twenty years. I was shunted straight from the company secretary to the CEO, chatted to him for about an hour and started working there the following month, to the regret of the company I left.
Like the navy, publishing is no place for someone with a predilection for abusing the fruits of Bacchus. For some reason, perhaps the fervor one puts into a new job and a potential career, I successfully juggled full-blown alcoholism and my job. Besides, in those days [we’re talking electric typewriters, the first word processors, and eventually XTs], publishing was still locked in the old British tradition of “going out to lunch with the printers”. We were the largest legal and educational publishing house in the country and printers sought our business in the time-honored tradition of catering to our basest needs. Lunch would start at twelve and end around the same time in the evening.
I was a natural. Twelve hours of drinking, four hours of sleep, and then pasting a smile to the dial before settling down to the manual payment of authors’ royalties, attending to their complaints and requests for more money, departmental accounts, proofing, subbing, reading, taking manuscripts through repro, buying print, putting together marketing campaigns and materials, learning the intricacies of the printer’s art, etc. were great. There was always a free lunch attached.
The Angel of Death Flies a White Aeroplane
People clap soundlessly – they dance.
When the drummer is no longer there,
They walk down empty streets,
Eat lifeless dinners,
Beside cold fires.
The mushroom grows.
I’m afraid I laughed when I read that. Did I know something? Things were deteriorating fast. I’d dropped desperation as a bad deal. I was looking for oblivion, my private ‘delicious, creeping numbness’. I had taken to waking up in the morning and, driven by fear and the awareness that I hadn’t a clue about the day before, I’d go to the garage to check if the car was there. It usually was. I’d then think about getting up. The medicine cabinet bore testimony to my condition. I’m still not used to having a bathroom free of bottles of eye drops, Rennies, and Alka Seltzer [or their South African equivalents].
I was aware of the pain I was causing others. I was aware of every goddamn thing. I was careening through the world like a person stripped of his skin, trailing my neurons behind me. Everything hurt, everything mortified me. I was looking for unconsciousness or death, whichever came first. The greatest pain was the fact that I loved my wife more than I was capable of loving myself. Psychologists will tell you it’s not possible but, believe me, with alcoholism, anything is.
I just don’t feel a part of me anymore. All the memories, the pretty memories I lived through have gone. Thoughts of suicide have become more frequent. God knows what Wendy’s done to deserve this. Inside my head, I’ve become twisted and there’s no way I can tell anybody. This weekend has been depressing. I am dead inside somewhere and I just want it all to end so that I can be happy again without disturbing anybody else. I love my Wendy. I just wish there was some way we could be together. We’re both fucked and I can’t see anybody being able to pull us right. Something has gone wrong with me – desperately wrong. It’s so fucking sad, I never wanted it to be this way.
Having her own demons to deal with, Wendy had to contend with me as well. I was in the habit of going psychotic after too much alcohol and, by then, I’d drink anything. I knew I was in for shit because I was banned from all the bars in my neighborhood. My mind had gone. I was writing meaningless crap. Don’t bother to read the following if you want to fast forward, it’s drivel. But it does give a pretty fair idea of where I was at. And I can’t afford to forget it.
Rats in the head, rot in the ball, treacle in the hall. “Hallo you slapdash mingy mutt Dutch runt cunt – slenting slunting down you grot.” “Grok you,” say I to strains of Bacchanalian tremulosity. Familiar faces in the movie house. flickering “Hallo” to horrid distortion: stretched, elastic, fibrous faces – stretch, prick, break. “Hallo, rot your slot, rope your slope. Who the fuck are you anyway?” “HALLO GREENSPLEEN!” Madmen in the streets, Saturday morning shopper hopped high on spleen beans, looking muted “hallos” at split side shards of shops – stagger-woozy in the smoke – spunk drunk in nine ‘o clock gunk. Hey, where’s I at? Sailing the Strand Street blat – I want to meet the nine ‘o clock papers in my mindy suit – clothed in coolth – filthy feelth – schoolboys in schoolgirls… Who’s the stronger? Cape Town rots under the mountain, the people stink. Taiwanese trawlers sink in the gormless harbour. Quiet oily flat shit plêk [place]. I seek the hole to the other side – gross grits in footloose tits – repetition’s the panacea to all. We accept war death blotch – all that is mindless shitless gretch. Slob throb on the hob you hurt worm grot – you slicky slothy froth lob I feel you in your grut grooth. But the atomic threat is a painted dread around an insular island – matchstick men in asbestos suits, luminous balls of fire, thundering guitars, flop the lot on our side. “Why the hell you smell grunt fucks? Where are you, eyes to heaven raised? Where you come from mothers?” All around me you slither sloth – you snail-shit – I hate your flipping flopping globs, folds and rolls – your roly poly ridiculously holy polony… Back to the censor. Oh, my God Mr Man in a black hat – hide rock don’t shock – hock your block. Cape Town stinks of snoek in every hoek [corner] – don’t look – sorry sorry sorry it’s so easy to hide behind the blind, the King and the Queen in the poke. Do I flipsy flopsy my mindsy windsy? Dive bombers on dark nights – babies cry – the radio speaks – life continues and my mind burns – blistered boil in a skull aflame. Lord, look kindly on my burnt twitchings and perfect offerings. Desperate longing to explode the myth of our being – desperate energy to explore the bottom of our beens – the beens of our bottoms. Are they really there? Things come and go. So does Plato, musing on Michelangelo. All those shits, what is it that keeps God here? Who invited Him to stay? I must see the losers, the soulless shits of everyday – nausea – existential nightmare – I want to explore it – not become the shit in the news who [shame] committed death on himself because he was weak. What weird writing. No, not for me the pauper’s funeral. We leave in a hole. “Let me light up your hole – it’s my mission – I will show you the bottomless pit of your existence – the hole in your hall. I’ll explore it with you – leave you feeling dirty and hopeless – cringing and hurt. You’ll want to wake up other people because you’ll be alive, shocked.” Wake up, wake up, you’re being ripped off, taken for a ride, life’s passing you by.
Yup, acres of that sort of crap. I was way over the hill and far beyond the pale, a stranger in my own strange land. When truly drunk, I’d pick fights with the biggest motherfucker I could find. The police were always a good bet and nightclub bouncers can be extremely rough. Looking back, I realize I wanted them to put out my lights for me. They didn’t. Nor did they throw me into jail. I usually ended up in some psychiatric ward with someone sticking needles into me. So I tried to do the job myself. I’ve blogged it. I believe I wanted to die because I could see no alternatives. The alternative was there though and it became apparent to me once I’d carved my arm up. I wanted to live at any cost.
So I had my arm stitched together [after smashing the hospital’s admissions area], and started crawling towards sanity. I joined the Rondebosch group of Alcoholics Anonymous and found, through people who knew exactly what I was talking about, that love, freedom, responsibility, happiness, acceptance of self, and all the good things are possible. It just took years of practice and a good dose of honesty.
I reckon I equal your record of 86 out of 90 meetings in 90 days, Frank. My sponsor was a prematurely gray and balding ex-surfer type of about 45. He had a hell of a sense of humor and, with about ten years’ sobriety behind him, qualified as an old-timer. I recall walking into him at a meeting after about six weeks. “So how’re you doing?” he asked cheerily, slapping my back. “Jeez, Buddy, I’m so fucking tired I reckon I won’t make it through the evening,” I answered. His response was immediate. “Hah! Lack of sleep never killed anybody.” He expected me to understand. I did and kept going.
As I’ve blogged it wasn’t quite that easy. I slipped and slid in the vomit of vacillation and it was only after I attacked my boss one day after a particularly heavy lunch during which I figured ‘just one wouldn’t hurt’, I found that my AA buddies truly accepted me for who I was. I saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed underlying conditions and treated them. Dysthymia, anxiety, and panic attacks. I’d become aware of these things developing around 17 or 18, but they were not popular ‘conditions’ in those days. I saw them as symptoms of my ‘raging against the machine’. Today, I’m a firm believer in chewing tablets having a positive and constructive effect.
I found a therapist and a group focused on alcoholism and, over two years, followed the group through its life cycle to an immensely satisfying and rewarding close. I spoke at AA meetings on a regular basis. There were two each night in Cape Town and I was a regular on the speaking trail. There is nothing like a bunch of fellow alcoholics [and in those days most comprised crusty curmudgeons over forty who stood for little bullshit] to keep one honest.
This is where I find the AA of today very different to that of yesteryear. Our meetings started in the coffee shop after the meeting. We’d speak for hours. It was at one of these coffee shop evenings that I sat alongside one of the few people who can claim to have been the second man on the moon. Much as I wanted to speak about the legend, Buzz and I spoke AA. That’s how basic and honest it was. It was a democracy similar to that prevailing on the Web. The group I attended drew over a hundred on a good night, yet it was a tight-knit circle of people who appreciated the miracle of their sobriety. Not everybody made it and many died through reverting to booze or suicide.
They speak of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and they do so for a reason. I cannot describe the spirit that bound me to this extraordinary program. I cannot begin to convey the sense of miracles unfolding, the wonder of finding my own mind. I met people who had done the most extraordinary things, both drunk and sober, and they reinforced my belief that all of us are capable of anything. The also taught me that once I put myself above another, I’m destined to crash. I learnt my strengths and limitations and to accept that I’m never going to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. I learnt too, that alcoholics find it very, very difficult to deal with success. That’s why I’ve yet to take that one on. I also learned that those of us who are slightly ‘more different’ than others, are extremely fortunate.
Yeah, I certainly don’t regret having just about drunk myself to death.
Wendy has her own story and it’s up to her to tell it. From my side, dealing with codependency meant a conscious return to the program after an absence of some ten years. I found an online group and, it was through my experience of that group, which also, luckily, came into being, went through the full group dynamic, and came to a quiet close, that I really began to appreciate the potential of the Web. I wrote like a demon for two years.
These past seven months of blogging have taught me that it’s not absolutely necessary to restrict myself to groups dealing specifically with substance-related problems. The difficulties Wendy has faced in getting to where she is today caused me great pain. Yet, it was as a blogger that I found that most people care. The number of people who shared their ‘experience, strength and hope’ with me was staggering. Mostly, they were people who had to deal with alcoholic parents or spouses. Yet they came through as only true friends do.
— Buzz A.