Robert Welch has written a memoir about his son Egan, who drowned after falling prey to alcoholism and depression. Here he tells JOANNE SAVAGE about the search for meaning in such tragedy and the consolations of literature and religion
ON January 28, 2007, 26-year-old Egan Welch, a talented musician and technologist, drowned in the River Bann. Egan had been suffering from depression and drinking heavily was his way of coping. His death naturally devastated his family, who had struggled for years to pull him out of the mire of his addiction and his unhappiness.
Egan’s death came at the end of four years of turmoil when he went through various attempts at rehabilitation only to succumb to drink again. Sometimes he was drinking more than four bottles of wine a day; he attempted to commit suicide three times in the period before his death.
Now Egan’s father Robert Welch, a professor of literature at the University of Ulster, has written a book about Egan’s life, examining how this vital young man fell into this ultimately fatal pattern of behaviour, exploring the grief of his passing and the search for meaning in, and redemption from, the sorrow of a young life cut short.
In a narrative which is raw, poetic, searching, tender, Welch tells of the pain of watching his son’s life unravel; he and his wife felt increasingly powerless to stop the onset of disaster.
“This was difficult to write but it was something I promised myself I would do in honour of Egan’s memory. There was a degree of catharsis too – but the grief, the loss – that is something that of course remains, something you have to learn to live with.
“The book focuses on the last four years of Egan’s life when he succumbed more and more to the grip of alcohol and charting too the very valiant ways in which he tried to beat his demons. On another level it is just about looking at how you deal with the death of someone you love, what that adds up to, what it means.”
It’s always sad when a life ends, but especially poignant when it’s a young and vital life with so many years and experiences left unlived, so many opportunities, ambitions and wishes left unfulfilled. Welch emphasises that his son was bright and popular, with so much going for him.
“Egan did the odd painting but his real gifts were for science and technology. He was brilliant. A very senior scientist who befriended him near the end of his life told me that the speed of Egan’s intellect was remarkable. Sometimes I think it was because he saw things too quickly and too fast that he suffered the way he did.”
Welch contextualises his son’s experiences in the memoir, interweaving Irish history, mythology, folklore and referencing a wealth of literature from Aristotle to Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible, as he struggles to make sense of the death.
“Everyone who loses someone they love thinks the same thing,” he writes. “How can such an excess of life’s vitality not be any longer in the world?”
This examination of loss gives Kicking the Black Mamba universal appeal; like CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed it sensitively maps and anatomises bereavement, ponders the abysmal pain of grief and searches for consolation in the wisdom of religion, literature and philosophy. It also looks at what various thinkers and writers have had to say about alcohol and its damaging, emptily seductive charms.
“The history of literature is littered with alcoholics. It’s rumoured, even, that Shakespeare died from alcohol poisoning after a session with Ben Johnson in Stratford.
“I think writers understand very well the grip that alcohol can have on the mind. A friend – a poet and a recovered alcoholic – told me that the attraction for him was that it gave you access to the other world, the world that lies next to this one, that’s closed to most of us in our conventional minds. It’s as though he felt drink could open up the secrets to a different kind of world than the one we’re in. Writers, artists and imaginative people are naturally drawn to that kind of escapism. Francis Bacon the painter, for example, would work in his studio until noon and then go out and drink himself legless in Soho as a matter of routine, before returning to his studio and continuing to work.”
But Welch doesn’t gloss over the horrors of this kind of addiction nor the day-to-day difficulties of living with an alcoholic. Bewilderment, anger, frustration and impatience are of course there too.
“There’s an episode I describe in the book where Egan’s mother found him in the toilet being sick. And no matter how he was being sick he still kept pouring vodka down his throat. A lot of people would say, ‘catch yourself on’ or ask ‘how could you have put up with that?’ People might think that I should have thrown him out of the house or given him a good kick up the backside. But I don’t think those people understand that alcoholism, like any addiction, is an illness.”
Addiction is wanting more and more of what we don’t actually really need or want; you want that extra drink, pill or piece of cake even while you know you don’t want it because it’s damaging you, perhaps killing you. The compulsion takes over; there’s some defect in impulse control. It’s a relentless hunger, need that can’t be sated, a disorder or misfiring of appetite, ritualised behaviour that is often used to medicate difficult feelings or thoughts.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge,” said the writer Edgar Allan Poe, a life-long alcoholic. “It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
Most substance abuse is used to mask painful emotions or thoughts, a way of dulling realities that seem too difficult to face in the unforgiving light of sobriety.
“Egan was depressed and time and again medics would say that they couldn’t treat his depression until he sorted out his alcoholism. But one thing begets the other. The problem was that he was drinking because he was depressed; and then he got more depressed because he knew he couldn’t stop. It was a vicious circle.”
Alcoholism is an addiction and therefore an illness; it’s not a question of just putting that bottle down and pulling yourself together; it’s a complicated psychological loop of wanting more and wanting more and then more again, even if it makes you ill, even if it will finally take everything – your job, your friends, your dignity, your sanity and finally the very air in your lungs.
“I think all alcoholics go through hell on earth,” says Robert. “What does it all amount to? I have to believe that there is a purpose or meaning in all this, that it’s not a case of a wasted life. What does Egan’s story have to tell us? “I learnt a lot from Egan. I saw the dangers of giving in to my own anger and despair – and I had a lot of anger and despair watching him hurtle towards disaster.”
And the most profound question he asks here is whether death is really the end. Looking to the Bible, Welch finds immense comfort in the thought that he may one day be reunited with his son.
“Maybe death is not quite what we think it is. Maybe death is not the end. I don’t want to come across as some kind of holy roller or anything, but I find great consolation in certain passages of the Bible and particularly in the words of St Paul.”
::Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death, by Robert Anthony Welch, published by Darton, Longman & Todd is available now, priced £12.99.