I’m tunneling into the city without a hangover or a badger and Chekhov’s gun is locked and loaded, ready for ACT III and that gossipy fucking chorus. I need shirts, lots of them because I’m a worker now and workers need to look like they’re working hard, and white shirts are symbolic of modern labour.
But first I need to take a deep breath and try to explain myself the best I can.
I have been sober for exactly five weeks and I have so much excess energy that I go to sleep looking forward to getting up the next day. I also do yoga now. Ashtanga yoga, at 6am. I rise at 5:30am and walk through the dark backstreets of Brunswick to the yoga studio next to Jewel Station. Yoga relaxes me but I don’t like closing my eyes in a room full of strangers. It’s not that I feel vulnerable, it’s just that I’m worried people will read my mind and see what I really think of them.
Being sober means being more aware and, unfortunately, that heightened awareness can feel like paranoia. Alcohol is a wonderful buffer that keeps reality at bay and shields you from other people’s opinions of you. When I was in a constant state of drunkenness I was blissfully unaware of the thoughts of others. I’ve probably pissed off more people in one night than most people do in a lifetime, and I didn’t feel their penetrating gaze on my tarnished conscience. People had to tell me and, when they did, I’d politely ask them to, ‘Shut the fuck up’.
No drunk wants some loose-tongued lizard regaling them with their nocturnal sins, while they’re nursing the mother of all hangovers. Our motto is, ‘If you can’t remember, it didn’t happen’, and anyway, the friend who wants to interrupt your self-loathing with the embarrassing details of the previous night doesn’t really want to help you. All they’re doing is scrambling up to the moral high ground out of some misguided sense of entitlement.
Well, at least that’s what you think when you’re knee deep in a whisky Jacuzzi, with the devil dancing on your tonsils and a cactus crawling up your liver.
The drunk is a poor man’s Prometheus tied to the front bar, awaiting his fate every evening while the other drinkers stomp their feet on the carpet to the beat of the eagle’s giant wings.
Yes, people tried to help me but that help fell on deaf ears because I thought I had all the answers, even when I could see the dot of the eagle appear on the horizon, hungry for its nightly feast. I suppose Prometheus is the patron saint of alcoholics, and he knew all about regret.
Now there’s a word. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced regret and when you do experience it, you wish you could go back in time and sort the shit out. But even if you did go back in time and sort the shit out, you’d still be afflicted by regret. Just like a Jehovah’s Witness, once you invite regret into your life, you’re fucked…
… and the moment you sober up the regret rolls in. It starts with the dreams. Anxiety dreams and nightmares that have been queuing for months, waiting for a chance to tread the boards. I kept having dreams about friends being eaten by sharks but the worst one was about turning up to work wearing a sweater vest. Yes, the shame of wearing a sweater vest was worse than a shark attack. Plus, the sweater vest was covered in red wine stains. When I woke up from that dream I went for a 3am run around Princes Park just to warm up my cold sweat.
But the heightened energy of sobriety is the hardest part to control. The drive to do things, to take that image of the warm, dark pub out of my mind and toss it into that landfill of regret. That’s what fuels the paranoia. The mountain of regret that I’d swept under the carpet because another Bloody Mary beckoned. Sitting in a pub, bar, kitchen or bedroom, as long as I had a drink in one hand and a Peter Stuyvesant in the other. When I was in that state, regret backed off and the day started off right.
Now, the doors have opened and last orders have been called there’s no escaping the demons. The fuckers are out there, circling my wagon train but I’ve broken the chains and climbed off my craggy peak.
I’m tunneling into the city, a subterranean white collar worker looking for white shirts because white shirts mean hard work and hard work purifies the soul and chokes regret or that’s what I’m telling myself. I suspect this might be bullshit but what else can I do?
There are six bullets in this gun and I plan to be very selective in how I use them. The chorus is first and then…
“I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
It was Frankie Boyle who said that if he was invisible for a day he’d kick a mime artist to death, so at least the mime would die looking like he was great at his job. I’m great at falling into ruts and making the most of them. Ruts are my art.
When we hear about people falling into ruts, the general reaction is one of pity and concern. Eyebrows are raised, mouths are pursed and a cloud of self righteous judgement dominates the skyline. I’ve always associated self righteousness with smog. Anyway, the ‘rutee’ becomes that friend who requires a firm, yet gentle push into the arms of functionality, where they’ll find enlightenment from a change of lifestyle or gainful employment.
My ruts have been some of the most pleasant months of my life, and usually come after being fired from a job I hated. You have not lived until you’ve been sacked or told somebody to shove their shitty fucking job right up their shitty fucking arse. It’s even more exhilarating than a misdiagnosed health scare, and the subsequent good news that you’re not going to die.
During these ruts of self imposed unemployment, I lose some direction, but no, I do not become depressed about it all. Instead, I go on a writing binge and end up banging out the rough draft of a novel in a couple of months.
To make ends meet, I live off my savings and basically haemorrhage money like an RPG being shot at a moderately sized water tower. In the spirit of the Australian Liberal Party, I learn how to downsize the operation and settle for baked potatoes with a can of tuna and a dollop of black and gold sour cream, funds permitting. Equipped with low cost carbs and dolphin-friendly canned fish, I dip my head towards the keyboard and begin nosing around the English language for signs of life.
These are the beautiful ruts.
However, people quickly begin to question my motivations, especially people who harp on about being graduates of the University of Life. To these people, I become the ugly face of dysfunctionality and they treat me like I might be snow-dropping on the side, or worse still, flying a kite at night. Little do they know, I’m enjoying a holiday from my life, and trying to turn base expletives into literary gold at my kitchen table.
After some time, the rut transforms into a bubble and the prospect of leaving it becomes a source of great consternation. There is an evolutionary process to all ruts. It begins with the realization that you’re in one of those dreams where you’re running but not moving; you feel exhausted and your legs feel like a couple of railway sleepers that have been injected with pure episodes of The Biggest Loser.
Once you’ve given into this feeling, your body starts to sink below the surface of reality and your arms extend upwards, while the final molecules of reason dribble out of your nose and mouth, zigzagging their way to the edge of the meniscus.
Now, the ability to turn your rut into a water-tight bubble relies on turning the experience into something positive. I always choose a writing project, and as the project begins to take form, so does the bubble, offering safety from ‘the life aquatic’. Finances permitting, you can remain in the bubble until you’ve completed the project.
Being able to write without fear of homelessness is a privilege and not many people get to work on their own writing projects full-time. Most writers are out there teaching creative or professional writing courses or, better still, sitting in a Centrelink waiting room with a copy of Crime and Punishment on their lap, hoping that a friendly case worker will pat them on the back and say,
“It’s okay, I don’t think you’re a fucking loser like the rest of those lazy cretins. You read Russian literature. So, once I’m done stroking your penniless ego, you’re going to go out there and throw yourself in front of a tram and finally achieve the recognition you so richly deserve”.
My most recent rut has been the best one so far because I got to share it with somebody. In fact, we occupied the same bubble for two months and it ended up being one of the most endearing experiences of my life.
When you exist in a bubble with a loved one, nothing and nobody can touch you. Reality is put on hold and the world fades into the pale blue light of memory. We’d wake each morning, argue about whose turn it was to make tea and coffee, go for a bay walk and then return home to get on with our respective projects. At night we’d eat tacos, drink wine and then go to bed to watch the best TV show in the known universe, Vikings.
The perfection of simplicity is a rare bubble to inhabit.
But now our bubble has burst and our rut has become a landfill for routine and shower gel. We have jobs and our bank balances have come in off the ledge. It was a beautiful rut, spent with a beautiful person and I will miss those days forever.
It’s hard for me to acknowledge happiness as it occurs because I’m programmed to monitor my life for signs of darkness, rather than light. So, when I step back from a period of levity, I feel like I did the first time I climbed Ben Nevis and looked out across the Western Highlands.
That moment was the closest I’ve ever come to actual joy, without having to take drugs. I remember feeling light-headed and thinking that true beauty is just a mixture of tragedy and adrenalin, and being happy is about holding onto moments but knowing when to walk away. So, the rest of the time I suppose I’m just getting on with it all.
But there’s a story from my childhood that kind of sums it up…
When I was a kid my parents took me to Hull in the North East of England and we went to a fish and chip shop run by a woman with a beard and a permanent scowl torn across her creased face. When the meal came out the fish looked humiliated. I asked my dad what was wrong with the woman and he told me she was disappointed with life. I ate the chips.
And I still am.