I’ve long noticed that everybody has their poison, their thing that will kill them if they don’t keep it in check – be it alcohol, nicotine, drugs or food. I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t – except, curiously, my father. He gave up smoking 40 a day the first time of trying, cold turkey. I’ve rarely seen him drink, the idea of him on drugs is like Donald Trump doing Modern Dance and he was an astonishingly healthy eater way before there was such a thing.
I was born in 1964 and throughout my childhood we were not allowed fizzy drinks, chips, white bread or sugar. WTF? I grew up in the UK into the 1970s. Those things were the national diet! Believe me, I felt it keenly. Occasionally when he was absent, my mother would bring a sliced white loaf home and we five children would each squirrel away a few slices. I used to hide mine under my pillow and steal mouthfuls of bliss over the next couple of days. The only exception to the no-junk rule were birthdays, Easter and Christmas; and I looked forward far more to the opening of the solitary tin of Quality Street than to my present. To this day, Christmas to me is a tin of Quality Street.
It might or might not be that being forbidden these foods is the reason why all his children have become overeaters; except for me, who didn’t struggle with my weight – until now that is.
It is almost certainly the reason that I have never had a filling; but I don’t think the consolation of never having had a filling is sufficient prize to make up for a childhood devoid of pleasure.
My Dad would always keep a packet of digestive biscuits in the cupboard and we knew never, ever to touch them. For his birthday, we were allowed to buy him a bar of dark chocolate, which it would take him a fortnight or so to consume in disinterested squares.
A few years ago I commented in passing that he didn’t have a sweet tooth. He erupted, not with anger but with feeling. He had a terrible sweet tooth. That’s why he never touched sugar, except to allow himself 2 digestive biscuits every day; and what’s more, he savoured every square of that delicious dark chocolate to make it last as long as possible. He didn’t start with the sugar because he knew if he did, he’d never stop.
So it turns out that even my father has his poison.
My mother was a huge overeater, and consequently obese, though not morbidly. She was on a permanent diet but never lost a pound. She would deprive herself and then binge. Sound familiar? She was addicted particularly to sugar, and consistent with her genetic inheritance (her family is riddled with Type 2 Diabetes) she developed the T2D that killed her at the age of 64. She didn’t really drink and she never smoked a cigarette in her life. Her poison was food.
My eldest brother was killed by his alcoholism. He was quite ludicrously beloved by the Gods, 6.2″ tall with blue-grey eyes and sunkissed blonde hair. He fufilled his ambition of being a navy pilot (he flew jets off aircraft carriers) by coming top of his intake at training college in 3 out of 4 areas, and so at his passing out was invited to sit at the top table with Princess Anne. He was married to a beautiful solicitor. And then he began drinking. Fifteen years later he died alone, single, unemployed in a council flat and it was a few weeks before anyone realised. Alcohol was his poison.
It broke my heart in a way that it will never unbreak, and I have been teetotal ever since. If I’m being honest though, I was never a big drinker and it was no particular hardship to walk away from alcohol. That was not my poison.
Despite being a student in Manchester from 1984 – 1987 (UK readers will remember that as Madchester, which makes what I’m about to say all the more astonishing) I never touched drugs. I had absolutely no interest in them, not then, not now, not never. I moved in the same circles as people whose names you’d know and drugs were all around me. I was offered them continually and continually refused them. I just didn’t want to know. Drugs were simply not my poison either.
And yet from a very young age, I fell in love with nicotine and – except for when I was pregnant – smoked heavily and continuously. I’ll be honest. I loved smoking. I loved every mouthful of every cigarette. Never was a cigarette smoked unloved. I loved the ritual, the taste, the sensation, the action. But, recognising that I’d had a good run with my beloved tobacco but it couldn’t last for ever, I gave up cigarettes for an ecigarette 3 years ago with minimal discomfort and actually came to prefer it. It was, it turned out, not the delivery vehicle that was important to me; I didn’t care how I got my nicotine, so long as I got it. Nicotine was my poison.
However, when I injured my jaw joint and trigeminal nerve last year, taking in nicotine caused the nerve to jolt and send my scalp and facial muscles into spasm; which was both painful and frightening. It was as if someone had applied a very powerful hoover to my head and was trying to suck my face off. Under the circumstances, giving up nicotine was not so hard.
I am now realising though that while nicotine was my poison of choice, I always had a back up plan, a Plan B. Another available poison. Another way to kill myself.