On Margate Sands
Margate is a thirsty place. Its switchblade tide draws back so far that by the time it turns the shore is parched. Rude epithets, scrawled in chalk, line its coastal paths. Lustful and wayward, this town is wild. With a steady drip of London transplants fleeing the city’s rapacious capitalist appetite, it’s gentrifying fast. Yet Margate’s wildness persists. Poverty and addiction are rife, but this wildness isn’t a synonym for these things. It’s to do with the sea. This place is edgy because it is, literally, on the edge. Edgy but romantic. Edges are romantic because they suggest abandon: my lover is the North Sea, I’m in it and it’s in me.
On the rocks round Botany Bay bubbles pop, a rich, sticky mouth sound. Beside the Walpole tidal pool, crows pick through seaweed, and salty foam lingers in cracked mussels like some dirty shame. Just past the pool there’s a warship moored.
the desire of desire is to desire (i).
Is the quenching of thirst redemptive? A deficit met? Perhaps sated, never abated; there’s always more need in the seed that came before. Margate will be whatever you want it to be – dreamland or thirsty wasteland. I am here. My first spring beside the sea – where, as T.S. Eliot forewarned, I found April cruel (but not unbearably so). I swam often and spent the early hours of each morning walking several miles barefoot along the straight, wet sands at Palm Bay, where memory and desire seem able to mix without combusting. You have to pass the wastewater pumping station, but it only smells of shit when the wind blows a certain way. Even when submerged, the Walpole pool beckons. Swallowed by the tide, its signposts are lost waders. I want to walk thigh deep around its sunken wall, I want to swallow it all.
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, / Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
In 1921, Eliot famously spent three weeks here, where he began writing The Wasteland. He was in recovery from a depressive breakdown that later took him to a Swiss sanatorium, Margate too inconstant to be a faithful nurse. The poem is everywhere, as ever, but moreso, here, at the moment, because the Turner Contemporary Margate’s last exhibition was an homage to it. And I am here, in this grubby, sexy little armpit of Britain, thinking constantly of the poem and of the poet himself, feeling a palpable connection to the despair and mysticism that infuse his vision.
I imagine Eliot perched in his chosen seaside shelter, looking out over a beach that scholars say would have been populated by playing children and wounded soldiers, an apt distillation of the parts of the self that wash up in seaside towns: the playful and the troubled.
The poem is disorienting, it falls apart and puts itself back together, seeking connections, illuminations, and new understandings. It swings between objective and subjective experience, its third eye turns inward, it spies on itself, and it reaches beyond its own edges, it wants to know – to understand.
After the event / He wept. He promised 'a new start'.
Eliot’s sense of throbbing between two lives is one I feel by the sea, part on shore, part in water. On the edge of things, at a juncture. Paused, but in motion – or suspended – floating. Am I on the edge of what once was or at the edge of what’s to come? Perhaps I throb between the two. Between illness and wellness. Between denial and liberation. The space changes with the tides.
Luminous as bones, lumps of chalk litter the beach, evidence of a secret, buried world shifting underfoot. Here, we deal in footprints and empty things.
I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.
On the dawn-lit sand, among the vacant, upturned shells, the indecency of a whole crab, on its back but intact.
The mind is not merely a despot. It has an arsenal with the power to reach beyond its environs, and yet, this it forgets, because it is greedy, which makes it dumb.
I used to live at the mercy of desire, for that’s what it is to live in active addiction. I existed under the permanent shadow of “I can’t” – I can’t stop. Sometimes, it was dressed up as I don’t want to or why would I or go hard or go home but at the end of the night they were all euphemisms for I can’t, and ultimately the certainty of this began to creep up on me, slowly, ruining all the fun.
the desire of desire is to desire (ii)
Addiction is not binary. You do not get carried to another non-addicted existence by the redemptive, benevolent wind of recovery. Besides, my sea is a sea that reeks: it does not purify. It’s easy to cast the journey as noble from within the experience but, in reality, it’s just choice of one kind or another. Do you choose solipsism or community?
Soon, with a little patience (determination and luck), I will be five years sober.
Looking back at the experiences that got me to breaking point, I see them differently than when in the first flush of substance-free life; when the world was an intoxicating mix of assault and possibility. Newly sober, you are skinless. After Eliot’s winter that kept you warm with its forgetful snow – the drink, the behaviour, whatever else settled in between you and the depth and breadth of your feelings – Spring arrives as cruel exposure. But for some of us, that cruelty feels like home, which complicates things.
The addictive personality is a scar under the surface of my now confidently sober life. I am still compulsive, I can get hooked on most things. I’m hardwired to go to extreme lengths to avoid my feelings, these days often in the form of grandiose intellectual spasms, and always suffering follows: at the violet hour. The wastelands of my own making are emotional, philosophical, spiritual. Desolation is a state of mind.
When high tide engulfs the Walpole pool, traces of its walls remain visible on the water’s surface, undercutting choppy waves in smoothed out lines, like scars where the skin becomes silvery and taut. Years of reckless behaviour and the corporeal abandonment of lost, blacked out hours have left their marks on my body. Like the pool walls, these features are neither good nor bad, they just are. I am not unique, no one makes it this far unscathed.
On Margate Sands, / I can connect / Nothing with nothing. / The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
Margate is full of addicts, addiction; people seeking oblivion, people on the run, people not welcome anywhere else. That curious mix of pleasure, leisure, and recklesness that is the quintessential British seaside town. It’s both miles from anywhere and Shoreditch on Sea. There are many ways to live in Margate, and they seem to rarely intersect.
I’m here because I’m on the run, too. The coast: a parenthetical presence in my life. It’s a choice I made, guided by some deep internal logic that I’ve been cultivating the ability to listen to. I’m here to rehabilitate from completing a PhD about desire that was supposed to answer every question, and did. But the answer was wholly unsatisfactory, because the answer is an ouroboros – because the desire of desire is to desire.
The reality of my addictive tendencies lurks just out of sight, like a taxi throbbing waiting. It would be so easy to get in.
When I first began attending twelve step recovery meetings, women more sober than me appeared like Eliot’s Madame Sosostris, like the wisest women in Europe. And there I was, the lady of situations. The scars on my legs still fresh from a motorbike accident, the event that ultimately overrode my protestations to the world that I was absolutely fine. Internal scars are one thing, but when they start showing up on the outside, people start having opinions.
My friend, blood shaking my heart / The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract
If we can separate the language of addiction from its customary moral sheen then sobering up is not inherently redemptive. The act of surrender is the first step towards recovery: for someone living in the fantasy world of addictive logic, surrender to reality is a revolutionary act. It requires an awful daring to let go of an entrenched worldview, however damaging it may have become. It’s a brave step, and it opens up the possibility for change. But this is a solipsistic bravery: active addiction is a state of extreme selfishness, and early recovery is no different. An emotional toddler, you learn to re-inhabit yourself without the guiding hand of your substance of choice. It is messy and it is raw.
* redemption suggests a static experience, a singular exchange – drunk for sober, absent for present, reckless for responsible – something that is achieved and then banked, somehow, whereas the process of recovery is on-going, evolutionary, by definition mutable. *
Those evening hours spent in church basements and community halls, they are the hours that strive homeward, they are the hours that attempt to deliver us from one shore to another. But that can be all – one shore is not morally superior to the other, it’s simply on the other side. One can sail back and forth across this body of water many times, though there is always the risk that one might drown.
Is self-care redemptive?
Is recovery from self-destruction redemptive?
The axis between self-care and self-destruction is one of choice, not morality. But perhaps choice in itself is inherently redemptive, not because it saves one from evil or sin but because it saves one from indecision. Choice is motion over stasis. Abstinence, then, is a chance to re-set – not intrinsically redemptive but a tool for learning/understanding, for gaining space around behaviours where choice has begun to feel impossible.
*redemption is an appealing idea for the recovering person: the idea that you are ‘saved’ from addiction, you exchange illness for health. But these things should not have a moral position. They have an emotional one, an empathetic one, but there is nothing innately moral about them. Addiction is not a moral affliction.*
My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Human to human contact is the lifeline – people can rescue one another from harm. The choice to be sober is not fundamentally superior to the choice not to be, and no one is being saved from sin because there is no such thing, but if salvation is the deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss then there is the possibility of salvation in the stories we tell. Without being too sentimental, we trade in hope: the strange magic of a recovering addict sharing their experience with someone who is suffering, the mystical power of the phrase, it used to be the same for me transmogrifies Can’t’s into possibility.
Stories offer salvation. Salvation and redemption are not the same.
We can write new stories, as the emphasis on testimony in twelve step recovery implies – shared truths are powerful. After the isolation of mental illness and the shame heaped upon its attendant behaviours, to find a space where you can stand up and share, without fear, your most abject experiences is empowering, relieving, hilarious – there’s nothing like the gallows humour of a group of recovering drunks.
But is the telling of these war stories redemptive? There is no evil at play. It’s even dangerous to talk in terms of a restoration of order because that suggests there is inherent worth in a more ordered way of being when there is no more value in order than disorder, it’s only a question of pain and suffering – are you harming yourself and others with your disorder? Initially most of us weren’t, until, suddenly, we were.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME
Writing about recovery still feels uncomfortable. The element of testimony is central to the healing process and so there is something sacred about the role it plays in meetings. Or if not sacred, then egalitarian. It is not the writer’s domain but that of the recovering addict/alcoholic – in those rooms (and sometimes against the odds) equality reigns: we’ve all been hobbled by the same affliction, no sole human can lay claim to the narrative. It belongs to no one and it belongs to all of us as we move from individual to collective consciousness – from alienation to community.
But, redemptive or not, taking ownership of the story feels important because addiction is chaos. It is lack of choice, it is feeling the body as a vessel inhabited and ruled by a despotic tyrant of narrow focus and unquenchable desire (playing host to this monster is pleasurable, until it isn’t).
Consider Phlebas. We do, and we think, there but for the grace of God go we. I do not believe in God, but I do believe in whirlpools, and I’m repeatedly astonished that so many of us manage not to drown.
I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.
On the question of preserving anonymity – I don’t preserve mine because there is neither sin nor shame in any of it.
Regressively conservative, society continues to regard the masculine destructive impulse as heroic while in women, it tends to be read as tragic or grotesque. As Leslie Jamieson recently wrote, 'a woman’s drinking is often understood less as the necessary antidote to her own staggering wisdom and more as self-indulgence or melodrama, hysteria, an unpardonable affliction'. What a mess, we fallen women, joined in dysfunctional disgrace.
The nymphs are departed.
Self-care is only redemptive if self-destruction is considered sinful – and it usually is if the party is female. But I never wanted to drink ‘like a gentleman’ (and I never did). Framing recovery as moral salvation is as dangerous as romanticising drinking – they are simply alternative narratives. Why are we so interested in tales of destruction? Because of our grandiosity (humans, not just addicts). I could tell you stories that would put hairs on your chest, but also, you’ll have heard them before. They are not that interesting. My drinking was about oblivion, parties, escape, mayhem, adrenaline – disobedience. Drinking emboldened me to sack off everything I never really wanted to do anyway. Drinking enabled me to abandon myself, to take choice out of my own hands. Sober disobedience is a more potent beast, and, turns out, I prefer it.
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands
With stories of redemption, people are greedy for the gore – all the dirty, sexy juice –as long as absolution soon arrives: a clean and tidy, happy ending. No one wants to start with such an act. That’s boring, boastful, sanctimonious. Threatening. Judgemental. In order for redemption to hold weight we need to know what a person is being redeemed from. There might be some fabulous anecdotes of daredevilry but the reality of addiction is terribly dull, as any recovering person will tell you. There is no sin, only shitty behaviour.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
There is nothing revelatory about being drawn to water for a sense of renewal (and this has been beautifully explored in the context of recovery by the likes of Amy Liptrot), but that’s not this sea. Here I walk past sewage and decaying crustaceans, organic detritus. The waves are rhythm where addiction is chaos, but I’m supposedly long out of the chaos, so. Hear the humming of the big ship. Sand and shells and every other cliché. Its not respite from the city and yet.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih
In early recovery, you learn to understand your ‘disease’, through ritualistic repetition you learn how to tell a new story to yourself and anyone else who will listen – the only thing as unboundaried as a recovering alcoholic is an active one – and that story becomes a yellow brick road away from the isolated monotony of addiction and towards whatever a new, communal, sober existence might have to offer. From unrestrained chaos to the more compact chaos of life really lived: from dreaming chaos to waking chaos.
Much like they who land in the rooms of anonymous groups today, Eliot reaches for spiritual principles expressed in a language not his own to close his poem: shantih shantih shantih. It’s a chant akin to the serenity prayer that closes an AA meeting. He writes in his notes, ‘“The Peace which passeth understanding” is our equivalent to this word’. And in my experience, after the agony of mental breakdown, peace is an unrivalled joy. It is what comes after the working through, the getting one’s head around, the learning and unlearning of new and old behaviours. The beauty of this movement to peace through understanding is that it is not inflected with notions of sin or saving, it is not presented as redemptive, but simply a process.
*** There’s no horizon past the harbour arm.
Under fierce yolk, over misted water, like long lost pennies back to the sea we go. At our heels, the anxiety of dusk, dull beneath this Turner sky.
You should know salt water eats through leather, and a mermaid’s purse won’t last forever.
For a moment, here in this sulphurous stench between blues I am happy, I am happy to the sound of a jet ski I am happy to the putz of its engine as it dies. ***
Photograph by Tasfoto NL / Thinkstock