My name is Richard Wright, and if I could remember how I’d broken my foot, I’d probably be dead.
That’s how I introduced myself when I sat on a panel about how writers use personal tragedy to tell stories, back at Anthocon in November (the moderator asked the panellists for an intro that illustrated the point).
Like all good fiction, it takes a truth and exaggerates it. I might not be dead, but I’d be well on the way.
I’m a chronic alcoholic. It’s been a long, slow descent to that point, starting with an entirely different personal tragedy in 2004. While in the UK I was still on the slippery slope. By the time 2009 rolled in I drank no more often than anyone else, but when I did it was almost always to the point of destruction. When I moved to India, everything accelerated. Free from the usual surroundings and pressures, I nose-dived.
In March 2012, I woke up with a broken foot. I don’t know how it happened.
Blackouts were pretty much the norm for me, by that point. I could rarely remember what happened the night before (I figure there’s probably about a fifth of my waking life missing from my memory over the last year), but this was, as you can imagine, a bit of a shock. Inexplicable bruises and scratches had become business as usual, but broken bones were an advanced level of memory failure. I was, apparently, fine when I returned home the previous night – and I have to take other people’s word for that. When the doctors at the hospital took a look, they were pretty sure it was a stress fracture rather than an injury from dropping something on it (no bruising etc of the flesh round it). Best I can figure, I must have twisted something a different time, then come down on it hard and wrong when stumbling about the flat that night.
Most alcoholics who make serious efforts to recover do so after a harsh low point. That was mine. I’d known I was a serious alcoholic for over a year, but been unable to quit. For a control freak like me, that was enough for an ongoing depression that could only be fixed by… well, so the cycle goes.
The broken foot did it. I sat down with my wife, and we talked, and I saw properly what I’d done not only to myself but to her. As with every other alcoholic on the planet, I’d been refusing to see what was right in front of me. Despite everything, she gave me love, support, and space to work things out – none of which I’d earned for a long time. I went to my doctor, and talked things through with her, then took a raft of medical tests (when she found out I was drinking as many as three bottles of wine a night, she insisted) that showed I’d got lucky. I was damaged, but it wasn’t irreparable. A close thing in the end, but time would take care of it.
I told my bosses at the dayjob, who were more surprised than I thought they would be. I was, apparently a high-functioning alcoholic, capable of performing (even doing well at) my job while the rest of my life was falling apart around me. I’ve seen the phrase bandied about a lot since researching alcoholism, often as some sort of badge of honour. It isn’t one really. It’s a trap. It means you’ll last longer before the crash, pretending everything is fine because you haven’t lost your job yet. It’s one more reason not to face up to what you are, and alcoholics thrive on such reasons.
Anyway, I quit drinking. It hasn’t been easy, or smooth, despite it being summed up in those five words. I’ve become even less social than I was, because social usually means drinking, and while I can sit in a bar with people and sip coke, the tug of the booze is always there. While I’m not going to start shaking and sneaking drinks, it’s just not yet something I can claim to be comfortable with. There have been some exceptions – when I went to the US I was fine at Anthocon (where, basically, writers and publishers spend long, loving hours with booze), but it’s usually hard work.
I’ve got on with it though, which again sounds a lot easier than it’s been. Still, the seasons are turning, and I hope 2013 will be my first full year without alcohol since I was about fourteen. Just typing that freaks me out a little, which only shows that there’s a long way to go before I can consider myself in the clear.
Life is better though. I took to running to give myself something else to obsess about (I have that kind of compulsive personality), and as a way to rebuild myself physically after all the abuse I’ve put myself through. I ran a half marathon in September, have a full one lined up for next month, and genuinely love doing it. The benefits are enormous, physically, mentally, and emotionally. My family is better and healthier, and I’m more a part of it in little ways than I’ve been for a long time. I’ve also taken a hard look at my life. You have to, when you’ve been an alcoholic. When I sobered up in March I had no idea who I was, what I wanted, or how I’d got to where I ended up. I was hollow, and finding out who I was, building myself back into an actual person, took time. I have ideas now. I know who I am now, and I’m starting to realise what I want. Not there yet, but it’s a work in progress.
It’s been a good writing year too, but that’s for another post.
2012 had other things in it too, of course. New friends, and important ones. Travel to Sri Lanka, the USA, Hong Kong, and I’m writing this by a pool in Thailand as Xmas day approaches. I’ve watched my daughter grow a little further towards her teens, and been hugely proud of the things she’s achieved for herself this year. All of it has been set against the backdrop of the struggle to get and stay sober though. In some ways, that’s a shame, because the struggle is necessarily one that’s internal, and it distracts me from important things that are happening sometimes. Still, it’s better than the alternative.
So, that was my 2012. A year that crushed me, but that gave me a nearly blank slate to work with going forward. I’m not remotely the same person as started the year – not just because of the booze, but because of the rebuilding that comes with looking at the underlying issues that fuel my relationship with it. I don’t yet know how much I like the new person I am, or how well I get on with him, but 2013 is when I plan to find out.
Currently reading (non-fiction): Richard III and the Murder In the Tower, Peter A. Hancock
Currently reading (short stories): ReDeus: Divine Fiction, ed. Aaron Rosenberg and Robert Greenberger