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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

Six months sober

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Today I’m six months sober. To mark the occasion, I’ve decided to keep a journal – not just to keep track of my sobriety, but also for future reference. Besides, as Gwendolen Fairfax observes in The Importance of Being Earnest, “One should always have something sensational to read in the train” – and I tend to make rather a lot of train journeys.

It’s been years since I last kept a journal – decades, in fact. The last time I committed my thoughts and feelings to paper on a regular basis, I was 23 years old and heavily involved in ACT-UP. A lot has happened since then. I’ve fallen in and out of love, had my heart broken and mended, overcome various addictions, got married and published over a dozen books including a novel called The Gay Divorcee.

I recently delved into my old journal for research purposes as I was busy working on a memoir. In it, I found tortured tales of devastating crushes and feverish dreams of becoming a writer. There were the names of people I can barely remember and others who’ll never be forgotten but who didn’t live long enough to experience the current pandemic. They died during the last one.

Revisiting my past, what really struck me wasn’t how much I’ve changed but how little. In many ways, I’m still the same embattled activist who used to block traffic or catapult condoms over the walls of Pentonville Prison. I’m still a troublemaker, though these days I express myself in different ways. I still have many of the same insecurities, though now I have the benefit of hindsight and – I hope – the maturity to avoid making some of the same mistakes.

Truly knowing yourself is one of the many privileges of growing older. David Bowie once said that “ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.” And no, the fact that Bowie was a recovering alcoholic isn’t lost on me.

The past six months haven’t been easy. Nor were the previous six – or the six before that. But as I write these words I’m reminded of my friend Vaughan, who I wrote about in that earlier journal all those years ago and who died shortly afterwards – the first of many friends lost to the big disease with the little name. (A quilt panel in Vaughan’s memory forms part of the AIDS Quilt UK exhibition opening at Acorn House in London this weekend.)

It was Vaughan who introduced me to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. At a celebration of Vaughan’s life held a few months after his death, another friend performed a song sung by Carlotta in Follies. Today the words feel especially apposite – “I got through all of last year, and I’m here!”

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