Friday 24 November 2017

Finding solace in a drink- 'I drink to not mind and, for the briefest of moments, there is reprieve'

Menopause and mid-life struck, and Gemma Fullam found solace in a drink. She's not going teetotal anytime soon

Rolling boil: 'Stop the world, I'm getting off,' says Gemma of how alcohol can offer a pleasant and temporary escape from reality.
Rolling boil: 'Stop the world, I'm getting off,' says Gemma of how alcohol can offer a pleasant and temporary escape from reality.

"That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens, you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens, you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens, you drink to make something happen." Charles Bukowski, 'Women'

Charlie sure hit the nail on the head with that one. He liked a drink, and I like one too, athough I've no desire to match the legendary barfly's capacity for booze. He used it as a tool to cope, and that's where we have common ground.

You see, I became invisible at 40. For most women, the involuntary vanishing act happens a decade later, around 50-ish, but my body signed itself up to an early menopause and invisibility was the free gift attached to that purchase. I didn't disappear all at once; instead, like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, I was oblivious to the fact that the water in which I was swimming was slowly but surely getting hotter. Before I knew it, I was being boiled alive. And no one could hear me scream. So these days, I succumb to a snifter or two, a little sauce to take the edge off.

Now, at 45, I'm approaching a rolling boil, and, along with the sagging skin, grey, thinning hair, spare tyre and crepey skin that comprise the fabric of my cloak of invisibilty, the 'change' has made me a stranger to myself. I no longer recognise the person I see in the mirror. In truth, I don't even like to look any more. I find myself living in close proximity to an uninvited guest I don't particularly want to get to know: me. This other me. The middle-aged, menopausal me. A shape-shifting parasite that feeds off the remains of the 'me' I used to be.

I'm supposed to laugh it off, as I adjust my elasticated waistband and wipe the beads of sweat from my brow. I'm supposed to make jokes about tropical heatwaves and power surges. What a lark this is! Pass the HRT, stat! Ha, ha, ha!

But I do mind.

Angelina Jolie doesn't mind. She says she "loves" being in menopause.

The feminists tell me I shouldn't mind. Germaine Greer suggests the invisibility of middle age is to be embraced; she says, "to be unwanted is also to be free".

But I do mind.

I mind very much.

So I drink to not mind. And, for the briefest of moments, there is reprieve. With alcohol, comes forgetting; a place where the constant reminders of an extinct youth don't prickle. It's a fleeting interlude of insulation against the indignities of hormonal hell.

Booze also helps with the flatness menopause brings. No one tells you about that. Once the crazy-lady highs and lows of fluctuating hormones are past, once you stop exploding into furious rages without provocation, or railing in anger at the unfairness of it all, or bursting into tears at any and every wretched thing, you flatline. No more ups, no more downs, just a dull, monotonous inertia; a stagnant sameness of emotion.

So I drink to feel.

To feel like me again. To feel something, anything. Anything but nothing. And sometimes, when one glass of booze turns into three, and the beer goggles that materialise soften my reflection into an approximation of what it once was, I keep on going, forgetting the existence of the law of diminishing returns. And, like Brigadoon, the illusion fades, and, come morning, all that's left is an empty bottle, the dregs in a glass and, staring back in the mirror, the face of a crone. Me.

I'm drinking as I write. gin and tonic. Mother's ruin, they call it - although the irony is, this mother is ruined already.

I'm drinking from a tin cup inscribed with that old wartime chestnut of 'Keep calm and carry on'. An apt mantra for the middle years of life, if ever there was one. Because it is war, and the troops need supplies.

I don't think I'm alone in my mid-life melancholy. "Are the men doing it?", is feminist Caitlin Moran's go-to acid-test sexism detector, and yes, when it comes to demanding some booze, the men certainly are. Sure, some of them are taking up yoga, or are cycling, Lycra-clad, up hill and down dale, but a large proportion are imbibing nightly to cope with the loss of their hair, their virility and sense of self. Middle age doesn't discriminate between the sexes when it's doing its best to make you disappear; equal opportunities apply in andro-slash-meno-pause land. But, as the song goes, it's different for girls. (Isn't it always?)

And there's the rub. Because drink, I've discovered, makes you ugly. Menopause may put your pulchritude on a fast-forward fade, but booze will turbo-boost your decline. Just as there's resting bitch-face, there's also wine-face, aka hag-face. Booze makes your visage bloated and wrinkled simultaneously. It gives you dark circles and rheumy eyes and broken veins and a red nose. It's not a good look on a man either, but then, men have never set up their main stall in the comeliness department, have they? The desire to continue the, as Greer put it, "fretful struggle to be beautiful" runs deep in the female, even when hope has left the building, with her oestrogen in tow.

The combination of menopause and the loss of looks - and, with them, any vain hope of remission - can be brutal. Peak beauty, even if it only ever attained average, has come and gone. A little booze softens that brutality and provides a soothing soporific to the viscissitudes of midlife.

You might be getting the wrong idea here. You might be thinking, reading this, that I'm an alcoholic in denial. A locked and loaded lush. You might think that, and I can see why you might, but you'd be wrong. I don't drink during the week, or sometimes at all. I embraced dry January with open arms. I can happily plod along without a evening snipe of fizz or magnum of merlot.

The booze isn't the reason I drink. The alcoholic hit isn't either. The lure of liquor is the escape it provides. The 'stop the world, I'm getting off' bit, however brief, is the paydirt. Sometimes I sleep a lot instead. It works just as well, when it works. And, joy of joys, snoozing doesn't make you ugly. Or uglier.

But for now, it's my party, and I'll drink if I want to.

You would drink too, if it happened to you.


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