Letter to a friend

I have been watching you, knowing you, and now I have to speak. You will not like what I have to say, but it has to be said... I like you too much to remain silent. So, here goes...

I know that you love him: I have never seen your eyes so bright, so full of life, so happy, so new. So gentle and willing. So eager to please... and I know he is worthy of your love: he is kind, he is gentle. He cares for you. He waits for you. And he promises you the earth and all the fruit and flowers that grow from it. He holds your hand as if it were part of his own. And he looks into your eyes and reaches somewhere where no-one else has ever been.

Yes, I know that you love him. And I do not want to destroy that love: your love is beautiful, as beautiful as spring flowers, as beautiful as a rainbow, as beautiful as hope. Neither do I want to shadow your world nor shatter the window you see it through. I just want to let a little new light in, a bright, clear light to bring light to one or two shady corners. A crystal light that will ring a true, pure note. A light which you may need to turn to, one day: not today, it won't be today, because I know that today you will turn away. It doesn't matter. Just listen.

I know your man. He drinks.

I have never spoken to him, nor touched him, nor seen him outside this crowded, smoke-filled room. I have never walked in the park with him or bumped into him in the town. I have not worked with him or been to school with him or even passed a few chance minutes in a doctor's waiting room with him. I do not know your man in this way, in the way you know him.

Yet I know your man as you do not. Yet.

Because I have lived with him for many years. I know all of his moods and all of his faces. I know his strengths and his weaknesses. I know his beauty and I know his devils. I know where he goes to in the dark.

One thing I do not know is his heart. I've never been able to find it.

But I will tell you what I do know...

You will have fun - at least for a while. It may be a long while, it may be a short while, but you will have fun, and it will be worth it. He will surprise you, shock you: make you smile and make you laugh until you feel you will burst with happiness, like a balloon blown full of laughing gas. He will bring you flowers and canaries, chocolates and chinese meals, perfume and shoes that don't fit. He will take you out every night and entertain you, as long as he can entertain you in a bar, or club, or restaurant. And in that bar, or club, or restaurant, he will also entertain all of your friends, until your friends become tired of being entertained. Until they become tired of hearing his stories and until they become tired of seeing your blind acceptance. Until they become tired of being given drinks they don't want. Until they become tired of carrying him home.

Don't forget your friends. One day, you will need them. Perhaps not for a long time, but you will need them. I promise you.

You will wake in the morning and look at his sleeping, peaceful face and wonder how he can drink so much and still look so good. And later in the day he will stir from his hungover bed, smile at you through heavy eyes, take your hand and pull you to him. And then he will love you like fire, day and night. And for a while, you will almost believe that you are the only one, the only one ever, before or after. You will believe that this is the truth, this is real. You will believe that you know your man.

But you don't know him at all, yet. Maybe you never will.

It will get worse before it gets better. It may be a little worse, it may be a lot worse. It may be so much worse that you wish you'd never been born.

After a while, he will start to go out alone, because you will not want to spend every night propping up a bar. You may want to read or to wash you hair or simply to stay at home. And if, by this time, you have a child, you will want to be home with that child. And so he will go out alone, and later he will come home, after the pubs have closed or later than that, reeling in the doorway, alone and miserable and blaming you for not wanting to be with him, for being ashamed of him, for not wanting his company any more: or he'll be surrounded by a gaggle of noisy, too-late-at-night friends and the clink of singing bottles in a carrier bag. And you will want to walk away from it all, to go to bed, just to sleep and forget it all, because you are tired, because you have to work in the morning, or simply because it is just another late night in a never-ending river of late nights.

How long can it go on for? Five years? Ten? Forever?

One day he may stop. His time for drinking may suddenly, inexplicable, unpredictably come to an end. He may just have had enough. He may simply just want to stay home and raise a family. He may just lose the taste and the inclination. He may moderate his intake to a social pint or to one glass of red wine with dinner. He may swap his vodka for sparkling water and his lager for lemonade.

Then you will be the lucky one. But I would expect you to have a refrigerator full of lemonade by this time, because he'll need it for the hangovers. Not for the drinking.

So he may stop... but perhaps he will just carry on drinking. Drinking more and more - or less and less, because it will start to take him less liquid, fewer bottles, to achieve more. More drunkenness.

You can't measure drunkenness by volume. The more you drink, the less you need.

And you will want him to stop.

You will want him to stop because you will have seen him late at night, after all the friends have gone, late at night as he swims and drowns in the debris. (But remember, by this time the friends will be his friends and not yours. They will be his drinking friends, friends that stay only as long as there is a bottle to invite them, friends that will not remember or recognise you by the light of day. Friends that will demand sensation and not conversation. Friends that will disappear like ghosts when he starts to insult them...)

Yes, you will see him after the friends have gone. You will listen to his endlessly repeated stories. You will hear how he is dying, dying, and how no-one knows how much he hurts. You will look into his distant eyes and see a stranger. And you will face his infant anger which will grow with every night and every bottle and every empty glass.

You will see the spilled drinks and the shattered glasses. You will tidy up the overturned chairs and the scratched and tumbled records. You will empty the flooded ashtrays and search the bedtime house for malignant sparks. And you will coax him, plead with him, ease him to bed. And there you will remove his shoes, his socks, his shirt and his damp trousers, you will do this unless he fights and unless he collapses, leaden, onto the bed, snoring before you have a chance to cover him.

Then he may realise that he has a problem. And he may do something about it. He may even ask for help.

But don't expect too much. He hasn't reached the bottom. Yet.

You have a choice. You can stay and hold his hand while it gets worse - because it will get worse before it gets better. If it ever does. Or you can leave.

But by this time the choice may not be so easy. You may have a child - or two, or three. You may have a home, a home that you have both worked for. Because he will work for it too: he will save money, he will help around the house, he will be clean and tidy, meticulously clean and tidy. Even obsessively clean and tidy. Because if he keeps his sober world in order, he believes that he is controlling everything else. Everything. Even his shadowed nights.

Remember one thing. You are still yourself. You always will be. Don't forget. Ever.

Even now, you will still have good times. Those days "in between", those days neither hungover nor inebriated. And you will believe that this "in between man", this smiling, happy, confident person, you will believe that this is really him. You will. And you will easily dismiss all the hurtful and angry, sorrowful and regretful words spoken on the late nights. Because, you will say, it was the drink that was talking, not him.

Have you ever seen a bottle with lips and a tongue? Ever heard a glass of vodka speak? Remember this. Every word spoken has its roots - somewhere. Even words spoken in anger. Even when it is the drink that is talking. All words come from somewhere. One day they have to be faced, and dealt with.

So, it will get worse. The nights will become longer. He will demand your time, your attention, your undivided attention. And if you do not give your undivided attention, he will become upset or angry. He may storm out of the house. He may stay, and he may throw things around. And he may demand that you go out at midnight and find him more, more, more to drink, even though there is still a full bottle in the kitchen and half a bottle on the table in front of him, because he is terrified of the bottle being empty like his glass is always empty, no matter how often he fills it. And you will go out at midnight to find him more drink, because it is easier to ignore your own anger and despair than his.

He may become violent. He may not. Not all drunks are violent, not in the wife-battering or street-fighting way. But you have no way of knowing, not now, not when it's just beginning for you, when all this may just seem like a horror story or one woman's hard-luck-tale... but you can be sure of one thing. He will become angry. And this anger will be expressed, either in words or in actions. Either against the world or against himself. Or against you.

I can assure you of this: he will become angry and the anger will be expressed. Somehow.

He will drink until he collapses. You will no longer be able to coax, plead or tempt him to bed. Because he will not hear you. He can no longer hear you. He only hears the bottle, and the empty glass. So he will drink until he is lying on the cold floor or sprawled across the sofa, glass in one hand, desolation in the other. And you will have to leave him there. Because there will be nothing you can do for him.

He will stagger to bed in the cold, early morning. He may remember to undress. He may not. And on reaching the bed he will tumble into a restless, comatose sleep, snoring and groaning and pushing for space.

And sometimes, in his sleep, he may vomit. He may start to choke. And you will have to turn him onto his side, push him, shout at him to wake him, ignoring his annoyance and his protests. You will have to clean the sheets and the bed, mopping the acrid liquid from beneath his wretched, shapeless form. And when you have done it, and he is quiet again, and you are back in your squashed half of the bed, and you are just starting to tumble head-first into exhausted sleep: then he may turn onto his back, cough, and start all over again...

It can't get much worse than this.

Because he can't remain like this for long. His body will start to give up. Could be his liver. Or his heart. Or his head. It'll be one bit or another. Sooner or later.

He may die. Or he may stop drinking. Two choices: die or stop. And if he takes the second option, it may not prevent the first. The damage will have been done.

But presuming he stops. And presuming he obtains help, and someone to talk to. Someone professional. Someone who knows the questions to ask and someone who knows how to listen to the answers. Someone who knows how to unwind all the years of pain and torment. Someone who knows where to look for the seeds, the roots, and who knows what to nurture and what to cut away. Someone quite special. And not at all easy to find.

But presuming he stops and presuming he finds help. Then what?

It will be difficult at first. He'll still want to drink. He'll miss the atmosphere, the easy pub conversations, the lack of self-consciousness. He'll be nervous of people, of family gatherings, nervous of even going out. Because meeting people equals sociability equals drink. But he'll also start to find a new interest in life. He'll discover everyday, usual things that he's never even noticed before. He'll discover parts of himself that he never knew existed. He will start to smile, even when it is raining. He will start to build a new life. And you may think that now, at last, you know him... that at last you have the man that you always thought he was.

Don't bet on it.

After a while, he'll start to look back on his life, on his drinking days, on his youth, on his shadowed manhood... and he'll start to re-evaluate it all. Everything. Everything that was done during his drinking days. Would it have been different without the bottle? How would he have reacted? What would he have done? Would he have stayed instead of going? Would he have gone instead of stayed?

Everything will come into question. Everything. And that includes you.

And what then? If you survive the searching, questioning, doubting... if you survive it together, what then? Perhaps happy-ever-after. Perhaps a new start, together. Perhaps looking forward to grandchildren together. Perhaps working and building and hoping and dreaming together... I hope so. I truly do. Because by this time, you will both have been through so much. Both of you. And you deserve to grow together, to be happy together, to know each other as you should have done from the start. To find again the love that you knew once-upon-a-time when your eyes were so bright, so full of life, so happy, so new. So gentle and willing. And to make it grow...

But there is one more thing you should know.

Through all the years that you will have protected him, protected yourself, protected your children: kept him company through the storm-wrecked nights: defended yourself and defied yourself: argued with him and cared for him and spoiled and despised and loved him... through all those years, one thing will have ruled in your home. His drinking. Because there is room for nothing else... Because it takes over. And all of your other problems, all of your hopes, all of your dreams and wishes and desires, everything: family, friends, yourself... will have taken second place. If they have taken any place at all. They will have been unimportant, unnecessary - perhaps even a nuisance. And for a while, it will remain like that. Because you will be putting all your effort into your new life together. Maybe you'll have forgotten them so long ago, or buried them so deeply, that you will think that they'll never come back.

But they will. Just you wait and see.

One day, you'll remember who you are. Someone or something may remind you. Someone may hold a mirror before you, and say, "Look... these are your old hopes, your old dreams. What are you going to do with them?" Or maybe you'll find hidden reminders in the pockets of an old coat, or ghosts will start following you as you walk down the street. But you'll be reminded... Something will happen. And you will remember who you are. And you will be happy, remembering who you are. Because you will start to live yourself, as if for the first time. And it will be the first time, the first time in many years.

So you see, it will come as a shock to him. He won't understand. He will be bewildered and lost. And you will be hurting him. No, he won't understand at all.

And you won't be able to help him.

Don't ask me what happens then. I can't give you the answer. I haven't found out myself.

So, tonight, before you go out, before you give him your eyes so bright, so full of life, so happy, so new, think about all this. You are so gentle and willing. So eager to please... and I know he is worthy of your love: he is kind, he is gentle. He cares for you. He waits for you. And he promises you the earth and all the fruit and flowers that grow from it. He holds your hand as if it were part of his own. And he looks into your eyes and reaches somewhere where no-one else has ever been.

Remember this. Think about it. Please.

A friend