Staying Sober When Socialising is Part of Your Job

James Brown
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James Brown

Editor and media entrepreneur, he quit the stimulants while at the epicentre of a hugely indulgent profession

For a lot of people heavy drinking and drug use is a professional no-go area, but for me it wasn’t just part of the job, it was a badge of honour. First I was a music journalist on the NME and then I started the hedonist’s handbook, Loaded magazine, the perfect job for the drug-taking alcoholic who wanted to stay up all night partying, meet people with great stories and write about it.

The booze didn’t just begin on the day I started work at the NME aged 21. I’d been drinking since my late teens. Skipping beer I went from cider at teenage parties to vodka and tequila on the road with bands to fine wine in restaurants with music PRs in the time it took my friends to get a degree.

In Vegas with U2 for The Sunday Times I drank so many screwdrivers with Bono my stomach lining actually fell out with alcoholic gastritis. Typical of my outlook on life, I quit the OJ, not the vodka. At the NME, drink, ecstasy, speed and grass was prevalent among the writers. At Loaded, cocaine and heroin users populated the office.

This excessive consumption became more visible and problematic when I joined the Savile Row-suited grown-up world of GQ. Staffed by well-schooled people with good manners and multiple-barreled names, my alcoholism stood out like a house on fire. Thankfully the head of personnel took it upon herself to try and save wayward strays like myself, and after a spectacularly stupid incident when a champagne bottle smashed my office window and a car windscreen below, she suggested I go to residential rehab.

I welcomed this but turned the residential side of it down. I didn’t think I’d be able to come back after a month away and manage the job with any credibility or influence. Also I wasn’t sure I’d want the job when I came out. Instead, I started seeing an addiction counsellor called Clive Meindl twice a week.

Going to the first session was terrifying. I ended up in the wrong place and felt like a school kid f**king up. I eventually made it in 30 minutes later but then never missed a session. The next six months felt like I was removing layers of concrete overcoats.

I came to think of his freelance rooms in rehab centres and private hospitals across London as safe houses. Places I could honestly discuss my consumption levels, triggers and feelings. That’s all we did, talk – no lectures or lessons.

I was still drinking, Clive had never asked me not to, and there was a cupboard full of company chablis and champagne to think of. At the end of every day there would be drinks in the boardroom and as GQ editor I was required or welcome to pop in. I tried to limit myself with a drink diary and a self-imposed usage target but that didn’t work. I was powerless over my intake and just bust right through it.

Then after five months of counselling, I got into a fight with a street dealer in America and then put in a massive order with a guy I knew who was associated with the Westies crime gang. Thankfully he never showed up and when I returned home my counsellor told me I sounded scared of myself. He was spot on. Every day come 4pm, drunk from lunch but functioning, I had no idea where I’d end up 12 hours later. Usually somewhere I didn’t want to be.

For the first time he told me I was an alcoholic and an addict, and described how bad it could still become. This was my “moment of clarity”. Clive described a potential future of “bottoming out” with a potential menu of anything from death, prison, rape, to losing my family, friends, status or house. (I know people who’ve been through all of that now.) I knew then I wanted to stop more than I wanted to carry on.

I’ve never drunk or used since but the first days and years were precarious. “You’re walking a dangerous tightrope,” Clive said when I continued to associate with users and drinkers. I wanted to still live my life the way I had but not indulge. I managed it but I wouldn’t recommend it. In later years when cocaine appeared it felt like a bully had walked into the room. I’d quietly leave, but early on I’d front it out.

I managed to stay clean, to most people’s disbelief. Many couldn’t get their heads round it. One MD would offer me beer at lunch, which I’d never drunk anyway. F**k knows why he was doing that: thick, insensitive, trying to test me…?

Temptation was everywhere, off-licences screamed “BOOZE!” I came to call the supermarket wine aisle the Valley of Death. I couldn’t sleep at night; huge lumps appeared on my gums as my body detoxed. It was challenging both emotionally and physically.

I learnt to say “No, I’m fine thanks” and when people challenged it I’d say, “I’m just not having any today.” I realised if I could get through a day at a time I was doing OK. I took to driving golf balls at a tatty driving range in Kings Cross. Other distractions included getting massages, buying ties at Richard James and eating Twirls.

Last week a good friend said, “I wouldn’t have given you 18 days clean, never mind 18 years,” but the truth is I just didn’t want to do it any more. I didn’t like the way it controlled my life. I was lucky to find a different way of life.

Written by James Brown, @jamesjamesbrown

Coach Staff

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