The Eternal Holiday of the Alcoholic

By John Doran 09/28/18

When you drink constantly, you become numb, slipping down into a sub-life, a waking coma. You become a chaotic ghost that exists almost at one step removed from everything else.

John Doran sitting
John Doran, the author of Jolly Lad, a memoir about alcoholism recovery, drug use, and mental illness. Image via Al Overdrive

The following is an excerpt from Jolly Lad – The Expanded North American Edition, published this month by MIT Press and available here.

After I stopped drinking in August 2008 I went to Alcoholics Anonymous a lot at first – most days in fact for about half a year. I don’t go that often anymore and I haven’t done any of the twelve steps but I’d still say the programme was a crucial aid to me quitting.

I guess even before I joined the fellowship I already had an inkling of what AA would be like. I’d seen enough soap operas, so I was prepared. Generally speaking, it was as I’d imagined it – a neon strip-lit, magnolia painted room with trestle tables and stackable chairs – usually in churches, village halls or community centres. Careworn people in comfortable clothes, chatting, sipping tea, rolling cigarettes. The 12 commandments and the 12 traditions would be unrolled and hung on the back wall. The yellow card (“Who you see here / What you hear here / When you leave here / LET IT STAY HERE!”) would be placed prominently at the front, resting against a small tub for the collection of voluntary subs at the end of the meeting. There would be a literature table full of pamphlets, information sheets and books and a box containing chips, or commemorative engraved metal tokens, for those who had hit a notable anniversary in sobriety – including the most important one: 24 hours. There would always be one or more copies of The Big Book there – the text written in 1939 by Bill W, to help alcoholics.

Chapter Three of The Big Book says: “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is mentally different from his fellows. Therefore it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterised by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.”

I had been prepared to pursue the chimera of controlled drinking right through the gates of death myself. When I gave up I was close to dying and had nearly checked out accidentally once earlier the same year. But I’d made my peace with death. I had come to believe that alcohol was the only thing that made life bearable. And in a lot of ways it was.

Image via Krent Able

There was dirt, horror and disfigurement everywhere I looked. But after one stiff drink I could leave the house; after two drinks the fear started lifting and after the third drink I’d feel like an artist. Or to be more precise, I would see the world through the eyes of an artist. And after five drinks, well, I could take my pick of them. On a good day I felt like Picasso. But there were all kinds of days. Imagine being Gustav Klimt in Hull, the golden light of the low winter sun at 3pm in the afternoon radiating along The Avenues. Imagine being Walter Sickert in Manchester, the violent brown and black smudges radiating from your feet and along canal towpaths. Imagine being Vincent van Gogh in St Helens, the sky ablaze with stars. That is something close to victory, something close to beating death.

They laughed at me and called me a piss artist. And how right they were. I was an aesthete with a broken nose in a stained shirt and inside-out boxer shorts, drinking the world beautiful.

When you drink constantly, you become numb, slipping down into a sub-life, a waking coma. You become a chaotic ghost that exists almost at one step removed from everything else. You float through the film of your own life. You see the sublime in the augury of fried chicken bones and tomato sauce cast upon the upper deck floor of a bus. You can divine a narrative among the finger-drawn doodles on the misted windows. You can feel your destiny in hundreds of individual condensation droplets on the glass turning red, then amber, then green.

Everything that you’d worried about a few hours previously... Where will I get the money from? What if he beats me up? Am I seriously ill? Am I dying? Have I got cancer? What will she say when I finally get home a week late? Will she cry when we eventually go to bed together? Will she pack her things and leave the next day? How near is death? What will it be like? Will I scream and cry? What is it like to die? And now, after some drinks, there is just the sweet sensation of your life passing you by with no struggle and no fuss. The rope slides through your fingers with no friction, just warmth as a balloon rises higher and higher out of sight. I have bottles and bottles and bottles and my phone is out of credit. A Mark Rothko night. A Jackson Pollock night…

This is the eternal holiday of the alcoholic. Once you create as much distance from your everyday life as you naturally have from orange tinted Polaroids of childhood caravan trips or stays in seaside hotels and Super 8 film reels of school sports days, then you start to experience your quotidian life like it’s the sun-bleached memory of a happy event. You feel nostalgia and warmth for boring events that are unfolding right in front of you. You feel wistful about experiences that most people would find barbaric or gauche or unremarkable. You experience the epic, the heart- warming and the hilarious in post office and supermarket queues. You develop permanently rose-tinted glasses.

But there’s no getting away from it, after a while the strategy starts failing. You start seeing everything through the eyes of Francis Bacon, through the eyes of Edvard Munch, through the eyes of HR Giger...Your vision becomes stained and cracked.

It is pretty tough stopping drinking but it’s not like I want a pat on the back for it.

Image via Krent Able

I see alcoholism as a self-inflicted leisure injury to some extent, disease or not. But going on the wagon is nothing compared to coming to terms with what you are like sober. The trouble with stopping drinking is that the only thing it solves in your life is you being drunk or hungover and ill all the time. When you stop drinking, everything you drank to avoid dealing with is still there, as bad as ever. Mental illness, debt, depression, the impulse to self-harm, the impulse to commit suicide, anxiety, social dysfunction, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, stress, anger, violent rage... I started drinking when I was 13 and was drinking every day by the time I was 15. I stayed pretty much constantly drunk until I was 37. When I stopped I had no real idea what I would be like.

Alcoholism is debt consolidation for your life. Submit to alcoholism and your life becomes incredibly simple. Drink becomes the only thing you care about – and you will end up just fine with letting all the other stuff slide to the extent that it doesn’t even matter if you die or not. The only real problem with this arrangement is what happens if you decide to stop.

Picture a reservoir surrounded by mountains. You have been tasked with draining the massive body of water away to repopulate the area. But once the water has gone you are faced with the former town that was initially flooded and the now wrecked buildings which need to be pulled down. Call several construction firms. People have been fly tipping here for years. There is tons of rubbish here. You will need help to clean the area up. There are corpses wrapped in carpet and chains. It was the ideal place to dump bodies. You’ll need to call the police and the coroner’s office. The press are on their way. There are rotten and half eaten animal carcasses that need to be cleared up and disposed of. Environmental health need to be involved. You have never seen so many mangled shopping trollies, broken children’s bikes and unwanted cars. The clearance job will be massive. There are burst canisters of toxic waste that have long since leached into the ground. It will be years before you can do anything with this land. The water was merely the stuff that was making this area look picturesque. What you have left in its place is an area of outstanding natural horror. It probably feels like you should have left well enough alone.

Before claiming a seat by putting my coat on the back of it, and even before queuing up for a coffee, I went into the gents to try and freshen up. I scrubbed my hands hard and splashed freezing cold water onto my face – prodding the dark purple streaks of flesh under each eye with a fingertip. I stood for some time looking into the mirror as the water dripped off my face.

What did I look like? A middle-aged man with long hair in a heavy metal T-shirt. The beard of someone who slept behind a hedge on an A-road roundabout. Face permanently blotched red down one side with hundreds of burst capillaries after spending three days awake doing amphetamines in 1996. A Monday night which culminated in nurses shouting: “Shave his chest, shave his chest!” A nose broken 17 times and eventually surgically rebuilt. Forehead like the cover of Unknown Pleasures. Right eyelid drooping down over a partially sighted eye, scarred and damaged beyond repair.

George Orwell said we all get the kind of face we deserve by the time we turn 40. I had mine hammered irreversibly into place by my 25th birthday. Ostensibly I looked like the same person, but somehow as if reflected in the back of a rusty soup spoon instead of a mirror.

Image via Krent Able

I was comfortable with going to AA now that I’d been going for nearly two years but still, the back of the room suited me just fine – it’s not a Kate Bush concert, you’re not missing anything if you don’t sit in the front row.

Comfort was not on the agenda the first time I went to AA however. My first visit to the rooms might as well have been my first day at senior school, or my first day in prison, for all the stress it caused me. I went while visiting friends up north and it was terrifying. A bare concrete room with old school chairs, bare lightbulbs and spiders in the corners. A retirement age man with a nose like a red, purple and blue blood sac mumbled brutal things as other broken people looked at their feet. When I stepped outside into the freezing cold night after the 60 minutes were up I had to sit on a garden wall for ten minutes, staring at the ground under an orange sodium light. I was unable to stand properly because of anxiety and I was still dizzy with fear walking away afterwards. It struck me quite clearly that there might not even be any point to giving up drinking, that it could even make things worse in some ways.

It’s bad form to talk about the meetings or AA at all. Tradition 11 says: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” I’d like to apologise for speaking about AA here, even if it is just in very general terms. I would never repeat what anyone else said there; I never talk there myself, I just sit and listen. I wait for the reassurance of identification and nothing else.

“I was like that once. I was that bad. I never want to go back to that again.”

Buy Jolly Lad here.


This excerpt has been lightly edited for context. All identifying details of AA meetings have been changed.

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John Doran is the co-founder and editor of Europe’s largest fully independent music and culture website, the Quietus, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. He has written for the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New Humanist, the WIRE, Metal Hammer, The Stool Pigeon, VICE, the Word, NME, Drowned In Sound, Q, Louder Than War, Plan B, Classic Rock, Prog and Careless Talk Costs Lives. He is the presenter of the long running filmed interview series British Masters for NOISEY as well as a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and 6 Music. He is a recovering chronic alcoholic and former persistent substance abuser. He has, at various times, been diagnosed as bipolar, as suffering from PTSD, as suffering from severe clinical depression and as having generalized anxiety disorder. Find John on Twitter and Facebook.