to drink or not to drink

Throughout my life, it is music that has been my number one preoccupation. However during some periods of my life, drink has run a close second. Since I was a teenager, I have had a long and turbulent relationship with the demon alcohol.

My family moved to Cambridge in 1967, the summer of love(!). At seventeen and fresh out of boarding school into a student town full of pubs, my drinking career took off without a hitch. For the next several years, despite passionate affairs with most of the available recreational drugs, drink remained the undisputed protagonist in my hedonistic heart.

I moved to London, then the streets of Paris, where hours of playing music every day began in earnest. Still a drink of some kind was never far away. Life’s essentials were reduced to a minimum as all surplus funds were offered up at the altar of Bacchus. Fortified with ‘Dutch courage’, I embarked on one adventure after another throughout my 20s. Having lived to tell the tale, I cannot honestly say I regret my alcoholic exuberance. Without the booze, I may never summoned up the nerve to do many of the things I did.

Nonetheless, as I turned 30, though my lifestyle barely skipped a beat, I began to suspect that my tireless enthusiasm for intoxication was perhaps a little misguided. So I began to take short breaks from the drink. At first this was a miserable business. So ingrained in my psyche was the daily intake of something alcoholic, that the lack of it seemed a pointless denial of my essential nature. Despite moments of clarity, usually early in the morning, these brief periods of sobriety achieved nothing.

In 1982 I moved to New York, and a year later my twin sons were born. By this time I had managed once to stay dry for 6 months. During this period, for the first time I had glimpses of a life beyond or without alcohol. I could begrudgingly accept that I was a nicer person, less prone to anger, and less self centred. I also saw that I was far more able to rise to the challenges of improving as a musician, of doing my job more effectively. I realised that I was never going to write anything of lasting value under the influence of alcohol. And perhaps most of all, I could see that whatever parenting skills I could muster were bound to be handicapped by booze. Still I found it very difficult to sustain, particularly in the late night bars and clubs my line of work took me to. So I began drinking again, with a vengeance.

This pattern established itself for the next 20 years or so. I would give up for up to 6 months, then fall off the wagon with a bang. Feast or famine. Finally in late 1997 I had to admit to myself that what was left of my brain was turning to mush thanks to beer and its pals. In early 1998 I stopped and didn’t touch a drop for three and a half years. For the first year or so I smoked pot nearly every day. Eventually I had to concede that I had just substituted one drug for another. Also, I was not helping myself smoking every day, especially as a singer. So I stopped that too.

This was new territory. As the months went by, I barely thought about drinking any more. My brain was clear and full of ideas. I was obliged to admit I had been regarding life and human society through blinkered vision. I was now appreciating moments and details in a whole new way. There was more simple joy in my life!

I went to a couple of AA meetings but I did not feel comfortable. I am full of respect for what they offer and how they have helped so many people. It just was not my cup of tea. What I agree with them about is that no one can beat addiction on their own. It was during this period that I began revisiting my Christian faith.

Thanks mostly to my mother’s tireless, devout example, I had never entirely abandoned my belief in God. As a teenager intent on having as much fun as possible, I turned my back on my Catholic upbringing, and gave myself up to pursuing my own version of the rock and roll lifestyle. Still, when it suited me I turned to God, or at least acknowledged in my mind his undeniable presence.

There will be another time to chronicle in detail my journey for the last 11 years towards a better understanding and relationship with God. However I can think of no explanation for the transformation in my attitude to drink other than that I have been blessed with supernatural guidance.

When my mother died, I quite suddenly began drinking again. I drank a lot, but even so it was not the same as before. I had come to realise how much I enjoyed NOT drinking and treasured the time thus spent. In the last several years I have drunk less and less to the point where now I might have a drink every few weeks or so, in celebration of something or other, and maybe even have a bit of a party on that day! But I never drink the next day, and on a day to day basis, I am happier being sober and enjoying all the benefits of that.

In the bad old days, I more or less refused to suffer a hangover, and any time I awoke with one, I’d jump back in the river of booze as soon as possible. It took me a very long time to wake up to the fact that postponing suffering of this kind merely ensures greater suffering down the line. For me it is similar to the way society encourages us to work hard to acquire and maintain acceptable levels of comfort. La Grande Illusion!

In his most readable autobiography, ‘Music is my Mistress’, Duke Ellington writes of a moment in his late 20s when after a particular bout of partying he resolved to ‘retire undefeated’. Later in the book he describes enjoying vodka and caviar in some exotic place. This does not indicate that he had weakened his resolve, but rather that it was no longer a habit.

Retire undefeated. I like that.

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