Tearing down the scaffolds: Masculinity, authenticity and alcohol

The first time in my life I was really shit-faced was when I was fourteen. My mates and I spent half the evening down at the local bottle shop trying to convince tradies to buy us a bottle of Jack Daniels. Eventually a young guy in a high-vis took our fifty bucks and emerged with one cask of red wine. We drank the goon ceremoniously in the park. A couple of hours later, I spewed it all up on my front grass and passed out.

I remember, a few months before, walking out into the living room one Saturday morning where my father was watching the golf and asking him what a hangover was. He turned to me and smiled. ‘That’s something you’re just gonna have to learn for yourself, champ.’ The morning after my first experience with a goon bag, my head being split apart by an axe, I walked up to my father in the backyard and said, ‘Hey Dad, I know what a hangover is now.’

Spewing red goon all over my Dad’s flower beds was just the introduction; my real initiation into Australian drinking culture came months later on a weekend trip to Rottnest Island with my mates.

On the first night I remember standing on a dark street with a beer in my hand watching two of my friends, much bigger than I was at the time, beating up some boys from another school. I was standing aside not out of objection but because I was too small, and smart enough to know it. I watched on with a sense of fear and confusion. Later on, my mates, with swollen eyes, loose teeth and bloody knuckles, recounted the story of the fight. When the adrenaline wore off we smoked weed out of an empty beer can until we all passed out.

I didn’t know at the time why my friends had to fight those other boys. Maybe it was a way to give us all a reputation around town: not to be fucked with. Maybe it was a way to prove their worth to our group, and an instinctual play for the position of top dog. Maybe they just got off on the thrill of it.

Fighting was one way to prove my masculinity to the boys, and there was no way in hell that was going to happen. But there was another way to pull myself up the social hierarchy.

The following night I was sitting in the sand on Pinkie’s Beach sharing a goon bag and a pack of cigarettes with the girl next to me. I hadn’t been drunk with a girl before. I was excited, fearful and curious. We walked off together into the sand dunes and hadn’t been alone long before someone shone a powerful torch on my face.

‘What are you two doing up here?’

I rearranged myself, then looked up to see a police uniform.

‘Just getting some privacy, mate,’ I slurred, surprising myself with my coherence. And total lack of respect.

The cop told us we weren’t allowed on the dunes. He saw my goon bag and told me to empty it. I held down the nozzle and the liquid slowly leaked out onto the sand. The cop became frustrated and stabbed at the silver bag with his pocket knife. The girl and I relocated to my tent.

When I got back to Perth, my parents were pissed off that I didn’t text them to say I was okay. I was grounded but didn’t care. In my mind, I’d passed the initiation. I was still a little shaken from the fights, but I’d survived three nights of drinking to oblivion and I’d hooked up with a girl. I even asked her out on a date when we got back to Perth.

Back at school our group had won a reputation for drinking, drug-taking, fighting and hooking up. Feeling comfortable with everything we did was not especially important to me at the time, because I wasn’t an anonymous loner anymore. I’d been accepted by the boys.

When I was young, I used alcohol to help break free from my social anxiety. After a few beers I transformed from a shy, nameless nobody, into what seemed to me like the life of the party.

And it helped me talk to girls.

There was this strange and frustrating conflict I felt as a young man. I desperately wanted to have sex. I needed to satisfy my deep, overwhelming ‘biological’ urge, and the building, ever-present societal and cultural pressure to ‘lose’ my virginity. I wanted sex so badly but at the same time I was fucking terrified of it. I had terrible performance anxiety, the fear of failure. Getting drunk helped to dull my anxiety around sexual performance. So most of my early sexual experiences were both facilitated and desensitised by alcohol.

I lost my virginity in a park across the road from a house party. I used to think that’s what losing your virginity was supposed to be like. That you got drunk, had sex, and got on with your life, no longer a virgin. Even at the time, a part of me knew that wasn’t the way it should be, that my initiation into sex could have been something beautiful and sacred.

In the early days, my friends and I used to tell our parents we were going to the movies, and instead we’d walk to the bottle shop and look for the right tradie to buy us booze. That or someone’s older brother or a fake ID would get us a goon bag or a carton of beer. Then we’d walk to the park and drink. We’d muck around on the playground equipment. Wrestle. Break something. Play drinking games. Smoke cigarettes. Smoke weed. Spew. Walk back to the movies to get picked up by someone’s Dad who’d drop us home. We’d pretend we were sober, and we’d honestly think we got away with it.

This was the way we bonded. This was how we grew up. We endured all the bullshit of high school so we could get fucked up together on the weekends. Most of those friendship bonds, formed with goon bags and cones and small-time vandalism, lasted the next ten years.

I remember an argument with my parents over alcohol at my Year 12 ball. Everyone was going to be drinking. And my mother chose this night to make a big deal out of it. Her parents were both alcoholics but I didn’t see her concern for me. All I saw was her getting in the way of a party.

‘I don’t need alcohol to have a good time,’ I said. ‘But alcohol is going to turn a good night into a great night!’

She was the first to arrive at the after party to pick me up, and I resented her for that.

For years my favourite pastime was playing backyard cricket, drunk, with my mates. If I could do anything in the world, that’s what I would’ve chosen. We did it just about every week in summer. Sometimes every day.

For a week each year around Christmas my friends and I would pitch tents at my mate’s place in Busselton and play cricket every day. We’d drink from ten in the morning until we all passed out at night. I’d look forward to this trip the whole year.

After a few years, of course, the excitement waned. It wasn’t as fun as it used to be. We didn’t care as much about who scored runs and who took wickets. We couldn’t drink every day like we used to. And then, one year, we just stopped going.

In my early twenties, I took a trip to Europe with two mates. One of those mates managed a bar in Perth and when I returned I started working for him. Working behind the bar was a godsend. No longer was I spending my weekends pissing all my money against a wall, too drunk to talk to girls, kicked out of the pub, buying a kebab, getting a taxi home and vomiting on my front yard. Now I was still out and about, and I was still a little tipsy, but I was in control. I was partying without writing myself off. It’s a weird thing to say, but when I started working at a bar, it actually helped to slow my drinking.

Working on the other side of the bar opened my eyes a little wider to the darker side of Australian drinking culture. Almost every night someone would get kicked out for fighting. There were glassings as well. I saw girls tumble down the front steps, young guys just out of school headbutt each other in the courtyard and old men vomit or piss at the bar.

And then the carnage on the streets of the city at one in the morning.

The kebab shops full of girls crying, makeup running down their faces, guys jamming kebab after kebab into their mouths or throwing them at each other, some acting tough and staring everyone down, then yelling and smashing the place apart. Boys getting into fights on the street with bleeding faces and ripped shirts. I was disgusted and ashamed.

Maybe it’s just my disposition, but I never understood the compulsion for violence. Whether it was watching my mates get into fights with boys from another school, or drunk dickheads at the bar or on the city streets, it’s always seemed brutal and pointless to me. What is it about alcohol that seems to bring out the violent side of some blokes, whether they’re adolescents or fully grown men?

It’s a cliché, I know, but often we drink to forget our troubles. Alcohol is the drug of forgetting. Of course, our troubles don’t go away. But it’s nice to take a break from them. When we really stop to face reality, I think the desire to drink and forget is justifiable. There is beauty in this world. But there is also horror and sadness and disappointment and regret. Alcohol can help to forget, if only for a night.

Given the massive role alcohol played in my formative years, it was difficult for me to break free from it.

I went through a period of abstinence in my late twenties after a soul-searching trip to South America. I spent six weeks at a healing centre in Peru. No alcohol, no coffee, no meat, no technology. I lost ten kilos. And I faced some of the underlying emotional issues that I’d used alcohol to mask for ten years.

I realised I actually didn’t know how to have fun without drinking. I realised that I’d suppressed all of my emotions. Not just sadness and fear and frustration but love and excitement and joy as well. From this position of self-understanding, I chose to face my social anxieties head-on. I confronted my relationship with my parents and their divorce. And I faced my relationships with my mates.

That was a hard one.

I asked myself: Do these guys really have my back? I knew they’d be there if I wanted to blow off steam or party or watch the footy. But could I go to them if I was having dark thoughts?

What about if I needed to cry?

When I returned to Australia, I started going out with a girl who was into yoga and clean living. I wanted to be healthy too. I wanted to stay clean in body, mind and soul. So I stopped drinking, but I also stopped hanging out with my old friends.

I became isolated.

I wasn’t there for my best friend when he was facing the imminent death of his father. I was so caught up in my own shit that I couldn’t see what was going on. I’d been asking myself if the boys had my back, but I wasn’t asking myself if I had theirs.

I lived in that insulated dream world with my girlfriend until the relationship started to break down and eventually became a nightmare. That’s when I saw the light. I pulled myself together before the funeral and repaired my relationship with my friend. We met at the beach for a coffee and spoke from our hearts and we each took responsibility for what was ours. I told my best mate I was sorry I couldn’t be there for him, and he forgave me.

I learned that authentic conversation, without the mask of alcohol, was what truly bonded this friendship.

After lifting myself out of the nightmare of isolation, and motivated by a need to change, I sought new friendships through a variety of personal development workshops, men’s groups and leadership training. Through these experiences I met a new group of men focused on growth, open communication, and community development. These are strong, honest men, and I know that any one of them has my back if I need to cry. And so began a new model of friendship for me, born not from alcohol, but from conscious, mutual desire for authentic and meaningful connections.

When I was younger, alcohol helped me to express myself. After a few beers, I’d have the courage to speak my mind to friends, family or work mates. Instead of being shy and quiet, I’d be fun and happy and playful.

I guess it was just through practice over time that I figured out how to do all this without a drink in my hand. These days I’ll have a beer when I watch the footy. I’ll have a few wines with my family when we meet for dinner and we want to celebrate life. I’ll even have a big one if the occasion calls for it.

But I don’t need it. Alcohol was the scaffolding I used to support my transition into manhood. It helped me to deal with the frightening reality of the world and my changing place within it. I’m disappointed that it took me so long to tear the scaffolding down. And as fun as the good times were, I wish I could’ve found another way.

But I’m not hiding anything anymore. I know who I am. I don’t need alcohol to bond with friends. I don’t need alcohol to have fun. I don’t need alcohol to talk to girls. I don’t need alcohol to give me the courage to speak. It’s my hope for young men growing up in Australia today that they don’t have to go down the same path, only to have to crawl back up it, as I and so many other men have had to do.

Perhaps the key to guiding the youth of today is not to warn them against the dangers of alcohol and drugs, but to show them, through our own example, a healthier way to be men.

Header image by Chris Gray

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