Alcoholism: The plight of our father figures

For as long as I can remember, I have been the type of person to dive in deep and struggle to come back from a bad habit. I spend so much time watching movies, I rarely have regular meals and I spend so much money that a savings account is non-existent in my life.  I did not list my drinking problem here, because the past month has been a continuous — and so far successful — mission to curb that thirst. Truth be told, thanks goes to the gruesome “JanuWorry” we are emerging from; the struggle has been real and helpful! Jokes aside though, I am proud of how I have handled myself this month, for the first time in a while. Change is imminent!

After a Saturday of heavy drinking towards the end of 2017, I decided, with a friend of mine, to challenge myself to quit drinking in this New Year. Well, maybe I should rather attempt to have an occasional beer here and there … just in case the whole quitting thing doesn’t work. In all honesty, this is definitely not the first time setting such a challenge for myself. In the previous years, I would set small challenges like not drinking for a month. In these times, I lost more often than I won. The difference between then and now is that I have now seen the bad side to my drinking – one I would not want to ever see again. Also, after almost being brutally beaten up in a fight while drunk, I have decided that this is a change I really need in my life. Thus I have devised an action plan to combat my drinking problem. The plan includes:

  1. Keeping super busy. Apart from blogging, I have started a mentoring program to interest first year students into research.
  2. Joining the gym and finding new hobbies.
  3. Avoiding things that can trigger heavy drinking. This includes staying away from places or activities that promote heavy drinking.
  4. Practice saying “No!” I will apply this concept in many areas of my life. I have been previously described as a “Yes man”, that man has to go!
  5. Find better ways to manage stress. Such as talking to friends and family more.

I realize that this change will come at a cost, but it is do-able nevertheless.

I have witnessed firsthand how alcohol can damage and control people’s lives. I grew up in an area where most father figures (including my own father) were serious alcoholics, even today some still are. Being the people’s person that I am, I was liked by all those fathers and the feeling was mutual, considering that their drunkenness loosened their pockets. I would always hang around where they drank, got a few coins, but never did I imagine that someday that person could be me. The thought of being addicted to alcohol after seeing what it has done to many of the men I grew up admiring — intelligent men with dreams and aspirations — terrifies me more now that I’m halfway through my PhD studies. I cannot afford to screw up now.

I have very few memories of my father being sober (he passed away when I was still young). The time he spent drunk took away all the happy thoughts I could have had of him, all the advice he could have given me about life and how to better handle myself as a man. I believe this is possibly the case with the average Kasi kid out there. Where I grew up, the typical child did not have someone to advise them through their life experiences, hence many of them have turned out to be the same alcoholics as their fathers were. As much as this is not reason enough for one to fail, it is clear that the cycle of alcoholism is one of the problems in the Kasi. However, I believe that there is never a good enough reason for you to stay in a situation that is not good for you.

Our fathers probably had a lot of time on their hands, they did not have work, leaving them with a lot of time. I believe drinking was a way of passing time — time they could have spent imparting wisdom to us, ensuring that we don’t end up like them. The same can happen when you are doing your masters or PhD studies. You find yourself with too much time on your hands (as you are the one in control of your time) and drinking becomes a way to pass time as well. Later, when things do not go right with research, we realise that we never had that much time to begin with. We start stressing and still use alcohol as a tool of stress alleviation (at least that’s the case with me).

I like to think I am not an alcoholic yet and that I have better control than otata endikhule phambi’kwabo (the fathers I grew up looking up to), and as such, I really want to quit drinking this year – while I still have control over it. I feel that it’s important for me to quit before it becomes a bad habit that disturbs those around me, before I hurt someone or develop an alcohol related disease. This is an addiction that can kill me someday. Most importantly, I want to quit drinking before it takes up my time, time that I could have spent chasing my dreams and being around the people I claim to love like most of the men I grew up looking up to.

Stumbling blocks of an “A” student

I have never been the type to be stressed over good grades, after all I’ve always been my teachers’ favourite throughout my academic life. This was not because I was smart, but simply because I was above average in terms of working hard. Because of this, I can’t remember a single grade where I was not the teacher’s pet; and whenever awards were handed out, or when a school event needed an “A” student’s face … it was usually ME!

One of my greatest moments in life was in fourth grade, when I was called to present an essay I had written in front of hundreds of people. I believe that it was at this point that I fell in love with writing and public speaking, although I do neither one of those things today.

My undergraduate studies were no different from school — I picked right up from where I left off and even did way better, if I may say so myself! Out of the 26 subjects I was registered for, I passed 24 (!) with distinction. My fellow mates nicknamed me 100, and yes, I was that 100% student. Publicly, I was not fond of the name, but secretly, I loved the respect that it came with.

Fast forward to Master’s, did I not see FLAMES!!! I don’t know whether it was a change in environment — I moved from the rural Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape to the oh so metropolitan University of Johannesburg (UJ) — or if it was having my heart broken a month before that big move. The stress and pressure were just overwhelming. UJ is a very diverse university, proclaimed the epicenter of PAN-Africanism and with that comes students from various backgrounds, nationalities and status, and (the horror!)… I was met with other “teachers’ favourites”. These students had been awarded opportunities to come study in South Africa, as they were all top students in their respective countries, just as I was at WSU. This immense competition led to me doubting my capabilities and losing motivation and confidence. As a result, my productivity dropped. My supervisor was also not so easy to impress and as much as he believed in me, his support did not help much.

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I had to find the means to deal with all the stress I was feeling, and unfortunately, I found myself running to the good ol’ bottle. Alcohol felt like my only way out; after all, everyone I was doing research with was indulging as well. These people also had their own problems, and even though we didn’t share our issues, it felt good drinking together. Before I knew it, a weekend of drinking turned into a few glasses during the week and eventually I was downing a full bottle in a day alone. Everyone knew that I loved my wine, but they didn’t realise just how much I was drinking. As justification for my drinking habit, I looked to the very public knowledge that most academics were alcoholics. I felt justified to indulge. However, I was falling behind in my work. I honestly don’t think that it was entirely because of the booze, but also a belief that I had lost my sense of thinking, which is key in my area of research – brilliant ideas need people who can think.  

Although I couldn’t think straight, I don’t think I was depressed. This is because I did not have all the other symptoms associated with depression such as constant sadness, guilt, suicidal thoughts etc. Of course, there have been moments I felt like I was losing my mind, moments I felt numb and so agitated. I wanted this journey to be over so badly. But every time I thought of where I came from I pushed myself even harder. The transition from a small town to a big city is never easy and this is something most people don’t get. Despite my alcohol and women problems, I drew strength from the fact that I had a mother and siblings in the Eastern Cape who constantly looked up to me, that alone became my push factor.  I managed to pass my Master’s degree cum laude!

I have now embarked on my PhD journey and as much as I have not found a proper solution to my problems, I am managing, and I strongly believe that my journey will continue as I continue to flourish as an academic. Let’s see where Chemistry and a creative outlet like blogging takes me this year…