Noelle McCarthy: A topographic memoir of addiction and recovery
When I was newly sober and raw as a rubbed eyelid, my God was in the Sky Tower. I’d come home at one, two, three o’clock in the morning, rattling from a night in front of a lemonade pretending there was vodka in it, and open the ranchslider on the mean little balcony of my apartment on Pitt St. I’d sit on the ridge between the slider and the tiles in the cold August air and smoke Marlboro Lights that I hated the taste of and look out over the city to where the hypodermic rose into the sky a block and a half away and I’d ask someone, anyone, to look after me. I didn’t know if they would, but the asking became something of a ritual, comforting in itself at the end of another long day of uncertainty.
Everything I did during that time was tiring — an exhaustion that gets so deep into your bones, you can’t get out of the shower, and when you do, you just stand there, shivering and dazed with a towel around you. I went to work at a radio station every day without a hangover, hating it. At least I wasn’t bored when I was rattling around with the shakes every morning, jamming my elbow into the gap between my hard drive and the computer monitor to brace my hand enough to hold a pot of yoghurt. Repairing to the disabled toilet afterwards to vomit it up discreetly, pushing my fingers far enough down my throat to get the bile up, swiping my streaming eyes in the mirror, cleaning my teeth with my index finger. At least when I was in that state, I didn’t notice how demeaning it was, ringing people up to ask them about The Best Song Ever Written.
But I went to work, just like everyone else does. I made soup, from a Jamie Oliver recipe, which required, from memory, an awful lot of celery. I put the whole pot of it in the fridge because I didn’t have any plastic containers. I stopped answering texts. Some of them anyway. I still went out constantly. I drank a lot of V and tried not to hear the sound of my own stupid voice banging in my temples. People think that when you stop drinking, things get better. They don’t. They get worse to begin with. Of course they do. I was bare, flayed, missing a layer.
One morning, about a month in, I lay in bed rigid. I had a writing deadline and was due at the radio station, but I was frozen to the mattress. All the anxiety of the last however-many years had risen up inside me. I visualised the kettle in the kitchen, imagined getting up and turning it on. If I could just make a cup of tea, maybe I could start the day. But I couldn’t move. I was too frightened. Pure, wild fear, galloped inside me. I was mad. That’s what I was most afraid of — that I’d stopped drinking, only to reveal a deeper pathology. Not an unrealistic fear, considering all the women who came before me, with their gin bottles, their insistence on wading into rivers. My mother in her early 20s, already halfdemented by the loss of the children she had before the rest of us. I lay on the bed under the flowery duvet and saw years running away from me. I’d be here forever. I was 30 years old, with no money, no home except a sterile rental, a flatmate who used to give me a discount at Zambesi and John Galliano candles but didn’t talk to me much any more. I got up eventually and boiled the kettle; I was too afraid not to.
Around this time, I had to give an after-dinner speech to a bunch of dentists. The engagement predated my sobriety — I said ‘yes’ a lot when I was drinking. What I said has been erased from my internal hard drive, blessedly. I think I talked about Martin Amis and Nabokov, the oral indignities they suff ered. The dentists — red-faced men with wild eyes and perfect, unhinged smiles — loved it. They wanted me to party with them. I said I was on antibiotics, so they asked what kind — some are apparently fine to mix with alcohol. I fled in a taxi. My apartment was in one of those Pitt St complexes that seemed to go up overnight. My room had no natural light and moveable walls that folded back on themselves, but I was grateful. It was my fault we’d been thrown out of the last place. I sat by the ranchslider in my grey ball dress and the red lipstick I put on for the dentists, looking at the Sky Tower against the inky sky, my heart tight in my chest, feeling like I was getting away with something, but only barely.
“I wouldn’t wish early recovery on my worst enemy,” my sponsor told me. We were in Fatima’s having a shawarma. She was a cat-eyed woman with a blunt bob, got clean in her early 20s, from heroin, in Sydney. She didn’t mince her words and she took no shit from anyone.
“You need to stop running on your own will, and hand it over.” Or: “Whatever you’re holding onto the hardest, that’s what you need to hand over.”
Every time she talked about handing it over, I imagined myself as Mary in a Nativity play, holding a swaddled bundle. Where was I supposed to put my bundle, exactly? And what was in it? What the fuck was she talking about? I just wanted to stop drinking; I didn’t remember signing up for a crackpot course in symbolism.
I told nobody I’d stopped. Nobody noticed. There was a club just off High St we all used to go to. Cassette Nine, up the stairs, across the road from the Belgian Beer Cafe, just off Queen St. Someone brought Steve Coogan there when he was in Auckland. One night I ordered two vodka tonics and lined them up on the table in front of me. I eyeballed the tall frosted glasses, anticipating a quietness inside my head, a bit of fucking comfort. My upper back was covered in painful red spots. A naturopath in Kingsland took one look at it and said I was “hardcore detoxing”. I gave the vodka tonics away, walked up Queen St with a fresh packet of Marlboro Lights, thinking of the maudlin Cat Power song I’d been listening to over and over.
I want to be a good woman
And I want for you to be a good man.
This is why I will be leaving
And this is why I can’t see you no more.
The Sky Tower was pink when I got home. For breast cancer. I sat and looked out at it, the largest antenna in the country. I imagined jagged waves radiating out from it, like those cartoon radio towers in 1930s newsreels. The tallest tower in the southern hemisphere. I watched it pierce a big scudding black cloud and I willed myself to believe in something bigger than myself, something that wanted me to be safe and happy. I was sick of feeling dirty.
Over the course of a few of these sorts of nights, I found myself looking forward to coming home to the Sky Tower. It was easy to leave Cassette Nine, not look twice at the fat-bellied little shot glasses of tequila that were slid over the bar along with my lime and soda. I’d watch the lights across the CBD from my eyrie on Pitt St, behind the low-rent Korean karaoke dive, looking out over the art deco fi re station, down the curve of Hobson St and back to the big needle. Inside, it would be full of hopefuls feeding pokies, no clocks on the walls. I could imagine them all, and I felt sad for them suddenly. It was the first time in ages I’d thought about anyone but myself, my own mess of a life. I’d smoke, watch the twinkling vista, all the lights out there in central Auckland, all connected to me, maybe, in ways I couldn’t fathom, but that someone was in charge of. Someone bigger than me. This was praying. It took hold and life got a bit easier. I started sleeping. I kept not drinking. My friend took me to buy a mattress and a base from a budget place in Mt Wellington, the first new bed I’d ever slept in. Showers got easier to get in and out of. I started to feel cleaner. I kept not answering certain texts and emails. I bought an iPod in a pink leather case and listened to The Smiths while walking over Hopetoun Bridge to AA meetings.
You just haven’t earned it yet, baby
You just haven’t earned it, son
You just haven’t earned it yet, baby
You must suffer and cry for a longer time
Alexander McQueen was found dead in his wardrobe a few months after I stopped drinking. I printed out images from his runway shows, headpieces made of birds of prey and clouds of butterflies, beautiful women in couture straitjackets, screaming. Sitting watching the sky tower, I started to feel my outlines. A woman in a city, relatively blameless for the fi rst time in ages. There was less and less to be afraid of.
I get a bus that picks me up at the corner of Richmond and Ponsonby Rds, where Golden Dawn was. It takes me to the community centre in time for a lunch meeting. I walk down the hall, past the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Plunket office, keeping my head down. I’m not ashamed, but I don’t particularly want to bump into any new mothers. I sit by the door in a blue 200 plastic chair that says “Property of Auckland Council”, half close my eyes and smell the familiar smell of sun-warmed dust and old carpet tiles. High up on the wall directly beneath the ceiling is a long mural depicting the shops up on Surrey Cres. It’s done in a cartoony, fake-graffiti style that’s aged badly.
Across from me, the smallest girl in a group of girls is sobbing quietly as the others crowd around her. Treatment-centre girls. They’re all wearing jandals and tracksuits that look like pyjamas. There’s a lot of crying in treatment. I wouldn’t know. I was too busy for rehab. Too scared for it, more likely.
After the meeting, I get some food in the uptight wholefoods shop on the corner, where my friend once got asked to leave, when she went in with a vintage-fur coat on. I buy a pie, lentils in a brick of pastry, and sit at the bus stop. There’s nothing to do except be in the afternoon. I feel lighter, in the way I always do after a meeting. I don’t know how it works, but there’s an ease after being there. I think about my mother, how she was the one who led me in the door to my first AA meeting. I only went because she wouldn’t. It was a small, shabby room at the top of a flight of stairs in a building on Great North Rd, just before the car yards and McDonald’s. The walls were so full of posters and slogans, it felt like being yelled at over and over. EASY DOES IT. FIRST THINGS FIRST. LIVE AND LET LIVE. Carol could have done with that last one. When I was 12 I wrote her a letter with the number for the local AA in it. She was scathing whenever I suggested AA to her, which was oft en. I found the letter in the bin, torn up into tiny pieces afterwards. “All those boring fuckers, drinking tea and talking about each other.”
“Take what you want and leave the rest,” they said. I tried to. I didn’t want to start going tramping like some of them, or being pious, like the ones who bang on about the Big Book constantly. I got my 30-day key tag. My sponsor gave me a lavender-scented chocolate bar she got in San Francisco. I found it in a box a few years later.
The bus comes and we ride along the curve of the road, past the roundabout on Peel St, opposite the big stone villa on the corner. The bus picks up speed on the downhill, banana trees and the big green Countdown flying past the window, and I am filled suddenly with a fierce, clean joy that comes out of nowhere. I will be 31 in a few months and that terror I used to feel of life, that black and leaping fear of growing up and buying whiteware — I don’t have it any more. I don’t know when it left me.
The bus rolls along Richmond Rd, back up towards Ponsonby, and I know without needing to look that there’s a glint of blue water behind us. At this angle on the road, a trick of perspective means the sea is in the sky in front of you. The bushes that line the road are full of passionfruit vines and spiky, colourful bird of paradise flowers. I watch the kids in their school uniforms chugging Cokes, women at the bus stop, just normal workers going about their business, and I don’t hate them the way I used to. I am just a person among people, no better and no worse. Summer is coming. The air is already Auckland-muggy. I’m nearly six months sober.