Writing myself sober

18th Nov, 2022

I used the power of creative writing to escape alcoholism and combat cancer

If someone told you they’d discovered a novel therapy to beat alcohol addiction and cancer, you might think they needed therapy of another kind.

Yet this was exactly my experience. It’s no exaggeration to say novel-writing saved my liver and probably my life. And the same fiction factor also helped me to get through two close encounters with cancer, twenty years apart.

I started writing creatively in 1989 on psychiatric advice at the end of a long and painful battle against alcoholism. The idea was simple: replace a destructive activity with a constructive one. Thirty-four years later, it’s still working.

Even when I got oral cancer in 1991 and again in 2012, I was never tempted to reach for the bottle. I was, though, able to rely on the substitute I’d found – writing novels. Nothing takes me away from my anxieties and to a better place than the one I inhabit when I’m working on a story.

Me on a country walk with my brilliant buddy Ralph

Each time cancer made my future uncertain I made a deal with myself: ‘You take eighteen months to produce a novel and if you’re still here when you’ve finished this one, you’ll be of out the woods, at least for now.’ As a therapy, a distraction, a positive motivation, it worked.

Of course getting – and staying – sober in the first place was easier said than done. Because when you quit drinking, it’s not just the booze you leave behind – it’s also the enormous amounts of time and energy you once devoted to getting your daily fix. Take this away and big holes start to appear in your life. And the more empty time you have on your hands, the more likely you are to fall off the wagon.

The opening scene of Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie Trainspotting illustrates perfectly just how much hard work goes into sustained substance abuse.

In this iconic ‘Choose life’ sequence, we see Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton being pursued through the streets of Edinburgh after a scam has gone sideways. And we soon learn that ‘Rent Boy’ and his mates are 24/7 scammers because they have to pay for a 24/7 heroin habit. 

It’s the same with alcohol. Even if you’re in work, it’s incredibly difficult to keep your system topped up from the moment you wake up to the moment you crash out – or black out. You have to find the money – and whatever you earn is never enough. You need to buy and carry large volumes of booze from various retailers – even more of a problem if you get banned from driving, as I was. And you have to find time to drink it – often inventing reasons to disappear from your desk or from a meeting for a few minutes, or a few seconds – all I needed to down a vodka miniature.  

Nonetheless, back in the Eighties I loved what I was doing for a living. I uncovered an exclusive story that put me on board a Falklands War destroyer. I went on a bender with Screaming Lord Sutch, the leopard-skin tuxedo-clad founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. And I interviewed survivors of the Zeebrugge disaster that claimed 193 lives when the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized in 1987. 

Even in winter Spain’s Mediterranean coast is a warm and sunny retreat for working writers

There’s no doubt journalism back then had a ‘lunchtime drink’ culture, and for many years I got by as a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, able to do my work to a high standard despite the booze swilling around my system. By the end of the decade, though, my lifestyle as a hard-drinking hack was catching up with me. I was forced to leave one newspaper, then another. I was never fired but sensed huge sighs of relief from my editors when I quit due to ‘nervous debility’.

By this time even I was becoming embarrassed by me. I absconded from a Bolton psychiatric unit wearing only slippers, pyjamas and a dressing gown. Then I walked across the town centre and caught a bus home, to be met by two police officers when I got off. The look on my mum’s face when they escorted me to our front door still wearing bedtime garb still haunts me. I hallucinated. One time I almost caused an accident by grabbing the wheel of my dad’s car to avoid people I saw in the road who weren’t actually there.

I was a liability to those who still loved me despite it all, and I started to see myself as the pathetic creature I’d become. The medical realities finally penetrated my brain. I was twenty-eight, one doctor told me, did I want to see thirty? He sent me for tests: my liver was enlarged but not permanently damaged – yet.

So I decided to stop. Sure, I’d done this many times before, but it had always ended badly. So no one took this latest announcement seriously, which made everything so much easier – no pressure, no expectations, no hopes to be dashed.

After quitting drinking and smoking, I also started working out, sailing dinghies, skiing and fell-walking. This is me at the summit of Place Fell in the English Lake District, with Ullswater below and the majestic Helvellyn range behind

I succeeded because I was blessed with a binary cast of mind. It was all or nothing. For me, drinking meant getting blind drunk every day, or not drinking at all. Arriving at this big decision was a long and tough process, but I knew from the get-go back in April 1989 that I’d quit for good. And more than thirty years later I have to say I’ve never once thought about taking a drink.

Writing is my passion, and it has been a life saver. You might have read this and been reminded of someone you know – or once knew. Yes, I have consciously engineered my survival but I also know I have been fortunate.

Do I write about myself? I have definitely used some of my own experiences in creating characters – many are complex, with bad habits, and half hidden or totally unexpected histories. I only have to look inwardly to find inspiration for those. The past isn’t always pretty.

But looking ahead, I will continue to thrive on my daily mental health work-out of researching, plotting, and writing fiction. I know I was lucky, when many others weren’t – and this is one blessing I never stop counting.