Drunk in Shanghai
I drank to excess every day for ten years while living in Shanghai.
I was living in a district called Xujiahui, alone, and working as an English teacher. I was drinking every day and kidding myself that this was the life. Working just a handful for hours every day then going to a dive bar and getting trashed with my new friends.
I worked with many other men that were similar to me — men from the UK, America, Canada, Australia — abandoning any responsibility and getting wasted on cheap booze. All of us washed up on the shores of Shanghai and spending too much time drinking or taking drugs.
But for me, I really excelled at it. I pushed the boat out and I was the master at getting totally annihilated every night. Blackouts were a common occurrence for me. Waking up on the floor of my grim apartment was a normal situation. Losing all control of my faculties. I learned to push these boundaries out and accept them. No one told me not to, because I had no family near me and the only friends I had were other alcoholics.
My drinking establishment was a bar called The Kiwi. It was nothing more than a concrete box — no charm, no niceties — and filled with white men all drinking and forcing reality as far from their lives as possible. The toilets were broken, the stools damaged from all of us throwing them at the walls. But the booze flowed endlessly and we drank and drank and drank.
In no time at all, I was drinking all the time. I woke up and had to have a beer in the morning, just to get my head straight. This evolved into two beers, three. Then it became four.
Due to the increase in alcohol intake, I found myself being picked up by the cops. Unsure as to what to do with me, they took me to the hospital each time. The first time I woke up surrounded by police, nurses and a doctor — a drip going into my arm and the doctor about to plunge a needle into my vein. I ripped the drip feed out of my arm and they all tried to hold me down, but I struggled free and ran out.
But instead of it being a wake-up call I just adjusted to it. I pushed the boundaries out again and bragged about it down The Kiwi.
In the space of one week, I was taken to the hospital three times and given a sedative. I passed out and woke up the next morning wondering where I was. I did the same thing every time — pulled the drip out of my arm and ran out, the nurse running after me to check if I was all right.
By now I knew that my life was out of control and that I needed to change. I made attempts to stop drinking. I stopped for a week, another time for a whole month. But each time I convinced myself that because I was able to stay sober for a few days — and one time for thirty days — that I was in control, that I could manage my drinking. So I started again and got deeper and deeper into the addiction.
Another scare, a moment when I saw my life slipping through the cracks in the ground, and I made the call to Alcoholics Anonymous. It was one of the most frightening things I have ever done. I went to a meeting and said nothing, went to a smaller meeting and spoke freely. Then I stopped going altogether. Strangely, I stayed sober for quite a long time — about nine months. But one small trigger made me start again and I fell into the deeper abyss of alcohol.
Through all the time that I was drinking in Shanghai I heard of other foreign guys a little older than me that had died. One guy called Jack who was a regular drinker at The Kiwi who was discovered lying face-down in his room in a pool of his own fluids. Another man who went missing and was discovered in a similar state.
This is a very common occurrence in Asia — men from western countries being found in this undignified position. Dead, bloated, lying in their own vomit and urine. Their rooms filled with empty bottles of booze. I can immediately think of five people that I knew that died like this. The only reason we cannot read about so many of these stories in China is because the media is controlled severely.
I went to hospital. I was unable to sleep for longer than just three or four hours at a time. The doctor gave me some meds and I wolfed them down greedily. It gave life a smoother edge, everything seemed dull and less harsh. But still no sleep. Most night I went to the McDonalds next door to where I lived. A place filled in the night with the homeless and disenfranchised. And me with a bottle and my new box of meds. A notebook in front of me as I scribbled one list after another. I made lists on what I needed to do to change my life.
One recurring list I wrote was how to stop drinking. It read — get meds, go back to AA, talk to a shrink, suicide.
The final suggestion did not seem such a terrible thing at the time. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable way to stop all the madness. I can remember seriously contemplating cutting off my little finger on my left hand as I came to the belief that that is where all the addiction lay. I thought by cutting off my finger it would all end.
I went to a catholic church, I went to a mosque. But most of the time I walked the back streets of my neighbourhood with a bottle in my hand.
Eventually I began to hallucinate. I started to see visions of one of my teachers from my school in London. I think I spoke to him on occasion. Another time I saw the singer David Bowie in the filthy basement of a high-rise building. I saw him a second time on the subway.
After this I managed to stop again. This time I was quite successful at it. I started doing exercise and reading voraciously. I was happy. I stayed sober for a year and a half then a little trigger to do with getting a new passport made me drink again. And down I fell, down into that deep chasm and into the darkest depths of alcoholism I have ever known.
It was during this time that I met a local Shanghai woman called L. She wanted to help me. It was insane. I was a chronic alcoholic and she saw something in me that urged her to help me.
We tried everything. Chinese acupuncture, more medicine, another few trips to the meetings in AA. None of it worked. We got married. Any advice you read will tell you this is a terrible idea, but we went ahead and did it.
Then one morning it reached crisis point. I had to borrow money from my wife and I walked the streets drinking. I knew I was on the very edge now and had to make a change. I called a good friend and he took me to his place. For three days he kept me there and did not allow me to drink. The first day was horrible. Me, curled up on the floor of his apartment, shaking violently and begging him for just one small glass of beer.
The second day was slightly better, but I was still unable to hold a glass of water to my lips. My hands were shaking like I was having a fit. My body temperature ran from icy cold to a soaring heat and I went from splashing cold water onto my body to wrapping myself in a blanket and shivering.
Then day three started to feel more normal. My friend called my wife and she came to meet us. I was ashamed and looked to the ground. I was convinced she was about to leave me, but instead she took me home and said she would take care of everything.
For the first few months she watched me like a hawk. She was careful to monitor my behaviour and look for anything out of the ordinary. But I stayed sober and got better.
I have been sober for more than six years now and I feel superhuman compared to how I felt before. Now I do regular exercise, I eat healthy food — no more bread, sugar or junk food. I meditate and a devour books. I write. I find now that I am much less angry at the world. Or at myself. I am able to accept things for what they are.
Happy is a word that is greatly misused today. If I were to describe my feelings today I would say that I feel extremely content. I don’t feel like there is a motor running inside my brain at a thousand revolutions per second. For the first time I actually feel calm and that is a great place to be.