Giving up alcohol and fronting up to life with a clear head can be both illuminating and terrifying.

A tray of mince. Beep. Pause. A tin of baked beans. Beep. Pause. A loaf of bread. Beep. Pause. Glacial pace doesn't cover it.

She is putting items on the conveyor belt one at a time and waiting till they are added to the bill before she adds the next one. They are basic items. She doesn't have a lot of them.

She is not old, but seems worn out and she is holding her left arm like a broken wing. Jeez, could you go a little slower luv? I have an appointment to get to. I need to buy my tray of cut-up pineapple, my Watermelon and Mint Hopt Soda and my Black Plum Greek Yoghurt.

Don't you know, boredom is the pimp of death? I try to keep any hint of impatience with the old, unbeautiful and deviant out of my voice: "Can I help?"


She looks surprised at the offer. She is very, very sorry for holding me up but croakily says she has to check how many items she can afford. She is missing one, or maybe two, teeth at the front. When she gets to her limit she will leave the rest of her groceries behind. I find myself saying, "Um, I hope you won't feel patronised, but can I pay for your groceries?"

I feel like a right wanker telling you this. But not as much of a wanker as I felt at her reaction. I thought she might be offended. Instead, it looked like she would cry. "I can't believe this, I can't believe this," she kept repeating. "You are an angel," she said.

Lady, I am so not. I am a sulky brat. I was on my way for a consultation at Servilles about getting hair extensions. The day before, I bought two M.A.C. lipsticks (Candy Yum Yum! Lady Danger!) just to get a receipt so I wouldn't have to pay for parking at the mall. I know. Die, Yuppie Scum.

It's not that I'm especially rich, just that of late I can be haggard, peppery, heartburned: seriously jaded, painfully aware of all that the dyspeptic 47-year-old me doesn't have rather than all that I do.

Shamefully, I am frequently oblivious to the safe, glossy lustre of my middle-class life. But perhaps something changed last week. I have become exquisitely attentive to things I previously ignored because I have stopped drinking.

"Enough." One word: all it took. I didn't think I could do it. Drinking was too intrinsically part of me: drinking was oblivion, surrender, anaesthesia of my secret anxiety, providing a respite from my revolting self and my obsessive, broken machine of a mind.

I liked to drink. I liked to be drunk. "You self-medicate," my psychiatrist said, kindly. Strangely, I even liked hangovers, as a consciousness-altering distraction; substitute pain is so much easier to bear than the real thing.

Stopping drinking would mean I would have to feel all the personal horror I had numbed for, oh, you know, about 30 years. When left alone with the chemistry of my mind, without red wine, this felt unbearable. But then again, carrying on as before didn't seem to be a long-term proposition either.


In the last six months or so, I was increasingly becoming aware my so-called identity, once a messy but functioning operation, was now a Syrian-type bombed-out wreckage with the odd wisp of smoke escaping from the rubble.

The conclusion was inescapable: I would have to build a whole new self. And the only way to do that would be to survey the devastation in all its existential horror, disorganisation and confusion. For this I would require a clear head.

Initial acceptance felt more like surrender. But after that, it was easy. I have found at cocktail parties if I drink Diet Coke in a wine glass I can almost dupe myself it is ersatz wine. (In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg advises replacing one unhealthy habit with a similar but less-harmful one. For me, water is no good. It has to be a dark-coloured beverage. It has to be copious and it has to be in a wine glass.)

The strange thing is I always thought if I stopped drinking I would lose everything fun - no more laughter, no more sitting around my kitchen table with my friends talking rubbish. In reality, I may have to attend to the personal terror I had been trying to escape, but the reward is that the moments of joy are more intense, too: powerful, almost sacred. I have discovered if you can't tolerate pain you can't be fully alive. Now I'm just taking it one day at a time: trying to bear the small tedious pain of self-discipline. I hope it lasts, although my resolve can be tested. On Saturday night, the traffic was bad, and although I could drive, I decided to walk into town on my own to see Nick Cave perform.

There was a full moon. I walked past a Japanese restaurant and inside I glimpsed a man I once loved, having dinner with his wife. They were laughing. I kept walking, turned up my headphones. "We know who you are, we know where you live, and we know there's no need to forgive." My velvet jacket was damp with sweat when I got to the bar. I ordered two Diet Cokes.