I can pinpoint the exact moment when I crossed the line into active alcoholism rather than being a strictly controlled binge drinker. I was in Belarus with a Detective Inspector from Grampian Police. Against all odds and expectations, our combined efforts, and those of our friends in Homiel, had allowed us to arrange the repatriation of my colleagues’ remains in record time. We had accompanied the two coffins which were in a refrigerated lorry on the long drive from Homiel to Minsk. It took forever as we had to keep stopping to check the temperature. It was an unusually hot summer. We were sweltering in 34 degrees and I remember thinking” typical” that my boss was up ahead in a refrigerated lorry.
We had run the gauntlet of bureaucracy in Minsk but I had circumvented a lot of it by having blank signed letters from Sir John Everard, Our Man in Minsk, which allowed me to manufacture any random bit of official-looking paper that was suddenly demanded of us.
Finally it was done. There was nothing more we could do. The coffins were in storage ready for the Lufthansa flight to London via Frankfurt. We were on good old Belavia (NOW enjoy a pleasant flight as though apologetic for the crap flights of the past and warning us to expect at best ‘pleasant’) but their planes were two small to take crates containing coffins.
We retired to our hotel, once again back in the suites that I had bribed our way into. The DI brought out the vodka he had been given by the Homiel militia. I remember thinking “I am never going to drink that”. It was a very brief hesitation but the last time I had such a reservation about drinking for many years after that. What I know is, this time the vodka hit me somewhere differently. I have no idea what falling in love feels like but I can imagine it being something like this. Suddenly the heavy burden of unexpressed pressure, and of unreleased trauma disappeared.
God was in His heaven. All was right with the world.
I had a “where have you been all my life?” moment. I felt at one with the universe and finally, at peace with myself. It was an illusion of course, a mask, a façade, but one that became key to my basic survival until it was taken apart piece by piece.
We returned to Aberdeen and a flurry of press activity, the ongoing existence on the first floor of the Town House of “the Bunker” where only those staff trusted with “the Truth” were hidden away working feverishly on damage limitation exercises.
I had the sense of being paraded around at this time. I was forced to go to funerals and speak at the memorial which was broadcast live. I found it hard as I did not like Ann, my boss. I found her vindictive, jealous and bitter. I did not change my views just because she had met her death in these terrible circumstances. However, I had alcohol to help suspend my set of values, and extinguish the need to care.
To begin with, it did not take much alcohol to have the desired effect but, of course, it gradually needed more and more to reach the desired oblivion. I had started to experience worrying psychological symptoms. I felt constantly as though I was about to be attacked. I had flashbacks in the sense of certain smells and sounds took me right back to the Belarusian mortuary. Alcohol could remove those symptoms. It could stop the panic in its tracks and knock me out to sleep at night. It also enabled me to LIE to the widow about what led to her husband’s death. I felt the truth bubbling up and rising in my throat threatening to strangle me. All I needed was to excuse myself and head for the nearest toilet where a few swigs of vodka would have the desired effect.
I was gradually being eaten alive by fear. Each day the list of things I “had” to drink to carry out increased. One day, I could make a telephone call, the next day I found I couldn’t without some “Dutch courage”. That continued until there was very little I could achieve without alcohol in my system. My life became dominated by finding alcohol, hiding alcohol, consuming just enough alcohol for it not, I believed, to be noticed, but still to take the edge of the ever-growing tumour of fear that was invading my entire being.
One day I was approached, very bravely, by a colleague. She said it had been noticed that I occasionally smelled of alcohol. I can still feel the utter humiliation of that moment. She was very kind to me. However, no support was offered. I had started to drink so much that the truth would spill out of me in an uncontrolled fashion. I apparently blurted out at a Civic Reception that we had all been sold a lie about the deaths in Belarus and that there was a massive sin of omission in leaving out the details about the orgy that had taken place that day. It must have taken guts on that colleague’s part to approach me on this. I was far from ready to imagine living without alcohol to cushion me against reality however.
I was a loose cannon. I needed to be kept out of the way and silenced somehow.
I made the decision myself however. I was sitting in a Section Heads’ meeting and I was asked for my opinion on what kind of coffee machine we should have in the department. I replied “I do not give a shit”. I realised at that time that not only did I not care about the coffee machine, I also did not care about my job, or crucially, about the overseas communities with which I was working and to which I knew I was devoted. I realised that I had ceased to care and that that meant that something profoundly WRONG had happened to my personality. I had disappeared.
I packed up my desk and walked out.
I stepped off the edge of the cliff on which I had been teetering for quite some time. I had no parachute.
My flat became an oubliette. My days consisted of waking up feeling dehydrated and my head would start to race. I now know this “racy head” feeling was the onset of withdrawals as I would have had a good few hors unconscious without any alcohol. I would put on daytime TV and commence the operation that was getting myself into shape enough to get to the nearest source of alcohol to stop my head from racing.
Inside myself somewhere I knew what I was doing. I was killing myself by the slow method. I have a memory of walking unsteadily back to my flat past the Chinese takeaway, stepping with difficulty up onto the pavement and in my head was the line from American Pie “this will be the day that I die” running on repeat in my head. In truth I would not have cared one way or another. This was a state beyond suicide, which is an active state. I had ceased to care a damn whether I lived or died.
And this was the beginning. There was a LOT further down to go than this.
On occasion I could somehow pull the fragments together and manage to function after a fashion. I would turn up at appointments with the Professor who is a world expert on Trauma. I was very skilled at diverting him away whenever I could sense that he was getting to the core of my trauma which went way further back than the death of my colleagues. That incident had dredged up a lot of suppressed trauma from way back. It had all been festering there like an apparently spent volcano where the lava had been boiling unseen ready to explode through faults in the hard surface. I was terrified that it was going to be unleashed and engulf me completely. I could not allow anyone near there. It was too shameful, too painful, too dark. And I had a supply of vodka in my bag to ease the pain before and after our sessions.
My Psychiatrist was caught up in the idea that I was going to sue my employer with him as a key witness so our sessions were more about that than being about providing me with support. My Trade Union were well on their way to putting a court case together but I now realise I was too far gone to be a reliable witness by this time. I would be crucified.
My sense of that desperate time when I had to try to come to terms with the fact that I was no longer the International Officer. I had been my job. There was nothing else. My mother had instilled in me from early on that I was not going to make the same “mistakes” that she had in turning down a job in the Foreign Office in order to get married and have children. I was so desperate to be loved or at least accepted by my parents that I complied. The trouble with making one’s work one’s identity is that if that work is lost for whatever reason, it is like the worst form of bereavement. In fact I felt as though I had died. I repeated over and over in my head “they think I can cope with this, they think I can cope with this”. It was dark, desperate and destructive.
So I drank. I just drank and drank to stop myself from thinking and from feeling. The vultures were gathering. I was getting into more and more debt as my sick pay had ended and I had been formally “retired on ill health grounds”. In addition, the physical consequences of extreme alcohol misuse and overall self neglect were becoming evident. Dad had to rush me into hospital after my stomach started bleeding. There was no time to get an ambulance. Mum developed a kind of sixth sense which would alert her to my being in crisis. She would all five foot one and a quarter of her, knock my door in to get me to safety.
In the end I had to face up to the fact that I was going to lose my home. This was beyond painful and in fact writing it, I can still feel it now. There was no other option however. I dream about it even now from time to time. I am back in my old flat that was my first home of my own. I know I shouldn’t be there but I can’t leave. I hear some stranger come through the front door then I wake up often wet with tears.
I moved back in with Mum and Dad. With my Mum primarily “policing” me, I managed to stop drinking and at least create an illusion of being sober. However, I had done nothing to address the underlying trauma. I seemed well. I returned to university to do an MSc which I never finished. The stress of exams sent me spinning back into the vortex again.
At this point, all I wanted was to run. I managed to get a job running the Moscow School of Economics Office at Manchester University so off I went with a bank account filled up with “compensation” I had accepted from my employer in an out of court settlement. I had no idea how ill I was and that as soon as I was away from the relative safety of my parents’ house, and at large in an unknown City, I would relapse immediately. I never turned up at the new job. I had finally been consumed by the trauma and drowning in alcohol. I was now fully submerged in the Twilight Zone.
Someone had switched the lights off. I did not exist.