The Vine Of The Soul



And above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.



Because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places. 



Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.


*


At the end of the summer in the middle of a wood in the south of Holland i sat for two nights in the pitch black of a cabin under the watchful eye of a shaman and drank a powerful brew concocted by the ancient tribes of the Amazon. The Vine of the Soul, the Vine of the DeadAyahuasca, a dark green gloop made up of the leaves of one plant and the vine of another found in opposite ends of the jungle, boiled together to make a plant medicine, a sacred healing power used by these tribes for some say thousands of years.






Ingested independently of one another the plants are broken down quickly in the digestive tract and have no effect. Mixed together and boiled down into a liquid and ingested, one small cupful can elicit journeys of the mind, experiences of the spiritual and the mystical, and realisations of such scale they can change the course of lives. When the Amazonian tribes were asked how they knew to combine the two, how on earth they had landed on the right combination from the 70,000-odd species found growing in the jungle, they were known to reply simply... the plants told us.






Seven strangers, having just met, inside a cabin sat together in a circle, our shaman explaining to us we had been brought there for a reason. The medicine had called us there. We were asked to trace our journey back to its inception and describe it to the present moment, as we listened to one another's stories we felt more connected, not only to each other but to the place. Our differing paths had somehow conspired to lead us there, to sit with one another at that exact point in time, to share in an experience which was to bind us.


There were to be two ceremonies, on consecutive evenings, which would involve the drinking of the medicine and then sitting in darkness for five hours while it took effect, amid silence and the soft beat of the fire, and the intermittent backdrop of the medicine music known as the icaros.


Walking in the woods outside the cabin moments before the first ceremony, i stooped down to pick up an acorn from the forest floor. I was excited but not nervous, since i had no idea whatsoever to expect. I had nothing to go on other than accounts i had read, and the weight of the experience i was about to have was as foreign to me as the waking life of a person i had never laid eyes on. I clenched the acorn in my hand hard, summoning a strength i anticipated i would need, and put it in my pocket.







For two nights i was plunged into worlds which language seems incapable of expressing. I'm not sure we have the requisite words to capture what i saw. For as soon as i try the visuals themselves become overly simplified. There were colours and hues of all kinds of a sharpness and luminosity which i'd never seen, morphing, ebbing and flowing into one another. Geometric patterns and shapes endlessly twisting and dissolving into each other at huge speeds. Mandalas and spirals and cathedrals of light, endless space, and memories from my life floating in and out of reach, recreated in such precision and detail that i was able to peer in and investigate them as if they had been recorded for me by a high tech production company.






Our shaman had told us that the spirit of the medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, shows one what one needs to see, when one needs to see it. Around the darkened room, my fellow brothers and sisters - for such was the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine that this is what they now were to me - were each on their own journeys. Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in pain and new understanding, some cried from joy, some stared silently into the light of the fire, and all around the room we were vomiting into our buckets, vomiting out the rage and darkness inside us. If one of us was purging, we were purging for each other. And this purging brought relief for the individual and collectively for us all.


And as we did the songs of the shaman and the voices of the musicians swam in and out of our consciousness. The medicine came in waves, taking over my senses on all fronts, just as we had been told it would. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It bombarded me, demanding complete surrender to it. And as it did it stripped away layer upon layer of my shit, the shit that i had packed onto myself, it cleaned me, rejuvenated me, and gave me a vision of life, not a new one but an ancient one, existing eternally beyond the muck and the pain and the self-loathing that we cling to in order to translate our own pain.



It was a paradise.






At one point, writhing in the darkness trying to contain the intense energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, i found my hand almost all the way inside my mouth, and i was sucking my fingers, drooling and laughing and crying and wretching simultaneously. It was joyous. Three days later i would come to the realisation that in that moment i was a baby, in that moment i was physically inhabiting a state of innocence and simplicity i had not encountered for 34 years.


The medicine seemed intent on showing me to myself. I was shown myself from a distance, walking into a pub. I was a fly on the wall, a spy in the corner, watching myself as i interacted with people. I could see it was me, i recognised that face, not the face reflected in the mirror but the face i see in photos, familiar to me yet alien, and still, watching myself was beholding a person i'd never laid eyes on. I was good natured, enthusiastic, i was focussed on the other person, i was smiley, quick to laugh, i was playful, i was curious, i was alright, i thought.


I'm alright.


It has been said that to know oneself is to encounter oneself in action with another person. This was being shown to me now, in surround-sound HD. And the words rolled across my mind like a message rolling across an LCD display. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. The version of me that i had set in stone had revealed its weak spot. And the medicine was a chisel, working away at its edges, ready to shatter it to pieces.






Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. I'm not an arsehole. I'm a beautiful person. I don't have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could i be free from this all. What might life be like if i wasn't so hard on myself. How might you go about your day without turning all this stuff back on you. You don't need to be constantly aware of what other people want. You can be who you want to be. It's okay to be. Okay to just feel things. You don't have to be so scared all the time. Do the things that make you feel good. What is this. What does it mean. What does all of it mean. It's too powerful. Let go. Release yourself. Stop trying to control it all. Surrender. You're allowed to feel whatever you feel. Whatever you want to feel. You are loved.



Just Be.


In the throes of all this, lying horizontally under a huge canopy of green, at one point the soft underbelly of an enormous serpent filled my whole vision, a light brown scaled skin moving over me, slithering up to me on my right hand side, blinking at me with an enormous eye that emanated a warm and benevolent energy. And quickly it kissed me on the cheek, stealing a kiss almost, before slithering away again down and out of my vision.







That night i went to bed with the lightness of a five year old in a state of bliss, raw uncut.



And the next morning i awoke into a new world.






*


It is very easy to dismiss all this. Because i did. 



Before the weekend was finished, a fear began to mount in me that what i had seen was an illusion, that my visions and realisations were not real, the precise details of which i was beginning to forget, that i would soon forget all of it. And simultaneously from stage-left, a slowly creeping cynicism was winding its way into my brain. 


Once back in London, i found my inner voice growing more and more bitter, instead of feeding off the harmony the medicine had revealed to me, i was more disconnected from people than ever, i felt jaded and distant and embattled. I became sad and low, i saw London as a gnarled den of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, of people killing themselves with excess, of the homeless on the street ignored and wasting away in front of our eyes. And i understood for the first time the meaning in the idea that the cynic is the idealist who has had his heart broken.


I had been shown a version of paradise. And real life was shattering it to pieces. Our shaman had warned us about integration, the process of coming back from what we had seen, and the likelihood of it being far from easy. Your experience will slowly begin to fade, he had said. You can keep it alive by engaging in spiritual practices, by keeping yourself centred, by trying to remember all the things you have learned.


*


So what was real



I'll tell you what i know. In the space of three days, i saw seven people go through a process of enlightenment that shook them to their very core, that took years off them, that grounded them deeply in an understanding of their lives they had hitherto been unable to attain. I heard them share deep truths about themselves, revealing their vulnerabilities like gaping wounds, i saw people being returned to an innocence that at some point down the line they had parted ways with. An innocence perhaps we have all lost, something we know is deeply nested inside us, but have forgotten how to look for.


I saw a vision of the world stripped of the superficial things that try to muffle it. No rules, no systems of rationalisation, no pigeon-holing, no ego. Things as they are, and as they always have been. Song as an expression of joy when talking won't suffice. Dance as the same expression when one can no longer stand still. An ancient language speaking up to us from the very loins of the earth. Preaching one thing above all others. 


Love






We are just human beings, spoke the voice, eternal souls in a human body, wanting to live in peace with one another, wanting to love each other, and be with each other, in harmony. I learnt that everything is love. Pain is love. Fear is love. It is all part of the same thing. The one binding force of the earth that unites us all. For my part I learnt that i was lovable, that i am loved, that i can love.


We see the world from behind the bars of our own ego, one that tricks us and deceives us and deludes us. And somehow there are substances that break down these barriers, drawing across the curtain for us to see things as they are. Maybe with all our intelligence and our civilisation and our distractions, we're missing out on ancient signals from the earth, messages from the natural world that we're not picking up anymore, as if the earth literally does speak to us. If we care to listen, the right answers are there, waiting.






Imagine a waiter showing up with a silver platter, empty-looking to the naked eye, but on it lies this way of seeing. The world as i have just described. Would you care for a serving, sir? he asks. Not right now, i'm trying to live. True to form, he waits. Patiently by your side, unobtrusively, fading into the background. Don't mind me sir, i'll be here for the foreseeable future. This dish doesn't get cold. It's here if you want it.


It's always here.


*


At times now, i feel far away from it all. Back in the glare of the lights and the horns and the endless distraction. The impatience and the fear and the narrow joy. That world, the spirit realm, the vine of the soul, it can seem far away. But it is there. The waiter is always there, by your side, with his platter. Ready and waiting to serve you up a portion. A portion of a way of seeing the world, as it truly is. This could all be a bit of a stretch for some. Perhaps it would've been for me at some point. But one thing is also true. That those accused of madness can level the same at their accusers. Funny that.






There really is a magic in the world.



Like really.



The Great Teacher



It's a depressing feeling when you realise you're full of shit.


At the end of July, on the eve of a ten day jaunt through France, i wrote something about the joys of going away on a cycle tour. I'd droned on about how discovering the world from the seat of a bicycle was the most illuminating thing on God's earth, and three days later i found myself at the top of a hill just south of the Loire valley wanting to cry.


The sun had beaten a migraine into my head, my sweat had dried into a film of salt that caked my jersey and was beginning to chafe, i had run out of water, i felt a shadow of my physical prime, and i wanted to be anywhere but in a nest of roundabouts on the outskirts of the town of Thouars anchored to a fucking bicycle, that i now resented because it had got me here. As if to goad me, as punishment for the lowness of my thought processes, Nature sent an emissary from the skies to plant a kiss on my lower lip.






And something dawned on me.


You see, historically i'd always taken off on these bike trips as a means of escape. I'd be in the grips of a depression and in need of any change whatsoever, of a reset button. And my reset button would be cycling. As a means of falling back in love with the world, and with life in that world, it was an unfailing tonic. I'd go away lost and come back found. I'd go away pasty and numb and drowning in monotony and return fit and brown and full of experience. For me cycle touring was a symbol of coming back from the dead, of crawling out of hell back to the land of the living.






But now i was happy.


I wasn't looking for a magic bean. I wasn't lost, things in my life had meaning. And as i approached the same roundabout for the third time in the 35 degree heat of a French afternoon, feeling my bottom lip slowly inflate like a bicycle tube, all i could think was...


what the fuck am i doing


The rocket-fuel of finding meaning in life wasn't in me, the road ahead felt twice as long and twice as steep and wasn't leading to any kind of redemption. I'd waxed on about falling in love with nature and feeling the wind on my back, about forests and streams and silence. But i was full of shit. I was metronomically pedalling along A-roads and stopping at French Morrison's to down Perrier and eat emmental and jambon brioche buns out of a packet. Nothing was as it had been. I was seeing through it all, and i wanted to be back in London.





I'm back now, and i think i get it. 


Some things are best understood not in the moment but in their aftermath. In the ten days it took me to cycle 1300km from Saint Malo in Brittany to Toulouse near the Pyrenees and the border with Spain, i was running from nothing. In that way, it was my most instructive cycling trip. I saw the world not radiating the glow of my own salvation, but as it was. It taught me that running away might take you out of hell for a little bit, but hell will keep coming for you. Running out of hell is a trip, but nothing feels that good if it's not directly pushing away something bad. You'd be better off addressing the reasons that are making you run in the first place.


The cycling itself was less of a drug, the motivations for being on a bike were more opaque. I had to look harder for them. But find them i eventually did. And i was left with the same conclusion as always:



Touring by bicycle is The Great Teacher






It is more than just cycling through a country. The bike is a confusingly wise thing, with a living beating heart. If you put your ear to the cold, scratched surface of the metal and concentrate, you'll hear a whistling through the hollow tubes, and if you learn to listen carefully this whistling will whisper the wisdom of life back to you. Below are some of the lessons that hunk of steel has imparted to me over the last ten years.


*


EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES


Cycling through a nine day heat wave in early August can take its toll on your head and affect your mindset to the point where something that should be enjoyable can become really quite un-enjoyable because you're so fucking hot all the time. But you think it's your fault, and you're getting old, and falling out of love with something that is precious to you, and you start to worry what that says about you and how you're losing your wonder for the world, and for adventure, all these things, and it's really just the fucking heat. More often than you'd think, the reasons your life is a disaster have their roots in something incredibly superficial.



SIMPLE THINGS


I stopped by the side of a road in New Zealand once and opened my water bottle to look down into it. Baked all morning by the sun, it was tepid, stagnant looking, and had bits of dirt floating around in it. I put it to my lips and sucked it up and in that moment it was the most delicious sweet thing to ever pass through them, more than smooches. The same thing i'd spit out on any normal day tasted like the water Indiana Jones downed in one from the Holy Grail. For that to happen i thought, i'm either very thirsty, or the bike is whispering to me.





On a cycle tour tepid water and a hunk of bread is a feast. A shitty campsite shower, clean socks, and a packet of Haribo and i feel like praying to a divine power to give thanks. Seneca told of the importance of depriving yourself of the things you think you need, and realising you're completely fine. Of realising how happy you can be with very little. Not just happy, maybe happier. Which doesn't just mean we should nurture an ability to go all Robinson Crusoe from time to time. It also means we spend our lives shackled to things we simply don't need.



CONNECTION


One of the things i claimed before about the importance of getting back into nature, wasn't so much the idea of becoming a tree. It was also about the places nature could take you away from. I try not to go on my computer that much when i cycle, which leaves me with sending and receiving texts on my beat-up nokia. One afternoon i found myself deep in a wood in Aquitaine looking down at my phone showing zero bars of reception, and some weird deep instinct rose up in me and a smile broke across my face.






A weight lifted, and i realised then my anxiety was one of being connected, not the other way around. After all i had everything i needed, i wasn't lonely. And the liberation from this little plastic thing with this immense power to claw me away from being present in my surroundings was winged anxiety soaring off into the trees. Freeing me to enter into a connection with things directly in front of me, the ones living and breathing in the real world in front of my face. I'd foregone one type of connection to enter into another, one i could share with me, myself and my own memory, and it was making me a damn sight happier. 



HISSY FITS


Below is my bike wheel sunk half way through the floor of La Puna, a plateau sitting 3,500 metres above sea level in the Andes. I was 80km from the nearest town when i was hit with a 6km stretch of this thick sand which made cycling impossible. The winter sun was beating down on me, i felt helpless and scared, and falling over for the fifth time in as many minutes i lay by the side of the trail with my head in my hands and screamed at the top of my voice as loud as i could. Expecting it to echo out over the vast valley like some strangulated death rattle, strangely enough to my surprise, after half a second my scream cut out abruptly, as if someone had ripped a plug out of a socket. 






Something older and wiser inside me was telling me to get on with it. No-one could hear me scream. It was somewhat PG13, but i was in a survival situation and i was wasting energy i needed. Something inside me far smarter than i was, was making me go from problem to solution without the interval of a hissy fit. The seriousness of the situation required me to get straight on with solving it, leapfrogging my frustration completely. Which is kind of remarkable. If there's one lesson the bike has imparted to me over the years, the wisdom of which i find it hard to fathom the extent of, it's this one.



KEEP ON MOVING


When you're cycling for seven to eight hours a day, you go through every single emotion possible every single day on a bicycle. If you spend over a week doing this, accumulated fatigue ups its ante, and odds on at some point you're going to find yourself at a massive intersection during a rainstorm with a flat tire wishing you'd never been born. Or you're out of water with the mercury pushing 38, and a resolve firmly mounting in your head to roll over and die by the roadside flash-fried by UV.

This is when you move. Take one more step, and you will find that doors will appear in walls you didn't know existed, and you can walk through them. A bend in the road will become a small hamlet, a tap will reveal itself half-hidden around the side of a church, you will throw yourself under it, and it will feel like a thousand power showers pumping limited edition Evian all over the furnace of your charred melon. See Simple Things above.






NATURE


You get pretty tanned on a bicycle. You're in the sun almost every hour of the day. It might not feel that way because you're always moving, in and out of shadow, up and over hill and dale, the wind hitting your face, making your eyes stream, but the sun's effect is the same on your skin as if you were lying all day on a beach towel. It gets you whether you like it or not. Go cycle touring for even a short amount of time, and the effect the sun has on your skin is the same one Nature will have on your mind. By just being in it, immersed in it, it will go to work on you without you even realising.


And Mother Nature will begin to speak to you in her ancient language, and she will call you into her arms.



What she has to say, you have to find out for yourself.







*


Stuff that didn't make the cut.


If you can bear your own company, travel alone. Your experience will be richer for it. Wave at old people when you pass them by. They dig it. Don't torture yourself, but don't make things too easy for yourself either. You don't need a Garmin super-computer or booking.com to cycle round a country, you can get by with paper maps and sign language and you'll have a much more memorable adventure. The combination of a mind free to wander and an optimum heart-rate is breeding ground for some really decent thought processes. Write them down or you'll forget them. Cycling is the only drug i know where coming down might be even better than getting high. 


Lastly, be sure to accidentally make a beeline for a friend's palatial holiday home, even one that might be empty, a friend whose family have placed enough confidence in you to tell you where the keys are hidden, also encouraging access to their fridge, from which you could extract an ice cold beer, or two, or three, to accompany you as you while away an afternoon by the pool, staring out over the vast forests of the Lot valley, and fall into a deep peaceful slumber...






... transporting you to other worlds.



The Mountains And The Rivers




I had been pounding my mountain bike through dense forest for over an hour.







The sinuous track finally straightened and i crested the pine-coated hill. I looked over at Wilma and grimaced, then stared out across the vast unending lands stretching out ahead of us and channeled the last of the Mahican in me. These were the territories of the Native American tribes who had roamed freely over these hills and prairies for tens of thousands of years, existing in a deep spiritual communion with a sacred earth they called a mothering power.






I was born in Nature's wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature's children. She shall be my glory: her features, her robes, and the wreath of her brow, the seasons, her stately oaks, and the evergreen.



George Copway Kahgegagahbowh, The Ojibwe People 1848


*


That was in 2016, near the beginning of a 2,800 mile bike race that ran the length of the Rocky mountains from Alberta in Canada to the US border with Mexico. That trip was about as far from normal as a bike trip can get, but is an example of the fact that for the last decade of my life, it's become clear that i can't really do any travelling anywhere if i don't have my bicycle with me. I wouldn't really know how.






In 2007 when i was 24, my mate Guy and I took some bikes to Japan on a journey into the unknown, and thenceforth spent the next few years chasing the two-wheeled dragon wherever we could. We braved the southern spaces of the Arctic circle and unending daylight in Norway, and traversed Eastern Europe from Poland through Slovenia, Hungary and the Ukraine, crossing the Carpathian mountains into Bucharest.


In 2012 i took up the reigns alone, and went to the Andes for six weeks. That was the first trip that really scared me. 43 days at 3,500 metres above sea level, nights so cold water would freeze inside my tent, migraine-inducing altitude, you can read an account of it here. Closer to home my bike took me through Italy, the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, it showed me the length of Germany, there were forays through Holland and Belgium, and France many times over. And a month exploring New Zealand.






I've been eaten alive by sand-flies in a river near Dunedin, suffered third degree sunburn in the shadow of Mount Cook, had 3am hallucinations in the deserts of New Mexico, slept in a village on Japan's east coast that has since been destroyed by a wave, was run off a mountain road by the Romanian mafia, and bought apricots off a 60yr old Ukranian woman with a handlebar moustache. I've looked down roads i can't see the end of, camped out in the middle of them, got more lost than you can ever fathom, i've felt the most sad, tired, confused, and by turns the most at peace, elated, and alive i've ever felt in my life.



All from the saddle of a touring bike.















*


Discovering the world by bicycle has become my favourite thing in life. It is something i crave when i feel distant from it. It is something i feel a physical pull towards. And is something that fuels me for months once i have returned from it. Until the point where that flame has weakened and splutters and i look for the next chance to go again.


I thought long and hard as to why i felt this so strongly, and i came to a realisation. This physical pull, this joy, this peace of mind, this aliveness, this residual contentment in its aftermath, none of it is actually about the bicycle. Not really. It's about where the bicycle deposits you. I realised that it was about something far bigger than just the bike. It was about getting the hell away from cities, and getting back into nature. It was something wise and ancient inside me, calling me back to the mountains and the rivers and the birdsong and the silence.






In 1845 the American writer Henry David Thoreau, in his late 20s, built himself a small cabin among the pine trees on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, wanting to see what it would be like to live cut off from other people, in communion with nature. He summed up his experiences in the book Walden.


He went for long walks, read, mended his clothes, gathered fruit, went fishing and mused on what holds us all back from living in this way. Amid the trees with only birds and badgers for company, he ate and lived simply, but felt like a king. At the end of his time in the woods, Thoreau returned to the modern city sceptical of its so-called achievements and determined to live according to the wisdom and modesty that is the gift of the natural world.






Thoreau was tapping into something innate. This need to be in nature, i have come to believe is deeply nested in every single one of us, thanks to the seven million years of human evolution, and the hundreds of millions of years before that, when we lived in the world and all of the world was just trees. What Thoreau was saying was the same wisdom the Native American tribes had passed down between them since time immemorial.


Nature's features, her robes, the wreath of her brow, shall be our glory.


I remember one morning lying against the trunk of a giant Eucalyptus in the South Island of New Zealand, looking up and watching its branches and leaves silhouetted against the sky dance in an almighty summer wind. And an intuition came to me that i've never forgotten. Straight out of left field. Nothing is wiser or cleverer than nature. I remember thinking it clearly and indelibly. Nothing has been here longer or is more perfectly designed or knows more. It was here before us and will be here after us, and we should pay attention to what it has to say.


Getting into one environment can also get you out of another. And the world of screens and status updates and vibrating alerts and inadequacy, the world of rush hour commutes and screw faces and carbon monoxide and fear, i think we could all use getting the hell away from for a minute or more. It's not just what nature can give you, but also what it can take you away from.






I wanted to write this because i'm off on my bicycle tomorrow evening at dusk, my ferry lands in Saint-Malo on the north coast of Brittany at eight in the morning, and for the next ten days i will trace a path as far down the belly of France as i can get. I have my tent, some reading material, a notebook, some clothes to mend, some fruit to gather, the company of birds and badgers, and some fishing to do.


I was going to make this a detailed account of the tiny things that make cycle touring so majestic, but i thought i'd use the next two weeks for research. So here's Wild Geese by the poet Mary Oliver, if you want you can find her propping up the bar with Thoreau and Kahgegagahbowh, the fellow with the feather peaking out above his head at the start.


They're all singing from the same hymn sheet.






Wild Geese


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and i will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.




Pool Fulla Liquor Pt 3



It's Wednesday today. 



I'm hungover. 



Not a completely incapacitated hungover. I'm the level of hangover where i can take thoughts by the hand and toddle them to a conclusion, but my sight. If i don't make a choice on what to focus on my vision doesn't hang attentively in the middle-distance, it blurs into a soup of light and shadow. I've drunk so much water to flush out the alcohol that i need to relieve myself every twenty minutes, which is a drag. And still my mouth is dry like a desert at three in the afternoon. This has become an ordeal.






A pretty good state in which to finally conclude my trilogy on alcohol. I wrote the first part fifteen months ago, in the grips of sobriety. The second part this time last year, having jumped off the wagon at high speed, and now the denouement, one year on, sitting here staring out of the window at summer unrobing herself, sozzled, fed up, and in fervent need of unsozzling.


I don't have a problem with alcohol. 



Honestly.



*


In the first two parts, which you can read here and here, i detailed the stages i passed through in the aftermath of giving up drinking. First came the unbearable smugness of waking up on the right side of the bed, not just on the odd morning, but permanently, without a trace of hangover. Of seeing people in supermarket aisles with shopping baskets laden with tinnies, and shaking my head disdainfully as i watched them throwing their lives away. Of turning into a sanctimonious dick. Of increased productivity levels, increased self confidence, of glass half-fullness. I was the me i wanted to be.







But the thing is, it didn't continue. After four weeks the novelty wore off. The mist cleared, and the abyss that had been there in front of me all along revealed itself. And i realised why we drink. I think we drink to not feel alone. Over night, my self-satisfaction had morphed into something very sinister. As if loneliness had crept up behind solitude and tapped him in the shoulder discreetly. My turn. And they had switched places. It still felt like me against the world, but my outlook was no longer one of defiance, as it had been when i was basking in the glow of my own righteousness sipping San Pellegrino. It was one of fear.



I was alone.



It wasn't that i needed to be with people, it was more in the sense of an awareness of the crushingness of how totally alone i was. Every single thought process which led to another thought process which led to another, was mine alone. If i had employed someone to a permanent position of listening to me speak my mind for twenty-four hours a day, an ocean would still have remained present between us. Which led me to feel an ocean away from everyone.







The wool had been pulled back from my eyes, and i saw what was actually going on. Without the drink, the distraction, the mood-altering elixir, i was forced to sit there with my demons. Instead of reaching for a pint whenever things got heavy, i had to welcome in my darkest thoughts and sit in them. I had to meet and greet the worst parts of myself and befriend them. Just a little something to take the edge off please. But i didn't have access to that. And i learnt that a lime cordial doesn't take the edge off. At all.



That first plunge into a cold, crisp, obscure craft beer, medium-hopped, easy-drinking, the one with that cool lick of condensation running down the outside of the glass, invaded my dreams. 







I read somewhere that we ask ourselves the wrong questions. The question is not why do we drink. The question is why aren't we all lying on street corners drowning ourselves in booze around the fucking clock. The question is not why do we get anxious. The question is why aren't people terrified out of their skulls every second of every day to the point where they can't even move. Anxiety isn't a mystery. The mystery is how we ever achieve brief spells of calm. The point of drinking is to relieve us momentarily from the unbearable suffering of being alive.


And so the second month of my sobriety was characterised by a month-long depression. I had broken the shell, and i stared out across the cinders of the world with naked eyes. I got up to 8 espressos a day, my San Pellegrino intake quadrupled, and i went into isolation. I no longer looked down on drunks, i envied them. They had taken what i so coveted, and i was jealous. Swilling their cheap malbec and baring their sediment-stained teeth, they laughed at me.



*



My mate Tom said that when he stopped boozing, he didn't miss the drinking so much. What he missed was the binge-drinking. He missed the oblivion. Some people need an escape from their brain much more than others. In his brilliant autobiography The Story Of The Streets, Mike Skinner, no stranger to self-destruction, said the following:




That’s why i insist that my psychic deterioration was down to a lack of drink and drugs, rather than anything else. As bad as those things might be for your longterm health, they’re still down-time. Which someone who gets as caught up in his own head as i do, desperately needs.


I had drawn back the curtain, and i was encountering exactly what it was to be caught up in my own head, all the time. I had eliminated the most obvious, in your face, socially acceptable, by far and away most entertaining way of achieving down-time, and in its absence i was left pacing the floor of a room without an exit, and the inescapable, slowly creeping feeling that...



This is all there is.



Once i'd processed this, i came out of my depression. And my hangover from it, was this fundamental understanding of how alone we all are. Totally and completely alone inside the prison of our own minds, going over and over and over the same thought processes, the same ways of seeing the world, the same anxiety and paranoia and the same fear of never being enough. Small wonder we need a fucking drink now and again. These are mood-altering substances for a species in desperate need of having their moods altered.







I lasted another couple of months, with less and less enthusiasm, and one Friday i went for dinner with a friend in Soho, sat through a litre of Highland Spring, something in me broke, i screamed E N O U G H  O F  T H I S  M I S E R Y and went and got annihilated. I've never looked back.



*


I said before that the whole experience of giving up drinking was one of the most confusing things i've ever done. The reason it left me so confused was because i didn't learn anything from it. Well i kind of did and i kind of didn't. But strangely the lessons i did learn seemed to vanish into the ether pretty quickly. The whole exercise had some point to it, whilst simultaneously proving in the end somehow pointless. Like a joke that you get, but just don't find funny.







I have a feeling it belongs in the company of those lessons we have to learn over and over again a number of times in our lives, because we'll keep forgetting them. The clarity that sobriety brought was terrifying, i preferred the murky lie. I still do. The truly insidious thing about alcohol is that it is blinding. It blinds us to the truths waiting there for us to stare them square in the face, but don't have the courage to. Mental discomfort is an alarm bell signalling we're getting closer to the stuff that truly needs our attention. But who the hell wants to go there when you can shuffle down to your local instead. As Giles Coren said...


Alcohol is addling the brain and persuading people in awful jobs with dreary lives that everything is okay and there is no need to get up and challenge their status quo.



*



I never thought sobriety would be so difficult. I never thought i'd have to get so lost to find myself. And then realise i preferred being lost. I never thought i'd have to start drinking again to save myself from being sober. And more than anything, that alcohol has very little to do with any of it in the first place. 


The tough thing about booze is that it's the angel and the devil. The beautiful and the lethal in equal measure. And life without it is a bore. Of course, there is such a thing as drinking for pleasure. There is such a thing as moderation. But those who don't admit that line is a blurry one are probably the ones who need the most help. Or just another drink.



In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote:






When i stopped working on the races i was glad, but it left an emptiness. By then i knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good, you could only fill it by finding something better.



You could only fill it by finding something better.



*



That's about it really.