The bastards will not swim.

Frida Kahlo wrote: “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim.” Whether or not she was referring to alcohol, I don’t know, but I have seen this quote repeatedly when I am scrolling through Pinterest unable to sleep, looking for inspiration in a pithy choice of words, framed by an inspiring photo of a sunset, the kind I never see because I am at a low elevation in a large city.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, following several days of sobriety, I woke up, sat up in bed and – awake in an instant, possessed – typed “sober” into The Guardian‘s search engine. The first hit was a feature by Tanya Gold about her alcoholism, which in the first few moments of the day, eyes barely able to open, I devoured, then read again. And again. It hit me with such force that for the rest of the day I could think about nothing else and its bold truth.

“Alcoholism,” writes Gold, “is… a voice in the head: a malevolent voice that wants you to die.” She documents how, after the birth of her son, on a comedown from morphine, she considers walking out into the traffic, or throwing herself under a train. Even though she hadn’t touched drugs or alcohol for years, the voice inside her was back. The voice that wanted her to die.

“It is frightening, seeing yourself wish death on yourself in a mirror, and – because you are full of cocaine, as well as alcohol – being able to remember it. Alcohol shrouds itself in blackout, and you wake to a queasy blank; but cocaine is very bright, and pointed – it is almost telescopic. I was frightened enough to attempt one year without alcohol.”

I could think about nothing else that day because I know that voice too. I have heard it on wine, spirits, cocaine, weed and – inexplicably – on nothing but herbal tea. This voice, which would like me ruined, resigned, harmed or dead, has a habit of opening its mouth when I least expect it. And there isn’t just one voice, but lots of them, dancing around and conspiring to poison my thoughts. Little sorrow bastards. And I am going to kill them, one by one.

The voices carry the words of anger, the white-hot rage for things that have happened in the past, for things that I am dealing with now, for parts of my life that have not turned out how I expected them to. I have shouted down the voices with as much wisdom as I can muster, with as much compassion and understanding as I can generate. The more sobriety I manage, the better it gets. But the sorrow bastards are tenacious little things and it will take time until they are snuffed out. Perhaps they can never be killed, just managed.

I am not alcohol-free, I am not recovering, I do not have a counter with which I count the days since my last drink; my sobriety is an emerging process, a slow realisation that comes in fits and starts, but I notice that recently it’s easier, more desired. I’m ready for this clarity now.

I keep trying on sobriety and love its calm simplicity. The voice is still sitting on my shoulder, a chattering monkey filling me with doubts and what-ifs and silent but vicious streaks of thought that, at best, feature unwise words and, at worst, the ideation of death. But without drink, the monkey gets bored and talks less. So why let it imbibe? That voice is a bastard. And it will not swim.

– Sister Temperance






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