Bink recently finished an Addiction Treatment Programme, on which she learnt a very great deal about relying on – and breaking – different forms of habit.
When we lived in a vicarage we had one or two homeless friends, and quite a lot more acquaintances. Once we learnt to weed them out from the conmen (yet again, the C of E falls its clergy: a simple twenty- to forty-page booklet on moving into a vicarage would have saved us several years’ learning, hundreds of hours and rather more bob: I eventually offered to write it for Diocese but they said they couldn’t pay me) we learnt to see the world from the point of view of the homeless.
It’s not a pretty place.
Never, ever, ever say to me – not that you would, not you; but people do – Don’t they choose that lifestyle? I’ve heard they prefer to sleep on the streets. There are loads of hostel places, just sitting empty. I pay my taxes already: I’m not going to give any more...
And here’s a particularly unfeeling one: They’ll only spend it on booze.
Let’s just examine this for a moment...
Try sleeping out. In this weather we’ve got now.
Don’t know what it’s like where you are, today, but here in Bedford the sky is like wet cardboard. And the ground is like, well, wet cardboard. And the cardboard is like wet cardboard. And wet cardboard might very likely be all you’ve got to sit, and sleep – and live – on.
Even just nipping out to the corner shop, less than a minute away, if I don’t put on my lovely toasty wool-and-cashmere coat which I bought on eBay a few months ago, I very quickly wish I hadn’t gone out at all.
And when I say, Try sleeping out in it, I don’t mean for a night. I don’t mean a charity stint of half a week.
I mean, try living like that. For several months.
No books. No radio. No telephone. No tv except what you can see through a shop window. Before someone kicks you on.
Maybe a dog, for protection and companionship. Which will exclude you from a lot of hostels. And halve your food. But still probably prolong your life-expectancy.
Nothing. To do. In your life. At all.
What would you look forward to? Wouldn’t you welcome a drink to warm your belly and soothe the loneliness in your mind?
Around about the time of our homeless period, we were staying at my parents’ house by the seaside (since we generally go there late-July to mid-August, it must actually have been just before our homeless period, which ran from August 2005 to April 2006) and as I walked through the singingly blue Norfolk sky, back from the shops to my parents’ front garden, I realised...
I was spending every day looking forward to a drink at the end of it. That’s what I was focusing on. That glass of wine, or whatever it might be, savoured as soon as sun and yard-arm had kissed goodbye.
I could no more envisage enjoying a day without a drink to round it off, than I could imagine a day without food, or breakfast without tea. Of course I could deprive myself if I had to – just as I could deprive myself of these other comforts. But it would be a day to be endured, waiting for it to end so I could get back to a normal day tomorrow.
Now, you can criticise me, if you wish. Call me weak-willed or addicted or anything else you like. But actually, it didn’t really have anything to do with whether I was strong- or weak-willed.
It was to do with needing something to get myself through. Along with a lot of other things which no doubt helped me get through: friends; a good book; sex; and, yes, tea.
Despite all these to help me and under it all, I was pretty miserable. Worried. Wondering what on earth tomorrow would bring. Would it be any better than today? Where would my children live...
And at the end of every day, having endured another day, I earned my reward. For getting through.
Thus I, we, had got into the habit of drinking every day.
(And we never even had to sleep on the streets.)
When Shaun had his breakdown and I took him to the best doctor we’ve ever had, in September 2008, on about the third or fourth visit I told that genius of a GP that I was concerned we might be drinking too much. Every evening, I said we have a drink or three. Sometimes more.
She looked at me with that friendly, kind, quizzical, slightly amused blonde way that she had, and she said:
Goodness, Anne, don’t you think you have enough to worry about?
I suggest you go home, relax... and have a lovely glass of wine.
Was I amused? Shocked? Relieved? I’m not quite sure.
(She’s not the only GP to have advocated alcohol. Our GP in Parson’s Green, when I told him red wine occasionally gave me a headache, advised me to drink champagne.)
In the years afterwards, I’ve wondered whether it was even responsible.
So I tried giving up alcohol Lent after Lent after Lent. Sometimes I only lasted a few days. Sometimes I got to the end, more or less, limping, taking Sundays off, as is theologically justifiable.
This year, Shaun and I have given up booze (and carbs, as I said before, but really very strictly: we’re hardly even drinking tea, because of the milk in it) ... and it has been almost effortless. I’ve barely missed it. Certainly haven’t wavered on Sundays.
I’m not even sure I want to go back to drinking, not much: I sleep so much better without it.
What has changed? I certainly haven’t woken up suddenly strong-willed, have I? Not very likely.
And not missing something can’t have much to do with willpower, can it?
My life has.
We have our own home. I have written my fourth novel after a twenty-year famine. Bink has had some treatment at last.
Life must be looking up.
It seems from where I’m looking now, that my addiction – as such it is, if you struggle to quit something, even though you never get drunk: as is an addiction to ciggies, even if they never kill you; as my mother was, on her own admission, to coffee – wasn’t so much to do with me. As the circumstances I found myself in.
Seems that fabulous GP was right. About that, as so much else.
I did indeed have enough to worry about.
So next time you see someone huddling in the rain, nursing a bottle of cider if he’s lucky, and feel temped not to give him anything because he’ll only “spend it on drink”, may I respectfully suggest you ask yourself what better could he spend it on... if someone’s fed him and he can’t afford shelter.
More to the point, what on earth you would spend it on...
If there were absolutely nothing else in your life, or your day, to look forward to?