Recently a friend lent me a copy of Caroline Knapp’s memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, which recounts, in painful detail, her love affair with alcohol and her decision to give it up because it was ruining her life.
Although I have never had the remotest desire to drink to excess and have only once in my life drunk enough to gain a hangover (following a violently eventful Christmas party at the Top of the Carlton in Johannesburg, in case you’re wondering), my father’s side of the family had more than its fair share of addicts. Whether their poison was booze, gambling or prescription medication, I’m afraid that the Elsdons and Halls were a pretty rackety crew, with the Howells dropping in an interesting side order of mental instability for good measure.
Having been born into a middle-class family in Britain in the 1960s, alcohol was part of my parents’ hectic social life. Every party they attended was prefaced by a discussion about alcohol – if we’re going round to Huw and Ceinwen’s tonight we should buy a decent bottle of red – and any party that they threw necessitated even more detailed discussions. Bill drinks Johnnie Walker, while Freda favours Campari, Gareth won’t drink anything other than Carlsberg and Nesta will start the evening with sweet sherry and move onto white wine later. Have we got enough?
There was always enough, however much was consumed. Despite living in a West Wales backwater there was always plenty of money swooshing around, thanks to the major oil multinationals having set up shop just down the road at Milford Haven and other nearby towns. My Dad, who had an ironmonger’s shop and two home decorating stores in the area, happily accepted the oil companies’ money even as he cringed at the blots on the landscape.
Of course, all this relentless socialising and alcohol consumption meant that some of the guests went over to the dark side, drinking way too much, disappearing into the bathroom with someone who wasn’t their spouse, neglecting their children and not functioning properly at work the next day. Marriages imploded, livers exploded, families fractured and divorces resulted.
Fortunately for me, my mother was virtually a teetotaller due to the fact that she became virtually narcoleptic after two glasses of wine and my father, being as much of a wimp about hangovers as me, generally knew when to stop. I was one of the lucky ones, but even at a young age I could see how much harm alcohol could cause.
As a teenager it became necessary to decide on a social drink; my choice was Southern Comfort and lemonade, surely the most disgusting combination to be requested at any rugby club in Wales; ever. Also, unlike Caroline Knapp’s favourite tipple of dry white wine, it singularly failed to provide the warming glow of self-confidence that she so brilliantly describes in Drinking: A Love Story. Southern Comfort left me feeling stone-cold sober and deeply socially inadequate, as I sat with my group of friends in the dimly lit surroundings of the bar or dance hall. Only when exposed to bright light (for instance, when visiting the ladies) did I realise that I was over the limit and, while my mind remained razor sharp, my legs refused to carry out the orders from my brain.
So, Southern Comfort was either a poor choice or a good one, depending on one’s genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, too unsophisticated ever to take up drinking with enthusiasm.
So, I never became an alcoholic and have never experienced the sensation of waking up unclothed in a strange bed, never puked all down myself or lost control of my bowels, bladder or any other part of my anatomy in public, never found myself bawling down the phone to an ex-boyfriend at two in the morning in the alcoholic ritual familiar to many and dubbed “drink and dial” by Knapp.
And, because I never took up drinking, I never had to give it up.
Over the years I have had alcoholic friends and have noted the ways in which they gave up their addiction. One friend became an enthusiastic member of AA, another went cold turkey on her own because she could not accept AA’s insistence on a higher deity, yet another took up exercise and healthy living as a substitute addiction. All can now truly consider themselves ‘recovering alcoholics’. However none of them, even in their darkest moment, considered psychoanalysis as a possible solution.
Of all the constants that characterised Caroline Knapp’s descent into alcoholism and her emergence from it, the thing that struck me most forcefully was her reliance on the management of her mind. Near the beginning of her memoirs, she even mentions “a therapist” as one of the pillars of a liveable life, along with a good job and a decent place to live.
Maybe this is one of the aspects of American East Coast culture (Knapp, the daughter of a psychoanalyst, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts) that most baffles Brits. While it is true that, for instance, London NW3 probably has more therapists per square kilometre than anywhere else in Europe, the concept of paying a Daddy (or Mummy) figure obscene amounts of money to listen to our stream-of-consciousness rants about our feelings and failings seems incredibly self-indulgent to most Brits, me included.
Naturally, if there has been some massive damage caused by a life-changing incident, the opportunity to speak to a neutral professional can be valuable but, for most of us, the term ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds like a very expensive way of getting things off your chest that can far more cheaply be achieved by inviting a few mates around for tea. Just for the record, Knapp’s addiction to visiting her therapist every time her life went tits-up did not seem to result in any improvement to her well-being, but probably wreaked havoc on her bank balance.
In the end, Caroline Knapp beat the bottle and reclaimed her life, albeit only after spouting a shed load of Freudian truisms and analysing the life out of her very existence. Maybe it’s because I lived in Africa that (although I am as guilty of enjoying a good whinge as anyone) Knapp’s complaints and incessant desire to make a bloody great drama out of the most innocuous incident seem very self-indulgent. At times, the desire to rip one’s hair out is overwhelming, as she bangs on for chapter after chapter about her problems, when it is perfectly clear that, compared to about 99 per cent of the world’s population she is living a charmed existence.
Sadly, Caroline Knapp died of cancer in 2002; she was still clean and sober at the time of her death. Maybe her battle with the demon alcohol, anorexia and a number of other addictions demonstrates that ultimately the source of and answer to our problems lies within ourselves.
And that the ‘talking cure’ is a very expensive red herring.