I should start by saying that I actively dislike people who write op-eds in Saturday broadsheets about their not-that-interesting-and-actually-quite-moderate life choices. It's the peak iteration of a load of terrible things: navel gazing, self-importance and spoilt dickheads with no real problems running the media.
Of course, the payoff to that paragraph is that I'm about to punch out a snappy 2,000 words on how I gave up drinking because it was starting to bum me out a bit. Sorry. If it helps, part of my intention is to tell a broader story about untangling the stupid ideas about life that you have in your youth so that you can work towards being properly happy.
I last had a drink at about 3AM on the 15th of June at a metal festival in the Midlands. I was there to write about it for work, but it was rainy and I had loads of coke and a Winnebago, so I sat in the Winnebago and did the coke and listened to a Chief Keef playlist on iPhone speakers with my friends all weekend. It was a lot of fun, absolutely no question. I'd known I wanted to take a little break from being a gross guy for a while, and I figured a disgusting four day cocaine/booze blowout – doing bumps while watching a paunchy Marilyn Manson play the hits – was as good a way as any to go out. I had a good time, but at the end of that weekend I was pretty sure I was done-zo.
I've seen a therapist a few times since I got sober, and he seems to think I had a bit of a problem – but I think he has to say that. I know lots of proper addicts – lots of people in AA and NA – and I've been to a few addiction-related funerals for people who really went for it (they're the reason why I feel like one of the shitty "minor personal issue" op-ed people). If I'm a drug-addicted alcoholic, then everyone I know in every major city and in what terrible people call "the creative industries" is a drug-addicted alcoholic. Of course I drank aggressively and shouted jokes at my friends three or four nights a week; of course I spent a crippling amount of money on coke every Friday, stayed up until 10AM Saturday and spent the rest of the weekend in the grips of paranoia and sadness; of course I let my job, health and relationships suffer, wither and fail because of it all. Doesn't everyone? That's part of the fun! And really, the nihilism is hilarious to talk about with your friends: "Last night I spent all my money on coke and got punched in the face!" is a great story.
The difference between me and the people who drink and take drugs the same amount as I did – but who still manage to remain happy and functional – is that my whole thing has always been nihilism. I'd been an angry teenager, really idealistic and passionate about a lot of things (punk and girls, mainly), but something happened when I hit my early twenties: I had a weird depressive episode and went to a psychiatric hospital for a while, and after that I stopped believing in anything at all – relationships, jobs, politics, the future. Nothing really felt like it was worth caring about. On an unconscious level I'm sure it must have been that I'm some kind of entitled brat and didn't see immediate payoffs for my ambitions in any of those areas, so started not caring as a defence tactic. But at the time, I felt like I'd really just developed a healthy scepticism about life. Of course, I was in my early twenties, so the whole thing drifted into unhealthy scepticism almost immediately.
To compound my bad vibes, I also found out that I was quite good at being unhealthily sceptical on paper. People seemed to like various mean record reviews (when record reviews were still a thing) and other cruel, funny stuff I wrote where I took bands, ideas and people apart and essentially said they were pointless, because at the core of it all, everything is completely pointless so everything's a stupid joke. People enjoying your writing and your opinions is a pretty validating experience, and so I figured I was right about nothing meaning anything and ran with it. That whole thing has been my whole thing since I was about 21, which was 11 years ago.
If nothing means anything to you and life's a joke, drink and drugs serve two purposes: they're a fun way to break up the vast expanse of grey that is life through a lens of not caring, and they're an easy way to be self-destructive in a measured and humorous way. Not like kill yourself self-destructive; like fuck your job up and be a shithead to people for fun self destructive – the kind of self-destructive it's funny to talk about the following morning.
If you drink and do drugs like that for a long time, nothing really bad ever happens – you don't die, you don't get really sick, you don't lose friends (a bit, but not really), you don't even get a worried phone call from your sister; you just keep going and stay the same. Your life doesn't change for better or for worse – you're in stasis: a murky, boozy, shitty-to-people, bad-at-your-job, lazy stasis.
It's that stasis that starts getting you down.
So, I got really down. I've always been a pretty depressed guy, but for about the last three years I've bounced on and off medication, in and out of periods of blackout drunkness, three day hangovers, anxiety attacks, coke-overs and paranoid episodes. There was no one moment when I knew I wanted to stop (breaking my ankle by jumping down some steps on MDMA and having a seven-hour operation at 31 years old should have set off an alarm bell, but I think I got a gram in the week afterwards). However, I think vanity had a reasonable amount to do with it in the end – I started looking old, sallow, chubby and sad in photos, and I wanted to not be those things.
Then I went to the metal festival and I stopped at the end of that. People I've met since I stopped have told me they might like to stop too, but they wouldn't know how. If you're a real addict, I couldn't tell you what to do – I'm not one: there was no chemical compulsion in me to drink and take drugs; to be really clear, I took them because I wanted to and because I found it fun – but if you recognise yourself in what I've said so far, I can tell you what I did, and maybe that will help you out.
I did this: I told myself – and, importantly, my friends – that I was taking a break, and I said it'd be three months. I told myself I was doing three months because then I didn't freak out about it possibly being forever, and every time I saw a beer advert or heard a funny drugs story I wouldn't get pangs of jealousy and I could just be like, "Oh, it's fine, I'll do it again in a few months," which kept me calm about it all. I told all my friends I was taking a break so that I'd be too ashamed to stop, because being a flake who never follows through on anything is a shitty way to live your life. Then I just didn't drink, I suppose. Three months came and went and I didn't want to go back.
I was surprised that after a couple of weeks of relative (crushing, debilitating, vomit-inducing) anxiety in social situations where I didn't know a lot of people, everything kind of levelled out, and it's been fine for a while now. I think the first few weeks are supposed to be the hardest, but for my first few weeks the alarmingly vicious comedown from the metal/cocaine festival was so fresh in my mind it made me pretty determined to stick with it. I was lucky in that respect. If I worry about stuff I get a lot of comfort from checking the Wikipedia list of teetotallers. That's a fun thing to look at and there are a load of great guys on there, but the main thing helping me not drink or do drugs has been the difference sobriety has made in my life.
When I stopped, part of me hoped that the change wouldn't be too dramatic. That way, the whole thing would have been a pointless exercise and it wouldn't really matter if I started doing coke on Wednesdays again. Irritatingly, the changes in my life have been so overwhelmingly vast and remarkably positive that I know for sure that throwing in the sobriety towel at this stage would be a really terrible call.
My head took about a month to clear, but when it did I felt a huge, absolutely physical difference in my mental capacity, moods and mental state. I could think faster and with much more clarity. I immediately became better at my job, better in conversation and better at articulating my feelings. My mood lifted and I became less impulsive, less easily swayed and more confident in myself and my convictions. I started to have convictions, in fact – that's a big one. I started believing in things again – my friends, my own ideas, my work. I do decent things in the daytime on the weekends now. I developed my hobbies and now my photos get published and I do tattoos of the drawings I'd been doing. I remember to call my mother, I get my washing done, I got thinner and fitter, I've become better company. I stopped hating myself as much. I'm better than I was, ask any of my friends. I'm growing up. What has really happened is that I was able to rearrange a bunch of weird thoughts I'd had since I was much younger. I think I finally killed the nihilism – or at least I turned it into a joke and not a lifestyle. The drink and drugs and the nihilism were wrapped up together and now they're separate.
I reckon everyone's got a thing that they're sitting with that they maybe shouldn't sit with. It's worth figuring out what that thing is and checking it's not fucking everything up for you without you really noticing. I don't know if I'll drink or do drugs again. Maybe in a few years, maybe not, maybe that's it. I know for sure that stopping now has let me step out of a loop of misery that had been going on for over a decade.
WATCH ON NOISEY: 'Skepta – Top Boy, the Documentary'
The whole thing has been a giant leap forward in my quality of life, is what I'm trying to say. It's not perfect by a long shot – I've still got stuff to work out, but I wouldn't have ever noticed I had anything to sort out if I had carried on. I can't pretend I don't miss hiding in bathroom stalls with my friends, but my life is immeasurably better without drugs and alcohol, even though I didn't have a problem problem – and maybe I haven't hammered that point home hard enough. I don't think it mattered that I wasn't directly killing myself; I was still fucking miserable, and when I stopped I wasn't.
Unhappiness in and of itself feels like it was a good enough reason to stop, and maybe if you feel like drink and drugs are making you miserable you should try stopping for a minute to see if it makes a difference to your life too. I don't know; I've never written anything this earnest in my life before and I don't really know how to finish this without being sanctimonious or preachy. I'm just saying if you think you're sad, work out why you're sad, stop doing the thing that is making you sad and, hopefully, things will get better from there.
Follow Robert here.
More on VICE: