The house is large, too large to be a family home but not big enough to be a country hotel. It is pretty but not exceptional, meriting only a dismissive sentence in Pevsner. You approach it down a dark drive of leggy rhododendrons and laurels; the view at the bottom is wonderful, beyond the ha-ha stretches and folded chalk of Wiltshire.
I saw it first six years ago, on April 1. The bluebells were just finishing and the daffodils starting, or maybe the bluebells were starting and the daffodils were finishing. My grip on the natural rhythm of things was shaky. My grip on most things was shaky. I stood in the spring sunshine, pigeons cooed, flowers nodded, the clouds scudded and I swallowed hard on the rising foam of tears and vomit. How unfair that I should have been reduced to this. At the age of 30, my best endeavours, a river of booze and desert of chemicals has brought me to the bon viveurs' Lubyanka - a drying-out clinic.
"Well, I'm afraid you're an alcoholic; there really isn't any doubt about it." Two weeks earlier I had been sitting in a tasteful private doctor's consulting room and a tasteful private doctor had told me that I was an alcoholic. "Fine." I tried to make it sound mildly inconvenient, but not worrying. "What can you give me for it?" "It doesn't work like that. I can't prescribe you any drugs. You would simply abuse them and drink. Anyway, you should go to a treatment centre. I can book you in now. It's expensive, but I strongly recommend you go." "Fine, but not right now. I'll go in two weeks." "Two weeks ... that's April 1 then." He smiled at a tasteful private joke.
It is April 2 and I am sitting in my first group therapy session. I have just spent my first night in treatment. This is the first day in 10 years that I haven't started with a drink. This is not what I expected. This is hell. I don't know quite what I did expect - fruit juice and brisk walks, housey-housey and stern lectures from low-church ministers, but not this. This is like some awful parody of boarding school, the same smells, the same gloss paint and tatty furniture; inmates being sent and summoned by bells, books to read, homework and, worst of all, dormitories. I am sharing a room with five other poor bastards, ranging from a scholarly-looking heroin dealer who just had his leg amputated, to a cacophonously flatulent transcontinental lorry driver who couldn't stop having one for the road. I'm put in the bed by the door. Later I learn that alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. They put new boys next to the door just in case. I have my blood pressure taken every 20 minutes. All night.
By the time the bell goes at 7am I want to die. The nurse gives me a Heminevrin, a sort of shandy in a pill that takes the edge off the shakes. I can't face breakfast. The morning is spent filling in multiple-choice forms. Have you ever stolen money to buy drink? Yes. Have you ever manufactured an argument so you could go out for a drink? Yes. Have you ever gone to bed with an inappropriate partner because you were drunk? Oh my God, yes. Have you ever had blackouts, shakes, hepatitis, DTs, partial paralysis, peripheral neuritis? Yes, yes, yes.
Page after page of little ticks. I can't face lunch.
"Group" is the central core of treatment, 10 chairs ranged in a circle. The meeting is facilitated by a counsellor who is a recovering addict and alcoholic. He is an unappetising little chap who chain-smokes, has bitten fingernails and appalling shoes. I, on the other hand, smoke a different brand, have long, filthy nails and am wearing someone else's appalling shoes.
The group is the engine that drives treatment; if the group doesn't work, treatment doesn't work. There is no particular magic involved, just a lot of talking. Why this should work when so many other more complicated therapies fail is a mystery. But work it does. Most alcoholics have tried dozens of different strategies to halt the steady decline from social drinking to park bench: going to psychiatrists, changing jobs, changing homes, changing drinks, changing partners, drinking only at weekends, never drinking before 6pm, going to health clubs, reading self-help books, taking prescribed drugs, aversion therapy, acupuncture and good old-fashioned willpower. The list is endless. The vast majority die trying to contain an increasingly chronic condition. The lucky few make it to AA via a treatment centre or on their own.
Sitting in my first group, feeling sad and sick and lonely, I didn't feel the slightest bit lucky. The next hour convinced me that I had been handed over to the Moonies' Gestapo. "So, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you're here." I mutter a few anodyne platitudes: "Bit of a drink problem ... life somewhat at sixes and sevens ... need time to re-evaluate ... bit of a breather - glad for any help you can offer ..." and finish with a winning smile. The group stares at me. A girl sitting opposite leans forward and shouts, literally shouts, "What a f***ing crock of shit. You're just a snotty sick alcoholic. Christ, get f***ing real."
I am so horrified I can't reply. I can feel tears pricking my eyes. I turn helplessly to the counsellor. He just looks at me with a seen-it-all-before expression, and says, "Sarah's right. You must be scrupulously honest with the group. We all know what it's like. We've all been there; just sit back and listen. Try to hear the similarities to your life. Don't concentrate on the differences."
The group continues, with everyone taking a turn to talk, some mumbling evasively, some garrulous with born-again enthusiasm, but all recounting sad, horrifying, funny episodes, laced with the sort of words I associated with polytechnic psychologists or Californian gurus. I concentrate on feeling sorry for myself and thinking of a ghastly revenge for Sarah. Sarah, I later learn, is a one-time model and social gad. Her family live in a house on Cheyne Walk and she went to St Mary's Ascot. She is also a junkie whose family have changed the locks to stop her selling any more of their possessions. She had borrowed or stolen money from everyone she knows. Before coming here she was working as a prostitute on the Earl's Court Road.
There is a point when all alcoholics or addicts in treatment reach a crossroads. They either believe their lives can be rescued from the brink with the help of others, or they don't. If they do, things start to change quite fast. If they don't, they usually discharge themselves, trusting in some personal scheme to save their lives. Realistically, their chances are almost nil. I saw a glimmer of hope quite early. About a week after the worst of the withdrawals had abated. I grew to enjoy the boarding-school life of chores and walks, groups and tutorials with a counsellor - a nice old gent who had been sober as long as I had been alive. I had a small convey of friends: Cathy, a sometime stylist; Sabrina, a manque actress, and Dickie, a City banker with a bright red face to match his bright red braces and an endless, excruciating fund of cricketing metaphors.
The moment I saw that the promise of a new life might just perhaps apply to me was late one night in the dorm, after lights out. We were talking quietly. I felt pleasantly sleepy and the voices coming out of the dark made me feel safe. The chap who now slept in the bed by the door was a young tramp from the Midlands. He spoke with a slow Brummie accent. He was in a terrible state, very close to death. He started telling us his story. Until two years previously he had lived with his widowed mother, drinking whatever he could get his hands on. He ran out of money and his mother refused to give him another penny. One Monday morning, Mother took her widow's mite to the cash-and-carry, leaving her son desperate and thirsty. He called a local junk shop and said his mother had just died and could they please take away her belongings for cash. With £200 in his pocket he left a home containing nothing except a brief note saying he was sorry. The money was soon exhausted. He ended up living in a public lavatory in the centre of Birmingham, begging and stealing. Finally, he arrived in treatment via a casualty ward. Why, I asked, if he had no commitments, had he decided to live in a public loo in Birmingham? "Oh. I did manage to get away at the weekends," he said. "I had a little place in the country - a telephone box outside Milton Keynes."
I laughed until the tears ran down my face and my sides ached. In the darkness the others choked and sobbed with laughter, bedsteads squeaking, mattresses groaning - every time we stopped to catch our breath someone would wheeze "Milton Keynes" or "telephone box" and we'd be off again, shrieking like schoolboys.
It wasn't as if it was that funny. I had smiled wanly at far better jokes in bars any day of the week. This was different. It was the companionship, the camaraderie. We were all in it together; sad and frightened, we had all recognised a piece of ourselves in the story. The chain of events, the feelings, all had a ghastly familiarity. It was the laughter of relief. We had stepped outside the chamber of horrors and if we stayed away from the first drink we wouldn't have to go back.
The next morning I felt lighter. The pall of nameless doom that alcoholics wake up to had lifted, as had the desire to sink a can of Special Brew. That wasn't the end, of course. I wasn't cured - there isn't a cure, just a remission. Neither was it all plain sailing from then on, but I had seen the point, and I did have hope. Treatment continued. I learnt to listen to other drunks and identify with them. Alcoholics aren't all tramps. In fact very few of them are. They come from every conceivable walk of life and their stories are as unique as snowflakes, but within them there are patterns that are common to all of them.
I left treatment six weeks later. In a practical sense, that is when my recovery began. It is one thing to stay sober in a protective, closed environment where no one drinks, and quite another to try it in the real world, where everyone does. I had learnt, however, that by talking to other drunks and junkies I could survive; more than survive, I could live with gusto.
No one really knows in percentage terms how successful treatment centres are. Of the handful of patients that I was with, maybe half of them are still living happily sober. Fifty per cent may not seem like terribly good odds, but they are a damn sight better than you can find elsewhere.
Anyone who has had a couple of drinks thinks they understand what it is like to be an alcoholic. We have all been drunk, we have all had a hangover, we have all done something a bit silly, all had one too many. But the difference is not just one of degree - it's like comparing having a bath to swimming the Channel.
The Channel is longer, lonelier, far more dangerous and a whole lot wetter.
A.A. Gill died in December 2016; this essay was first published in September 1991. Extracted from The Best of A.A. Gill (Hachette, $38).