My head pounds hard with the splitting insistence of a pickaxe as I lie horizontal and shrunken on the cold tiled floor, the morning’s freezing air swirling around my nether-regions. I am naked. It is 2006, and it is the last day of school. I am 18, and at my friend Max’s house. As I slowly come to, the back my head throbs and my fingers instinctively reach up to touch it. With wonder and terror I inspect my fingers as they come away wet, sticky with blood. A moment. Coursing through my mind runs a memory: grainy black and white video like those infomercial examples meant to prove how much better and easier your life’d be with a patented brand ShamWow or AbBlaster™.
I sit in the bathtub – mercifully fully clothed – a glass of bourbon and coke and ice clutched in my hand. While I sit and drink, I discuss with my friend Matt our Philosophy class and how much we love our teacher, Anna (“Miss Symes” in those days). A beat. Matt says something fairly hilarious, and, laughing, I throw my head back. Another beat. Searing pain reveals my idiocy: I’m sitting at the tap end of the bath, and have sharply cracked my skull against said tap. Blood pours freely as I try not to cry. I’m about to graduate, after all, and big boys don’t cry.
As the atmosphere surrounding my naked body begins to cool, I realise I’m covered in a fine substance like terrible canned soup, and over that – on my crotch, at least – an unfamiliar blanket. It seems Max’s mother has stumbled across me – good morning! – and attempted to cover my shame, or perhaps to cover at least my genitalia so she doesn’t become one of “those” mothers. And under the blanket? Remnants of dinner. A slick of vomit to top off my idiocy.
The voices of my friends fade into view as I begin to contemplate standing and showering. What a way to top off my school career.
We are sitting, five of us, in a small warm Edinburgh pub at the foot of the looming, freezing Arthur’s Seat. The pub itself is small and wooden and heating up as quickly as the conversation, hot air being blown in from the depths of some invisible vent. We have just gotten back from our journey halfway up to Arthur’s Seat (we never made it the full way up, instead giving up halfway there as the rain began to sleet down in waves around our heads).
“But you can’t pay attention to that,” my friend Julia-Rose snaps over my heated, irritated, selfish protests that I wished writers would push themselves as hard as I did; that they’d focus on their craft so that I wouldn’t have to sit through another half-baked, idiotic script. “People can do whatever they want to do; don’t worry about other people, just keep going forwards. Focus on yourself and run your own race.”
I fall silent, embarrassed and confused, but her voice, ringing out through the pub’s thick, seedy air with clarity and commandment, has stayed with me.
Sprawling out in front of me is metres, kilometres of beach; the sand being picked up and battered by the cold night air. My head is on his shoulder and I try with all my might to stay awake – internal dialogue: “stay awake stay awake STAY AWAKE, nobody likes the drunk faggot who falls asleep unintentionally and you are a drunk faggot but you don’t have to be THAT drunk faggot” – and I think mildly that I can somehow hear his heartbeat through his shoulder blade.
As I raise my head like an animal pulling itself out of the depths of hibernation, I turn and press my lips against his. We kiss, short and sweet and not electric but not passionless either, and I pull away, my face creased with anxiety for news of my fate.
A beat. “You’ve been wanting to do that for a while,” he offers gingerly, not unkindly, and before I can stop myself I offer back: “Yeah.”
And I’m aware that I’m a mess – a fucking mess – and that, in this state, I’m not in control of my emotions and as such the conversation that I can sense we’re on the brink of is one that we in fact shouldn’t be having. Not now, anyway. In the depths of my stomach a mix of vodka, wine and other spirits swirl around.
We gave you confidence, they say. You’d be nowhere without us. And the sad truth of the matter is that I can see that they’re right – I’m too afraid otherwise to actually say something, to run the risk of rejection like a regular goddamn adult. Instead, I’ve turned to liquid courage in an attempt to prop myself up.
Well, I think, well pissed. I guess it kinda worked.
And we are standing in the middle of a drunken crowd for someone’s 18th or 21st or some other young person ‘milestone’ birthday, the sort of thing that seems grand, seems like a big deal at the time and later, when all you can remember’s how pissed you were and how pissed your friends were, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. And the drunk masses are buzzing and chatting around us, laughing and joking and nothing I can really remember – partly because of the booze and partly because it’s a good four years ago. I am drunk and heady and mildly confused. I’ve been receiving signals all night, I think, or have I? Has it just been my drunken brain putting two and three together and ending up with four?
The alcohol speaks to me: Give it a shot, it says. You’re alright.
I reach my hand towards him, sweaty with the date-night infatuation of somebody I barely fucking know, and cup his hand in mine. His hand feels strong where mine does not, rugged and hot and manly in a way I don’t think I could ever hope for. My heart skips a beat. His fingers grip mine, tightly, as I reach, a silent confirmation that I might be on the right track. Good.
I’ll need, I think, another beer if I’m to go any further.
If I ask him, I think, then he has the right to say no. No, as a rejection, might not be about me, in fact it might be about him: maybe he’s just not ready for that kind of commitment, not ready to get involved, or maybe he’s been hurt too often and doesn’t feel like he can commit to anyone at all, or, hell, maybe it is me; maybe I’m just not his type, whether physically or emotionally or any of the other countless options that simply do not matter as much as anyone thinks they do. Maybe it’s just that I jumped the gun and he never felt for me, and out of my desperation for approval I read signs where there were none; nothing but a hole, deep and colourless, a void, sucking in energy and intent and all in a relative direction, one right after the other. Maybe I’m the arsehole; this needy, desperate, lonely human being pouring out love in his direction without any hope of it returning my way.
From “Intoxication”, the second of the two plays I wrote in the weeks since my repatriation to Australia and the keeper of all my big emotional emotions and thoughts that ran through my confused, crash-addled brain and scribbled onto scrap paper as I lay in a hospital in Berlin, attempting to make sense of the wreckage of my life – my likes and dislikes, wants and desires; who I was and am as human being. I’m still trying to work it out, but I think I’m closer.
2010. I’m sitting in the audience of La Mama theatre as the lights go down and my heart beats apace, my hands slapping together irrevocably loudly and an uncontrollable smile across my face. I have written one play.
Later. On Facebook:
Hey, I begin, unsure of how to express what I’m saying. Then: This may come off ridiculous or contrite or whatever, but I just wanted to say how – I guess how thankful I was for ‘Writing Angus’. I haven’t written anything in about a year, but it really inspired me to keep going forwards and, I guess, to get back into it. So… yeah. Thank you for doing it, I guess.
Idiot, my brain speaks, full of vitriol and uncontrollable self-loathing. I ignore it and press send.
I suppose, ever since, I’ve been hoping to pay that inspiration forward, if I can.
The music is pumping as I propel myself forward through the urinal-esque white tiled walls of whatever club we’re in, lights illuminating each section of wall in pinks, greens, purples, blues and golds so they form a bizarre sort of funhouse luminescent rainbow as I go. In my hands are two drinks – one in each, and I can’t remember for the life of me what, but something terribly alcoholic. I see my friends ahead, and, in a gross attempt at smoothness, skull one of the drinks. This is all at I remember until I wake up a month later, thereabouts.
“You kept getting drinks,” my friend Laura says, filling me in some months later as we sit in the sun on my parents’ backyard deck and I confess how patchy my memories of the night were. “We asked you not to but you just kept going. And Robbie got propositioned by a weird old lady.”
They asked me not to, and I did anyway, and got hit by a car. I guess score one to them?
In a sense I’m pretty thankful for the likes of my brain injury doctor. By laying down the law – banning me from alcohol for a year – he’s taken the decision and hard work out of my hands. It’s not a difficult sacrifice to make; simply one that I’ve found incredibly useful. Recently I’ve made the decision to continue my sobriety indefinitely – as I’ve written earlier; somehow “no alcohol” is easier than “some alcohol”.
Although I wasn’t an alcoholic, the period of the last few months – of waking up fresh eyed, not steeped in shame, confident and full of ideas – has been how I want to continue forward with my life from here on out, and as such I’m making this commitment to myself. And I see in myself this sudden fire, this fire to be more, to do more, and, should the occasion arise, to speak to that person (“that” person; not a real person but at this stage certainly imaginary) without the aid of false alcoholic grandeur but with real and legitimate confidence.
I suppose it came down to ALCOHOL VS WRITING, and, the awkward thing that alcohol didn’t realise, it seems, is that writing always wins out. I have dedicated the majority of my life so far writing, and want to continue doing so, so the winner, in my mind, is clear. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll find myself with a wine or champagne in hand at an opening night, but for now, I’m done.
There’s still a lightning-bolt of shame and embarrassment that runs through my brain when I think of my alcohol-fuelled behaviour over the past seven years, but nothing that I can change, and perhaps I deserve that embarrassment – I deserve to hold it and accept it, wholeheartedly, to let it slip through my fingers and off of my body until it doesn’t sit synonymous and cruel alongside my name and personality. In a large sense I’m ashamed of much of my behaviour last year, not because I did anything discernably and drunkenly disgusting, but more because I let anxiety and stress and fear grab a hold of me and make my decisions for me: I’ve made some beautiful friends who I love very dearly, but I wonder if I ever gave them the chance to love me, the real me? I am a good person, I think, and now I’m giving myself the chance to prove it.
The voice of Julia-Rose rings clear through my skull: “Run your own race!” From here – unclouded head, fingers and brain ready to work, discharged from therapy and running as hard as I can – I am ready, standing on whatever racetrack I’ve found myself on, limbs limber and sore and ready for action, an array of obstacles behind me – some large and car-shaped, others smaller, spikier, not life-destroying but still in the way – and unforeseen obstacles lay in front of me, of course, but none insurmountable; none unvanquishable.