Father’s Day, June 14th 2015. My best friend Steve* dies.
Wait, let me rephrase that.
Father’s Day, June 14th 2015. My best friend Steve commits suicide.
Within a split second, my whole world falls apart and everything changes.
Inconsolable and not knowing what else to do, I quickly head for the local pub where, to my relief, several mutual friends have gathered to comfort one another. Everyone is overwhelmed with shock, pain and disbelief. I arrive at the boozer to be warmly embraced by my girlfriend and, as we console one another, I notice several friends and acquaintances sat nearby just staring into space, clearly dazed and broken.
Following a much-needed pint, I try as best I can to gather myself and phone a couple of local chums to pass on the truly horrific news. They arrive at the pub within minutes and after more pints, warm embraces and further sobbing all round, I eventually make my way home.
When I wake up the next morning, I feel fine. For just a few seconds, everything is all right in my world. Then it slowly dawns on me. My best friend killed himself yesterday and all the hurt, guilt and trauma overwhelm me and I feel like staying in bed forever.
Where there any warning signs?
What did I miss?
How could I have stopped him?
Why would he do such a thing?
How did I fail him?
These and a million other questions churn inside me. I think of all the nights spent with Steve down the pub. The laughter, the piss-taking and the many conversations concerning (mostly) music. Within minutes, I’m in floods of tears and head straight to the pub again.
Steve was one of the kindest, caring and funniest people I’d ever met. Always a shoulder to cry on or, as is more likely, willing to give me the benefit of the doubt where others refused. You see, during the majority of my boozing days, I’m one annoyingly arrogant cunt. A real fucking nightmare. Once I’m in my cups, I know no fear and I’m the most insensitive twat you could ever happen upon. I think I’m the dog’s bollocks when, in reality, I’m completely unbearable. You may or may not think I’m being too hard on myself. I don’t know and don’t really care, quite frankly. No doubt I’m unconsciously putting this out there before anyone else gets the chance to do the same. I can just picture one or two particularly terse cunts nodding and smiling knowingly as they read this.
When I first arrive in Studley, Warwickshire (late 2012), it takes me about nine months to establish a social base i.e. a pub. The one I eventually choose – The Black Lion* – is what I like to think of as a ‘proper boozer’ and a haven for real ale enthusiasts. In other words, not exactly spit ‘n’ sawdust but not an identikit Weatherspoons either. Run by the unflappable, convivial Mike* and frequented by a cross-section of locals, it’s one of those taverns that offers a warm, welcoming atmosphere all year round – a pub for all seasons is the best way to describe it. If you know or ever happen to visit the place, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at.
February 2013. Following a couple of nights sat alone in The Lion supping several tasty ales with only a copy of my trusty Empire movie magazine for company, on the third night, I notice a tall, stout fellow with a pink Mohican arrive shortly after myself. Now, here’s someone who, by his unique appearance if nothing else, is my sort of drinking buddy. But rather than stick out like a sore thumb, he seems part and parcel of the pub’s unique atmosphere. He’s just ‘accepted’ and clearly a much-loved regular.
Approaching the bar, I spy a Sex Pistols patch sewn onto his vintage M65 army jacket and seize the opportunity:
“Do you know which was the only Sex Pistols track that Sid Vicious played on?”
“Correct. One of my favourite tracks.”
“Oh God yeah, mate. Mine too.”
And with that, we become firm chums – bonding over a shared love of punk music and Jasper Carrot routines from the Seventies, amongst other things. During the next couple of years, we enjoy many a pint together, laugh until we nearly soil ourselves and develop that kind of rare, unspoken language best friends have: where just a nod or a smile says everything.
With me being ‘the stranger in town’, Steve soon makes a point of introducing me to all of his friends from the pub. Within a matter of days, I was lucky enough to be considered a ‘local’. I felt like I belonged for the first time since moving to the village. That was the sort of friend Steve was: generous, gregarious and warm-hearted.
Steve soon proves to be a great listener, too. He doesn’t always have the right answers and probably gets sick of hearing my woes (I know I do) but he takes the time to hear me out. Looking back, more than anything, I wish he had come to me. I can’t think of a day gone by when I haven’t thought about him.
From what I can gather, on his last night, Steve was down The Lion and showed no signs of distress or despair. He was his usual amiable self: knocking back beers and laughing with friends. No-one with him that evening had cause for concern or any inkling of what was about to happen the following day. Perhaps he didn’t want to burden anyone or maybe he was resigned to his chosen fate. I don’t know
In the days, weeks and months that follow Steve’s suicide, I hit the bottle big time. I always have in times of crisis. It’s a fucking stupid coping mechanism. I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression since my late teens, but this is something else entirely – profound, complex and merciless in its emotional severity. All the grief and regret I’d buried deep inside following my father’s death (2010) comes flooding back and melds with the heartbreak over my best friend. Shattered by remorse, alcohol is the glue that puts me back together albeit temporarily. I’m such a mess that I can’t even face attending Steve’s funeral. I loathe and detest myself for letting him down and wallow in perpetual torment.
I let Steve down.
I let Dad down.
I let everyone down.
I am fucking worthless.
Alcohol fuels my self-pity and, eventually, Mum cannot take anymore and kicks me out the house. She’s unable to cope with my boozing and watching me kill myself slowly. I can’t say I blame her. I kip at my girlfriend’s place for a few weeks but she soon runs out of patience, so I end up getting my own flat for a while, where I spend my days and nights drenched in even more booze. At one particularly low point, I am banned from The Lion for six months. People have grown tired of watching me self-destruct. Mum allows me back home – she can see I’m slowly killing myself – so I give up the flat and, under my her watchful eye, I stay sober for a week or two. But I’m still hurting inside and soon lapse back into perpetual inebriation.
December 2015. Instead of drinking in the local and staggering home at closing time, instead, I form an ingenious plan to book into a hotel for two or three days and continue boozing myself into oblivion there. Heading home in a taxi after my latest binge, I’m feeling somewhat under the weather. I’m not exactly hung over but conscious of a nagging twinge down the left side of my stomach. It’s nothing, I say to myself. A few hours kip and I’ll be right as rain, ready to indulge in the season’s festivities.
Boxing Day, just after lunchtime, and having failed to finish a leftover turkey dinner, I’m in a bad way. The pain in my stomach is growing worse by the minute and wave after wave of nausea consumes me. Back in my early twenties and whilst at university, I’d suffered an horrendous attack of acute pancreatitis, which hospitalised me for two weeks. The pain I’m experiencing now feels remarkably similar. A few hours later I can barely stand up so Mum calls for an ambulance. After a few hours in the A & E Department, I’m examined and as suspected, it’s pancreatitis – chronic this time – so I’m shunted up to the ward at around 4am. But due to budget cuts, not just any ward: the geriatric ward, no less. The doctors visit me later that morning and give me the usual ‘booze is gonna kill you’ speech, but I’m more interested in arranging to be moved to another ward where I can recuperate properly. The majority of my fellow patients are clearly in the latter stages of dementia and awake most of the night, which eventually results in me self-discharging.
Back home, I last about three hours before Mum rings for a second ambulance. I’m seriously ill and doubled over in agony as I’m driven back to hospital. I stick it out for six more days and on the seventh, the doctors send me home again. Before I leave, a surgeon stops by and gives it to me straight: if I carry on like this, I will be dead in six months. He’s right, of course. I simply cannot do this anymore. I’m fed up of hangovers and hospitals. Perhaps it’s time for me to hang up my drinking trousers once and for all. I can’t explain how or why, but something inside me changes. It’s as if a switch has been turned off. I still can’t explain it. Miraculously, my thirst for booze disappears as quickly as it arrived all those years ago.
I’m sick of it.
I’m sick and I’m tired.
Sick and tired of it all.
My body cannot take any more punishment. That’s the bottom line and consequently, I suffer a smorgasbord of further maladies on the road to recovery. Though, I hasten to add, this isn’t an alcoholic’s recovery. I’d never been that bad. Due to consistently ignoring medical advice over the years, essentially, the last binge finally tipped the scales and now my body is telling me enough is enough.
Food goes straight through me. My stomach lining cannot digest anything except itself, so I lose a significant amount of weight. At my worst, I’m weigh just under seven stone. It’s only with the intervention of a private doctor that I am saved from an untimely end. I’m prescribed enzyme tablets so that my stomach can begin to gain nourishment from food. I start to enjoy eating for the first time in decades and develop a ridiculously sweet tooth (and consequently type 2 diabetes). From the very beginning of my abstinence, I don’t miss alcohol one bit. My heavy drinking days are finally over and done with. But being sober and therefore thinking clearly, I don’t feel at home in Studley any more. I see and hear Steve everywhere. Perhaps booze masked my true feelings or my sense of identity? The real me? I don’t know.
It’s time to move on, or so I believe.
*names has been changed