Sunday, March 9, 2008

Right down to the dregs

You drink regularly and have the odd morning-after trauma, but it never affects your career, family or social life. That's what Alice King thought – until her addiction to alcohol swallowed up her marriage, her job and almost her life...

SHE was not a park-bench drunk. Not a bag lady with a life so shrivelled it could be carried in two plastic carrier bags. She didn't smell of rain-soaked clothes and stale urine and yesterday's booze. No, Alice King was not that kind of drunk. She was a leading wine expert who wrote for the Daily Mail and Marie Claire, appeared regularly on television and radio, published a dozen best-selling wine books, and became Tesco's face of wine. She earned a fortune, lived in a 19-room Victorian townhouse, flew on Concorde and wore designer clothes. Her biggest problem? She injured herself falling off bar stools with a glass of Krug in her hand.

Maybe you find that alienating. Too middle-class a story of alcoholism. Too clean. What's her excuse with all that good fortune? But pain is pain and alcohol has no regard for class or status. King's story gets pretty messy by anyone's standards. The wine-merchant husband went. The house went. The job went. But the most important loss was herself. Here she is at the height of it all, standing alone in a wet, deserted London street. It's 4.30 in the morning and she can't get another drink. She calls a taxi to take her 75 miles home to Hungerford and a stranger walks by, a man with arresting grey-green eyes. He wants another drink too. Maybe he should come with her? If you like, King says.

So she takes him home, because her alcoholism makes her oblivious to her own safety. They drink champagne, end up in bed together, but nothing happens. "He had just split up with his girlfriend and we lay in bed laughing," recalls King. "It could have had any end result but it didn't, because we were like two little kids, two little lost souls, lying in bed, laughing."

In the morning, she woke to find him gone, a champagne cork placed on the pillow.

He came back to her when she was writing her book, High Sobriety, a compelling, honest account of a descent from high living into degradation and humiliation, and her subsequent recovery with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. When King shut the door of her office to write it, she was physically alone but felt as if the people who had inhabited her life were in that room with her, looking over her shoulder. "The skeletons danced off the page," she says.

It was hard, confronting what she had become. "There were times when the person coming off the screen more than alarmed me." Parts of it were excruciatingly painful to write. One day, she sat in her office with her head in her hands, wondering why she was doing it. "Every time you went somewhere you pulled up all sorts of other stuff about your life, your children, your father and so on." Then she heard the ping of an e-mail and the e-mail gave her the answer.

The year before, King had written two series of columns for The Times and for You magazine about her alcoholism, and a tidal wave of e-mails, from people who were desperately trying to deal with their own addiction or that of someone close to them, had washed over her as a result. Here was another. "Dear Alice… as a result of your column we got our daughter into rehab. She is one year sober today and is now the daughter we always loved and a mother to her little boy. We are writing to thank you for giving us our daughter back."

If you are reading this and you have a drink problem, you are Alice King's motivation. "I knew this book had a purpose," she says, explaining her reaction to that e-mail. "It's a book of hope. For anyone who has a drink problem or knows someone who has, this book will give them hope that if I can get better, they can."

WE ARE sitting in Tiffany's library, a small, elegant, wood-panelled room with books and paintings and an open fireplace, in London's Covent Garden hotel. It's interesting to watch King's obvious admiration for these opulent surroundings. She stayed in places like this all the time when she was earning big money. Not that she was from a very rich family, she says, because her parents had nine children – although since she recalls her parents taking all of them to France for a holiday in the 1960s, when it was quite unusual to travel abroad, they clearly weren't poor either.

Her father was a wine shipper and it was this that gave King her first interest in champagne and fine wines. She remembers her very first taste as a child, the immediate love affair with taste and sensation. From that first sip she found she could distinguish the explosion of different elements that made up the whole flavour – black cherry and strawberry and cinnamon and cocoa. She had, she discovered, an innately discerning palate. She loved the sense of power this ability gave her. She was good at something. Despite coming from a happy, secure family, there was always something missing for the young Alice. She was sixth out of the nine children and therefore well down the pecking order. There was an insecurity in her, a need to prove herself, a need for approval and unconditional love.

People associate big families with happiness and of course that's part of it. But there are also problems in asserting your individuality in such a crowd. "It does sort of encourage the show-off part of you, and I could see that sitting round the table. It was whoever could have the last laugh. Everyone would tell funnier and funnier stories and when I look at the girl I became in the '80s, I did lose myself. The real me was sidelined by the show-off."

This was yuppie, Thatcherite Britain, and King admits to "delusions of grandeur". Looking back, alcohol simply became a cover. "Alcohol is just a symptom of something else. For me it was a symptom of something missing inside me. For some reason I never really developed an adult way of expressing my emotions and the little child in me was just drowned in wine so there wasn't really a proper growth emotionally. I didn't really grow up as an adult."

She trained to be a fashion writer, but there were so few jobs that she applied to a wine magazine, citing her experience between school and college as a tour guide in the champagne cellars of Reims. She was hired and the good life began. But outward success only provides a skin-thin veneer for inner insecurity. "The more successful I got, the more scared I got. You often hear that with people." She was good at her job, but wondered if her skill was mere fluke – she'd got it right this time, but what about next time? But her alcoholism, she believes, was not because of her job. "My belief is that had I become a fashion writer, I would still have been an alcoholic. I would just have been a lot better dressed."

People say that the good news when you recover from alcoholism is that you get your emotions back. And the bad news is that you get your emotions back. Certainly, the most important part of King's recovery has been confronting what she really feels. "I didn't know how to deal with my feelings. I've learned that the most positive thing you can do is articulate your worries, fears or joys. The minute you open your mouth about something that is concerning you, it starts to dissipate."

Our own weaknesses can be destructive enough. But sometimes they attract us to others whose vulnerabilities combine with our own to create an even bigger problem. That's the situation King found herself in when she married Niall, a wine merchant whose passion for wine was matched only by her own. Together, their life became one long hangover, oiled by the best champagnes but marred by competitive, aggressive behaviour and alcohol-fuelled rows. Niall's business collapsed and the marriage was already faltering when he smirkingly boasted to King in front of their nanny that one of the guests at a party to mark their 15th wedding anniversary "gave me a blow job in the hall".

The couple separated. King's drinking continued to spiral out of control. She has three boys and her middle son, aged 12, wrote an introduction to her book in which he describes her unreliability, painting a picture of a chaotic if glamorous figure, "trying not to fall over in her spiky red high-heels, looking for her kids". But while obviously no one would choose the example of an alcoholic mother, on the other hand, King's children have been given the positive example of a woman who has turned her life around. When she wrote her column for The Times, that same son e-mailed her from boarding-school. "Mummy," he wrote, "I am so proud of you."

King agreed to have joint custody with her ex-husband, but the most painful moment of her alcoholism concerns her children. She was standing in a supermarket in a Versace mini-dress and black satin boots. She had nipped in en route to the station on her way to a London party. And there they were, her three boys, with their new stepmother, a former friend of hers. The woman was carrying King's baby and her other two boys were laughing and joking.

"Nothing ever prepares you for that sight," says King, and even years on she's clearly still fighting the emotion of that moment. "It makes me almost cry just talking about it. It was a really painful moment. Some bits of the book were easy to write and that bit just came. It came from so far down, as far down as the bottom of your womb where you have to push from to have the babies."

In the supermarket, she said, "See you at the weekend," to the boys, went through the checkout without a backward glance, headed to the station and was sick on the platform with the emotion of it all. Then she got on the train and ordered a double gin and tonic. "I dealt with it the only way I knew how. It would have been hard enough to deal with what went on sober, let alone with a drink inside you. There is no problem that alcohol doesn't make worse."

In recovery, she had to regain her eldest son's respect. "To some degree he had been the parent and I had been the child, and when I first got sober I had to work hard to turn that around. He had to have a reason to respect me. Now I have a proper relationship with my children, and because I so nearly lost everything I don't take anything for granted. I really do value my time and interaction with them. If I get things wrong, I apologise to them. They don't have me on a pedestal. Well, they wouldn't, would they?" But similarly, she doesn't blame herself for everything they do that she doesn't like. "It's easy to guilt-trip. When someone says, 'My child is a complete pain and won't do this, won't do that,' I think, 'Thank God. How bad? Oh, that's much worse than mine!'"

What makes King's book different and clever is that she writes it with the limited insight of the alcoholic. She tells the reader only what she saw in the thick of her illness, not what she sees now in sobriety. It's a disciplined way of writing. "I could have written the whole book retrospectively. I could have explained it, blamed people, but I wouldn't be sitting here now as the person I am." A few years ago, there would still have been too much bitterness to write this way.

As she wrote, she found herself exasperated by her own stupidity. She describes losing her driving licence and having to go to a liver specialist before she could get it back. Alcoholic Alice got furious with the doctor. All she wanted to know was when she could get her licence back. All he kept wittering on about was the state of her liver. What on earth was wrong with the man?

We only have to think of stories like Bruce and the spider to see the resonance that determination and tenacity have for people. If there's one thing we admire, it's the person who never gives up. But when it comes to addiction, King says, you reach a point where you simply have to surrender. You cannot keep fighting for control over something that controls you. "The day I realised I was powerless over alcohol and couldn't control my drinking was the day I was empowered to get better. That is the paradox of recovery. It's only when you say, 'I can't do this,' that you get better."

Perhaps that's because surrendering means admitting the problem. Denial in alcoholics goes deep. King would once have claimed that she drank because she had problems, rather than that she had problems because she drank. "That was all part of the denial. The depth of denial is very, very complex. My denial was never about how much I drank or what I drank, because I was always very open – I was never a secretive drinker and always drank in company. My denial was more about what effect my behaviour had on everyone around me."

When an ex-alcoholic friend took her to an AA meeting, she said she was going out of curiosity – not, he must understand, because she was an alcoholic herself. But, confronted by other people's illness, she recognised her own. In fact, discovering that the World Health Organisation actually defines alcoholism as an illness helped her. Using words such as 'bad' and 'weak-willed' is very destructive for alcoholics, she says.

But if sobriety means facing reality, is it not a cop-out to say it is an illness? You could argue that a cancer sufferer doesn't have a choice, but an alcoholic does. "I don't think it's a cop-out," says King. "When you look at it, can you be of sane mind and tip gallons of poison down your throat? But I take responsibility for my illness and that's the crux of the matter. I am responsible for doing something about it. I seek to blame nobody. The buck stops, the bottle stops, with me."

The whole concept of AA rests on acknowledgement of 'a higher power'. That doesn't need to be God (though King, who was brought up a Catholic, has no difficulty with the concept of God – it was just that she'd abandoned Hail Marys for Bloody Marys). But the acknowledgement of a higher power may simply be recognition of the power of the group, seeing that people are stronger together than as individuals. You can go to AA meetings feeling very down. But King has never come out of one without feeling uplifted. There is a step in recovery where you have to tell someone everything you have done. A few weeks after that, King says, her compulsion to drink completely left her.

Some experts believe there may be a genetic component to alcoholism, and after a certain point there is a chemical addiction. But if it is largely a psychological illness, and King now understands her own compulsions, what stops her picking up a glass of champagne and drinking in moderation? "The brain tells me I could have one glass of champagne, and indeed I could. Nothing would be better to celebrate my book. However, I'd have one now and in a few weeks' time I'd think, 'Well, I was fine. I'll have two now.'" If she feels tempted, she talks to someone about it and the desire leaves her almost as soon as it's articulated. "I just fast-forward the video," she explains. "I fast-forward to waking up and not being able to remember what I've been doing. Do I want that back? Do I want that for my children? Absolutely not."

We all recognise alcoholic down-and-outs. We understand the physical and material difficulties that lead there. We can see them. But perhaps we are less good at recognising disabling psychological distress. King may be middle-class but she doesn't think her experience with alcohol is different from that of the park-bench drunk. Anyway, she could have ended up there, she acknowledges. She could have died. Alcohol, she says, cuts across class, gender, age and race. High-functioning alcoholics operate in offices all round us, surviving in work and anaesthetising themselves out of it.

Alice King had to discard not just alcohol, but a job and indeed an entire lifestyle. She has since been employed as a taster for a major tea company and hopes there will be other food contracts – sauces and ice-cream, for example. But she has primarily been a writer for 25 years and she sees that as her future. She has attended psychotherapy for years and is discussing the possibility of a newspaper column on the subject. She also hopes to turn her hand to fiction.

Sadly her father, with whom she shared her love of wine, died before seeing her solve her problems. But her mother has read her book and King waited like a five-year-old to hear her verdict. "It's marvellous," she told her daughter. It made her laugh and it made her cry. "Beautiful. You should be very proud." And King is. Her brother told her, "I loved it, I hated it, but I couldn't put it down."

King smiles. "Anything that helps me come to a position where I re-find me, and where they get their daughter and sister back, they are happy with. They are just content to have Alice back." r

• High Sobriety: Confessions of Drinker (£16.99, Orion) is published this weekend
source: Scotland On Sunday

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