People often tell me that there was some underlying reason for my excessive boozing. Maybe they’re right. If there were reasons why I needed to escape, I can only really think of two that might apply. Sexuality and Social Anxiety.
I was never really proud of being gay. In fact, you could probably say that I was always quite ashamed. For example, even to this day I would struggle to hold Jason’s hand in public. I’m not one bit proud of this.
I went to a private, all boys, rugby-playing school. You could not be gay in an all boy’s school. You’d be bullied to a pulp. I guess this is why I don’t necessarily come across as gay. I had to conceal it for 12 years of school. Being straight-acting comes easily to me.
Sometimes I wish I were a ‘Julian Clary’ kind of gay. If I were overtly camp, I’d never need to ‘come out’ to anyone. They’d already know. Unfortunately that’s not the case and ‘coming out’ is not just a once-off obstacle I had to overcome one winter’s Sunday afternoon sitting around the fire with my family, it’s an ongoing, never-ending process. Every single new person I meet (who doesn’t know me) would (probably) think I’m straight.
I never came out as such to my parents. I didn’t have the strength. My sister, Elaine, did the coming out for me. I am the only boy in a three-kid family. I have a fairly sharp memory and I remember my dad telling me how I was the only kid capable of carrying on the Stenson name into the future. I also remember him speaking of a gay man in a derogatory tone of voice one night we were in Spain on a family holiday.
Given dad’s expectation for me to bequeath the Stenson name to future generations, and his intolerance of homosexuality, I always procrastinated when it came to the big ‘coming out’ day. I was also able to construct a very robust heterosexual ‘shell’ around me. The shell was so solid that not even my closest friends were able to see through it.
However, as Freud would tell you, life is all about sex. Everyone needs a bit of ‘who’s your father’. Even priests. While I dabbled in the world of heterosexual sex, it never really did it for me. I needed my sexual partner to have meat and two veg. What better way to crack the shell? Break a bottle on it. A bottle of booze.
In my early to mid-twenties I would go out with friends on the piss, with the intention of cracking the shell. I would be out with my mates, having the craic, dancing away, loving life, but when I reached a certain level of ossification, I’d become Casper the ghost. I’d disappear.
My disappearing would mean I’d have reached a sufficient level of drunkenness to have the courage to walk into a venue where there’d be gays. It started off in venues that were gay-friendly or that would host weekly gay nights. If you were seen coming out of a bar that is usually straight, you wouldn’t be found out.
Then, in time, I graduated onto ‘pure’ gay bars and clubs. It became a regular thing. Every night I’d go out, I’d disappear. It was a sexually thrilling experience. Dangerously thrilling and highly addictive. A bit like the feeling you get when someone tells you that you can’t do something, and you do it, multiplied by a thousand.
Looking back on this practice which dominated most of my early twenties, I can’t help but think that this was actually quite dangerous. I’d be going into bars, half cut, talking to complete strangers, putting myself out there, for anyone to do with what they will, but most importantly, I was embarrassing the shit out of myself. I’d be ‘that guy’ hounding everyone, falling all over the place, saying things I shouldn’t, and always on my own.
On social media I come across as an extroverted, confident and sociable kind of guy. The reality of the situation is that I am hugely shy and have always had significant issues with social anxiety. In a group of people, I usually find it very difficult to converse. I will cower away in the corner and let everyone else speak. I’ll observe everything but say nothing.
Jason and I are asked for photos on a regular basis these days, and it is not at all uncommon for people to tell me two things when they meet me. (a) I’m a lot shorter than they expected and (b) I’m a hell of a lot quieter in real life. I sometimes feel people are a little let down when they meet me in person. They probably expect me to shout ‘OKAY’ at them and dance around the place like a madman.
The Paul you see on the Snapchat is me, but it’s an amplified version of me. I think it’s vitally important for people to be themselves online. Honesty is key to doing well. No one likes the online influencer who is gorgeously made up every day with the bedroom looking as perfect as the body 24/7. People see through that shit. It’s fake. People can much rather relate to influencers who have their good days and bad. Those who have their struggles. Their worries. It humanises the whole experience.
I guess I’m a bit of a performer at heart. Indeed, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Not hotel management. Fuck that shit. I seem to have this strange ability to ‘turn it on’ when the camera goes on. I am a different person while still being me.
Drink had the same effect on me as the camera. It ‘turned me on’ too. In fact, given my acute shyness, I needed drink to be able to engage in conversations on nights out. I also needed it to numb my anxiety. Especially in gay bars. Gay bars, while they are said to be safe havens for gay people, with no fear of judgement, they are actually the most judgemental venues you will ever enter. There is a huge emphasis on looks on the gay scene. You’re often judged on what you’re wearing, what shape your body is in, who you hang out with and so on before you even open your mouth. It’s an extremely bitch-eat-bitch environment.
I liked going to gay bars in my late twenties to early thirties, but needed to be locked before I went in. This is not just because I’d be ashamed to be seen walking into a gay bar, but because of the superficiality and fakeness of the gay scene in general. You’d be standing there chatting with your mates but your internal dialogue would be going ninety. Who’s looking at me? How do I look? Is my tummy sticking out in this shirt? Is my hair ok? I need another drink … would be phrases going through your mind all night until you silence the voice inside your head with liquor.
Working in hotels was also a huge driver to drink for me. Given how certain customers can carry on in hotels, you’d need a few stiff ones just to be able to do your job. Especially in five star hotels and definitely when the customers themselves have drink onboard. Hotel guests often think they can be as much of an asshole as they want to waiters, because at the end of the day, you work in hospitality. Hospitality is about being warm and friendly. Smiling is what you’re paid to do. No matter how rude the guest is, you will smile. You will take so much shit, because that’s your job.
Finally, I often wonder if my adoption has anything to do with my social anxiety. As a kid I would stand at the bus stop on my way home from school and, as a double decker bus would pull in with a full upper deck of faces looking down, I’d always think to myself that there’s a distinct possibility that my ‘real’ mother could be one of those faces. Or maybe my sibling? Maybe a birth cousin? Is there someone on that bus who thinks I look very similar to them? The same would happen when walking in busy places. Grafton street for example was difficult. I’d always walk on one side or the other. I’d never walk down the centre.
The Final Part of Why I Gave Up Drink will be posted on Sunday