In the autumn in 1982, I delivered the manuscript of A Nice Girl Like me to my publishers, Chatto and Windus. It was precocious autobiography, as I was only thirty one, but I justified it to myself because I wanted to write about drinking. My drinking had dominated my life in increasingly traumatic ways since I was about 25. I had ticked off all the excuses on my list until only one remained: actually losing a job because of drink. But in the summer of 1980, that one fell apart too and I checked into a rehab clinic and started the journey towards sobriety. Discovering that I could live without the bottle had thrilled and exhilarated me and I wanted to pass some of that onto other women who were, just like I had, staring at the alcohol swilling in the glass and picking it up, despite knowing that it represented everything you had come to hate.
I was pleased with the manuscript, but even so, I was terrified and not just about the verdict of my editor. That, at that moment, seemed like the least of my problems. What I was worried about was what the world would think when they read my shabby and demeaning saga of my battles with the bottle. Would anyone actually want to talk to me again, after I had confessed to such misdemeanours as falling down stairs, losing a whole day to black out, to passing out on an aeroplane? I doubted it.
While I drank I lived my life in a prison, the prison of addiction. If I was on a bender, there would be moments when I had to have another drink. The physical withdrawals were so intense that I was prepared to call up cab companies in the middle of the night and ask them to deliver strong beer to my door wrapped in a brown paper bags ( quite where they got it, I've never known, but get it they did). I'd sneaked downstairs in my father's house to raid his drink's cabinet. I'd concealed small bottles of alcohol in my hand bag which I'd swig in the loo, before blasting my mouth with breath freshener in an attempt to disguise the smell. I had forfeited days to hangovers and nights to searching for a supply. Even though I knew I was living a life of madness (if one of its definitions is the willingness to do to the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result) I carried on. For a long time, I seemed to have no choice, even though to the outsider, it appeared to be a madness of my own making. But addiction, and alcohol, are cunning and powerful enemies of the soul and the spirit and of the body. I could no more have got dressed and gone to work on mornings when my life was forfeited to a hangover than I could have flown to the moon.
When I eventually put down the bottle, initially in the hideous misery of withdrawal, the relief that washed over me was vast. As the weeks went by and my soberness started to settle in, replacing the craziness with a comforting knowledge that no, today, I didn’t need to pick up a drink, my world began to expand. When I was drinking it shrank to a pin head, a tiny space where my options were limited and defined by my access to booze. Sober, the world and all its possibilities opened up like the big skies of Montana.
But here I was, two and a half years later, shivering with anxiety on the pavement of a Bloomsbury Square, wondering what on earth I had done. Telling all these stories to total strangers. I’d never get a job, I thought, I’ll probably lose all my friends. But, as I was to discover, I did myself a huge favour that day. By coming clean about what had happened to me, I’d freed myself from secrets. There was nothing anyone could dig up about my past that wasn’t already there, in print. When you drink – or take drugs – you live by secrets and lies. Minimising, denying, prevaricating. As much as the physical damage, the lies damage your soul. Putting down the bottle and the telling the truth was the greatest freedom of all.
Rosie Boycott co-founded Spare Rib and Virago, edited Esquire, the Independent on Sunday, the Independent and The Daily Express. She is currently the food advisor to the Mayor of London.