In the years since my nan died, I’ve taken to drinking gin. She always smelt of it, it reminds me of her.
I didn’t realise what her scent was until I was a student, only a few years before cancer killed her. One morning after a party, I woke up not alone and was confused by how vividly the smell of the room made me think of my grandmother. Diving into old memories, I sought repressed images of cross-generational incest, but (thankfully) there were none. I sniffed harder at the smell of the room and realised what I recognised and, finally, I understood that my nan was an alcoholic.
Many things suddenly made sense: the clinking sound that accompanied her alone in a room; the muttered comments my mother used to make when I came home drunk during my last years at school; my mother’s repeated discouragement of me and my sister from ever getting into her mother’s car. My nan smelled of gin. All the time, all through the day, however sober she seemed. Less so, the last few years of her life as she began what was to be a fruitless fight against tumours (when she began, instead of juniper, to smell of nothing and, later, rot) but for all my childhood and teenage years, that weird smell of my grandmother’s wasn’t perfume, it was liquor.
I am an alcoholic, too. People say that it runs in families, and I suppose I’m proof that it does. My mother is pretty much tee total (often a response to parental alcoholism), and my father – though he drinks occasionally – I have never seen drunk. Neither of them seem to like it, the feeling of intoxication. I’ve tried many other intoxicants because it’s really not hard to get hold of them, but nothing’s ever felt as good as alcohol. It raises you up, straightens you out, lets you sleep and makes you happy. You can still laugh, you can still cry, and you don’t feel unfuckingstoppable. Alcohol extends the self without erasing it, subdues anxiety and tastes delicious in a myriad of ways. There is nothing like a cold beer on a hot day, nothing like champagne to celebrate, nothing like a swig of neat gin to, just for a while, quieten the furies in your head.
My drinking’s been a problem since adolescence, but over the last few years it’s gotten worse. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because I’ve got less friends now, and most who remain are also alcoholics. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because I drink mostly at home now, and the empty bottles are waiting, collected, in my weekly recycling rather than scattered across the city’s bars. I get the DTs when I don’t drink. The days after I haven’t been drinking hurt more than the mornings after I’ve blacked out. The days when I drink, I carry on until I pass out. And as I usually drink at home, now, nobody knows how bad things have got. Nobody knows I slept half the night next to a pile of vomit on the kitchen floor. Nobody knows I was so hungover on Sunday I didn’t take my dog out, and he shat next to my bed. Nobody knows I left the shit there until Tuesday.
My nan had dogs when I was a child. She had three when I was a baby, and slowly they died. The last one, a rescued Labrador, lived until I was around eight. She is the only one whose name I remember, it was Kirsty. A year after my nan’s death, I bought my own dog. For the first few months, I was better. Better behaved, drinking less, getting up early every day to walk him. But I’ve since realised that the hole I thought he was filling was a hole much bigger than a dog. My grandmother had dogs and gin to hide her unhappiness, and then only gin; then death. When she lay on the bed she died in, skin hanging like fabric from her bones, I held her hand and said, “Thank you” and “I’m so sorry”. I don’t think she’d enjoyed her life and I think she knew I wasn’t enjoying mine. She also knew, though, that I’d been happy when I was a child, back when the world was something I hadn’t learnt to worry about, when cancer and booze and depression were words I didn’t know.
And for me, that combined smell of dog and ethanol-juniper is the smell of childhood, the smell of warmth and peace and contentment, the smell of my nan being alive and the smell of the future feeling like one long adventure I could enjoy forever.
You’ve probably read about alcoholism before and you might think it’s boring and repetitive, but imagine how boring and repetitive it feels to live. Imagine being stuck in repeated habits where the only thing that gives you release traps you tighter.
Alcohol feels like it helps, even though it doesn’t. But, as I know and my nan knew, having something that feels like it helps is better than having nothing at all. Having a dog helps, but having a dog is hard and having a drink is easy. And when everything else feels hard, too, having something easy is difficult to resist. I need to walk my dog. But first I need a drink.