BOOK EXTRACT | On the Rocks: Memoir of a High-Functioning Alcoholic by Thando Pato

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Thando Pato's gripping new book chronicles her journey with alcoholism during the hard lockdown.
Thando Pato's gripping new book chronicles her journey with alcoholism during the hard lockdown.

Thirty-nine-year-old Thando Pato is living in total denial about her drinking.

On the surface her life looks aspirational – great job, apartment, snazzy car. But behind the façade she harbours a dark and shameful secret – she can’t control her drinking.

She chronicles her addiction as she spirals out of control before calling it quits just before lockdown in March 2020. The road to recovery is brutal as she appears to be the only one sober in the midst of a pandemic.

Here is an extract from Thando Pato's riveting memoir.

"When the president outlines the steps of the first lockdown on24 March 2020, I hold my breath as he explains how life will be for the next three weeks.

My mother and I sit in silence, watching the television as he speaks. We exchange a few thoughts afterwards, trying to imagine what the future holds for all of us.

It all seems surreal, as if time has screeched to a standstill.

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I go to my room and scroll through Twitter but eventually stop torturing myself. The collective hysteria is aggravating my anxiety. Then I think about tomorrow.

When can I go to the bottle store? I can’t go first thing in the morning – I have meetings. So I wake up the next morning and spend the day watching the clock, waiting for my window of opportunity.

Eventually work slows down and I decide to walk to the shopping centre.

“We won’t be allowed to leave the house for the next few weeks, let me enjoy my last taste of freedom,” I tell my mom as I head out the door.

The weather is perfect; it’s a hot, clear day. I relish the opportunity to walk off the tension that has gripped my body since waking up. In this moment I long for Joburg and my old life.

If was I was back home, I would have gone to Makro first thing in the morning and stocked up like I was opening a bottle store. But I’m in Cape Town, living with my mother. As I feared, the shopping centre is packed.

Drivers are impatiently hooting at each other. People are scrambling out of Checkers and Woolworths, their trolleys stacked high. The air is charged with panic – it’s like someone is on a loudspeaker shouting: “Buy, buy, buy, buy!” followed by “Run, run, run!”

The queue at the bottle store snakes around the block. This gives me some comfort. I am not the only person in a panic abou trunning out of booze and hoarding stock. I decide to walk a few kilometres further to the next shopping centre where there is a Spar.

Thankfully, the queue is manageable. What am I going to buy? I think about how many bottles I can carry on foot. How many will not spark my mother’s ire?

I settle on three bottles, and decide that I’ll only drink over the weekend. Then after that, no booze for God-knows-how-long.

“This will be good for you,” I tell myself as I head home with the bottles clanking in the plastic bag. I think about how badly I want to stop drinking, but how opportunities to drink just kept presenting themselves. Of course I am lying to myself, selling myself tired, old justifications.

Now there will be no temptations to socialise. I will have no excuses. “This is a good thing, Thando,” says my wiser voice.

By Sunday I have one bottle of wine left. I drank the other two in a frenzy on Friday. I try to prolong the day and not drink too early. But every time I open the fridge the wine stares back, beckoning me. At 2pm I pop the cork and pour myself a glass.

“Are you drinking again?” asks my mother.

On Friday she had joined me for a glass.

“It’s the last bottle,” I respond, hoping that that will end the discussion.

“And then? After that, what happens then?” she asks. It sounds more like an accusation.

“Then I stop,” I respond, making my way to my room.

Even though it’s autumn, we still have summer weather in Cape Town, and I decide to not waste my last drink – or the balmy day – indoors. I sit outside in the back yard.

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It’s now Day 4 of the lockdown.

I wish I had bought more wine. My neighbours are braaiing, playing music and drinking. The rest of the estate is quiet.

On Sunday afternoons the local kids usually play in the street, ride their bikes and skateboards, make a noise. But besides the neighbours braaiing, it’s eerily quiet. I put my earphones on and let the music transport me to happier times.

I take a deep breath and sit in the sun, music blaring in my ears and alcohol pumping through my veins.

Before I know it, the bottle is finished.

I haven’t savoured it like I intended. I can barely remember how it tasted. But at least I am tipsy and that is way more important.

I am not ready to stop. I am thirsty for more. I want to get smashed. Then, for a moment, I get excited when I remember the last time I visited Cape Town; I had gone to a wine farm and bought a few bottles and left some of them in the cupboard.

Maybe there is still a bottle? I am giddy with excitement as I hurry to the kitchen. When I get there, I get down on my knees and rummage through the cupboard next to the sink.

I can’t see so I stick my arm as far back as I can and then my hand hits a glass object. My fingers trace it. It’s a wine bottle. Bingo!

“Thando, what are you doing?” asks my mother.

She startles me.

I hadn’t heard her coming into the kitchen. She is now standing behind me. I sit back on my haunches clutching the bottle in my hand.

“I was checking if I had any wine left,” I say. I’m trying to sound nonchalant but I feel like a naughty child who has just been caught getting up to mischief.

She laughs as if to say: “Pathetic!”

“There is only one bottle of wine there and it’s mine. It was a gift, and you’re not going to drink it.”

She turns and leaves the room. I sit on my haunches and stare at the bottle. She doesn’t drink – she has diabetes. What would she be doing with a bottle of wine? I am confused.

I am not sure whether to believe her. “It’s fucking lockdown! Cut me some slack, woman!” I want to scream. The urge to shout is overwhelming.

I want to throw a tantrum.

“Just let me have this, please!” I want to say. “I will buy you a bottle when this all over. Just let me have this!”

But I don’t. I swallow my indignation and my rage, but a white-hot anger flashes through me. I clench my jaw hard to control it.

I can’t believe that this is my reality right now. This is it. I can’t do this any more. I am pathetic and I loathe myself, crouching on the floor, scrambling around in that cupboard. This is how it ends."

This is an edited extract from On the Rocks: Memoir of a High-functioning Alcoholic by Thando Pato (published by Melinda Ferguson Books, an imprint of NB Publishers). It is available for R280 on

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