A Life Rewritten: Moving on from decades of drug and alcohol abuse

The Irish Times, June 29th 2015

Writing a book turned into one of the worst experiences of John Doran’s life. At first, the idea seemed relatively straightforward. He thought a demanding project would help him through a difficult transition: giving up illegal drugs and coming off antidepressants. But that didn’t quite pan out.

“I had a nervous breakdown,” he says. “My first draft read like the Unabomber’s manifesto written on poppers and home brew, which led to poring over the unpleasant truth of what I’d done with my life. There was no catharsis. It was not a healing process. Instead the whole thing felt like a terrible mistake.”

Doran, 44, is the co-founder and editor of British music website the Quietus. His book Jolly Lad evolved from ‘Menk’, Doran’s column for online media platform Vice, in which he adapted over 25 years of alcoholism and substance abuse into a series of hilarious yet insightful reflections. But expanding that material into a memoir forced Doran to reconsider the story of his life.

“I always thought that by laughing about these things I was coming out on top,” he says. “But when you go over and over an anecdote that involves being beaten up, for example, what you’re left with is the bare bones of the truth. I’d fooled myself into thinking I was this recovering alcoholic who’d led a colourful life full of picaresque adventures. But when you finally see those incidents from others’ point of view, the darker undercurrents start to tug at you.” 

Doran is from Rainhill in Merseyside, where both sets of his grandparents immigrated from Co Cork and Co Down. He was the first in his family to attend university but immediately sensed that he didn’t belong there. Everyone seemed hyper-confident, as if they’d been brought up to achieve whatever they wanted.

At this point, Doran had been drinking daily since the age of 15 and quickly fell apart, bringing his time at university to an abrupt end. That’s when things became unhinged. He began working in factories, where it felt like he did belong, and later turned to journalism, where he knew his dependency would be easier to get away with. By 2008, Doran’s doctor said he would die by the end of the year unless he found sobriety.

Jolly Lad details that journey with unflinching honesty: the masking of fear, the circuitous thinking, the physicality of withdrawal. It’s a startling guide to self-destruction that, as Caitlin Moran notes in the book’s preface, “makes Withnail & I look like Little House on the Prairie”.

Doran is quick to point out, however, that this is not ‘misery lit’ or a story of heroic redemption. Rather, it’s about emerging from decades’ worth of intoxication to discover who you really are. In Doran’s case, he had no idea what life might be like as a sober adult and that frightened him.

In an attempt to fill the gap that alcohol left behind, Doran found himself over-indulging in things like coffee, strawberry cheesecake ice-cream and a wide variety of drugs. Dedicating himself towards website the Quietus brought much-needed focus but his own stability grew untenable. A radical overhaul of his health seemed like the only solution.

“When you suddenly stop taking drugs, SSRI antidepressants, painkillers, junk food and sugar after so long, you feel utterly awful,” says Doran. “You have misanthropic thoughts; you start feeling evil to the core. ‘I’m like Darth Vader!’ But of course it’s just nonsense. I didn’t give myself a chance to think, ‘You’re going through a phase. You will level out eventually.’ And did I level out into someone much more calm and normal.

“In fact, I’ve become what I was afraid of being when I was younger: a regular person. I always wanted to be this special, arty, cool, weird type and, in the short-term, maybe drink and drugs allowed me to be like that. But I’ve realised that’s not who I am. And you know what? After all that time fighting against it, I’m much happier now.”

To kick-start that turnaround, Doran dabbled in meditation, sat in on some AA meetings and started exercising. But a more profound catalyst came when Doran and his partner Maria had a son, Little John. Bringing a child into the world is hardly the answer to everyone’s problems, he says, but on a fundamental level it made him less self-centred.

“A lot of addicts are afraid of death or have anxieties about life,” he says. “Having a kid helps mop up those residual anxieties because you’re more concerned about them than yourself. You’re suddenly overwhelmed with unconditional love. I was an extremely impatient person before: short-tempered; grinding my teeth in frustration. You can’t be like that with a kid because you have to lead by example, so I started aspiring to be a better person in order to look after him.”

Once Doran recovered from his breakdown and finessed the book into shape late last year, he realised the end result was not something he’d ever want his son to read. His own father always tried to steer him away from drink and drugs in a firm, prescriptive manner and did so with the noblest of intentions – but it just didn’t work. All Doran knows is that he’ll maintain a policy of openness with his son and respond to problems pragmatically whenever they arise.

“I do worry sometimes about what the legacy of my personality will be to him but I’m just... I need to be more optimistic as a father than I was as a drinker or drug user. Looking back, that was a really important change I had to make in my life: sloughing off this utter negativity and despondency I felt all the time, the crushing sense of nihilism that I had. Now that I’m teaching myself to be more positive and hopeful, it’s something I expect to carry on for the rest of my life.”

As we speak, Doran is midway through a live tour accompanied by Kjetil Nernes, founding member of Norwegian rock outfit Arabrot, along with a revolving cast of artists. The power of music played an integral part in both Doran’s recovery and the making of Jolly Lad. That’s why the hardback edition comes with a CD featuring new music from members of Manic Street Preachers, British Sea Power and Factory Floor among others.

In planning a tour across an eclectic range of venues, from a Victorian cotton mill to a high-security prison, Doran deliberately found another challenging project to keep him focused. By the time it ends, he hopes to have another one.

“Now that I’m telling these stories on the road, I don’t find them that upsetting anymore,” he says. “Just before the tour began, my publisher handed me a big box of paperbacks. It was a sunny day and I remember looking at them, thinking, ‘You know, I actually wouldn’t mind writing another book.’” He laughs. “One thing I’ve learned is that I’m more and more unwilling to make definitive statements. It’s all relative to the position you’re in and the speed you’re travelling at. All these feelings are constantly in flux."