When I was nineteen I noted a tiny firework of burst blood vessels beneath my left eye. They had not emerged gradually, but exploded overnight. Alarmed, I inspected the other elements of my face, the panicked blank I had been trying to ignore. My previously pointed chin was lost, my cheeks dour and heavy. The whites of my eyes were yellow and strained, their lids broken with sporadic intervals of blood here and there. There were patches of colour where colour had never visited before, a permanent stain of angry red near my cheekbone and temple.
My prettiness was so painfully proximate that it was difficult to absorb the way I had truly come to look. I could just about make out the bones and angles and brightness of the girl who arrived in Dublin to go to college, lurking, ghostly, just out of grasp. On one of my first nights out after I arrived, two girlfriends and I had split a bottle of wine between us and mixed it with 7-up, giggling and heady with it as we tumbled into a taxi. Now wine was as prosaic as juice, necessary as medicine.
I've tried to go back over Freshers week, over my first month, to figure out where I diverged from the thousands of other idiots drinking themselves stupid. The only substantial difference I can make out is that most other people went to enough classes to keep from immediate failure. The thought hung over me, still does: "What if I just don't?". What if I just don't go to college. What if I just don't get up in the morning? What if I just don't. It's a dizzying realisation: nobody will physically force you to do practically anything except maybe stay alive if it comes to it
It was easy not to drink too much when I lived with my ex-boyfriend. I watched myself through him, knowing how it appeared when I wanted a bottle of wine on a Sunday evening, or a beer or two after work. Drinking too much is not attractive in a woman, nor is need in general. He was not a drinker and when I did pour out a glass for myself in front of him I felt that need radiating off me, puzzling him. His presence meant I rarely went as crazy as I might have done otherwise, didn't open a second bottle, didn't call in sick because I was busy crying into a toilet bowl. Being observed has its advantages.
I began to often need an hour between finishing in the office and returning to our house, a break between the role of worker and the role of girlfriend. Sometimes that meant walking or shopping but more often than not it meant a drink and a book somewhere quiet. Alcohol means so many things to me, the truth is so multiple and varied it feels impossible to hold it all together in my mind. It means violence, and ruin, certainly - but also freedom, independence, possibility. What do I want to say? I want to say that I still love drinking, I can’t help it, I do, I do. I want to say that many of the most treasured times of my life have taken place over a crap bottle of wine or a crisp cocktail I couldn’t justifiably afford. Drinking, at least in this place, at least for me, means communion. It means settling down to talk and argue for six hours; it means a conciliatory gesture of good will to my put-upon mother; it’s the crashing dark salt of south county Dublin coastline in winter, passing whiskey back and forth with a man I can barely look straight in the eye in case he sees how hungry I am for what will soon take place.
I needed to be alone to make mistakes again. I cried in the office toilets all day and got a taxi home to sever my domesticity, clawing my wrists and whispering "Be brave, be brave, be brave," aloud to myself on the drive.
I moved into a pretty one bedroom flat by myself. When nobody watches me I am no longer a real person. I sit in a chair and am too big for it and too small for the room. I don't know what to do with my body. There is no one to be attractive or amusing or lovable for, and this leads me to be nothing at all. The necessities of living seem suddenly ludicrous; why is it that I am showering or cooking when I am alone and nobody will know if I don't? It occurs to me that for the first time in years I could suffer some catastrophe and not be discovered immediately. The catastrophe can be natural or external or self wrought. I will die of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, and my neighbour- who blares Euro dance pop at chillingly inappropriate times when I know he is alone in there- will burst in and smother me and I will drink two bottles of gin and choke on my own vomit. All of these things are happening, or may as well be for all the empty room cares, impassively containing me.
When did I forget what my unobserved self feels like? Did love do this to me? Or Twitter? Or booze? Alone in my new apartment I try to forget how much better it would feel to pass the remaining six evening hours by drinking. It's so good at focusing you totally and destructively on the moment. How comforting it would feel to only concentrate on the next glass, and the film being half-watched.
Drinking would make me forget that I am a person, blur away some of the painful knowledge that it's really me, really my body. How do I know I exist without other people? With other people I feel at my best, relaxed and beloved and open. Without them, I feel both too insignificant to stay anchored and too big to hide away. I could call somebody, go out somewhere, but I know it's cheating. It's unsustainable. I have to practice being a person.
"What do people do?" I ask my friend Shane, "How do they fill all this time?"
"Just watching things and reading," he begins to reply and then stops and sighs and shuts up.
"What?" I ask him.
"It's just...ugh it's so depressing, what's the point of you being alive if you're just trying to find ways to fill up the time?"
I'm silent for a moment and then we both start to laugh at the fact that he has just asked me what the point in me living is.
Of course I know what I should be doing with my time. I should be writing, but at the moment writing feels like the hardest thing to do. Writing is the ultimate sober acknowledgement of my personhood, my irrefutable living, and all that excavation, the scrabbling around in the trash of my life makes me cringe. But that is my work, and that is what I will do, when I learn how to be still.
Before I moved away for college I wrote in my diary: "I look forward to moving away, to being free to hurt myself as much as I want". What I meant then was I wanted to starve, to cut, to binge, to fuck, in any combination and volume I felt like, to be totally free to destroy myself in whatever manner felt right. Those things no longer interest me as they did then, but there is still a willful part of me which agrees with my 17 year old self, which I have to talk down off the ledge sometimes. This part of me thinks that it doesn't matter how badly I mess my life up- as long as it's my mess.
Once I read an anecdote about Tennessee Williams. He was visiting New York, and went missing for a day and a night, and when his acquaintances became concerned and forced open his hotel room they found him facedown in the carpet in just his underwear, a third degree burn on his back. He had been so drunk that he fell asleep against a heating vent, and lay against it for so long it had seared through the thick flesh of his back. A physician friend of his named Bennett came to visit while he was recuperating, and asked him sadly:
"Why would you do this to yourself on your vacation?"
To which he pulled himself up indignantly in the bed and replied:
"Bennett, it was my vacation."
I think about this often as a summation of the worst aspects of drinking; the berserk defiance of acknowledging how badly you treat yourself, but relishing your freedom to do so. Nobody makes you do anything- not even stay alive, not even when it comes to it.
When I began writing this it was a Sunday, and I was hungover and everything was so quiet that playing records couldn't cover the silence that was with me. I felt truly and unendingly alone, unknowable, just for a moment, which is all it takes. I started to cry, because of what real loneliness feels like, even if it only lasts a few seconds- it feels so big and unanswerable, renders the prospect of life unworkably long and boring. It felt funny to cry, because I haven't since I moved here. Crying feels performed and awkward when I do it alone now, I who have watched myself cry through the disgusted or softening eyes of boyfriends for too long- the undignified barks strangely hollow without my audience. I cried and did not call anyone or go anywhere or drink anything. I sat at the table and I started my work.
I try to keep remembering that I am real, even when you don’t watch me; be brave, be brave, be brave.