Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Label Game

Sitting on the train yesterday, pre-7am, to work, and leafing through the copy of the Metro that I had grabbed manically at the station on account of forgetting my headphones I found myself reading a 'note' in the letter's section on the subject of Kirsten Stewart, the actress of Twilight fame. The subject of the note centred on Kirsten's refusal to pigeon-hole herself as straight, bisexual or gay, with the author commenting that of course she must consider herself to be one of these things and her refusal to do so was just a shameless ploy for attention.
Day 1 of my 3 marathons in 3 days.. 

The night before, I had sat down on my long suffering sofa to watch Louis Theroux's Drinking to Oblivion , a documentary filmed at King's College Hospital, 3.5 miles up the road from me, and an imposing landmark on my run to or from work. The documentary, friends had told me, would be tough watching - they had cried, been confronted with their own flawed perceptions of what drinking to excess looked like, and they all commented (the 4 or 5 who brought it up with me) on just how 'normal' Joe, the 32 year old alcoholic seemed. In the documentary, we first meet Joe as he goes through detox - he had (.... as told to him by someone as he didn't know) collapsed on a street, having left his job after his girlfriend left him and then gone on a spiralling binge for weeks, using straight vodka to drive his self destruction. Joe, quite an attractive looking guy, still has the shakes and can't walk without a stick.

Later on, Louis goes to visit a sober Joe in his SE London flat-share. This is a man who doesn't have a support network close by - it is alluded to that his Brighton-based family and his friends have had to let go, with the assumption being that previously they have tried to help him in his problems with drink but that they could no longer do so. We see pictures of him skippering a boat somewhere tropical, all dressed up at the races last year with a good mate, a picture of him with his mum who died when he was young due to reasons stemming from her own relationship with alcohol.

We also see his cream bedroom curtains covered in blood spatters from when he cracked his head, under the influence. Joe, being the self-reflective, humorous, 'normal' young man that he seems to be comments how he knows he should throw these curtains away, but there is something 'perversely shocking' about it that 'makes it worth it' for the time being.

Having been abstinent for 4 and a half years in the past, and as someone who wouldn't claim to have a physical reliance on alcohol (unlike Aurelie, another of the subjects of the documentary with her 6 pack of 8.4% K-cider a day to just stop the shakes) Joe knows he can be sober, but he he says he is wary of the fact that the desire to drink can suddenly hit, without warning when least expected and can be overwhelming. There is a sense of resignedness and passivity, which sounds offensive when it isn't meant to be. 

We later see Joe, half naked and for all intents and purposes, wasted and back at King's College Hospital, wanting detox, again, but wanting that last drink too, the final 250ml bottle of vodka. He has reverted to a state of childlikeness, talking about the girlfriend who left him- and we see Mr Theroux torn between his desire to help him (i.e. stop him from walking out of the hospital to go and get vodka) and to capture an honest documentary from the sidelines.

Our perceptions of the world are based on our own experiences, and to an extent of the experiences of those closest to us who share these with us. The documentary showed me something that I knew already - alcoholism isn't limited to stereotypes, and it isn't limited to one form (physical, emotional) but from looking at the reactions of the internet to the show, this wasn't perhaps a widely shared view beforehand amongst main-stream audiences. Comments that I have read on twitter, and on comment sections on webpages feature phrases such as 'another side of alcoholism,' 'he just seemed so normal,' 'but he is only 32.'
Joe (left) with Louis (right) from Louis'
Documentary Drinking to Oblivion

We end rooting for Joe because he seems just like us, you and I - but what do we make of Aurelie who claims she needs a 'miracle' to ensure that she doesn't die? She doesn't see stopping drinking as an option - she can't, in her words she feels like 'a rat in a cage' until she has her first drink of the day. Her life as a dying alcoholic, at the age of 44, is better than her lie would be without alcohol, a life she can't bring herself to think about. She'll even tell you that with a laugh.

Aurelie says that she has been abusing alcohol since she was 13, which means that for 31 of her 44 years she has either lived as she is now, or has been gearing up to it. I couldn't comment whether she is too far gone along the process to come back mostly because I'm not her, and also because i'm not a medical professional (shocking I know), but what I do firmly believe is that had conversations been available to her at an earlier point in her life, had the perceptions of society been different to her, that she would have had more options. Whether she would have taken another road at age 20 or 30 had she been given the choice is another question.

Aurelie also fits in with our perception of what an alcoholic should look like - she is overweight, her face is bloated and red. Does Joe deserve more of our attention than Aurelie? Why?

Last weekend I brunched (you can use brunch as a verb without being a wanker, right?) with the gang from Rough As at our usual hangout spot on Brick Lane. The sun shone, we sat outside, with all the coffee and avocado on toast etc. We spoke about our jobs, our personal lives, projects - Claire had just run the London Marathon and along with one of the girls with us was doing the Hackney Half on the Sunday, I'd done my three-marathons-in-three-days (been a busy boy) on the Jurassic Coast back in March. We spoke about our plans for next week, and for 6 months time, and from a group of indivuduals who used to roll from crisis to crisis and plan only to troubleshoot the next episode of chaos, we could acknowledge how great this was.

We also spoke about the importance of learning to love yourself, which I have a desire to find another, less Sunday-school term for, but struggle to do so. It is only now, looking back at my own relationship with alcohol, and my behaviour with it, that I can see how little I cared for myself over the years, and indeed I would go as far as saying I can see how much self-loathing I had. You may have picked this up from my blog, but I know that I have had times when I genuinely genuinely could not have cared where, and dare I say if, I had woken up the next day.

Louis with Aurelie - is this image easier to digest as Aurelie fits
more with what we perceive an alcoholic to look like?

This brings me round on to where I have been for the last few months, since my last blog post in January. I'm still not drinking - we are past 8 months now, and I've got no plans to pick up a drink but certainly I'm not saying never, and truth be told I've just been busy. Work, personal life, projects - so much to do, such little time. I'm happy, which is great, and I have been meaning to write a post saying 'all quiet on the western front' but then I saw Claire and the gang last week, and watched this documentary and I wanted to write to say that I can see the discourse around alcoholism and alcohol abuse evolving, and I want to be a part of it, I want desperately for the next Aurelie to have the self-worth to say no, for people to look at Joe and take on board how 'normal' he is, and how many other 'normal' people with huge problems are out there.

It's not a case of having to change our perceptions, but certainly I think we can make ourself more aware of how we form them, and keeping a more open mind. I say this as someone with no experience of drug taking, but who firmly and harshly judges, or has judged those who do including friends of mine, sorry guys - I'm working on that. Being labelled doesn't take away anyone's right to being able to craft their own identity outside of that label - wouldn't it all be much easier if we just could sit back, admire and applaud the fluidity?

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Harry!
    I am super happy to hear from you!
    Also happy you busy and sober!
    I am still sober myself!
    I watched the documentary myself.
    Interesting, I thought that the reporter Louis sure drinks a lot too.