The weather in Glasgow is generally miserable, and that can have an effect on people. My Grandma passed away a couple of years ago and she started every letter she wrote to me complaining about the terrible weather. Even after living in Glasgow for 90 years it still bothered her. Scottish winters are inevitably cold and damp, the sun is hidden behind grey clouds all day, and then it gets dark before 4pm. Apparently the winter of 1995-1996 in Glasgow is still one of the coldest ever on record. But it wasn’t the weather that made me miserable.
I was in the middle of a year studying abroad at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. I’d arrived there in August 1995 by myself as a young, naïve 20 year old, having been accepted to spend the third year of my four-year undergraduate law degree in Texas. In late December, having completed the first semester, I was scheduled to fly home to Glasgow for the holidays.
A few weeks earlier, my younger brother Andy had died in Edinburgh. Even today, more than 20 years later, the sober truth of that statement is like drawing a knife across my heart. I’ll write about that experience, and the slow-motion downward spiral that I fell into, later on. Although I knew I was hurting that winter, I was not yet aware how deeply I had been cut.
Andy died in late October 1995, and I had immediately jumped on a plane from Austin back to Glasgow to be with my family. I could have, and perhaps should have stayed in Scotland for the rest of the year, but I decided to go back to Austin to try and finish the semester at law school.
In many ways, returning to Austin after Andy’s funeral was a chance for me to escape the horrible reality of what had happened back in Scotland. I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of emotions that the death of a sibling brings. I had grown up in a Glaswegian culture where things like ‘feelings’ and ‘mental health’ were never discussed. In Glasgow if someone was upset, then the polite thing to do was to offer them a drink.
I went back to Austin to try and catch up on the two weeks I had missed and prepare for the end of term exams. A lot of that time is hazy but there were a couple of things that happened before I would return to Glasgow over the Christmas break. One night, just a few days after returning to Austin in November 1995, I was at the Crown & Anchor pub sitting at a table with my friend Marc, as we often were. We saw two girls sitting at a table across the bar about 15 feet away. Marc made eye contact with them and then we started inching our table closer to theirs. It took us about 10 minutes to gradually nudge our table and chairs across the crowded bar until our tables were connected. We introduced ourselves and started talking. One of the girls was called Kristy. We never ‘dated’ that year, but we kept in touch and four years later we were married, in secret, in Edinburgh.
In December 1995, I met a girl called Stephanie. She was very pretty and I don’t remember how I met her, but I know that the thing that I found most attractive about her was that she was attracted to me. At the time, I wasn’t very experienced with the opposite sex, so I didn’t have the confidence to be picky about girls. That can probably be attributed to me spending most of my teenage years at an all-boys school. Also the fact that I looked like the lead singer from the Lightning Seeds.
There is no way to be subtle about this, but when I say that I was not very experienced, I mean that by the time I was 20, I had had zero experience in the bedroom department. I had bought several tickets but the train had not left the station. The rocket was on the launchpad. The cork was still in the bottle. Also this was not because of some religious reason or moral reason. I was ready and willing to do it. I just needed to find a girl with whom to do it. Stephanie was that girl.
I finished my law school exams in the middle of December and somehow managed to scrape a pass in all my classes, and even snag an A in Jurisprudence. I was scheduled to fly back to Glasgow around December 22nd. I wanted to go home, and I remember a tearful phone conversation with my Mum where she was just begging me to make it back safely. However, when I got to the old Austin airport on the morning of the 22nd, I found out that all the flights were cancelled because of a snowstorm in the Midwest. It looked like I might not make it back for Christmas. I was told to just come back the next day.
Everything was packed so I just went back to my house and found some booze. Then Stephanie called and invited herself over. I’m not going to get into the details but it happened that night. The train departed. The rocket was launched. The champagne was out of the bottle. The surreal thing was that I was at a really low point. I was drunk, I was depressed, I was stressed about not being able to make it home. I was concerned about my parents being worried. I had completely broke too because I’d spent the last of my dollars the day before I was supposed to leave. But, finally, yes.
The next day I got on a flight back to Glasgow via St Louis and I arrived home early on Christmas Eve. I was to be back in Glasgow for at least three weeks and I had not yet decided if I would return to Austin. My parents picked me up from the airport and they were already in tears. The reality of what had happened, and what I’d been ignoring, crashed into me like a giant iceberg.
Nothing had changed but everything had changed. We had always been a family of four and now we were three. The house I’d grown up in looked the same but it was noticeably quieter, emptier. We talked about everything except what had happened. We created things for us to do to avoid moments of contemplation.
We hosted Christmas day for our wider family at our house in Barrhead that year. No one was ready to have a good time. I’m sure that all everyone could think about was who wasn’t there. I remember a lot of silences, a lot of glazed eyes. Having been away for the first time, it also struck me how much us Scots drink, and how early we drink. And again if someone gets emotional, you just pour him or her another whisky.
I saw my Dad cry for the first time that day, and I watched my grandparents cry too. I don’t know what can be said to comfort an elderly person who has lost a grandchild. As the night wore on, the alcohol began to fuel, rather than suppress the emotions. Yet being Scottish, it seemed like most everything was still unsaid. Attempts to play games or lift the mood only made things worse. I was feeling down too, but perhaps not as much as everyone else. Unlike my parents and my family, I hadn’t been living in the turmoil for the last two months. I hadn’t been cleaning out his room, disposing of his possessions into trash bags, dealing with the formalities of death, and the constant reminders of his absence.
I’d also just had my first ever shag 48 hours earlier, and although I really wanted to let everyone know, I concluded that it probably wasn’t an appropriate topic of conversation for Christmas dinner.
As an aside, that there is a perfect example of how my mind works. If I’m in a situation where everyone else is in the pit of despair, I have to fight the need to make a stupid joke. Likewise, when everything around me should be happiness and light, I’ll often find myself thinking about something dark. My head is in a frequent state of inappropriateness.
Anyway, after Christmas Day, it became harder to ignore reality so I tried to get out of the house as much as possible. Between Christmas and New Year I went into Glasgow to meet up with old friends a lot. Looking at the weather records, apparently Friday December 29th 1995 is still the coldest ever day in Glasgow – minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4°F). I’m pretty sure we were out that night walking up from Glasgow Central to a bar called The Gate in Sauchiehall Street. It. Was. Fucking. Freezing.
It was good to see my friends again. They knew what had happened with Andy but were only interested in hearing about the good times from Austin. It was just like things were before. I remember too that everywhere we went was playing ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis.
That is one of my strongest memories of those few weeks back in Glasgow – the arrival of Britpop to the mainstream. Six months earlier I’d been to the T in the Park Festival by myself because none of my friends were into that sort of music. I’d gone to see bands like Gene, Shed Seven, The Verve, and Sleeper. Before I went to Austin, that music I loved was just known as ‘indie music’. Then the Oasis versus Blur chart battle happened in August ‘95, and by January ‘96, everyone was into this thing called ‘Britpop’.
There were even two versions of ‘Wonderwall’ in the top ten that week. One by Oasis and the other a lounge version by Mike Flowers. It was very strange. I’d been away for only four months and my life had been turned upside down. And now everyone in the pub was singing along to the indie music that one year earlier could only be found late at night on Mark and Lard’s graveyard show. It just added to my disorientation.
I went through to Edinburgh for couple of days over New Years Eve to stay with my best mate Nelly. Normally that is one of the best nights of the year, but by then I was starting to struggle with the grief. I don’t remember much about those days because that’s when I started to disconnect. I mean that I started to need to drink to stop the waves of sadness, and then at some point in the night I would need to physically leave the company of others and be alone. I took a lot of photos of my friends then with those old disposable cameras, but if I was sitting outside by myself I would sometimes take a photo of myself too, to maybe remind myself how I was really feeling. Like this one.
I think I can handle death now, but I just couldn’t make any sense of it then. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the loss of a loved one, but it was such a confusing mix of emotions for me. It’s difficult to describe what was going on inside my head then, but I do remember some of the feelings.
There was a constant pain inside my chest, like a heavy stone or an actual constraint around my heart. That’s the physical side of it. Mentally, that weight was like an emotional time bomb ready to explode at any moment. I know I wasn’t able to express what I was feeling, and, this sounds really stupid now, but I didn’t want to be that guy that brought everyone else down, so I tried to pretend I was normal and have fun. And then I would get a wall of guilt hit me because I shouldn’t be happy. And then I’d hate myself for trying to forget what I was feeling. Or I’d look around and I’d hate other people for being so shallow. I’d be desperate for people to understand what I was going through, and at the same time I’d be pushing away anyone who tried to engage with me. All the while, I’m being assaulted with the vivid memories and the constant regrets about what I could and should have said or done before he died.
That would be a typical 60 seconds for me back then.
I wasn’t able to separate, or recognize these feelings like I can now. All I knew then was that it was a mess. I was a mess. The only thing I could do was to try to numb it all through alcohol.
I’m sure my parents would have been happier if I had just stayed home with them for good. They had just lost one child and I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for them to let me go back to Texas. But I couldn’t handle being in Glasgow. I hoped that if I went back to college in Austin there was a chance that the demons would not be as strong.
Marc met me at the airport back in Austin with a beer. I think Stephanie might have been there too. I didn’t want to talk too much about the trip home and I know Marc didn’t want to hear about it. I saw Stephanie a few more times before she told me that she had a boyfriend. I shrugged. I then started seeing one of her friends, a very cool girl called Ali who knew more about indie music than me. I liked Ali a lot but unfortunately I was not capable of forming a relationship with anything other than beer and whisky.
I was right though. It was easier being in Austin than in Scotland. There were fewer memories there. It was easier to pretend to be normal. To escape. It was also easier to be alone. But at the same time I was living under a very dark shadow. In late January 1996, I made a sober decision to be a functioning alcoholic student and complete my law degree. Once I had finished university, I reasoned, then I would be able to find the time and the space to “deal with it”. That was my plan. Although I still had no fucking idea how or if I could actually “deal with it”.