I gravitated to the fucked up writers. Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner. There weren't many women in my list. Dorothy Parker, and that was about it. Somehow, hand in hand with booze and drugs, the terrible dance that substances led me on became one that I must perfect to be a writer. It was a required necessity, an essential rite of passage, and my writing heroes' words were the proof. I drank, gurned, snorted, swallowed and hallucinated like they did. That waltz into the dark was absolutely crucial for me in order to write like them—even if the familiar, haunting beautiful chimes of The Blue Danube led me instead to the depths of degradation, I could still write about it.
Once I was arrested on a highway in Portland Oregon, suspected of fellating the driver of a moving vehicle. Once I screwed a man twenty years older than me on the top deck of a yacht, not realizing that the crew were sitting downstairs, watching intently on the security cameras. Once I slept with a man and his brother in the same night, while their friend watched. Once my mother stabbed me with a fork. Once I danced naked like a pixie for a man thirty years older than me so that he would buy me drugs. Once I coerced a reference out of my Cambridge University tutor, ostensibly for a university application, in reality so I could steam open the envelope and find out what she thought of my writing: "Ruth is heartless—but perhaps that is a very good thing for a writer."
I lost my heart somewhere along the way, drowned with booze and addled by coke and shrooms. I wish I could get it back. Ruth is heartless. Terrible things, memories. Made flippant by necessity. To regard them with their full weight would make my non-existent heart burst. I only admitted to them with braggart and bravado in writing, in alcoholic top-trumps, when laughing removed the poison, their ability to wound. The taste of humiliation became a familiar one in my using years, but I integrated it into my words and turned it into a triumph, like Hunter did, like Bukowski did. Swirled in the mouths of others it was still painfully raw, distinct, sharp and new. "D'you remember...?" some asshole would say, not registering me cringing away from the howl of silent shame, "D'you remember when you scored coke off that rickshaw driver and fingered Stephanie in the hot tub before giving everyone lap dances?" I never let anyone else have that pleasure. I wrote about my own humiliations first, asking myself: What would Hunter S. have done? Oh, far worse. We were on the edge of Charing Cross Road when the cocaine began to take hold. I think I said, "Paul, get the fucking rickshaw driver to take us to a crack den..."
I traveled all over when I left university with a remarkably good degree, considering I had been snorting coke off the back of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight every morning to help me stay awake when revising. I drank in London, I starved myself in Argentina, I swallowed MDMA in Alpe D'Huez, snorted coke in Antibes, drank copiously in Nice, screwed strangers when high in Monaco—but I merely drank in the Caribbean, locking myself away on the boat I was working on, convinced that if only I did not escape during the full moon, I could not hurt anyone else. I was only a werewolf if others witnessed it.
It didn't work so well when drinking and drugs became a requirement to work, which is what occurred when I moved to New York, and visa held up in immigration, money running out, I procured gainful employment in a strip club. Gloria Steinem was a bunny girl, I told myself hopefully. And Hunter, I'm sure, would have loved Flashdancers and Scores. I had to drink to dance. Oh I'm sure there were many who could leap upon that stage wearing dental-floss panties buoyed by nothing stronger than a Sprite, but I was not one of them. Dancing required drinking, coke and embracing the darkness. I would write angrily at 5am after work on a blackout, my words roaring ferociously off the page, accusing the world for what eventually I had to admit was mine—culpability.
While gripped with self-loathing, there was still something darker inside of me that felt like this was proof I was an artiste. I wrote a book about my demise when I was twenty-six: structured beauty out of pain and degradation, but when my agent and editor asked for something more, I didn't know what to write. I knew only variations of the same story: Girl in pain drinks and takes something—anything—to stop the feeling. Girl wakes up in more pain, is more angry. Girl does more to block it all out.
It puzzled me that within this grand narrative I couldn't find the other tales that should be there: the ones about love and friendship, betrayals, victories, failures, loyalty. I couldn't find them. I'd type and type, a bottle of wine by my side, a wrap of something, a stolen pill, wherever I happened to be (Tobago, France, Italy, St Maarten, Antigua, London, St Lucia, New York, Guatemela). And after my book came out—one long vicious wail—I was out of words, but I wasn't done with drink and darkness. I simply couldn't convey what was still happening to me, and I couldn't write about anyone or anything else. A sorry state of affairs for one who makes a living by writing prose about herself and screenplays about other people. I tried not to think about it. Drank more. Got my own dealer. We broke up. Kept moving. I had stayed too long at the fair, but it had not occurred to me that leaving might not be the solution. New York, London. London - Chicago. Chicago - Minneapolis. Minneapolis - Montana. Montana - Portland, Oregon. And then Los Angeles.
By now I'd been fired from even my freelance gigs, and an argument with a publisher in England had ended by me walking out of a book deal with HarperCollins. My best friend sent me this email somewhere along the line, exactly when, I can't remember:
you're not a good friend - you're a bully. i dont want to hear from you again and i'd be grateful if you could respect that. i have deleted your previous emails and will not be either printing them out or even reading them. despite everything i wish you all the best with your new flat, the book etc. i am sorry you are so unhappy.
I am unhappy, I'm desperately unhappy. Unhappy punctuated with pockets of OK. I wonder if she knew, or if she was just hopeful. People send emails like this because they want to wound deliberately, lash out to stop the pain, growl and bite like a dog protecting itself from a kick. Where you have wounded unintentionally, they wound intentionally merely out of self-protection. I'm sorry I'm so unhappy too. I'm sorry I'm so angry. I'm sorry I'm such a cunt. I'm sorry I drink too much and take too much coke and swallow too many pills to make it all go away. I wonder what will stop it. I wonder if it's in me, or if it's all the things that have happened to me, the instability and the loneliness I stumbled upon. I'm sorry I'm so unhappy too, former best friend. I don't wish you all the best.
I wish you all the best. It turns up many times, this phrase, when you're using, always in emails or messages from people who obviously don't wish you the best. They wish you herpes, syphilis, bankruptcy, and purgatory. I have teetered on the brink of suicide many times in my life, but what I think will truly send me down the route of that oft-planned heroin-overdose is when I become the kind of vacuous moron who parrots that phrase to people I despise: I wish you all the best. No you don't, you lying, passive aggressive cunt.
There are so many thoughts I needed to stop saying aloud. I needed to carve out the socially acceptable me who knows when to stay quiet, suppress leaking ink-blot thoughts, turn impulse into unarticulated flickers of thought, ignored, unexpressed. It would not happen when the only way I could control how I felt is by anaethetising it into oblivion.
Somehow, I ended up in Los Angeles, possibly on a blackout.
I remember sitting in someone else's million dollar home, somewhere in the stratosphere money leaking like water out of my bank account, a gram of coke lined up before me, two MDMA pills imbibed, a cap or two of shrooms, an Oxy, several bottles of Veuve in the fridge. A rich fat man talks. I don't know him, but we are doing drugs together.
"So Richard Harris met Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp to discuss a potential project together, but Hunter was absolutely fucked when he arrived. He was a nightmare. Loud and arrogant and railing against the world. Apparently he threw a dog out of the window, and eventually even Richard and Johnny had had enough of him, and asked him to leave. Hunter refused and so his chauffeur came in, and sprinkled a long line of cocaine leading from the house, to his waiting car. Hunter snorted the line all the way out the door - and then his chauffeur booted him in the back seat and drove off, to everyone's relief."
We don't know if it's true, but we laugh anyway. We are Hunter being led out of the door by a trail of cocaine which is never enough, everyone else sick of the sight of us, our glamorous reputations made ugly by proximity, and though we are neither successful nor revered, we don't let this deter us from the faux enchantment tingeing our tawdry evening. I found compadres in LA. We drank and smoked excessively, but it never felt frenzied or desperate or wrong. We all knew our youth was languidly flailing in the consistent and brutal assault of nicotine and booze, but in LA we didn't care, not enough to stop anyhow. We'd roll out of a different bed each morning like sorry reptiles—skin ashy, mouths glutinous and foul, skin damp and scaly—crews crawl to the fridge, start right back up again with an infliction of Corona, followed up with a defiling glass of chilled Pinot, maybe, if we felt kind, a sympathetic coffee.
Before I got in the car and drove down Sunset to Santa Monica, or Burbank, or Century City, or Malibu, or WeHo, or Venice, I'd chew gum like some insane fucked-up gurning meth-head, worried that the alcohol fumes roaring out of my mouth might deter the Producers I was meeting from buying my scripts. The meetings by day became merged and mangled into one another, so that I had a perfectly scripted set-piece that could be replayed on an interminable loop. It became a familiar sitcom, me the B-list bad actor, hungover with an inane grin and stupid stories vomiting out of my mouth. One time I rocked up early to meet with a film company on Wilshire Boulevard, wandered round the arid sidewalks past the Mercedes showroom, bumped into a group of paparazzi waiting hungrily outside a discreet celebrity hair stylist's for Ashley Tisdale. I quizzed them and we hung out together for a while, and it made me laugh, it was so perfectly fucking Hollywood.
And that was the thing. It was all perfectly fucking L.A., it was a perfect fucking time, full of perfect people laughing too loud and too long at my perfectly bad humor and telling me I was perfect fucking hot property. How can you argue with that shit? You can't, you just ride it, always knowing, sadly, with a hint of pre-nostalgia, that 'that shit' doesn't last forever, that with the crest of the wave comes the break, and all you can ever do is ride the surf, not ever be too sad at the inevitability of the end.
I drank some more. The rich fat man paid for my drugs and champagne. Fell out with my compadres. Stopped writing. Stopped caring. There was a sense somehow that I was removed or detached from the consequences of my actions. I suffered alcohol cramps and stomach pains, was unable to digest food so stopped eating, but with sustained effort rode through it and mastered my body by beating it into drowned, sodden, exhausted submission. I kept drinking more and the days and nights and drinks became indistinguishable, punctuated by a sleep that was sordid and alcoholic, uneasy and restless, and I'd wake up and start where I left off, and drown all the shit that was buzzing around in the background, a crackle of static, push it away and indulge instead in this smudged, crapulent, beautiful mess.
I can only describe L.A. in terms of disconnected snapshots, scents, images: sea air and sand and flip flops and shorts and cigarette butts discarded carelessly next to too-many empty bottles of booze, empty zip locs, long, long nights talking, bruised kisses and pleasure and pain. I was treading a thin line between being inebriated and being a rolling, incoherent, dribbling, babbling, vomiting mess, and I can only attribute my failure to succumb to this increasingly alluring state, to my—by now—phenomenal alcohol tolerance and the ever-present wrap of coke on my person.
By the end, after the fury, when I knew that I had to make a choice, there was a gentle sadness in my drinking, a communion of sorts, a sense that if I only stayed here, reissuing the same conversations over and over, replaying the same goddamn movie reel, the sun would never rise and the night would last as long as I wanted it to, simply because I wanted it to. I could not write anymore, and I could not read. Words were now inadequate and approximate elegies for emotions so specific I could tell I had not felt them before, and had spent most of my life trying to.
I think, in all honesty, I was dying, and my words failed me.
I had to choose between writing and drinking. I chose writing. I did not write a word for eighteen long sober months. My words failed me again. I started to worry that by quieting the demon, I had exorcised whatever was in me that made me write. And then miraculously, when it was nearly over, in one six-month mad sober flurry, I wrote two plays, two screenplays, signed with a new agent, and completed half of my second book.
Sometimes feeling everything so acutely is unbearably painful. Without the soft, alluring cushion of alcohol and drugs the colors are brighter and the edges are sharper. The words don't scream but instead, quieter, they have nuance and shades which I could not have recognized before. Sometimes it makes me unhappy, sobriety. Sometimes I still feel deep shame and horror at the things I did in those dark times, sadly intent on the mistaken belief that embracing blackness, jumping off that cliff, welcoming the fall, the impact of earth punching body, would make me wiser, or better, or smarter, a ‘real' writer. Sometimes I believe it was invaluable to me, to who I am today, to everything that I now write. Sometimes I want to go back, but wonder if I can ride the wave right to the end, or whether it will break, and I'll be left floundering in soupy water, staring at the high-water mark in mute incomprehension, bitterly regretting I didn't just stay miserable someplace else, lamenting the sheer fact of trying. Most of the time I want to walk away from this sordid, nightmarish, alcoholic time forever and have it there in my memory just as it was, encapsulated and complete, perfect and untainted by a later edit.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Ruth Fowler is a writer, former stripper, screenwriter, anarchist, and radical activist. She has written for the Village Voice, the Guardian, The Fix, and others. Her memoir, No Man's Land, was published by Viking in 2008.