Alcoholism and Me

In his latest column, Russell Grant takes a long, hard look in the mirror.



As promised in my last column, today I’m gonna be talking to you guys about alcoholism. In particular, my alcoholism. I promise to do my best to not be self-indulgent, as I know a lot of these types of articles can be. What I want to do is be completely honest, and in doing so, maybe help someone come to the realisation that they might have a problem, and try to get help. It took a long time for me to realise something that, in hindsight, is so completely obvious. I’m gonna tell you a little bit about my own story. If you care none for the autobiographical musings of an unknown Durban writer then I’d suggest exiting this post here. I’m also gonna talk a little bit about addiction, although I’ll probably do a full column on addiction at a later stage.


Anyway. Let’s begin.


I started drinking when I was probably 15 or 16 years old (hi mom. Sorry.). At the time none of us looked old enough to get into clubs, so we would have the older kids in our group head to the bottle store and procure for us the hardest and cheapest liquor available. Our drink of choice was vodka, as we had all been told at some point that you can’t smell vodka on the breath; all the better for hiding your exploits from your parents. We would usually get a bottle of Russian Bear for 30 bucks and neck it straight till we couldn’t walk or speak properly. Such was how many weekends at friends’ houses were spent. Fast forward a couple years to becoming a student, and the trend continued. Being a student is mostly about drinking, knowing things, and behaving recklessly. I hung around the varsity world for some time longer than I should have. I took an inordinately long time to complete my masters degree, and came close to being denied the right to register one year. Thankfully, a paper I had published in a journal worked in my favour, and I was finally able to complete what was, in the end, a fairly mediocre thesis. I had done it though, and I was, overall, mostly happy about it.


I harboured ambitions of becoming a professional photographer, and so I committed my time to boring commercial jobs that paid me well. My life seemed stable. I was living in a nice flat in Musgrave with my long-term girlfriend. Things were looking up. It was around this point that I decided to start experimenting with the old on-your-ace-day-drinking-while-working technique. I’m not entirely sure why this was. It probably had something to do trying to kill the monotony of editing an endless stream of photos of shoes. It also seemed weirdly romantic to me at the time. This is what artists do, right? They drink. And they drink alone. There was something about the image of the tortured photographer-cum-writer slogging away at his work, beer in hand, cigarette at his lips, etc. I’m finding it hard not to cringe as I write this. I was young, OK.


Around this point, along with the day drinking, I started experiencing a particular brand of nightmare. The details of the nocturnal visions were always slightly different, but the theme was the same: I was destroying my life in some way. What made it so scary was the fact that I felt it was always something I was capable of; I felt that there lay within me some kind of dark, destructive force egging me on, trying to pull me closer to oblivion. I have come to realise that I lived a large portion of my life dealing with what is now understood as “imposter syndrome”. Despite all of the good things I had in my life, I never for a second truly believed that I was worthy of any of it. I never felt as though I deserved to be a Master’s candidate. My entire academic career felt empty, like I had never read or learned a single thing. Somehow I had bullshitted my way to where I was. The same applied to my relationships and my social life. Why did all these people like me and want to spend time with me? I felt like a fraud, and lived with a constant fear that someone would, at some point, figure me out and expose me for it. I have a very early memory, maybe my first ever panic attack. I think I was still in primary school, but one morning, getting ready for school, I tried to think about what I had learned, and I was coming up blank. I freaked out, hyperventilating and crying as I imagined all of the time I had spent in school being a total waste.


This feeling of being an imposter, coupled with the dark dreams and the destructive urge (the latter probably a result of the former), slowly wound themselves around my mind until it felt as though the best thing to do was to somehow end my life without actually ending it. I’m guessing that this is what drove me to royally screw up my first relationship. As the years drew on the nightmares continued and the desire for complete and utter self-destruction grew stronger and stronger. I slowly became convinced, more subconsciously than consciously, that the only correct thing for me to do was to throw all of the good things in my life out the window. To burn it down. And so I did. I did the same thing with my second relationship. I had learned nothing. After the end of relationship one I threw myself into a world of nihilistic hedonism, the only thing I thought that I truly deserved. I ran up a lot of debt, I used a lot of drugs, I cared little for making money. When I think about it, I really have no idea what I did to earn a living, or how I was capable of buying anything at all. None of this mattered, though. I wrecked my second relationship in more or less the same fashion as the first. After this, I decided to calm down a bit. To reflect, and to learn. The jolling continued for a while, but it didn’t have the same dark-edged, bottomless pit quality it had before. It was more of a habit now than anything else. Long story short, I managed to cut the drugs, but I kept the drink. It soon became apparent to me that the drugs and the drink are strongly linked, so now I have cut that out too.


The drinking was probably the most difficult thing to quit, because alcohol is, for me, far more insidiously dangerous. I’m not an alcoholic in the traditional or widely understood sense. I don’t crave alcohol. I don’t experience withdrawal from it. What makes it so insidious is the way it would slowly creep into my life and guide my decisions. Without drink, I am never tempted to buy drugs. Without drink, I am never tempted to destroy my life. It is possible for me to go out on a night and only have a single drink, but generally what happens is a few nights following that, things will get out of control. It’s a small, incremental build up that always ends in disaster. It took me a while to put the pieces together, but the more I reflected the more I could see the pattern. Even as recently as a few months ago, even when I was happy and things were working out, drinking was still a habit, and it was growing slowly into something I couldn’t control. I was drinking every single day, and not only that, I was getting very drunk every single day. It took a few particularly bad blackouts and a very unhappy girlfriend for me to finally take a decision I never thought I would be capable of. I quit drinking altogether. Done and klaar. Since quitting maybe four months ago, I have only drunk on two occasions: Christmas and New Year. Since New Year I haven’t touched the stuff. What I soon realised is that there is something inside of me that still yearns for destruction. It still yearns to be out of control. I suffer from severe ADD and bipolar. Both of these things make it difficult for me to control my impulses a lot of the time. The part of my brain responsible for impulse control (executive function) simply doesn’t work that well. Add a few drinks to the mix and you may as well wind me up and point me in the direction of oncoming traffic. Often, when I look back on a heavy night, it feels as if I’m watching a movie of myself behaving in a certain way. It feels like I’m on autopilot, jumping from one ill-conceived impulse to the next. There is simply no stopping me once I get going. It took me a while to realise that the best way to avoid doing dumb impulsive shit was to not get going in the first place. Speak to a lot of trainers who teach martial arts or self-defense, and they’ll tell you the best thing you can do to defend yourself is avoid getting into a fight. I’ve learned to apply this to drinking. I thought I could control my impulses, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Now I’d rather sidestep that encounter altogether.


Addiction is a strange beast. It is so misunderstood in the mainstream that at times it is laughable. I know people reluctant to smoke weed because they fear one hit will turn them into bleary-eyed night walkers obsessing over their next score. Many people still believe that weed is not addictive. Trust me, I know people who are addicted to weed. People often conflate dependence and addiction, and make a hard distinction between physical and psychological addiction. I am no expert on the topic, but what I have learned in my history with substances is that these lines are incredibly blurry. I know a few perfectly functional heroin, cocaine and meth users. I know a few completely non-functioning weed users. I read somewhere that instead of distinguishing between hard and soft drugs we should rather make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy relationships to drugs (I include alcohol in this because, yes, it is a drug). I find this works better than a lot of our other notions about drugs. All of us will inevitably become dependent on one thing or another in our lives. This isn’t a bad thing so long as that dependence doesn’t impact our lives in a negative way.


I thought for a long time that because I didn’t fit into a certain mould of what it meant to be an addict, that I wasn’t one. Drinking was a part of my identity as a writer. It was romantic and it gave me an excuse for all the negative shit I was doing. It never dawned on me that this was something I should try to banish from my life. I know a lot of people who quit drugs or drinking for reasons I couldn’t understand. These people never seemed like a problem, or that they had a problem. I’ve come to realise that addiction is a very personal thing, and while it has many shared characteristics, it affects us all quite differently. It’s up to each of us, as individuals, to make the call about whether our substance use is a problem or not.


What pulled me back from my attempts at destruction was the continued love and support from my friends and family. Despite the things I was doing, for some reason, there were people who still loved and cared about me. It slowly dawned on me that perhaps there was some point to continuing my existence.  Fast forward to now and I’m in a solid relationship once more, living in a beautiful communal house in Glenwood, working and earning money doing what I love. Things couldn’t be better for me, and I intend to keep them that way.

7 Responses to “Alcoholism and Me”
  1. britt says:

    beautifully written !

  2. Mbusi says:

    Powerful and really easy to read. This was my favourite sentence, “…but what I have learned in my history with substances is that these lines are incredibly blurry.” Very Jay Z of you.

  3. Chrissy says:

    Aweh Russooool! Epic article, well done for making shit happen. Failure (or perceived failure) is so powerful for personal growth <3

  4. Matt S says:

    Soolius Malema, my man. Thank-you for sharing.
    Glad to know you’re in a better place.

  5. Lorien says:

    The best thing you can do to defend yourself is avoid getting into a fight. So true. From one ex- ‘alcoholic/addict’ to another… very brave, bro. Thanks for sharing.

  6. this is such a great post, thanks for sharing

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