I was attending a conference in Hong Kong. It was taking place on the 39th floor of an office tower and the windows were floor-to-ceiling. I spent the whole of the first morning having a panic attack.
I have never liked heights, even as a child, and this fear has got worse as I have grown older. When I was 10, I could not get on the top deck of a London bus without some discomfort. To be in a high place now, I had to be drunk.
It is hard to be drunk enough at 9:00am in a business meeting. People disapprove. Withdrawal kicked in hard by 9:30. As soon as the coffee break was announced, I dashed for the lift. It took weeks to arrive. It took months to descend. And then, there I was, faced with a busy shopping mall, part of an office complex, at 10:30am. Where could I find a drink?
In New York, there would have been an early-opening Irish pub. In Japan, a convenience store would have been selling miniatures of Suntory whisky. But here, in this Hong Kong office complex there was nothing. No source of relief from fear and craving and sweating.
And then I saw it: a wine shop, Fine Wines. It had just opened, and was a vendor of high end French products. My hope was replaced immediately by disappointment, of course. How was I going to open a fine Burgundy in a shopping mall with no corkscrew? I went in anyway.
It was my only hope. And I discovered that they were selling an expensive French brand of vodka. It was a promotion. I tried to look nonchalant, studying the wines long enough not to appear desperate, and then I plumped for the vodka. Relief was immediate.
Yet, no sooner is one problem solved than another arises. How and where to drink the stuff? I was running out of time. I had to get it into me as soon as I could. But straight from the bottle, in the middle of this busy office and shopping complex?
In the end—yes, straight from the bottle. It was wrapped in brown paper, so I kidded myself into thinking that nobody would notice. I took a giant swig that seared my throat (it might have been French, but it was still vodka). It warmed my belly, and I shivered.
It is hard for a non-alcoholic to imagine how the alcoholic feels when that first draught hits home. It is like experiencing a mystical revelation. Suddenly all has gone from despair and pain to light and joy. Everything will be fine, no, better than fine. Everything is perfect and in its place, and nothing can ever be wrong ever, ever again. Fear is banished, and all is well.
For a while.
And then you need more, another hit, almost immediately, because what if you have no supply later, and what if this or that happens? And it was time to go back upstairs, and it would be too high. So I took another deep drink, and decided to try and hide the bottle so that I could come back to it later. I left it by an emergency exit door and hoped for the best. It was gone when I looked for it two hours later.
A few months after that experience I made it to rehab, and began a program which has meant that I have not had to have a drink for over ten years now. Through that program I learned how to recreate that calm I felt after a long-craved drink, and how to accept whatever comes my way without panic and misery. And whenever I feel tempted, which thank God is rare these days, I can look back at my desperation in that office building and remember where that first drink will take me.
Image of sunset with skyscraper courtesy of Shutterstock