The sound I awoke to at 2 am on Brighton beach on 13 September 2011 reminded me in my imagination of a cross between a woman in the last throes of labour and a howling wolf.
It was truly “horrible”. I use the word “horrible” as I remember my English teacher explained it to me. “Oh horrible, horrible, most horrible”, when Hamlet was describing his uncle in bed with his widowed mother. It really was the most atrocious sound. It came from a distance. I could not work out quite where. I fell asleep again.
Some time later I awoke to the same sound and shivered. I was wearing several layers of clothes under my scruffy old anorak. I was wrapped in a blanket which had been lovingly knitted by an elderly neighbour some 25 years ago when my son had been born. I must have looked to an outsider like a woman of the road. Beside me was the old backpack which had accompanied me on the coastal walks I used to take on my holidays from my job as a lawyer. Inside the backpack was a photograph of my son; a book of Thomas Hardy poems; a trowel and small fork; a change of underwear; my business suit and pair of high heels; make up and two bottles of wine. The sound seemed to be coming closer and closer until the realisation dawned that it was coming from inside me and out through my own mouth. I had finally reached that jumping off point where I realised that this once intelligent, attractive, self-willed but stubborn woman needed help.
Backtrack just three years, to the day “Lehman Brothers went down”. Last completion of the day out of the way. Home for the usual de-stressing drink of wine at 7 o’clock (wine o’clock, as we used to call it), a little bit worried about job security but anticipating that even if redundancy did loom, my First class Honours Degree, 25 years legal experience and dazzling personality would equip me to walk into another job with no problems.
How does a professional, intelligent woman, from a middle-class background slip into the depths of the slough of despondency, physically addicted to alcohol, unable to use all her previous self-will to clamber back to rational living? And much more importantly how does she end up 18 months later living a life beyond her wildest dreams and how does she pass on hope to others?
I remember aged 11 in school assembly standing in the front line of the school choir. I went to a very middle class school in middle England in the late 60s. No laid-back hippy progressive education here but a very stern strict Welsh headmaster who believed in corporal punishment and boomed from the front of the hall whilst thumping his lectern at children who spoke out of turn.
It was late September, early into the Autumn term, the school still smelt of the paint with which it had been freshly decorated over the summer and we were practising Harvest Festival hymns. The late summer sunshine showed up the specks of dust floating in the air in the hall. I was a very quiet, shy conscientious girl who liked to get everything right. All at once something built up inside me. There was a singing sound in my ears and my heart started to thump. I felt a big gaping hole open up in the space between my rib cage. The only way that I could stop myself from fainting was to wiggle my right foot from side to side. Mr Edwards shouted at me for fidgeting as I suffered what I think was my first anxiety attack. That great big gaping hole was to remain for over 40 years and finally imploded in on itself and the horror was released in that horrendous noise which came forth from my soul on Brighton Beach in September 2011.
In May 1974, I experienced a moment of serenity. I was one of a party of teenagers climbing Helvellyn in the Lake District as the finale to a weeklong field trip. For some reason I experienced the only ever blister I have ever had on my foot for the week and had not been able to accompany the others on their jaunts. But by the last day it had clearly healed and I joined the walk. Unfortunately, I had not built up the fitness to climb the mountain and half way up my tutor sent me back down the mountain alone to return to the Youth Hostel. Resting part way down and half way through my bar of Kendal Mint Cake I looked up into the mountains and felt that I was at one with them and all of the Universe. I experienced the most divine peace and freedom from fear, anger at my parents, who were divorcing, worry and my ever present self-consciousness. My head, which at times was like a washing machine on spin cycle, whirring round and round in endless conversations was for a short time stilled. I was blessed with a very brief glimpse of what it was possible for life to be like.
Many years later I sat waiting to collect my Open University Degree at a ceremony in Ely Cathedral. I had obtained a First whilst bring up my son almost single-handedly and building up a successful career for myself. As I listened to the conversations of the other new graduates around me I felt completely unable to converse properly with them. I knew that I was not as good as them. Somehow or other I must have cheated the system and my Class of degree was a mistake. I left the others and walked to a quieter part of the Cathedral and found a sculpture entitled “The Way of Life”, it depicted an irregular journey through life – sometimes painful, sometimes joyful. It spoke to me. My granddad had been a stained glass manufacturer and I always felt close to him in Cathedrals. I quietly said a few words in what I thought would have been his Old Hertfordshire accent – “well, girl, you did it”. In my handbag was secreted a small bottle of wine.
The Author wishes to remain anonymous She has however been inspired to write a blog, which is in the early stages of development … it can be viewed here
Alcoholics Anonymous helpline: 0845 769 7555