Amy Liptrot’s father was sectioned on the day she was born. Her arrival three weeks early had triggered one of the manic-depressive episodes he’d suffered since he was 15 and he had to be airlifted from Orkney, where there is no secure psychiatric facility. Liptrot was there on the tiny runway, in her mother’s arms, as her parents, both in wheelchairs, were pushed towards each other because the medics thought it would be good for her straightjacketed father to see his little daughter before being helicoptered off to Aberdeen.
It’s a story she’s been told over the years, and it forms the opening of her first book, The Outrun, an invigorating memoir that blends nature writing with the story of her alcoholism:
“It says a lot, doesn’t it? That one incident reveals how sick my dad was, how my mum was left with a lot to deal with and also the special qualities being on an island, which are issues that have rumbled below the rest of my life.”
We are chatting on Liptrot’s sofa in East London. It’s my birthday and I’m amused and pleased that I’m spending this day thinking, talking and writing about sobriety, rather than getting off my face. This is a change. I spent most of my twenties and half of my thirties getting drunk every night. There were whole years when I was hardly sober. Much in Liptrot’s story resonates with me, though I have not, as my Irish father would say, taken the pledge, and I’m currently in my own last-chance saloon of trying to make moderation work for me.
Liptrot’s childhood was punctuated by her dad’s illness and there were long periods when he either wasn’t there or was confined to his bedroom, but it was also a happy time. A physically brave and even foolhardy child, Liptrot and her younger brother, Tom, grew up on the farm, making dens in hay barns, playing in the grain store and hand-rearing lambs with bottles before they were put back with the main flock.
“My parents worked hard and were busy, and we were just carted along with them, riding in the tractor, going to the mart, being tied up by the edge of the sheep dip, so we didn’t fall in. We had horses and Tom and I used to gallop along the beach at Skara Brae. There’s a Neolithic village on the beach and we were always being filmed and photographed by the visiting tourists. We looked like idyllic local children, which, in a way, we were.”
At school, the question wasn’t what football team you supported but what make of tractor was your favourite. Liptrot always felt like a bit of an outsider, with her English parents, her fashion magazines and American novels: “There were only a handful of non-Orcadian kids. I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I was aware I was ‘English’, which is a bizarre thing, because I wasn’t born in England. To Scottish people, I sound English and, to English people, I sound Scottish. I don’t belong anywhere.”
She was physically different too – tall and gangly, not built to withstand the winds. When she started drinking at 15, at the dances held at the auction mart where the animals were sold, she was immediately entranced.
“I liked the idea of being drunk and I would often be the one out of all my friends who ended up in the worst state. I liked the way alcohol broke down people’s inhibitions and I liked the idea that I had this other darker, wilder side of myself. Right from the beginning, there was an urgency in the way that I drank and a self-destructive streak.”
Eager to escape and in search of the glamour and comfort of the city, Liptrot went to Edinburgh where she read English Literature, edited the student paper and did some freelance work for magazines. She drank a lot, but so did everyone else. Things gradually darkened after graduation, when her parents split up and none of her ambitions came to fruition. After a spell back in Orkney, working as a cleaner on the oil terminal, she decided to move to London to be a writer.
I liked the way alcohol broke down people’s inhibitions, and I liked the idea that I had this other darker, wilder side of myself.
Liptrot threw herself into London life, going to the night clubs in Soho and Shoreditch that she’d read about in magazines and hanging out with the interestingly attired cool kids in London Fields, where it felt like the perpetual last day of a festival. She fell in love, with an American with mischievous eyes, and they moved into a flat above a bookmaker in Hackney.
“It was an intense relationship, but the booze was the major factor that came between us. During my time with him, I had one attempt to stop and I got to about a month. It takes a long time to, firstly, realise you are an alcoholic and, secondly, to realise the only way to handle that is not to be able to drink at all. I wasn’t able to accept that in time to save that relationship. Breaking up with him was the worst thing that happened in my life.”
After the relationship ended, Liptrot’s life derailed.
“My only reason to stop drinking was to keep him so, when he left, I was just free to drink. Drink was my solution to stress or emotional pain. I was in this loop of feeling sad, because we’d broken up, and then drinking and I wouldn’t be healing – things would be getting worse.”
Over the next couple of years she lost more jobs, alienated more friends and was done for drinking and driving. One night, she got in a stranger’s car and he attacked her. She shows me the scar on the back of her head where her assailant hit her with a boot. She fought him off – shouting, “I’m stronger than you” – and he was later convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to six years in prison.
“The things that they warn you in AA will happen to you were happening to me: losing jobs, losing relationships, trouble with the police, and the things that happen after that are incarceration, going mad, death. I’d been in a number of dangerous incidents. The alcohol wouldn’t have killed me through my liver for some time, but the chances of me being in an accident or committing suicide were the reality of it.”
Two months before her 30th birthday, Liptrot went to her GP and asked for rehab. What was available at that time in Tower Hamlets was a day programme, tougher than residential because each night brought temptations:
“Some people were there because it was a condition of their bail. It was zero tolerance and, twice a week, we were breath tested and urine tested and we would be kicked off the programme if we failed. It was gruelling, but I’d never been in a situation like it. After spending years in offices with everyone at their computer screen, I was suddenly in this incredibly honest place.”
One day, Liptrot looked around her and had a revelation. She writes: “I had never injected drugs, been a prostitute, smoked crack in front of my baby, spent eight years in a Russian prison, mugged an old man in the park or been through six detoxes and four rehabs, painfully relapsing each time. My family still spoke to me and I had not turned yellow. I looked around the room and realised that everyone who had been married was either divorced or separated. I was glad I had stopped when I did. I didn’t want to break anyone else’s heart with my drinking.”
The alcohol wouldn’t have killed me through my liver, but the chances of me being in an accident or committing suicide were the reality of it
Liptrot came out of the programme sober but unemployed, hopeful yet fragile, adrift in a city full of memory traps and temptations. After a few months, she headed to Orkney, the first time for years she’d made the long journey sober, and it was there, buffeted by the winds that shaped her, building dry stone walls and swimming in the sea, that a sober life began to look not only possible but desirable.
For that is what marks this out as a piece of writing about recovery. Yes, Liptrot nails what it feels like to be sad, mad, drunk and out of control, but she also brings her newly sober mind to bear on the illusory nature of alcohol and its attraction. Why do so many of us continue to do something that is bad for us? What’s the promise it holds?
Liptrot comes to see that alcohol is a mirage, rather than a solution. Yes, it numbs pain, but the pain is still there when the hangover fades. Drinking in no way solves problems and instead leads to new ones. As she works all this out, she is able to sit with her cravings and, rather than succumb to them and dash off to the off licence, work out what is going on:
“I am experiencing discomfort and want something to provide flow and easiness. I want something to take the edge off. But I’m realising that times of anxiety are necessary and unavoidable, and, in any case, I like the edge: it’s where I get my best ideas. The edge is where I’m from.”
As Liptrot travels around Orkney, counting corncrakes for the RSPB or searching for the fault line that runs through Papay, she questions why she became an alcoholic – she’s always been impatient with counsellors who want her to seek a reason in her childhood, as she was always loved and never felt traumatised. One day, watching the wind whip energetic waves around Fowl Craig, she wonders if she could have been searching for the manic highs she witnessed in her father as she was growing up. Symptoms of mania are similar to drunkenness – perhaps she was craving the sensation of feeling full of optimism and plans, of being willing to push the boundaries and really live.
She writes: “Each binge-drinking session is a manic-depressive cycle in miniature. The excitement and elation tip over into uncontrollable dangerous behaviour. The next day’s hangover is the inevitable depressive period that follows.”
There’s so much to love about this memoir and so much to learn from it. It’s a rich reading experience, filling up the mind with new information about lambing, guillemots and ambergris, of different types of cloud or breaking waves, while offering the portrait of a young woman trying to work out how to be. There’s resilience and determination in the natural world Liptrot describes, as there is inside her as she keeps fucking things up, being beaten down and then rising again, ready for another crack at life.
One day, watching the wind whip energetic waves around Fowl Craig, she wondered if she could have been searching for the manic highs she witnessed in her father as she was growing up
It is 12 years since Liptrot came to London to be a writer, but was too young and pissed to make it. Now she’s back. She has a nephew who has never seen her drunk, a quiver of interests – she’s currently writing about feral racoons and jellyfish – and an enquiring, sober mind.
And that’s what I most like about alcohol being less dominant in my own life: I can think properly and deeply. My chaotic, destructive years are in the past and I, fingers crossed, no longer have to worry that meeting someone for a quick drink will turn into a relationship- and career-truncating three-day bender, so I’m alive to the quieter benefits of clarity and authenticity. I can also no longer kid myself about the effects of alcohol on my state of mind. I cannot be hungover and cope with depression at the same time – the symptoms are too similar and I get caught in a vile spiral of lethargy, panic and misery that is only ever going downwards. And yet – and yet – I don’t fully give up. I can’t imagine “never” having another dry martini, or Manhattan, or popping a cork to celebrate good news. When people I love post pictures of cocktails on Facebook, I want to be with them. I’ve made progress but I still, at some level, think both fun and love are found in the bottom of a bottle.
Perhaps, then, the most encouraging thing Liptrot offers to anyone still struggling with alcohol’s siren call is that, after the excesses of the drunk years and the pain of rehab, she paints a glorious, even sensual picture of a sober life. Not for her the notion that life without alcohol is a gloomy chore; instead, each day is there to be fully lived. Like the octopus that can taste with all of its skin, she wants to experience everything and to do so with a fully functioning mind.
People will rightly rave about this book because of the beauty and power of Liptrot’s writing, but my favourite sentence is a simple one.
‘I want to have a story, but I have to do it sober.’
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is published by Canongate (Hardback, £14.99). To see Amy in conversation at Waterstones Piccadilly on Jan 20th, visit here.