Unhappy Hour: An extract from ‘On the Rocks’

I don’t drink for the entire first cycle of my chemotherapy. The two weeks pass by quickly and uneventfully, with none of the dreaded side effects I have been anticipating. In the third week, I crave a glass of wine. I wrestle with myself. I give myself a pep talk. “It’s only for six months. You stopped drinking for a whole year! Come on now,” I shout at myself in my head.

I don’t tell Ingrid about what happened at the meeting that I didn’t attend. I have seen less of Ingrid this year. She calls me out on it when I cancel our appointment. At some point you are going to have to process everything. I am here for you when you are ready, she texts.

I am not ready; I feel like I have been making life-changing decision after life-changing decision and I am exhausted. I just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with everything that is happening to me and, on top of that, I must quit drinking!

I go back to the cancer-support chat group. I ask: has anyone had a drink while doing chemo?

There is silence for about an hour. I feel awful for having asked the question. Who does that? It’s cancer — who would want to drink during cancer?

Then Dan61 responds: I have sneaked in a few drinks here and there. No side effects so far. How long is your chemo for?

Lisa1987: Yeah, I have had a few drinks but nothing like I did before chemo though. I don’t want to fuck up my liver.

SusieT556: What does your doctor say? I don’t think it’s safe. Can’t you hold off until chemo is done?

The last message lands like a punch straight to my solar plexus. Why can’t I just wait? I haven’t spoken to Dr D about my drinking during chemotherapy. Common sense says I

shouldn’t. But, as I sit there, I have a niggling urge to have just one drink. Surely there will be no harm with one glass? I spend the day wrestling with myself and my urge to drink. The urge wins. I decide not to drink at home, but rather to go out, so I can restrict myself to just one glass. I decide to go for dinner. Tasha’s at Hyde Park Corner. I have no problem eating alone at a restaurant. I rather enjoy it. I sit and watch the people around me, listen in on the conversations and imagine their lives beyond the setting I am seeing them in.

I procrastinate about going straight to the restaurant, so I start at Exclusive Books, where I browse for about 30 minutes. My stomach growls with hunger. I make the short walk to Tasha’s, which is on the same floor, and sit at a table for two. A waiter appears with a menu the minute I am seated. I know what I am going to drink and eat, but I take the menus anyway and ask him to bring me a small bottle of sparkling water in the meantime. I check my phone for messages. Nothing. I go to the cancer support group and check if there have been any more messages. The chat is filled with them. The conversation has turned nasty and there are two camps: the drinkers versus the non-drinkers.

The drinkers understand my craving and are urging me to drink with caution, while the non-drinkers are calling out my irresponsible behaviour. I feel guilty, but I know that I have made up my mind. Just one drink.

The waiter brings my water and asks if I need more time. I shake my head. I order a glass of Pinot Noir and lamb chops with a salad. At the table next to me is a family of four having an argument. I pretend to be busy on my phone, but I listen into their conversation. My wine arrives, an enormous glass, almost like a mini cereal bowl. It is filled to half and the gentle aroma of berries wafts over me. My mouth salivates in anticipation of the first sip. I drink my water instead. I am still listening to the rising voices of the people at the table.

I look at the colour of the wine. I am always fascinated by the soft red of a Pinot Noir compared to that of a normal red. I can’t wait any longer, so I take a sip. The smell of soft

berries travel to my nose while the dry taste of the wine hits my palate. I close my eyes and swallow. I am satisfied. I am glad I came here. I needed this. I take another small sip and put down my glass. I am only having one glass, so I need to savour it. I lean back in my chair and look around, my concentration drifting from the people next to me as I scan the room and my surroundings. I haven’t been out much since I started chemo; I have been avoiding people just to avoid the temptation to drink. The only person I have seen regularly is the Smile-Maker and that is during the week; over the last two weekends he’s been busy so that I have been left to my own devices. Today is a welcome respite from my self-imposed solitude. On cue, my hot flushes start, and I take off my coat. The heat travels to my face and head, and I have the urge to yank off my wig, which only seems to be making things worse. I use a serviette to dab the sweat off my face. I take a large gulp of water for some relief. The flush lingers for about five minutes. I dab the film of sweat that keeps forming on my face.

My food arrives and I am suddenly overwhelmed. I want to ask for a takeaway, but that will mean I am drinking on an empty stomach, so instead I sit back and patiently wait for my

body to readjust. Eventually I eat, but I don’t really take in the flavours of what I am eating. My palate is thirsty for the Pinot Noir, which is almost finished. This must be the slowest I have ever drunk a glass of wine. I drink it over 45 minutes, careful not to take big sips. When it’s finished, I stare at the glass and sigh.

“Another glass?” asks the waiter, appearing out of nowhere. I automatically nod my head.

Immediately I start admonishing myself. But I am not going to change my mind. After two glasses, I pay the bill and call my Uber. My mindset is divided; part of me is happy that I drank, the other deeply ashamed.

Of course, after those two glasses, I drink more often during chemotherapy. I choose to drink on the two weeks I am off the treatment. That becomes my pattern. A few weeks after the two glasses, I meet up with my friend Naomi in Parkhurst. We share a bottle of sparkling wine with breakfast at Espresso. We talk about life and relationships. She tells me about work.

When breakfast and the bottle are done, we head across the street to Bottega and I spontaneously order a bottle of champagne. “Let’s celebrate life. It’s on me,” I tell her.

Before I know it, one bottle becomes two. The waitress refers to us as, “The Champagne Darlings!” I don’t know what time we leave or how I get home, but I do get home because I wake up a few hours later in my bed.

My throat is dry, and my head is pounding. The room is dark. The curtains are still open and it’s black outside. Oh God, I got plastered. I have a flashback of drinking champagne. I sit up. My phone and the leather jacket that I was wearing are lying next to me. I pick up my phone and tap the screen. It’s 10pm. What time did I get home? How long have I been sleeping? I have messages and missed calls from Naomi, the Smile-Maker and Pusetso.

I also have a message notifying me of my successful Uber trip, which ended at 4.50pm.

I read the messages. Naomi is home safe, thank God.

The Smile-Maker is irritated because he’s been trying to get a hold of me.

Pusetso’s reads: Let’s finish chatting tomorrow, buddy. I don’t remember chatting to her… When did I call her? I go to my dialled numbers and see that I tried calling the Smile-Maker 11 times. Oh God, I don’t remember that either. I am thirsty. I need some water. I also need a painkiller.

I slide off the bed and stumble to the kitchen. The windows and the door to the patio are wide open. On the dining-room table is my handbag, wallet, and a brown paper bag. I open it and fish out a tin foil takeaway tray. I gingerly lift the top to inspect its contents. Crab pasta, my favourite. I don’t remember ordering it. I walk to the fridge and take out a bottle of water. I down all 500 millilitres. The cold liquid burns down my throat and fills my stomach. The pounding in my head immediately calms. I walk over to the back door and close it. The key is still hanging in the door. I close the windows and curtains, and head back to the dining-room table. I spot my rings and earrings — well, at least I didn’t lose them.

I pick up my handbag and a receipt falls out. I read the contents. I spent R4000 — on booze. In addition to the two bottles of champagne, there were several shots of Don Julio tequila. I don’t remember that either. How drunk was I? I remember the waitress pouring the second bottle, but after that my memory is blank. I have no recollection of ordering food, ordering my Uber. My trip home, walking through my front door. Making phone calls, nothing.

The only evidence of the day is a photo I took earlier in the day that I posted on Instagram. I look poised and sober. There are no signs that I was getting shitfaced.

Shame courses through me and my inner critic wakes from whatever nap it was taking.

“How the fuck could you drink so much? You are in treatment, for God’s sake — for cancer! How could you be so irresponsible?”

I close the curtains in the rest of the house and change into my pyjamas. I crawl into bed and lie there in the dark. It’s been a while since I went on a bender like this.

“Why can’t you just stop?” asks my inner critic. “You are out of control! This is why you need to go to AA.” I beat myself up until I eventually fall asleep.

I wake up the next day hungover and remorseful. I promise myself that I won’t drink again. I have shooting pains in my lower back, and imagine that it’s my kidneys giving in. I drink

lots of water and try to chant, I won’t drink again, over and over. By the end of the day, the pain has evaporated, but the self-loathing and regret haven’t. I hate myself for being so

irresponsible.

The next time I see Dr D, I ask her about drinking. “Can I drink?”

“I would prefer if you didn’t and that you waited till the treatment was over. If you do, it can only be occasionally and only one very small glass.”

I nod in understanding. I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I have been drinking way more than that. I don’t ask anything further and she does not press me. In her eyes — and I know this because she has told me — I am the model patient. “I wish all my patients were like you!” she says, because I have no side effects from the chemo, and I look remarkably healthy.

My friends and family are divided into three camps: those who are not happy that I am still drinking, those who don’t care and those who think I am being too harsh on myself.

The Smile-Maker, my brother and Verene are not happy. My brother calls me one day while I am at home, drinking by myself. I answer the phone drunk. I never knew that after a few, I slur a little and repeat myself incessantly and interrupt people’s conversations and trains of thought. I always thought I sounded like myself until my brother disabuses me of that notion.

“Are you drinking?” he asks. Silence. “Thando, are you drinking?” he repeats.

“Yes,” I whisper.

“No, man, Thando! You can’t drink while you’re doing chemo. What does your doctor say?” he says.

“I haven’t told her,” I confess. I don’t tell him that my bloods come back perfect every time I go on the drip and that I have no side effects from the chemotherapy and that my doctor is under the impression I am the model patient. I don’t tell him that I am struggling to stop. I don’t tell him that I hate myself because I can’t stop. I don’t tell him anything. Instead, I allow the silence to hang heavy between us.

I visit Verene at her townhouse and she asks me what I want to drink.

“Juice?” she presumes.

We haven’t seen each other in a few weeks and the last time we spoke I had quit.

“No, I’ll have a glass of wine,” I answer.

“Friendy, is that a good idea? I mean, considering everything you are going through?”

“Please don’t lecture or judge me,” I respond.

She pours me a glass of wine.

One day, I call my friend Lesiba. Lesiba lives in my neighbourhood and I need a favour from him. I have always relied on him; he’s my unofficial husband, and advises me which

gadgets to buy. When I moved into my place he helped install new curtain rods and locks. I can rely on him — he’s a man of his word. Today, I am feeling sad, down, and I need a drink and have nothing in the house. I can’t be bothered to head off to the bottle store. I ask him to do a bottle-store run for me.

“Should you be drinking?” he asks.

“No, I shouldn’t, but I am,” I snap.

“Thando, I am not going to buy you booze,” he says.

“Please, LL, I am in a funk, and I just need something to soothe me,” I say.

“Why don’t you download the Bottles app? They deliver,” he suggests.

I am annoyed, but I look for Bottles on the App Store and, sure enough, there it is. Registration takes a few minutes. It asks for my location, and I agree. Then it shows a wide selection of brands. A bottle store at my fingertips. I am in heaven. I order two bottles of Ashbourne Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay, a pack of ice and a packet of Lay’s.

While I am at it, I also order from Uber Eats.

I haven’t got up or bathed today. In fact, I have been struggling the whole week to get out of bed and cancelled my gym sessions. I just feel heavy, like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I don’t want any human interaction — thankfully, the Smile-Maker is travelling for work so I can be alone.

The delivery arrives 20 minutes later. I receive it wearing my gown and looking dishevelled. For a moment I worry what I must look like, but I don’t care. I pour myself a glass of wine and go back to my bed. Bottles will be my undoing because no longer do I have to rotate bottle stores so that I don’t raise suspicion about my drinking habits and get tongues wagging. I don’t even have to leave my house.

I spend the rest of the week in bed, ordering from Uber Eats and liquor from Bottles. The only rule I have is that I cannot drink before noon, but after that it’s bottoms up. I am usually drunk by 6pm and passed out on the couch or in my bedroom. The drinking doesn’t make me feel any better. I am not sure where the rage and sadness have come from.

I feel paralysed by these feelings, so I try to escape them. Of course, they miraculously disappear while I am drinking, but the next morning they are back at my doorstep and are always joined by self-loathing and shame. The four of them camp in my head and fight it out amongst themselves.

By the end of the week, I am emotionally and physically exhausted. I haven’t been in touch with anyone, so no one knows how I’m feeling. When I talk to the Smile-Maker, I sound okay except for the time I burst into tears. I sob on the phone.

“What’s wrong?” he keeps asking.

I can’t answer. It’s the first time I have cried in front of him. It’s the first time I have cried this year. I can’t tell him what’s wrong because I am not sure myself.

He stays on the phone with me while I sob. When we finally end the call, he says, “I will see you Sunday. I’ll take you out for lunch, okay?”

I agree.

On Saturday I get out of bed and take my first shower for the week. I dress and start cleaning up my apartment, throwing out the evidence of the excess of the last seven days. I sit alone in the apartment, sober, and watch Netflix to distract myself. My new friends, Rage and Sadness, come back to visit. I sit with them for the first time and don’t try to make them disappear.

On the Rocks: Memoir of a High-functioning Alcoholic, Melinda Ferguson Books, R280 

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