'I always wanted to drink like my da. He was my role model'
As a young fellow, the one great coming-of-age ritual was having your first pint of stout.
Lifting up the glass and putting that cream against your lips was the summit of cool. Everyone wanted to be able to say, "I had my first pint". That made you a man, you were part of the club, no longer a kid.
I always wanted to drink like my dad. He went to the Liverpool bar on the North Wall after his nightly stint at the greyhound track finished. My mother met him there and had his pint ready for him. They came home together, ma made supper and da finished off the night with his repertoire of songs. He was a happy drinker. The craic in our house was mighty. Drink oiled it well. It literally was the water of life, uisce beatha.
Da was my role model. I wanted to be able to drink like him. When I got married, I wanted my new family life to be like his. Sadly, it never was, and I found it impossible to accept. Why was I not content and laid back when I drank? Why did I turn into a version of Doctor Jekyll under the influence? Why did my drinking make everyone around me unhappy? Why could people not leave me alone to drink as I wished?
I did everything in my power to turn the situation around. I thought that if I changed drinks, I might find a solution. So I abandoned stout and went on to lager. When that proved fruitless, I cut out drinking during the day and only imbibed at night. Then I went on a regime of abstinence – three to four weeks at a time – but the benefits that accrued when I was dry, evaporated as soon as I fell off the wagon. I was determined to win in this battle with alcohol. More than anything else in my life, I wanted to be a successful drinker. I was a man of the pub and alcohol defined me. I would be nothing without a drink, it was my reward and I deserved it. I was a writer and didn't all the great writers drink – Behan, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce.
The fact that it messed with my head, that I suffered panic attacks, that my wife wrote to me pleading with me to stop, that I regularly had to apologise to others for my drunken behaviour, these were minor mishaps I was prepared to suffer in pursuit of my ultimate objective.
It is a testament to the seductive power of alcohol that I put up with this madness for 23 years. The reason it lasted so long was that I could not accept that alcohol was the source of my difficulties. I blamed everything else in my life – where I lived, my lack of money, my upbringing, my profession – but alcohol never featured on my list. I was too much in love with alcohol to apportion to it blame. I could not point the finger at my lover and say that the relationship was over.
Ultimately the panic attacks became so bad I thought I would lose my mind. I had a moment of clarity where I saw a direct relationship between my drinking and my problems.
For the first time ever, I accepted that alcohol might be the problem. I got on my knees and asked God for help. I attended a 12-step meeting and told my story. I listened to others. I began to understand that acceptance was the key. I could not change until I took responsibility for my drinking.
I immersed myself in the language of recovery. My life began to make sense to me in a new and profound way. I was not my father. My journey was different to his. He had been blessed with the ability to drink successfully. It brought joy and happiness to him and to his children. But that was not the path for my fulfilment. I had to accept that alcohol and me did not go together.
I understood that real courage was living soberly. I would never be the person I was meant to be with a glass in my hand.
In a matter of weeks, I found that the compulsion was gone. I had no desire to drink. I had spent 23 years in a battle that was over because I had the humility to accept defeat. In tandem with that, the panic attacks disappeared. I could get on a plane or a train again and not feel anxiety. My life came back to me. And sobriety was the key. All I had ever needed to do, was accept. A simple word, and one that changed my life. Acceptance.