I wondered along the sand towards a blazing campfire. It was a cold night and I wanted to warm my hands. There were people huddled around, some were playing drums and others sat cross-legged nodding to the beat. The smell of strong weed hung in the air and I saw a glow as fat spliffs were passed from one person to the next. I found myself a spot on a washed-up log and watched the fire. The tribal drumbeat matched the speed of my heart, fast from the shot of Tequila I’d downed at my last port of call.
I swayed to the music and watched the ethereal movements of the people dancing around the fire. Each floppy body looked unaware of their surroundings. Their dancing, separate to each other, yet they were entwined by the beat their hands moving up and down in unison, mirroring the leap of the flames. A girl in baggy cargo trousers and a bikini top was marching on the spot, her eyes shut, dreads swinging around her head as she pounded the ground with her bare feet like she was demanding rain from the earth beneath her.
I didn’t know anyone there, but this felt like a place of acceptance, a place where I could trust. It was more inviting than the bright lights of the pub where I’d spent the first half of my evening. The crowd there had been loud and aggressive. I’d been elbowed at the bar and had to shout to be heard. By closing time, I was relieved to be shoved out into the cold night air where all I could hear was waves breaking onto sand.
My friends wondered off back to the hostel and I decided to follow the distant beat. I’d been drinking for a few hours, so my pace was slow. I staggered over rocks and stumbled down a sand dune towards the luminosity of the fire. I was in a stage of drunkenness where everything had soft edges, and nothing could hurt me. I never considered that perhaps this state made me vulnerable or at risk of harm.
The last thing I remember is sipping from a glass of wine that had been handed to me by a bearded hippie with a cross tattooed on his forehead. I didn’t think twice about accepting his kind offering. He was smiling and I was past the point of making any rational choices. I just took the glass and gazed at the fire.
Time just went. Disappeared like water down a plug hole. My night from then on felt like a dream, I was flashing in and out of consciousness, laughing, dancing, then being pulled from the crowd and led down the beach away from the noise. All I could see was my hand in his and the sand below my feet.
‘Get off her’ I heard someone shout.
The voice snapped me out of the blackout.
‘Get off her for fucks sake!’
I felt panic. There was something wrong. Where was I? What was happening?
I realised there is a man on top of me. The guy with the tattoo. I kicked out and placed my hands on his chest and pushed him back. I managed to get out from under him and scramble towards the man that was shouting. He grabbed my hand and we walked quickly back towards the fire. I was scared as I ran my hands over my body, checking... and was thankful when I realised that I was still fully clothed.
‘What happened?’ I asked the man
‘You’re lucky’ he said,
‘I saw him lead you off into the darkness, so I followed’
‘Thank you. Thank you for saving me. I think he spiked my drink.’
The wine that had been handed to me, the glass that I didn’t hesitate in accepting, had spiralled my night downwards, into an abyss. I could only recollect snippets like parts of a disjointed nightmare. Had I really been that drunk or had he put something in there? I had no idea, but my quickness to trust combined with my drunken decision making, had put me at risk.
‘Vic! Where’ve you been?’ One of my friends from the pub walked towards me.
‘I don’t feel well’ I said and collapsed onto my knees.
I came to 12 hours later with my friends sitting on my bed looking at me with concerned expressions.
‘Are you ok?’
‘I don’t know?’
‘What happened?’ I said.
'You were gone for hours, we couldn't find you. We came to the beach and a guy told us he'd found you and it looked like you were about to be attacked. Then you collapsed and one of the boys carried you home over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. You weren't able to move or speak Vicky'
‘I’m sorry’ I said,
‘I didn’t mean to worry you.’
I didn't really speak about it again. I didn’t even think much about it afterwards, I shook off the incident like I did all of my risky behaviours. I joked about it to make it ok,
‘Oh, remember the time I nearly got raped by a hippie with a satanic cross tattooed on his forehead! Ha ha. That was a close one’
I made out the story was funny.
I still don’t know if I’d permitted that encounter, if I’d been drugged, if I’d instigated or he’d taken advantage of me because I was drunk. At a guess, there was Rohypnol in the wine, and that man meant to assault me, but I could not swear on that. Whatever happened that led up to it, I was lucky that night. Someone had been there to intervene. That man stepping in meant I avoided, by the skin of my teeth, a major life changing trauma.
It wasn’t the first or last time I got myself into a dangerous situation when under the influence. In my 20’s I had many close encounters with men when my signals were confused, times I said yes and probably meant no, times when my consent was drowned out by my drunkenness. Alcohol sucked self-preservation into its black hole and dragged me into risky circumstances. I allowed advantage to be taken, for me to be taken. I’d wake up in places I didn’t recognise, next to faces I didn’t know, doing things I’d never normally consider. It wasn’t always sex either, there were times I climbed onto roof tops of 10 storey buildings to dance under the stars, times I drove motor bikes down dirt tracks on Thai islands with no helmet on, thumbed lifts from strangers down lonely highways, wondered dark streets alone and swam in oceans with nothing but my gut instinct telling me the tide I wouldn’t carry me away.
When I look back on it all now, I wonder how on earth I made it? How did I get away with risky behaviour for so long? Somehow, I always managed to survive and here I am now, like a drunk waking up from a blackout with no idea how I made it home.
I didn’t give a shit about anything when I was drunk, I wasn’t capable of caring. I thought this trait made me cool, a girl that lived on the edge. I thought I was living life to the fullest, when really, I was abandoning myself. Letting go meant giving up, losing the real me. I was content never knowing what was coming next, happy to take a glass of wine from whoever handed it to me, without considering the consequences. I was reckless because I had forgotten that I was important.
I don’t have many regrets in my life because I believe our stories are what make us who we are, but truthfully, I do wish I’d cared more, been less risky.
My sobriety means many things, but one of my main changes is that I now live a life without risk. I care about my actions and am more proficient at knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. I trust myself alcohol free and I no longer throw myself in front of the bus or lie on the proverbial train tracks, I’m out of the path of any oncoming locomotives – I’m home at my desk with a wet dog glaring at me as I write. The only risk is the postman arriving and me still being in my underwear.
Some people might find a life without risk very boring, too protected, but for me, feeling secure and knowing I’m in control is hugely satisfying. It takes a massive anxious lump out of my gut and allows me to live without fear.
I trust my decision making now and the outcome of that is that my heartbeat has changed. It’s steadier now, quieter, and no longer bangs fast against my chest like that heavy tribal drum.
I'm slow, more content,
and most importantly,
The photo is me in Cuba. I hitched around the country and stayed in the homes of locals. I danced salsa every night whilst dragging on giant cigars. Sometimes my risk taking paid off and meant I had amazing adventures. I just wish I could remember them!