My Wake Up Calls
I had a number of wake up calls during my drinking career. While some of them drove me to abstain from drink, sometimes for months, others didn’t yield the same results.
The Leather Chair
I was out drinking in town one night in my mid-twenties (I think). On this night I didn’t manage to secure an after party as the point of being compos mentis had past long before I exited the night club, so I ended up back in my family home in Terenure. I imagine I was probably helped into a taxi and subsequently into my house as I wasn’t capable of making the journey up to my bedroom. I ended up sleeping on a leather couch in the breakfast room that night. Surprisingly my mom and dad, who were upstairs, slept through my undoubtedly noisy return home.
My memories of the next morning will haunt me forever. As I had drunk to the point of not being able to move, I hadn’t been able to make the bathroom during the night. I woke up with my trousers around my ankles. The leather chair under my semi-naked body was covered in faeces.
I had consumed so much alcohol the night before that it wasn’t my body clock that woke me up, it was my father. All I can remember is seeing my dad stand in front of me, in a state of shock. He was visibly upset. This sight will stay with me for the rest of my days.
I can remember him raising his voice at me. I think it was because he was panicking that my mum would soon come down and witness the sight he had just seen. A shouting match ensued. I can’t remember the exact content of our exchange, but I can remember one sentence I shouted at dad as I was going up the stairs to my room. That sentence, that I can still hear me saying to this day, was “can you not see I have a fucking problem, man?”.
I would love to say that I cleaned up the chair that morning, but I didn’t. My dad had to do it. I headed up to bed to hide from the world. I stayed there for at least three days. This was the type of person I was when alcohol existed in my life. A horrible, shamefully selfish person.
A group of ten of us from the Rathgar & Rathmines musical society went to Chernobyl to volunteer for a weekend in April of 2011 and raise money for Chernobyl Children International. While it was one of the saddest experiences of my life, it was strangely one of the most uplifting too.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Chernobyl, it’s a city in the Ukraine that endured a chronic nuclear catastrophe when a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in 1986. The accident released radiation 200 times greater than that released by both atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radioactive wastes continue to poison the environment and affect genetics of the people who live there. Thousands of children are born with serious physical disabilities.
Children who are born with such disabilities in Chernobyl are placed in orphanages. They are unwanted. We visited one such orphanage in a place called Vesnova which is in Belarus, outside the exclusion zone. It was a very cold institution and I don’t mean physically cold. The care assistants were, paradoxically, very careless. They’d show very little compassion when working with the kids. They would provide basic care. They’d ‘shovel’ food into the children’s mouths. They’d change their nappies, not when they needed to be changed, but at nappy-changing time. It was all very industrial, almost like a bell would ring at 6pm and all the kids would have to be fed (sometimes by force) their gruel within a 10-minute timeframe, then their nappies would have to be changed, en masse, at 6:30pm, whether the kids needed it or not. The workers resembled people you’d see operating a production line in a factory rather than people who were caring for disabled kids in an orphanage.
Every time a group of volunteers came to visit the orphanage, the kid’s lives would change momentarily. They would be in their element. For a few days, they would be loved. I’ll never forget seeing their faces light up when we arrived. It was heart-warming and acutely saddening, all at once.
While we were in the orphanage we weren’t allowed to take showers as there was a possibility that the water would be contaminated. This is the water the orphans drank every day. The orphanage was divided into various different wards according to the children’s ages. We visited each ward every day and sang songs for the kids collectively and then split up to hang out with the kids individually.
Ward 1 was particularly tough for me as it was home to the youngest orphans. It contained babies with deformities who were lying in cots. They were too young to speak. They had their full lives ahead of them. You would walk into a room containing maybe 20 cots, and there wouldn’t be a care assistant to be seen. Babies lying in their cots, most of them crying, others sleeping, in the presence of many other babies, but for all intents and purposes, alone.
The upstairs wards were a little more ‘fun’ in that there were orphans in their early teens. They were doing what all teenagers would do; mess. You could have the craic with these guys. Throw balls around, dance. We threw a disco for them on the Saturday we were there.
My favourite ward, however, was Ward 5. It was here I met my little buddy, Nastia. It is quite common for volunteers to develop a bond with one particular orphan, and for me it was Nastia. She reminded me a bit of me. Very cheeky. Very bold. I do not remember a minute of the time I spent with her where she didn’t have a smile from ear to ear. She used to smack me in the face. It was hilarious.
We stayed in rooms that were allocated for visitors. There was a communal bungalow where the volunteers would gather every evening. What do you think us Irish got up to after the kids went to bed? All I’ll say is games of chess were not part of the agenda.
Given our current location, the vodka was flowing as if it were on tap. We would have drink-fueled sing songs each night, but on our last night in particular we (I) overdid it completely. While I didn’t want to leave the bed the next morning, I had to. I wasn’t at home in my cosy bed where I could hide away from the world for days on end.
We were leaving for Minsk later that day but had an hour or two with the kids that morning. We were sitting in ward 5, very hungover, and a young lad reached out to me. I picked him up and sat him on my knee. I guess the kids must have realised that their time with us was limited and it was coming towards an end. I’ll never forget the next few minutes. I was sitting there with this helpless, severely deformed, young orphan, with little or no prospect of a good life on my lap, and all I could think about was my hangover. There was something not right. In fact this was very wrong. In a moment where I should have been giving all the love in me to this poor child, I allowed alcohol to interfere.
We left the orphanage that day and I didn’t have a drop of alcohol for 14 months. Those 14 months were unreal. The best months of my life. He doesn’t realise it, and for all I know he may no longer be with us, but I owe those 14 months clean to that poor boy.
Unfortunately the disease crept back into my life. I was in Spain with my folks in June 2012 and decided that I had ‘done my time’ and that I could now go back drinking normally. On that evening I did. I drank a few beers. I enjoyed them. I didn’t get wasted. The problem was that I had ‘broken the seal’ and I was back drinking. The next weekend I went out in Dublin, this time with my friends. Again I tried my newfound skill of ‘controlled drinking’ and ended up blacking out. This behaviour continued again for years. The old Paul was back.
Tomorrow I will discuss one of the highlights of my drinking career; being fired from The Merrion Hotel on my fourth year placement, creating huge embarrassment for the Shannon College of Hotel Management, my family and myself. You can probably guess what the root cause of my dismissal was.
Part Four of Why I Gave Up Drink will be posted tomorrow