Somewhere right now, this very morning, there’s a woman who is at a guess on to her second or third ready mixed gin and slimline tonic. Is she a neighbour? Or did she head to a supermarket sufficiently far away that she wouldn’t run the risk of bumping into someone she knows? Did she drink an insane amount last night and now desperate to escape the hell of a hangover? Had she even planned all this and booked today off in advance? I tried not to look because I know how those looks hurt. I went about my business as quickly as I could because I know how that shame burns inside, doing my best to appear as though it could have been fresh bagels and a pint of milk she clutched close to her chest. Four cans of two types of ready mixed gin and tonic, one a can with some pink pattern (very feminine!) that I don’t recall having seen before. No eye contact, I made sure of that to spare her the pain of human interaction but perhaps I was frightened of the emptiness and sorrow I might find there. I tried not to see, wanted to allow her invisibility because I know oh so well what it’s like to be closed off in your addiction. I know what it’s like to hand over your dirty haul to the check-out person and how it’s more painful if they are nice and friendly. Cold transaction, anonymous and invisible, eyes to the floor, fight to keep shaky hands steady to put a card to the reader, hope your presence never registered and you’re forgotten even before you leave.
It’s amazing how much you see even when you make a conscious effort not to and look away. It’s also amazing how much you can feel and how no amount of effort will afford you respite from sadness.
Damp hair combed back, face free of make-up and a gentle scent of something flowery and fresh that trailed behind her. Showered. Recognised the running tights I’ve been waiting for to hit the Sweaty Betty sales because I already have a patterned pair and they are £95 so I can’t quite justify another pair full price. Wedding ring and a pretty impressive engagement ring capturing the light in a way her eyes didn’t. Not that any of this matters. I wouldn’t have felt more sad if she’d been wearing a fucking tiara or if her clothes had been dirty and torn. What breaks my heart is how I think she felt, how I think I might know what was going through her mind. Did she clock me? Did she notice how my eyes fell on the cans and how I immediately averted my gaze? Or was she too caught up in feeling too shamed, broken and dirty to take anything in?
I’d got my pretzels from the bakery section (creature of habit much?) and was standing by the fridge with smoothies, slightly dismayed that Gorgeous Greens was out and instead settled for a much smaller bottle of Naked Green Machine which I don’t like as much because it contains banana and I fucking hate banana. Good for you though, and during my drinking days I forced myself to eat them or drink smoothies containing them because I’d heard or read somewhere they contain potassium and this apparently helps put you right when you destroy yourself with alcohol. When I stood there was when I noticed her, she had her back to me and was surveying the chilled alcohol section and in particular the selection of small, ready mixed cans – G&T, Pimms, rum and coke, Jack Daniels with whatever mixer, etc.
Would I even have noticed or paid any attention if that hadn’t been me not so long ago? Although, to be fair, morning drinking I never QUITE fell into. Still. On the relatively few occasions that I did, it was never wine or beer – the mornings I did suffer so badly I resorted to drinking, it was… bingo…. the ready mixed gin and tonics in their pretty, pretty packaging. When you’re truly in the seventh circle of hell and feel so goddamn awful you can barely stand up, when your heart is beating so hard and fast it feels like it’s about to jump out of your chest and you’re genuinely terrified that you’ve finally gone and broken it – in that moment you need to get something in you FAST. It’s that or landing in the back of an ambulance under the guise of a “panic attack” or anything else that can be blamed on anything other than your drinking. Although it IS panic and I guess ‘attack’ is pretty accurate too. Weak people don’t become alcoholics – they don’t have the strength. It requires a serious, hard core badass to not only swallow but also hold down alcohol before breakfast. Beer is too gross in the morning and wine is too sharp. Those ready mixed, feminine, sweet, gentle G&Ts though – perfect. Sure, the alcohol content is enough to make you shudder, but if you try hard enough it’s not much worse than a Red Bull. They’re easier to hold and you need to keep them down if you’re going to be put back together again. And you can chug one of those small-ish cans down in two or three brave swigs.
Well. I think you can probably tell that this is something I remember very, very well. And whilst THAT sort of morning was in the grand scale of things for me quite rare, the shame is the same when you only put a box of wine and a bottle of soda into your basket on a Tuesday afternoon. Eyes to the floor.
I wonder now where she is and how she is. It’s a couple of hours ago. Through three by now? Race through the first in a panic and desperate but futile attempt to stop the terror, feel immediately calmer when it’s not only down but seems to stay put? Then more slowly through the second. And now the beast is waking. Four cans? Don’t make me laugh! All gone by lunch time if not before. Head out and get on the wine. Blacked out by early afternoon. Perhaps even sleep. Then back again. Twice in one day. This would have been a very extreme example for me, but it has happened and more than once. Had I not stopped this would soon have become my daily routine. That window of time between the last drink and starting again was shrinking more and more. And this isn’t where it ends. This is where you still shower. And buy Sweaty Betty gym gear. And have a marriage and a family. There are even more horrifying depths you can sink to. And you do. Without mercy and without exception. Unless you find your way out.
Or, I have it all wrong! She’d showered after hitting the gym at 6am and was just buying a smoothie. She’s going to have some friends over later. Or her husband loves G&T and she needed to get a bunch for this evening. Could be it? I could have seen something that wasn’t there, but there was something about her demeanor, her way and her eyes. Eyes to the floor. Oh well, I could be wrong. I often am.
Now I look up. I see the world around me and I wonder if it was always this way. People smile at me. Not just polite little smiles the way you politely smile when you end up having eye contact, I mean full on SMILE smiles. I think on the park there is an unspoken female code that seems to happen just by default. Pass another female runner and be met by a smile. Almost without fail. But beyond this too. On a run last week, I think it might even have been the run when I ran for 25 minutes without stopping for the first time, as I was approaching home, I passed this lady. She was in smart work clothes and looked like she’d just come off the bus and was heading home. Just before passing she gave me this SMILE smile. I smiled back as best I could through my pain and panting. Perhaps she felt the way I do when I pass someone I can tell is working really hard – when I do, I feel a real sense of “hey you, you’re doing great!” and feel happy. Perhaps it was a smile of encouragement? There was a young woman I passed probably a month ago, when I was struggling to keep jogging for more than a couple of minutes in one go. She was struggling too but I’ve never seen anyone look so determined (or pained!). Very large chick and everything wobbled and bounced but she kept at it. I gathered what little breath I could, tried to smile but it was probably a grimace and hissed “good work!” just as we were a metre away from passing, neither of us going fast and both freaking dying. “You too!” she gasped, smiled and raised her hand in a high five. GIRL POWER! Stuff like that makes me so happy. Anyway. Now that my eyes are no longer on the floor the world seems to be such a friendly, loving and kind place. It’s pretty spectacular actually.
So it makes me feel so sad when I see someone whose eyes are on the floor. I wish I could show them what they’d see if they looked up.
Today I’m not going to drink.