Last week’s post was inspired by Mittal’s question about the balance between recovery and life. What started out as a brief chat, turned into an insightful, honest, and somewhat harrowing conversation.
I’ve looked to the past a few times in recent posts exploring whether alcoholism has always been part of my personality, waiting to break through since my early 20’s.
Little did I know, as the conversation unfolded with Mittal, that exact question was going to be answered, along with a big slap of reality.
Mittal and I met during uni, in a pool hall in Cambridge after a freshers event and, when everyone else was going home, I wanted to stay out. I lived out of town and taxi fares home were expensive so I often stayed on his floor. He remembers leaving for lectures and finding me still asleep in his room when he returned.
“To be honest, I didn’t care, it was expected behaviour – we were first year uni students.”
He’s right, we were first year uni students, but as he said this, my mind can’t help but be cast to a recurring thought I’ve recently had: “I really did justify drinking, all the time”.
At the end of the first year, Mittal and many other friends had gone home for the summer, but I stayed in Cambridge. I’d never seen it this way until now, but it seems I latched onto lots of different groups during uni. I didn’t like down time, but looking back this fluttering probably led to the breakdown of what could have been great friendships.
“Yeah man, luckily we were a constant, but you moved around a lot. You latched onto a lot of different groups. Usually expertly timed when they were on the lash, then when the next one came along, you ditched that group for another.”
Drinking, to me, meant I was accepted. If I drank with a group, I was ‘in’.
In my second year some friends staged an intervention, led by my partner at the time. Mittal wasn’t there but he felt the aftermath, for sure.
“I said I didn’t want to go [to the intervention]. You were my friend and to be honest, I didn’t think that type of intervention was useful. I knew you wouldn’t react to it the way they hoped. Like clockwork you rang me afterwards and, as a result of being pissed off, we went out drinking.
It hits me suddenly, I knew drinking was a coping method in my later years, but it has always been my coping mechanism. It was my go-to and my best friend was usually part of it, but did he feel torn about us drinking to solve a problem?
“You would say “let’s go to the pool hall, pub or beer garden”, it always involved drinking. You would talk to me about how pissed off you were about something or an argument you’d had. It seemed to be your way of coping – going out, leaving the house, getting pissed.
“You’d say stuff like “The house will be so annoyed I’m going home like this, super drunk” but you’d do it anyway and I’d be there with you, perhaps sometimes against my better judgement.”
Alcohol allowed me to vent, let my feelings out, become vulnerable and welcome advice. Mittal was the guy I trusted most, but we still needed that golden nectar to unlock our subconscious.
“Often you’d just crack a bunch of beers and then we’d have a night where we’d talk and listen to music, which in fact was one of the most enjoyable things we did. But this involved a certain level of drinking.
“We’d buy a crate, just for this night because we knew what we were gonna do. We did this throughout our friendship, it was a way to let stuff out, for both of us. We’d get pretty deep if we hit that point, but it wasn’t what we talked about that left an uncomfortable feeling in the morning…”
I’ve never been able to bear hangovers, I could never lie in bed feeling shit. I know later in my journey I used to solve them by drinking first thing, but it seems the foundations for this were built in my early 20’s.
“I’d lie in after a heavy night, wake up and you’d be gone. This is the point when I really started to wonder and become concerned. I remember thinking you’re hiding something, that your behaviour is just weird. We’d stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning, I’d have a horrific hangover and then I’d find out you were in the pub where you worked, hanging out with locals – who does that?”
Let’s not forget, we were in our 20’s, both drinking a lot, as you do. But it’s becoming apparent that it wasn’t the fact that we drank a lot, it was the nuanced behaviour around drinking that caught my best friends eye. And when he didn’t agree with my way of thinking, I turned it on him.
“We day drank, sure. But it makes you tired. I’d go home, have dinner, but you’d just stay, not eat, and carry on until 2am. I couldn’t handle that. You’d always say “Oh, I just have to get up, because if I don’t, then I’ll lie in bed the whole day like you…” And I said “hey, don’t make this about me!”
Working in a pub during this time certainly didn’t help anything. It meant I had drinking buddies all day, every day. Looking back it became my excuse, my justification to drink. But it seems I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“You were given industry cards, you got early entry to the beer festival, tasting sessions, and all the rest. You took authority on alcohol, you were the booze guy, making it basically, your life. It was the justification to what you liked to do, but you don’t see many people needing to justify their hobby, do you?”
We lived above the pub, for about a year and a half. Without me asking he transitions into talking about that time. It hits me that this is perhaps something he’s held in for some time.
“There were so many things you started to not notice about me. You were my close friend and housemate, yet you never asked, or noticed that I hated living in that little room.
“I didn’t want to get drunk all the time. But you just didn’t see it. You were having late nights, speaking to different people, chatting up girls, and I’d just be upstairs in my room trying to play games or watch TV or something, alone. You’d just always be working – well, or drinking – towards the end, I didn’t know which it was.
“I tried to talk to you about it and you just said “yeah, yeah, yeah”. So I got to the point where I was like, I just have to get out of this fucking place.”
This cut me deep. This gave me flashbacks of whenever this discussion came up, trying to get him involved, to ignore the conversation, pushing it away with alcohol. What friend does that?
Usually friends or family say there is a specific point where they notice the amount you drink creeps up and therefore become concerned, but this isn’t the only sign. I asked Mittal if there was a ‘turning point’.
“I didn’t think there was a particular standout time, we’d been as drunk as we possibly could together, I never saw you in a state I hadn’t seen you in before.
“It was the consistency. You’d have routines. If you had a big night you had Guinness when the pub opened to ‘settle your stomach’, if the sun was out it was a gin and tonic, if it was raining it was an ale. It was like a weird ritual, planned consumption almost.”
I never ask friends if they thought they should have interjected. I know I wouldn’t have if I was on the other side. It’s not something you want to come to terms with as a close friend and probably something you never think is possible.
“Sometimes I thought maybe I should talk to him. But I countered it by thinking “he’s just young, we’re both young, we’ll grow out of it. He’s running a pub, he’s a manager he’s doing really well”. You didn’t show any signs of fucking up, you had it together.
“But it was those nuanced behaviours I was always curious about, not concerned, just things I never understood at the time, until now.”
We eventually moved out of the pub into our own house. During this time some friends came to live with us. I remember this time fondly, it was great fun, but as usual my brain has blocked out the parts it doesn’t want to remember.
“One thing we should talk about is when Lee and Beans moved in. It was a heavy summer for us all and we all loved a drink, but there came a point when life became real. Lee was looking for a job, we were all a bit lethargic and arguably worn out.
“You’d ask if anyone fancied the pub, and when you received a no, due to financial reasons or just wanting to chill, you’d march in the door 10 mins later with a crate. It kept happening, like it was groundhog day.
“No one wanted to turn you down because it was your house, but you’d initiate drinking sessions constantly, when really, people wanted down time. You were never happy just chilling out.”
Hearing this makes me cringe. I kept coming in the door with booze and feeling like I was helping out, because that’s what I would have wanted. But, those guys just wanted to get their head down, find jobs and start their Cambridge life. But nope, the sober police were patrolling every night, and this wasn’t on. We were drinking.
After 2.5 years of running the pub, I secured an internship in London and eventually moved there, but for a long time, Cambridge still felt like home. I used to visit every month, to see Mittal, Lee, Beans and others. Until this moment, I’ve always had a fond memory of them, until I learned the truth.
“You did visit yeah, but it wasn’t what you thought. I remember talking to Lee about it, saying how we missed hanging out with you, but every time you came you were just hammered.
“We’d go out of our way to meet you in the morning, to catch you before you got drunk but that wasn’t possible. You always said “I’m on holiday” as you walked off the train with a GnT in hand, after drinking three on the train and I remember thinking “for fuck’s sake”, and this was every time.
“It was just annoying, all we wanted to do was hang out with you, but all you wanted to do was get pissed – you just ended up slurring and drunk.
“I remember feeling horrible, and I made the decision to not bother meeting you anymore. But I couldn’t do it, one time you were calling me and calling me and I was like “Ben, I don’t want to go to the pub”. I made up excuses, you just kept saying “please please, it’s been so long”. By the time I got there you’d forgotten I was coming, I was so fucked off, I just left. You’d been on the phone to me for half an hour, and just fucking forgotten.”
The tone in his voice sticks with me as I write this and I can feel how pissed off he was – half the frustration of not being able to see a friend and half that after making a big deal, I clearly didn’t care if he was there or not. Fuck.
We lost touch for a few months, it seemed alcohol hadn’t only got hold of our friendship when we were together, but it was also controlling me in ways Mittal didn’t know.
The next time I got in touch was after my seizures and during rehab. The theme continues as I hear from Mittal that I didn’t own up to why I seized.
“The first time you told me that you had a seizure. You didn’t say it was to do with alcohol. I cut in and said “Ben, you had alcohol withdrawals”. You kept saying it was to do with something else, and although it was a convincing lie, I was having none of it.”
I was embarrassed – I had just seized due to withdrawal, at 27. My friends were working hard, busting their balls to progress life and I was checking into rehab.
“I wasn’t shocked you’re gonna go to rehab, I was shocked you seized. After looking into it, mainly how much you needed to drink to seize, I said to myself “Jesus Christ, this must have gotten pretty bad”.
“I was just so glad you were doing it. But if I’m honest, there was a part of me that thought “he’s not going to go, he’s just saying this”. Having known you for so long, it didn’t seem like something you’d do, I just had this feeling.
“I feel bad about that, but you used to lie about everything, it was a common theme. About everything big and small, you flaked on plans, lied about stuff that didn’t even matter. I wanted to believe you, but I couldn’t.”
Mittal was one of the first people I called from rehab, when I could. I had no emotion, didn’t talk about my feelings, mainly talked him through the schedule, but there was clearly a part of me that wanted him to know I was there.
After having the above conversation with him, I had to sit in silence for a while. Mittal’s honesty brought many things to the surface, but my overall feeling as I type this is of amazing confusion.
Even in my twenties, my illness was putting my boozy lifestyle above my friends’ well-being, lying about most things and putting alcohol before our friendship. Yet he looked past that, gave me far more chances than I deserved and held on to perhaps the best bits of Ben he remembered.
That call I made from rehab was confirming the best version of Ben he knew, the sober Ben, was coming back and this time to stay.
Thank you, Mittal.
Love, Ben xx