O.G.H. Savage

The Smoky Mistress

Two stick men sit on a cigarette

It’s time for Blog Standard to face the heavy topic of addiction. It’s a significant one. I mean, we’re all addicted to stuff. Just look at my friends Harry Peel and Mr Beeby on a Friday night. They saunter down to their sugary little watering hole and lap up the IPA like some awful urban elephant. They can’t get enough. When I used my content marketing tool to identify the keywords related to the topic, it suggested porn addiction and Sally’s baking addiction as two of the top hits. I don’t anticipate hitting either of those keywords in this piece, but I just wrote them and I remain hopeful that it will pop up on Google when people attempt to investigate their addiction woes. Here it goes.

As we walk into a small exhibition in Copenhagen’s North West quarter, Harry Peel slips his see-through, designer umbrella into the umbrella stand, where it joins a range of other minimalist umbrellas.

‘Pint after?’ says Peel.

‘Nah. I’m not drinking at the moment. I might try and get hold of a fake gin and tonic. I’m increasingly becoming a non-alcoholic.’

‘Not even one Smoky Mistress?’

‘No, not even one.’

A pint of just-too-strong IPA is now known as a Smoky Mistress after we discovered a great beer with that name a few months ago down at Dorothea Bar. Ever since, we have been on a mission to rediscover the Smokey Mistress, but have not been able to find it anywhere, even online.

‘No Smoky Mistri for me at the moment. I’ve had the occasional low-key Mistress, but they’re always under five per cent’.

‘Yeah. Probably a good idea. It doesn’t do anybody any good. I told you about my mate Mr F didn’t I? He keeps on being dumped after saying outrageously controversial things when he’s pissed. I told him he’d better get off the Smoky Mistri. I told him that years ago when he was in South Africa and the government banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes during the lockdown. I’ve never heard someone so passionately against a government intervention. He could understand the booze ban. That he got. But the cigs. That didn’t sit well with Mr F.’

Recently, Peel and I have debated the idea of bringing consent forms to the pub, declaring that anything said when under the influence cannot be used against you at a later date. We have also implemented a post-pub texting system, where the morning after a session a text is sent confirming that your pub companion has said nothing untoward, banged on about a subject, or socially embarrassed themselves. It helps with Peel’s lack of day-after-pub memory.

Like a lot of people, I’m vulnerable to a boozy Friday. After being trapped in an office for a week, I fly towards the pub like a bat out of hell, attempting to address the constant rush and vague strain of life by unleashing it all down the pub and becoming temporarily lost in the beauty of sedation.

It reminds me of the only time I ever saw my friend Seedy H actually use his bicycle, a giant bike for a giant man named the White Rider. He had just finished an exam and I remember seeing him flying towards the Hyde Park Pub in Leeds, a white blur usually only capable of moving at a snail’s pace. It was the only time I ever saw him put the bike to use, purely driven by his desire for a rewarding beer.

In Seedy H fashion, I leave the office at approximately 4:30 on a Friday, barely containing my excitement as I lock my laptop in my locker. The laptop has to stay here for the weekend, lest it is lost in a moment of drunken foolishness. I learnt this from Harry Peel who, against his better judgement, usually has his laptop with him at the pub, periodically gasping and looking around with wide eyes at the very idea that he has mislaid it.

Last week it was Beeby’s Birthday at a beer bar that I descended upon. A Beeby beer bar birthday. The Beeb loves an IPA on a Friday too, not only on Beeby birthdays. He sits basking in the sun, clutching a New England IPA. He’s proudly given up smoking and keeps talking about it. I find that most people who’ve given up smoking talk a lot about how they’ve done so, like an abandoned lover who can’t stop bringing up the one who got away.

‘You should try microdosing dear boy. It did the trick for me. I was having a drop of psilocybin every morning for a month and I began to feel calm. It’s as if the increased connection with the moment and yourself reduces the need to escape. It’s helped me be kind to myself and reduced the desire to smoke considerably.’

‘I dunno Beeb. I think I keep on smoking because I’m too kind to myself. I wanna make a poster that says Gin and Yang instead of yin and yang. Maybe the gin and the jang. Who knows. I reckon it could sell. People like simple stuff. People like drinking.’

‘Stay focused dear boy. I’ll hear no more of your infantile projects.’

‘Alright Beeby. I’m just trying to lighten things up. It is your birthday after all and the sun’s out. A rarity in these parts.’ 

‘Fine’ said Beeby, marching on in the face of my attempts at deviation.

‘I’m increasingly beginning to wonder whether it’s all worth it. I used to think that different faiths prohibiting drinking and the prohibitionist movement in the US were absurd. Now however I think they are (and were) onto something. Different religions are grounded in different versions of enlightenment and of obtaining inner peace, quieting the ego and finding solace in something more. As someone who meditates fairly regularly and tries to attain some form of mental comfort, I find that the constant interruption of hangovers isn’t conducive to progress in that department.’

‘Typically wise, Beeb’. I say, not only to stroke his ever-more-healthy ego. ‘ All that may be true, but these are tough times. We’ve all got the fear. The yips. My mate Ceci has come up with a new way to measure anxiety  —  pangs per minute. I like that. Really captures the feeling of those anxiety pangs. I just got a pang thinking about the pangs system. That’s already 1PPM and we’re only a few seconds in.’

‘Is this really how you spend your time? Devising measuring systems for anxiety in the “age of despair”. Perhaps it is you who should lighten up.’

‘I wasn’t finished Beeb. And you know I don’t like it when you cut me off. Like I said, these are tough times and in my opinion, a drink doesn’t always do harm. In fact, I find that a boozy evening can blow the mental cobwebs off. If that makes sense. If we lived in a perfect world, perhaps we wouldn’t need these vices. But we don’t. The world is full of strain. Even the strain of putting on my fake work personality is enough to drive me to drink. Do you know that I’ve noticed myself carrying a fake smile into rooms? I fake smile at a colleague or pretend to laugh at a joke, then move into another space in the office having accidentally carried the smile with me. It’s become a mask that I can barely take off. At least I can take it off occasionally though. Some of these lot seem to have it welded to their face.’

‘The relief of intoxication is not actually a relief, my friend. It is a temporary distraction which heightens those so-called pangs not long after it has left you. It only adds to your general stress levels. Nietzsche said that drinking alcohol is an admittance that you aren’t trying to achieve what you want to in life, or that you’re just trying to lose yourself in temporary happiness while ignoring your true calling and doing what you are fundamentally meant to do. I’ve also been reading Eckhart Tolle, a positively pint-sized little German who wears waistcoats and is a big fan of staying in the present moment. He suggests you should stay clear of the booze if one glass of wine stimulates the desire for more.’

As I sit and contemplate the wisdom of the Beeb, every sip of beer brings a dopamine hit and I feel its release. What is the desire to descend into oblivion? Once it sets in, I simply wish to consume things and enter a state of joyful numbness and temporary relief from the moment. At one point I just want to keep going, a constant scream to escape the present. Each gives only temporary reprieve, but then causes a negative change in conscious experience. I begin to feel outside of myself and become uncentered, getting caught up in the swirl of everything around me.

The flow of addiction — the feeling that an evening is not an evening without the consumption of booze — can be triggered by one big night, or a boozy weekend. It’s cumulative. Each day of intoxication gives in to the next, making it more likely that I will again indulge. This is the same with the ciggy cycle. Each one I consume makes it more likely that I will have another, until I find the strength to create a gap in the consumption and regain my strength. The act of smoking, an act that all too often accompanies the beery bliss, penetrates every fibre of myself. Every gum, tooth, and hair on my moustache. It seeps into all.

I’ve always gravitated towards smokers. I think they’re unlikely to take life too seriously if they’re willing to essentially dance with death. Maybe they’re just unhappy people. People who think. People who know what they’re unhappy about. Smoking addiction is almost impossible to explain to those who have not directly experienced it. The desire for nicotine suddenly emerges as if from nowhere, overriding the rational mind that has that very day decided not to smoke. The addiction latches onto thought, producing reasons why you should indeed engage in the behaviour. Some of these are obvious in their manipulation — making you think that it is only this time that you will give in, that you are inevitably going to stop the habit soon. Others are more insidious. Manipulative thoughts interact with insecurities over cultural belonging: You won’t be cool if you don’t smoke, you will lose your edge, you will no longer fit in, how could you possibly enjoy life and socialising without it? These are illusions.

The inability to give up smoking is not only caused by continual lapses into self-destructiveness but a frantic and stressed misinterpretation of time. It is a failure to acknowledge that at this very moment, you cannot imagine not being able to smoke, whereas at another moment (once nicotine has loosened its grip on you) this will not be the case. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking that I am not actually addicted to smoking. It is just a social habit or something I freely enjoy. It is reminiscent of Sick Boy in Trainspotting, the character who always knows he can stop. This is a kind of trope in all of our personalities. We believe that there is something in us that is immune from addiction, even when we are clearly addicted to something. That’s why there are so many GIFs going around about people’s addiction delusions and the comical element of actually believing that we will only have one beer. Our delusion amuses us.

The beginnings of these cycles are triggered by certain moods — usually destructive ones like negativity or boredom, or a perceived sense of loneliness. Once alcohol consumption starts, it becomes harder and harder to see the point in stopping. Inhibitions are lowered. It is only before the intake of alcohol has started that the rational limitations can be set. I feel the release of the addictive substance, but know that this is something I will pay for at a later time. Every up has its down. Every peak a trough. A few days later, I will be punished with a confused state of mind. The negative feelings one has on an emotional level transform into threatening thoughts, causing an ever-increasing distance from the calm self. It is in this state — or degrees of it — that addiction then becomes more of an issue. Either a kind of manic, disassociated state takes over where dopamine hits are the only way out of pain and confusion, or a kind of subdued form of apathy occurs, where one becomes resigned to the failure of having not managed to not consume.

David Foster Wallace said that addiction is like being trapped in a cage. The temptation provided by the addictive behaviour offers an escape from the pain of the present moment; an opportunity to run away. That might come in the form of a cigarette, a drink, or sitting passively in front of Netflix. In reality, engaging in these habits does not allow an exit from the cage, but brings us further into it. The only way I have found to truly escape the cage is through meditation.

When I consistently meditate, I feel a greater distance between the self and the addictive stimulus, the quick jolt of desire that intrudes into the present and renders it incomplete. It is as if the monkey on your back, instead of clinging to you like some sort of awful, clingy bastard, is instead levitating around you, unable to quite get hold of you in the way it could. The way meditation affects addictive stimuli is therefore similar to how it affects thoughts. They are still there, but instead of taking over your conscious mind, they can be observed. You begin to be able to take or leave them.

Periods like this can be interrupted by engaging in addiction again. In my case, it is alcohol that rocks my consciousness boat. The healthy distance from the addictive impulse is again reduced. When a significant intake of alcohol interferes with a period of abstinence, it makes other forms of addiction gain power over me.

I have read that consistent meditation has been observed as having similar effects to microdosing. Perhaps the latter is a shortcut to the dissolution of the ego, but most shortcuts are characterised by impermanence.

The distance from the self I attempted to describe above varies greatly depending on your upbringing. Those who experienced obvious love and security as children must develop a generalised feeling of calm and closeness to themselves, a form of sureness and self-esteem. Those without this experience or with a more complicated childhood thus have a greater need for meditation and must put effort into reproducing the feeling of security, lest they fall back into a scrambled, fearful state of consciousness. They have to do more just to attain the level of those who experienced genuine attention and love as children.

I grew up living in two houses and to a degree I had two very separate existences. My dad’s was marked by abstinence from the snack and the fizzy drink (although there was a time that my tendency to sneak down to the corner shop to get hold of some Galaxy Minstrels caused my uncle to remark that I had ‘overhang’ at the age of 12). At my mum’s, it was a snack free-for-all. The cupboard contained crisps aplenty, plus there was a chocolate draw and an endless stream of ginger beers.

These two environments caused me to develop two different types of addictive behaviour. At my mum’s, I craved the things that were there, rifling through peanut butter bagels and giant bags of crisps. At my father’s I knew on a conscious and subconscious level that there was nothing to be had, and I rarely craved it. I would happily drink water or milk and never even contemplate a ginger beer. People can form addiction within one state and not the other and in one environment and not the other. In Gabor Mate’s Scattered Minds, he points out how soldiers returning from Vietnam often lost their drug addiction immediately upon returning home. The addiction does not exist purely in the biological self and is instead relational. It is dependent on your environment, who’s around you and importantly, the degree to which your surroundings make you unhappy.

If our state of mind is in part determined by our relationship to others, and we are born in a culture where our ability to have fun with others is partly dependent on drinking, then perhaps it is not only a bad thing. If that’s true, then the collective act of drinking may be positive, despite its damage on the personal level. It would be ideal if we could totally socialise without it, but I’ve heard countless people remark that being with others without booze lacks a certain level of fun. I took a couple of months off last year, but I missed the joy of drinking in the company of the people I like. There’s something freeing about the act of socialising and drinking with others, of losing yourself. I guess it also isn’t a coincidence that other aspects of religion actively encourage drinking; the Dionysian rituals that bring joy. Perhaps alcohol, like microdosing can bring about the occasional positive change in consciousness and release from restrictive patterns of thought. 

I wish I just wanted one glass of wine.

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