Thursday 17 January 2019

Some of us would rather die than call ourselves the A-word

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

As the comedian Sean Hughes was laid to rest in Islington last Monday, his brother Martin spoke of the many sacrifices which his parents, Terry and John, had made for them, adding that "my poor old dad continues to pay for it, remembered in every newspaper article this week as an alcoholic. One thing you can have for the record, is that our dad was definitely not an alcoholic. He only ever drank in company and to have the craic, and he never once drank at home."

I never knew Sean Hughes's father, and indeed I never knew Sean Hughes, so if Martin Hughes is saying that his father was definitely not an alcoholic, it is certainly not for me to dispute it, or to question it in any way.

But I would make an observation, which may be of general interest in this fiendishly difficult area - there is this tendency that we all have, to try to define what is alcoholism, and what is not, according to various "rules" which have formed in our minds over time.

And one of the main rules is that in order to qualify as an alcoholic, you would need to be drinking most of the time. Therefore if you can abstain in certain circumstances for quite significant periods - if you never drink at home, for example, or you never drink on holiday, or in midweek, or during November - you're probably grand.

Back at the end of the last century, when I was thinking of retiring from the drinking game, I could spend quite a lot of time not drinking. For example, I would never drink while I was writing. Yet you may be sure that I was thinking about drinking while I was writing, in the sense that alcohol would be my reward at the end. Which again need not be alarming, except that over time, you may find that you are no longer working for the reward, the reward has become so institutionalised it has become a form of work in itself - and the way these things go, it may eventually become your full-time job.

So when I read about Martin Hughes's speech, I was interested in the way he was defining alcoholism as he knew it, not least because many of the pieces written about his brother Sean have also ventured into this treacherous domain.

Some who knew him seemed to have this to need to establish whether Sean was officially an Alcoholic, or whether he was just someone with, shall we say, alcoholic tendencies at various parts of his life, who didn't fully merit the big 'A' emblazoned across his chest.

Why they would want to establish this, why they think it matters a damn, is also interesting - as it demonstrates the profound anxiety which still attaches itself to this word, to this condition.

The fact that the man died at 51, of cirrhosis, would usually be a pretty big clue in this particular line of enquiry - but those who remembered him could see subtle variations on the theme.

A piece in the Guardian by Michael Hann quoted a friend of Sean's saying that "when he first gave up [drink], he just stopped overnight. So I always thought it wasn't an addiction in that full-on sense..."

Let us pause to note that a man who loves drinking and who gives it up "overnight", has in all likelihood formed the view that something of a "full-on" nature is upon him…however you want to name it.

This friend continued: "but in the last year, since his mum died, it just spiralled. It was horrible. I'd speak to him at 10am and he'd be pissed."

And yet here is another friend, in the same piece, with a different perspective: "It didn't seem to me that he was drinking a lot... it's been very disconcerting the last couple of days, because the Sean I knew had been in good health and good spirits..."

The only person who could adjudicate on this dispute, with full knowledge of the facts, is Sean Hughes - who could add in passing, that even if he was a "full-on" alcoholic, or perhaps just one of the lesser-spotted breed, he was also a lot of other things, a man of extravagant talents, an inspiration.

Indeed, in 2014, Hughes wrote about why he had started drinking again: "Apparently I'm tedious when sober. People were uncomfortable when I wasn't drinking. It made them question their own habits."

Which one of those friends of his described as: "Bollocks. When he wasn't drinking he was the most stable I ever saw him. But he flat-out told me he was bored..."

So what does it matter what kind of a drinker Sean Hughes was, what kind of a drinker anyone is? Why would people even be bothering with these tormented efforts at defining the addictive side of a person's nature?

I guess it's because we know intuitively that some of us will come to a point in our lives when we may need to define what we are, and what we are not, in such matters. When we have to get over the stigma of the A-word, realising that most forms of stigma are not exactly the result of enlightened thinking anyway. That regardless of what anyone calls us, eventually we may have to make our own decision on this, to call it ourselves.

And we sense that if we don't get it right, first time... or at least the second time... OK, definitely the third time... it could be a long way back for us.

Yes, there is a still a fierce stigma attached to the word "alcoholic" - to the extent that people will go to the most extreme and even farcical lengths to exclude themselves from that denomination. I was particularly taken with a recent interview with a well-known Irish sportsman in which he described how he had almost died in the most excruciating way from drinking too much... "but I don't think I was an alcoholic".

Now he is entitled to his opinion on that, but I would respectfully suggest that if alcohol has brought you to the gates of death itself, to be thinking "I am not an alcoholic" may not be the smart play.

If alcoholism is "when your life has become unmanageable", receiving the proverbial last rites would just about squeeze you into that category.

I would also mention fellowships such as AA in which people say "I am an alcoholic", rather than, "I am not an alcoholic". And I would point to the fact that millions of people have emerged from such programmes in considerably better shape than when they went in.

And I am thinking of a line in an article I once read, in which the writer recalled that legend of George Best with Miss World on the bed with all the money, and the porter asking Best where did it all go wrong?

"I find this a sad story," the article concluded. "The only happy ending would have been if Best had turned to the porter and said: "Probably when I wasn't diagnosed as an alcoholic in my early 20s."

The author of that article was Sean Hughes.

Sunday Independent

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