There are a lot of stories on this site that involve drinking, but to be honest it came as a shock to me how many actually don’t. When I first started writing this blog, I assumed it would mainly consist of an endless line of alcohol-related misadventures, but while some of my finest, or perhaps simply most bizarre, stories have involved heavy drinking and inebriated debauchery, the majority actually haven’t.
Which is good because when I started McCannecdotes I was 3 months into a life of complete sobriety and the last thing I wanted to do was spend every evening writing in a nostalgic fashion about the many fun times drinking had brought me.
Today, on the six-month anniversary of my last (and truly final) drink, I’m writing for the first time how it all came about, in a massively abridged form. To be honest I could write a book about the 6-week period when I hit rock bottom with booze and quit for good, but for various reasons, including the confidentiality of some of those involved in the process, I’ll try to keep it brief.
I was a late starter to the drinking game. With maybe one exception that I can think of – a house party when I was about 17 where in hindsight I was driven home by someone who was certainly very drunk – I didn’t really drink at all at high school, even in the later years. At Uni, I wasn’t a massive socialiser but I had my moments and would drink when I was out. I didn’t have a great tolerance of it so many Uni parties resulted in me throwing up at some point, usually prompting a relocation of the party. It was at Uni I began a long tradition of drinking very non-standard things – my drink at the time was the White Russian (properly vodka, Kahlua and cream but in the Student Union or cheap pubs of Glasgow the best I got was vodka, Tia Maria and milk).
This carried with me through Birmingham days and onto London, where I shifted to tequila and coke. Always got me funny looks that one, and yet if you try it it’s actually very nice. It was only in London that I started going out regularly, and drinking regularly. I became known for my hardcore ways, unusual drinks, and fondness for shots. I never drank beer or lager as I’ve just never physically been able to take the volume without puffing up so much I can hardly breathe.
I developed over time a strong sense of when I’d had enough, an internal drinking-up-time bell which let me know it was time to go home, and if I stayed any longer I’d have trouble keeping it together. It rarely failed me. This level of control stayed with me till the very end – it was both a blessing and a curse.
In the mid-2000s I’d become settled in a fairly regular social drinking cycle. For the first time I really had a “local bar” – it was miles away from where I lived but it was a home away from home. Beaufort House on King’s Road in Chelsea. It had everything. Not only was it a lovely bar and close to all my friends, but they served a wonderful tequila and coke, had the most insanely beautiful barmaids of any establishment in London, and most importantly of all I knew everyone. I was basically Norm from Cheers.
It’s strange thinking back on that time now, as I was in the early days of my current job, and I was frequently out till past 1am in Chelsea, on several weeknights each week. And yet it never really caused me any problems. The occasional last-minute day off from work (I would never call in sick with a hangover) but even that was rare. I had everything balanced perfectly, work life, social circles, drinking, all working out. Drinking was my ticket to so many fun times and new friends.
I was always mixing my drinks – the hardcore with the homosexual…
I’m not sure what really happened but those days fizzled out somehow. Actually I do know what happened, Beaufort House closed. It was as simple as that. We gave it a good send-off too, resulting in the most spectacular all-nighter which ended with me still insanely drunk the next afternoon, going to the nearest cinema in Fulham to see 28 Weeks Later with the owner’s brother…
I drifted apart from many of the old gang, but I had a new “local” and it was more local than you could ever imagine a bar to be. We’d opened a bar at work.
Two nights a week, from 5.30 till 8, our staff restaurant turns into a bar. For many years, I was part of the furniture. I was the first to arrive, I’d be the last to leave. Pretty much without fail. It was even known in some circles as McCann’s Bar (and at lunchtime it was the McCannteen). Afterwards, on to a local pub to continue festivities, and much drunken carnage was caused. But it was all good, and all seemed very normal. Thursday/Friday drinking, some adventures, hangover the next day – I imagine that’s very typical for someone my age.
At some point, and I can’t quite recall why, maybe I was feeling a bit crap or was unhappy, but I made the leap into occasionally drinking at home. I’d actually up until that point only very rarely did this. And only if me and my flatmates had a party or some other kind of special occasion. For me, starting to have some wine or some whisky at home was a slippery slope.
Over a couple of years it became more common. I wasn’t drinking heavily but if I was home alone for a full evening it could go to nearly a bottle of wine. And it had crept into the weeknights too. When I was having a bad time, it was too easy to just look forward to getting home and sinking into that bottle of wine, or later, vodka and coke – I think it became vodka rather than tequila because tequila is actually pretty expensive. And if I wasn’t having a bad time, well, it was there anyway, might as well drink it.
About 3 years ago, I’d transitioned from occasional wine or spirits at home to a steady regime. And a bizarre delivery mechanism. The vodka and coke was gone, I just couldn’t stomach so much fizzy drinks. I drank the vodka neat, in shots. A couple of years before if you had taken me to a bar and offered me a shot the one thing I couldn’t drink straight without throwing up was vodka. I could do tequila all night but never vodka. And somehow I ended up with straight vodka as my drink of choice. I was a regular at the local mini-market round the corner from home. I never had to walk in and ask, by the time I got through the front door, the bottle of vodka would be on the counter.
My knowledge of my limits had not gone away though, I knew exactly how much I could handle, and how much sleep I needed to get most of it out of my system, and I was very consistent. I’d drink pretty much exactly half a bottle of vodka every night (so about 350ml). Here’s the thing though, I never really got that drunk – maybe because I was so consistent – and I was never really hungover. The most hungover I ever was was probably the day that picture down the side of this website was taken.
This is the thing. This was both the heart of the problem, and the key to how it went on so long unnoticed. Drinking never caused me any problems. I never ended up in trouble. I didn’t ruin any relationships, I didn’t lose my job or my house or a wife or kids. I never woke up in a police cell or on the streets. It was under control. It was completely under control whilst at the same time being completely out of control.
My social drinking dried up (so to speak) and I found myself fobbing off friends and choosing to stay home and drink there; this was when I began to realise it was a problem. I could have been going out every night and getting shit-faced and it would have felt fine, but the fact I was shunning friends, shunning socialising, to drink alone and always alone, I knew this was not good.
I kept setting myself goals to quit or to cut back, almost every weekend was going to be my last. Every night when I’d been drinking I had the courage to think these things, and make myself these promises. I was so optimistic after a drink – full of ideas for my life, for work, for relationships. The next day the ideas and the motivation faded. And the only thing keeping me going would be the anticipation of the evening time when I could drink again and feel better.
One of the most common assumptions people make is that by this time I must have been drinking in the morning when I woke up, or having cheeky drinks at lunchtime. For some reason that was never my thing. I would never have dreamed of drinking before going to work, or during, even though in some jobs I’ve had having a couple of pints on a Friday lunchtime was quite acceptable. I think I was always very conscious of seeming intoxicated when others weren’t, so I never touched a drink at lunchtime even if others were. And also, I think at heart I’m naturally a binge drinker, so I only drink if I can continue to drink until I’m drunk.
And I always drank alone. Usually out in the garden or in my room. Not to hide it from flatmates, they knew (they’d usually be the ones tidying up the empty bottles) but just because I wanted to be on my own. It was really quite sad.
The turning point was when I started getting sick. Last summer I went to my GP for some blood tests, thinking maybe this would spur me into action. My tests were fine. For the first time I’d come clean about my alcohol intake with my GP, and I barely even got any advice to cut down. As it got into the autumn I started feeling generally worse and worse. Not hungover, just generally, constantly ill. I’d be sick about 6 or 7 times a day, both during drinking and at work when I wasn’t drinking.
I felt like shit, constantly, except for an ever-decreasing time when I was drinking. I’d start to feel sick as I approached home. My body knew vodka was in there, or my body had just witnessed me buy some from the corner shop. It knew what was about to happen and it tried to tell me to stop. But I just couldn’t. On the rare occasion when I managed a day or two without drinking, and it was rare, I got even sicker. Much sicker.
I was too sick to even meet up with my little sister when she came down end of August to see me, I haven’t seen her in years. By early September I was too sick to go to work. And just to reiterate, this was not just a big hangover, I was falling to pieces inside. But I couldn’t stop or I’d get sicker.
I was sent by work to another doctor for a full medical, and by this time I’d even been completely up-front with them about my home drinking. This situation probably wouldn’t have gotten out of hand had I not been so fucking good at hiding it all these years. They did some specific test to look for alcohol damage, just like my own GP had.
Gamma GT is a liver enzyme that reacts particularly to heavy alcohol intake. The doctor told me normal was in the 40s. He then told me mine was 108.
“Shit,” I thought, more than double what it should be, this was a bit of a wake-up call.
I’d misheard him. He turned his screen towards me. It was 1108. Over 25 times normal. This was not a wake-up call this was someone jumping onto my bed and swiping at me with an axe covered in dog shit.
The next couple of weeks moved fast, I saw another specialist in addictions, and I ended up in hospital after trying to quit for a couple of days. One of the most memorable things from the whole period was lying in hospital and the consultant telling me “whatever you do, don’t stop drinking”. I didn’t realise it but just stopping could actually kill me. He recommended I try to cut down 10% each couple of days. Sounds great but think about it, by the time I’m 90% into my usual drinking amount, I’m not really in the right frame of mind to be thinking about stopping short of my usual limit.
The plan after I saw the specialist was for me to go to a private clinic in Windsor, to quit completely but safely. Basically rehab. Much as I didn’t want to go away anywhere for 4 weeks, I knew by this point it was the only way.
Now I imagine by this point you’re thinking finally there’s going to be some comedy. Rehab – a richly comic subject. Yes, there was. Plenty. But I can’t really say too much about this period because it’s not really fair on the others involved in my many anecdotes in the clinic. And whilst I made a lot of fun for myself and others in there, just to keep spirits up (pardon the pun), there were also a lot of hard and difficult times too, and it’s not easy being in a place like that, however nice the surroundings, for 4 weeks.
My home for 4 weeks. It was nice, as those things go, but no holiday. I quickly became the clinic chess champion.
My prevailing memory from there though was not my own struggle to get over this problem which had silently sneaked its way into my life the past few years, but of the impact I made on others. I was in there to get rid of my drinking problem, but I was also in there to use my experience, my life story and my insights, to help other people too. What I came out with was a strong sense that I had helped and supported other people, been a good example for them, been incredibly honest and open about everything, and used what I had been through to help those in the same boat as me – they had told me so.
And by fuck had I made people laugh too.
I came out having clocked up my first month of complete sobriety, but very aware of the fact the real test was ahead. I drank at home. So it’s basically like I live in a pub; I was going back to the place where I did all my drinking, to the very place where my problem developed and grew.
I had said in the clinic many times I felt like whilst in there I was very safe, but when I got home there would be a thousand vodka bottles waiting there “Hey McCann, where you been! We were going to come visit you but we thought we wouldn’t be welcome in there, so we figured we’d just hang around here and get you when you got home. You’ve missed us haven’t you. you poor weak-willed little shit, why don’t you sit down and have a nice drinky, you deserve it after all that time away – come on, you’ve earned it, it’s just one teeny little drinky…” I also remembered vividly the words of one of my fellow patients, a rather tactless Irish lady who told me “I’m feckin’ tellin’ you, I admire your determination an’ all that, but once you get out into that big bad world, you WILL relapse, mark my words.” Hmmm. But then she was also the one who said to me “Only half a bottle of vodka a night? Jesus that’s feckin’ nothin’!”
The first few days were hard, but I’d been away so long, the habit wasn’t there anymore. I was just happy enough to have internet again and my PlayStation and my books and all my stuff. And my brand new and expensive chess board which I bought days before going away so I’d have something to look forward to when I got out. I was kept very busy by making plans and really treating it like a new start. I was back at the clinic a couple of times a week for another few weeks, and it was nice going back and being able to tell people how the real world had been and how I’d coped.
I arranged to meet a few friends in a local pub – they were shocked at the idea – but I had to try it. Just like in rehab when after a week I’d finally been allowed to go to Tesco to buy Jelly Tots, I tested myself by walking right down the alcohol aisle (and thankfully felt nothing but apathy), I had to get through this checklist of situations before I could truly know I was over it.
Not drinking in the clinic was fucking easy. There was no booze, and trying to get some really wasn’t an option. It was off the menu. On “the outside” I had a fucking corner shop proprietor who’d have a bottle of vodka bagged and on the counter by the time I shut my front door. All the normal drinking situations in life were ahead of me, and I had a choice. Avoid them, all of them, forever (and several people did recommend this) or confront it, prove to myself I didn’t have to drink, prove I could still have fun, still be myself.
Bizarrely when I was in rehab I thought I’d probably not be any fun anymore on the outside, if I wasn’t drinking I’d be so boring and it was the booze that made me funny and interesting. Then someone just stated the obvious to me and said “Alan, you’ve made loads of friends in here, everyone likes you, you make everyone laugh and have so much fun, and you take part in all our discussions… and none of us have ever, ever, seen you drunk.”
I ticked off going to the pub, I ticked off going for dinner, when I got back to work I ticked off going to the work bar with my colleagues (probably my biggest milestone). It was all fine, I was still on form, I could still have fun. I could still be fun. Sometimes I have off days, and to begin with I always associated that with the fact I wasn’t drinking. But I came to accept, sometimes I’m just not in the mood, sometimes I can’t be arsed going out, and it’s OK. I struggle a little sometimes staying out – I think the drinking gave me stamina – but that too is fine, I can’t say it’s been a massive problem. And there are some parties where “you kinda have to be drunk” and they’re OK too; I’m not going to be suited to every situation. But for the most part, it’s going fine.
I’ve sunk myself into my creative side, something I’d long neglected. That was the thing, alcohol took away all of my hobbies, literally everything. All I wanted to do was drink when I was at home. My writing, my designing, my piano playing, even just playing video games, all the things I used to love, I lost them, and eventually I lost the socialising too. I’m finally getting those things back. To be honest, the big thing I need to work on is socialising more, because I’ve not been going out much, but that’s not because I’m not drinking, I’m just taking my time getting back into those habits, and getting back into my social circles. I’m writing a hell of a lot, I’ve done a book’s worth already on this blog in two months, and with the exception of this post most of it’s funny… it’s amazing to finally be back doing the things I love doing, instead of every night and every weekend just being a black hole with nothing to show for it but an empty bottle.
I’ve also done this without any medication of any kind since the clinic. There are various things you can get to stop you craving or as a deterrent for drinking. You only get put on these if the doctors are confident you won’t drink (as they can fuck you up if you do). My consultant, who quite frankly was of fuck all help except signing forms, didn’t believe I’d make it, so I got no medication to help. I made it anyway. And therein was another lesson. I need to do this for myself, not for anyone else, not to meet anyone’s expectations. At the end of the day, I can’t prove to anyone I haven’t touched a drink in six months, I proved already earlier in the story how good I used to be at hiding it. If people want to think I have been sneakily drinking (and I could be, easily) I have to learn to deal with that, and to be self-assured enough that doubt from others won’t shake me.
I took the decision that I would avoid alcohol completely in all forms. I get asked about this often actually; what’s the cut-off point. I’ve switched to non-alcoholic toiletries (e.g. handwash, mouthwash) and I avoid any kind of alcohol in food, especially desserts (so Christmas was fun…). I will have a steak & ale pie or a beer-battered fish & chips, mainly because the times I have it’s been too inconvenient to avoid it. Any drink with any trace of alcohol I’ll certainly avoid. My only close scrape so far has been with ginger beer. I was bored of having the same lame drinks in the bar at work, so one Friday I discovered they had ginger beer in the canteen. I grabbed two bottles, I love ginger beer, but in the lift I looked suspiciously at the fancy, old-school bottle they were in and checked the label. They were ever-so-slightly alcoholic. With a torrent of swearing and a child-like tantrum, I stuck them in the fridge in the kitchen on our floor, and settled for a coke in the bar. I think they’re still there so if anyone reading this wants them…
It had been nagging me about the GP test results I’d had in the summer. How could they have been normal? So I went back and asked, assuming some kind of fuck-up had been made. No. They were at the upper range of normal but they were OK. Basically my body had been coping, just about, all those years, and in the two months between those tests and my next set with the private doctor, my liver had said “OK that’s it, enough, we’re not cooperating anymore. Fuck you, you’re on your own”. Thankfully I got myself sorted when I did.
Fuck, I was expecting more gags once I started writing this post, but comedy-wise it’s been as dry as… well, me! Let me just go get my rehab journal (essentially a notepad of all my gags and stories from the clinic) and see if there’s something I can repeat…
OK Day 2, I was in the shower, washing the last of the stench of vodka from my pores. I’m about to get out and I put my hand on the towel rail perpendicular to the bath to steady myself as I climb out. As soon as I put my weight on it, it completely came away from the wall. The top half of body came crashing to the bathroom floor, my poor dazzlingly youthful and handsome face saved by the strength of my other hand (my right arm has always been so much stronger, can’t think why); meanwhile my two knees slammed into the side of the bath, and I let out an almighty scream.
I stayed in this position for a few minutes, before attempting to drag my broken body out of the bathroom. I reached for the phone (hey I was in a hospital I shouldn’t have to nurse my own wounds, they had nurses for that). Ring ring. “Please be the hot one please be the hot one.” Ring ring. “Please don’t be the massive black guy.” Ring ring.
“Hello, Alexa speaking.” YES! Alexa was so hot she even had a hot name.
I don’t know quite what I was thinking when I blurted out “Hi Alexa, can you come up, I’ve had a bit of an ‘accident’ in the bathroom.”
In my younger days, just staying naked would have been the default option in this situation, but no, the vodka had built up quite a bit of abdominal fat, so I had to put a top on, then I figured putting a top on made wearing nothing on the bottom seem a bit weird so I had to put some shorts on. I realised as I scrambled getting my bashed-to-fuck knees into a pair of shorts that it would have made more sense to get dressed before making the call.
Alexa arrived and tended to my bruisings and we investigated the cause of the accident. The towel rail, normally a reliable thing to put your weight on when coming out of the bath or shower, had come away so easily for a reason. Not because of wear or tear. Not because of loose fixings. Not because of my substantial alcoholic weight.
No, it was because the rail was affixed to the wall by nothing more than fucking magnets.
Safety first. Cunts.
Yes, as a safety precaution (suicide risk apparently) everything from the radiator to the shower curtain and toilet roll holder was fixed by magnets. So what happened wasn’t an accident, it was entirely expected behaviour if someone put their weight on the towel rail. I had nearly killed myself using one of the suicide deterrents. I’d have been safer grabbing onto a pile of fucking jelly.
I’ll leave you with this one important point. I’d never be where I am right now – six months into total sobriety – without the support I received from friends, family, colleagues and medical staff both inside and outside the clinic. Work in particular were amazing and pretty much drove this process, and it wasn’t because my position as Company Jester and Senior VP of Anecdotal Comedy brought me special treatment; it was because they are a good company and they look after all their people in bad times as well as good, and for that I am immensely grateful.
I’d buy them all a beer if it wasn’t slightly inappropriate…
…I still have one as a souvenir.