I was 16 years old when I started to go out clubbing. Some of my friends had been going to the dingy, grubby old rock club that was like a second home since before we left school.
Back then, I wasn’t a drinker. Mum might give me a miniature bottle of Babycham or Pony on Christmas Day, and there would be a glass of Blue Nun with Christmas Dinner, but that was really about it. The rest of the year, I was pretty much teetotal.
So, with my feet stuck to the beer-soaked carpet of the Shite Owl for the very first time, I was at a loss as to what to do next. I’d never been in a club before, I’d never headbanged… and I didn’t drink. For 16, I was actually pretty naíve. I’m still not sure if that was a good thing, or a bad thing.
Someone bought me a snakebite, which I sipped cautiously. Not bad, I reasoned. Before I knew it, I’d downed three of them, and was having what I thought was a great time. An older lad decided I was attractive enough to kiss (a novelty, for the girl who had been deemed the ugliest in the entire school) and over the course of a few weekends it sort of became my regular routine: pub, Shite Owl, dance with friends, snog some bloke, go home, rinse and repeat.
Looking back, I don’t know as I ever actually enjoyed the weekend piss-ups – it was just what all my friends were doing, and so I joined in. It was the 90s recession, so for school leavers with few job opportunities, there wasn’t a lot else to do. Especially not in Cheltenham – which isn’t as posh a place as you might have been led to believe, but you still need to be a solicitor, or elderly with a massive pension to afford to live comfortably there without getting into debt. That’s how it seemed to my generation, anyway. All of the nice things about the town (of which there were few back then) were well out of our financial reach.
By the time I was 18 I had left home, and spent the majority of my life in the pub. My family learned what was to become a familiar litany:
“You looking for Gemma? Oh, she’s probably at The Swan with her mates”. And that’s exactly where people would be bound to find me. After a while, that would be the first place anybody looked for me, and never once did it occur to me that this might mean I had a problem. I was just trying to fit in, to be one of the cool kids.
I was also fighting my own inner battles that I didn’t speak about to even my sister: depression; anxiety; self-loathing; suicidal thoughts; self harm; a sense of inadequacy; an eating disorder. Perhaps I didn’t really enjoy alcohol as much as I claimed to (and I often felt obligated to imbibe), but being tipsy or even roaring drunk is a great thing to mask the real you behind – or so you think, at the time. Instead, I ought to have been getting help, as opposed to searching for answers at the bottom of a bottle.
To quote a track from an Aerosmith album, I was the very definition of F.I.N.E. – and in my young mind it was okay, even normal, to feel that way. With that said, the deep scratches on my inner arms were “normal” as far as I was concerned, too. I managed to evade detection with the self harming, as I had a big ginger cat who was a spiteful little fucker and was more than happy to hide my own self-inflicted wounds under scratches and bite marks of his own (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but part of me was grateful that Tigger hated my guts almost as much as I hated my guts).
I’ve spent most of my adult life in an alcohol-induced haze – always with one excuse or another. Well, no more. I’m better than this. I’m stronger than this. Just five days on the sober train, and I’m already proving this to myself and the people around me.
Here’s The Levellers telling us all why booze is a waste of time. I saw them live when I was with my second husband, a long time ago, and this song really ought to have touched a nerve back then. I wish it had done.