“My name is Jack Monroe, and I’m an alcoholic. But now I’m recovering…”, The Observer
London, 5 Jan 2019
The food writer, journalist and campaigner opens up about how alcohol took over her life once fame struck. This is her mea culpa
My name is Jack Monroe, and I am an alcoholic. I said those words out loud to myself 10 days ago, waking up after yet another binge with a friend, watching Richard Curtis films until 4am, mixing cocktails and bitching about work until we passed out on the sofa.
My life can be defined by a kind of alcoholic bulimia. I either binged on it, or deprived myself of it out of misplaced puritanism and later, unaffordability. My parents did not drink in front of me as a child. I had no fake ID and looked 14 until my first grey hairs came in a couple of years ago.
I had my first taste of alcohol at a friend’s house party, aged 14 or 15, drinking alcopops in their living room while their parents were away, with some other kids from our church youth group. I enjoyed the feeling it gave me. I was shy, I stammered, I didn’t have many close friends. At the next party I was drinking neat vodka from the bottle until I was sick.
At the next, a barbecue with some friends from my local karate club, I was carried to a cab by a burly, furious male driver with my trousers falling down, covered in my own vomit, having downed an entire litre bottle of Southern Comfort. I was 16. I was also lucky that the cabbie dropped me back to my nan’s – I was too frightened to present myself at home in such a state at four o’clock in the afternoon – and saw me safely inside. My nan cleaned me up and put me to bed.
I spent my late teens working in a nightclub, back in the good old days when club nights ran from Wednesdays through to Mondays and the drug of choice was WKD rather than today’s MDMA and GHB.
Working behind the cocktail bar was a different kind of escapism, a creative outlet with a newfound respect for alcohol. I didn’t drink as I was also working day shifts in a coffee shop and, later, the fire service, and needed my wits about me to pull off my 60-hour working weeks.
I left the nightclub when I was pregnant (needless to say, I was sober throughout), and the fire service two years later. I was on the dole, which led to a period of extreme poverty. Needless to say, I did not drink when I could not afford to feed myself and my son. I used the odd can of Sainsbury’s Basics lager in a stew or casserole, but I didn’t drink it. I want to be absolutely clear about that.
I fell into a permanent habit of problematic drinking when I moved to London in 2014. I had my first book out, my second on the way, and had been uncomfortably catapulted into the public eye. It started with a glass of wine in the evenings. Every evening. Then two. Then a bottle. Then I started at lunchtime. I had a drink before I did any public talks, to calm my nerves.
I joked with a runner at the Observer Festival of Ideas when he asked if I needed anything, “a whisky would be great”. He returned with two doubles. I laughed it off at the time, but it became a habit. I turned up on the BBC’s This Week with Michael Portillo, after a Pride party at the US ambassador’s residence. It was 11pm. I needed six double espressos before I could go in front of a camera. My friends waited for me in a car outside to take me back to the party. I was unhappy, but smiling for the cameras. I was drinking slugs of whisky before going on breakfast television.
I was a disaster, screaming at the top of my lungs in plain sight, surrounded by enablers and bad choices, and I was going wrong. But I was functional, and so it didn’t look like a problem. Not to me.
I moved back home to Southend in 2015 for a quieter life. I didn’t want to be having boozy lunch interviews with journalists any more. I couldn’t stand the parties I needed to get smashed at to feel like I fitted in. I longed for my simple life back, standing at the stove, scrawling recipes in notebooks, blogging, reading, going for walks.
I moved to a house a few roads away from my parents, back into my childhood neighbourhood, and started to request that journalists come to me, rather than meet me in a pub in the City. I started turning down party invitations. I lost a lot of friends. But the one that never left my side, stuck by me unwaveringly, came in a 40% abv bottle. It took a long time for me to recognise the extent of my problem, and longer still to do something about it.
I would love to say I had a great awakening, one last bender, some voice from the heavens but, in truth, I am just tired of being tired. I have a chronic illness that is in the process of diagnosis, and sobriety won’t cure me, but alcoholism certainly fogs the waters when it comes to separating what can be treated and what I’m making worse.
I’m furious with myself about the jobs I’ve turned down, the potential opportunities I’ve lost, the deadlines I’ve missed. I hope that this year the bridges I soaked in whisky and watched burn down will begin to be rebuilt.
This is my mea culpa. I’m sorry I was unreliable. I’m sorry I swore on television. I’m sorry I missed so many of my son’s class assemblies. I’m sorry my manuscript was late. I’m sorry to my ever-patient agent and her assistants for having to pick up the pieces every time I disappear on a three-day binge. I’m sorry to every editor I ghosted, every friend I’ve flaked out on, every person I’ve verbally lashed out at in a paranoid and depressive comedown.
I’ve been a fucking atrocious, ghastly mess for a very long time, but I’m out of excuses. Yes, I’ve had a difficult road to here. Violence, sexual abuse, trauma, PTSD, poverty, low self-esteem. But I know that trying to black out my past with oblivion will just damage my future. I made the decision to stop running from my fears, and to walk slowly and deliberately towards self-nurture, self-respect, and better mental and physical health.
It hasn’t been easy. At the time of writing this, I have been sober for exactly a week. The change has been remarkable. My house is tidier than it has ever been. I have reclaimed my evenings, and my early mornings, free from mental fog and headaches and grumps. My creativity has kicked back into action: in a bid to keep busy, I wrote, created, tested and photographed 50 new recipes last week – that’s half a book!
I spent new year at two parties: one with my friends Vix and Rhys and their friends, who filled their fridge with iced coffees and flavoured waters; and the other with my partner and her friends, who had got cinnamon Coca-Cola in and didn’t comment once on my not drinking. I found a little new self-confidence, standing in rooms of old and new friends, making conversations I would remember, cracking jokes, not being too loud or boorish or inappropriate.
This, incidentally, is how to be a friend to a newly sober person. Get options in. Put the booze out of their sight and reach. Make them feel included. Don’t offer them a drink, not even jokingly.
I almost failed last week, a hundred times. Walking past the pub on the way to the supermarket, I felt as though a hook had landed in my breastbone and an invisible fishing line was reeling me towards the door. The pain was physical. I was shaking. My back was sweating. I put my shopping down. “Just one,” it whispered. “Nobody would know.”
I must have stood there for 10 minutes before, with an almighty heave of resolve, I picked my shopping up and marched home. I didn’t look back. My shoulders and my arms and my heart were aching, but I didn’t look back.
Last Thursday evening, my son, eight years old, crawled into bed with me at 3am. “I can’t breathe, Mama,” he wheezed. He was having a severe asthma attack. I bolted upright, grabbed Vaporub and an inhaler, sat him up, folded his arms across his chest the way paramedics had taught me, leaned him forward to open his airways, and listened to his breathing. I was wide awake, lucid, and this was an emergency. I know from my own childhood that asthma attacks can be fatal. I was poised to call 999 if there was even the slightest worsening in his chest.
I lay awake beside him for the rest of the night, listening intently. I whispered to my partner on the other side of the bed, again and again, “Thank fuck I’m sober”. And that’s why I’ll stick at it. Because this week, I’m a better writer, a better cook, a better girlfriend, a better mother, than I have been in the last five years.
I have been tracking what I spent on alcohol last year by going through old receipts and bank statements. I will be moving the equivalent amount to a savings account for every week I stay sober. By the end of the year I should have a lump sum, a gift of security for my future, and forgiveness for my past.
This is my mea culpa. This is a new beginning. My name is Jack Monroe. I’m an alcoholic. And I am recovering, one day at a time.
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