Alcoholics have been robbed of their coping mechanisms. Credit: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

May 18, 2020   4 mins

Alcoholism is a strange condition: a kind of obsessive self-mutilation with thoughts. The drinking itself is almost incidental: medicine to treat the thoughts until you learn, if you are lucky, that it doesn’t work and never will.

Alcohol is not available to me — I am sober almost 20 years — but there are other things to mutilate with. One of them is fear. I should be used to it by now, but I still wake each morning surprised by it. I fall to fear, like a cartoon woman, and I cry in my study.

I see alcoholism as a parasite — people used to think that alcoholics were possessed by demons — and although this idea absolves me of everything I have done, and is romantic, I believe it. I have to, or I couldn’t go on. If alcoholism thrives on fear, it also thrives on isolation. It courts it: if you have ever wondered why alcoholics behave so badly it is because we want, on an unconscious level, to be alone.

The alcoholic can build misery in happy times, and usually does because it feels safe with the familiar. What would it do with pandemic? I always thought that, as someone anxious in ordinary times, I would be calm and useful in extraordinary times. The curse would be reversed. It wasn’t like that; or at least, it hasn’t been so far.

I was crushed by Covid-19, and I didn’t even have it. I imagined everyone I love unable to breathe. Then I imagined myself unable to breathe. I imagined the global economy crashing. Then I imagined all the hundreds of millions of pieces of individual despair that would follow from the crashing of the economy. I read about the poverty, the callousness, the untaught children and the domestic murders. I read the foolishness. I read the lies: what equaliser? I imagined our world falling into an abyss from which it would not return, because this is only the first act of our ending. And on, and on.

Two things reliably rescue me from these kinds of thoughts and both of them, with pandemic, are withdrawn. The first is writing and I find it difficult, at the moment, to write. I cannot write because I cannot think. There’s nothing to write about anyway, except the view from the window and I am not good at landscape.

I want to write about people and, just now, there aren’t any. What do I have to say about pandemic that a frightened child couldn’t say? My husband turned to me last week and said, with almost desperate joy, “it’s bin night”. “I’ll do the recycling bags,” I said. That was it. I can’t outwrite a parasite. Not this one, though I had some success with the other one. I like it neatly imprisoned in paragraphs from which it can’t escape. Prometheus on its small rock, chained with words. It makes me feel safe.

The second is Alcoholics Anonymous, where I have gone for 20 years to know I am not alone. I don’t go for the speech. I don’t understand the AA steps — what character defects and what God? I only tidally believe in a God of my understanding and, like a child, when I believe I really believe and when I don’t, I don’t. I don’t think alcoholics have more depressive emotions than non-alcoholics; we just have more emotions generally. We are like pianos with 12 octaves. We crash up and down: the most joyful, the most despairing, the most afraid.

I go for the animal warmth, to find other creatures like me. It’s not the worst mental illness by any means, alcoholism — it’s potentially arrestable — but most people consider it self-murder. They cannot understand it. It is anathema to the creed of mankind, which likes to act in its own interests; or thinks it does. That leaves the alcoholic with only another alcoholic for the comfort of being known. It’s wonderful and it works, when you can find it. The condition cannot be wished or thought away. It can only be diminished with love, often topped-up in church halls and municipal meeting rooms. It’s strange and prosaic, a metaphor for life.

But the AA meetings closed, with everything else, and I am alone with the monster and our long, repetitive conversations, which leave me prostrate, because the voice is so practised, and convincing, and it knows me so well. Then I recover to mania, which is the opposite of peace and, though easier for me — no one weeps in mania — is harder for those around me.

I know it’s a luxury nowadays, not having Covid-19, which compounds the guilt of just having alcoholism and a glut of isolation and fear, which magnifies the voice. I was told that I could log on to any meeting in the world. I could go to a meeting in Alaska, or New York City. But, at first, I didn’t. It took me many years to go to AA, and many more years to listen when I did, and I need the warmth. It’s possible to skulk on Zoom, but I prefer to skulk in person.

Eventually, last week, I went. I can’t write about AA but what is said is true. It’s not the same in lockdown — more accurately lock-in — as it is not the same for the non-alcoholic seeking love. I do not know when they will return. I know what drinking alcoholics are facing now, and I am fearful for them, but, without AA, I cannot reach them. I can only imagine them. My sponsor says that to survive alcoholism you have to learn to live in the day, like a spaniel. I have never really managed this; perhaps pandemic will teach it to me.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.