One of the key aims of Social Drinking is to help normalise conversations around mental health and addiction. I learned the hard way that alcohol and other addictions, and depression and anxiety thrive when I don’t talk about these things and isolate from my social networks. I don’t offer advice on this blog. I just try and tell my unremarkable story honestly in the hope it will spark a conversation.
We’ve all heard that men are less likely than women to seek help if they’re experiencing mental health issues. Many men I know have been taught they need to be self-reliant and that it is inappropriate to express their emotions. But, this wasn’t the case in my family at all.
Rather, I think my unhealthy way of dealing with emotions was partly a product of a distinctly parochial, Australian, small-town masculinity. I looked up to the surfer’s who charged the hardest, in the water surfing or at parties. The tough guys who rolled with the punches, who could work all day, drink all night and never complain. The ones who were holding up the bar at the end of Liam’s wake. Let’s just say I had a misplaced appreciation of what matters. Many of those guys are alkies now and don’t surf. A couple took their own lives.
Mental health and addiction is a chicken and the egg relationship of unsure causality. I’m not sure if it actually matters all that much, since most of the alkies I’ve met on the street, in rehabs, sitting on the gutter outside bars in Mexico as the first fishing trawlers come into port at dawn, have some sort of ‘other’ mental health issue bubbling away.
This blog has focussed on my drinking because that was what I believe brought me undone. However, through my own research and by working with a specialist cousellor, I’ve recently discovered a post-traumatic stress disorder has been with me, pretty much all along.
It was so easy to brush aside a traumatic event as though it was no big deal. That’s what I thought was expected of me as a twenty-year-old male: just get over it and get on with the business of living.
Of course, when we speak to people who are knowledgeable about trauma they will tell us to seek help. Peers, co-workers and drinking buddies? They’ll help us drown our sorrows, because that was how they were taught to deal with grief and stress.
Liam was a big teenager, both in physicality and presence, much like his father and grandfather. I surfed against him a few times in junior boardriders’ contests when he really should have been in the under-14s division. I was a few years older and, when I got my licence, I started dragging the big grommet down the coast in the hunt for bigger, badder waves. He was a lump of a kid with a heavy back foot in the water. He, as I, loved a beer.
I was on holidays from undergraduate university and was slogging away waiting tables, clearing filthy ashtrays (remember when that was a thing?!), frothing milk, and dreaming of the girls I was going to meet at the pub later.
It was late afternoon and, as was my usual practice, I was killing time playing the old timber upright piano on a break in a split shift. In the backgound was the usual Saturday arvo sounds of lawnmowers, Currawongs and Kookaburras, and a slosh of a small, lazy, onshore swell washing up on the rocky shore at the bottom of the hill. The local footy game had just wrapped up down the road, whistles and cheers gone. The oily smell of eucalyptus was drifting through the fly-screen.
I remember other scents in the bush that day too: the spilt fuel and stirred up dust, the ferrous tang of blood and the unmistakeable, indefineable smell of fear. These smells have been imprinted, returning seemingly without cause with a vividness that makes me feel as though the experience were happening all over again.
I heard a car gunning its engine along the last stretch of bitumen before my street turned into the forest road leading to the lookout. As it sped past I glimpsed an old 4×4 pick-up with passengers waving beers, crouching behind the driver in the rear tray. I recognised those ratbags, my friends. They’d been drinking at the footy.
A shot of adrenaline and foreboding.
Foot counting 4:4 time. Two bars of empty space, fingers on keys, breath held.
The sound of wheels locked, a horrible sliding, an echoing percussion of impact rolling through the Otway valleys.
The car had hit the loose, corrugated gravel at speed on a slight angle. The skid marks showed a long, four wheel drift to the left, an attempted correction, terminating at the base of a very large gum tree.
Others had called the paramedics, who arrived not long after me.
Liam lay still, remarkably uninjured except for where he hit his head.
I remember Liam making fun of my swollen and bruised face after I survived a car accident a few years before his death. He, like many of the other locals, heard on the radio a (misinformed) report I had died.
On that day, I took a 1978 Ford Falcon XY sedan, laden with the family’s Xmas presents and a virgin, unwaxed surfboard for two, end-over-end somersaults, Dukes of Hazard style into the intertidal zone, off a four metre cliff at 60MPH. Jessie the wonderdog was in the car with me. She survived, but wouldn’t trust me to drive for many years. Smart dog.
So, within the short space of two years, I had narrowly escaped with my own life and had witnessed my friend’s dying breath. By my 21st birthday, I had realised that the only way to stop the dreams was to pass out drunk. I had to have my quota.
The reason I tell this story is because it is unremarkable in its remarkableness: these things happen with all-too-frequent regularity in Australian towns. Everyone knows someone who didn’t make it out of their teens or early-20s because of the poor decisions they made. The experience of shock, grief and trauma is part of the human condition and we rely on our social networks to get us through. But I didn’t. I turned to the bottle.
None of this will bring Liam back, but remembering this sequence of events and talking about them with someone I trust has been both revealing and healing.