n Tuesday, it will be a year since I last had a drink: 365 days of not doing the thing that characterised my adult life from the ages of 13 to 43. This is a sentence I never imagined I would write. For 30 years, booze was not only my great love, but my life’s principal purpose. It was the thing that I prioritised above all else: friends, family (damn it, it was how I dealt with family), certainly love.
Alcohol may have got me into relationships, but it just as quickly boomeranged me out of them. People may want to be with the girl dancing on the table, but she loses her appeal when her lack of recall puts them in a permanent Groundhog Day. At this point, I would like to apologise to the man I lived with briefly in my 30s. But, then, he drank, too, and there were times when it tipped us into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory. With other lovers, it merely meant that I absented myself – forever focused on the next glass – present, but never there.
In theory, I put work ahead of alcohol. But, then, work appeared to necessitate booze – the bonding over a warm pub red, stress drowned out by medicinal martinis. I never drank in the day because only by night could one truly let rip. Still, how often did I write hung-over? Mostly. How often did I write still hammered? More than I care to admit: exuberance wearing thin as afternoon approached.
My drinking began young because I looked old. At 14, I could order a round in school uniform and be asked whether it was wear-your-uniform-to-work day. I had been too awkward, self-conscious and antagonistic to want an infant social life. However, as a teen, alcohol propelled me from introvert to extrovert, and extrovert is what I wanted to remain. Under the influence, I felt fluent, invincible, intoxicated, in the literal and metaphorical senses.
And, yet, even as an adolescent, there were danger signs. My tolerance was Herculean, a subject of pride, but of no less peril. The first time I really put it away – half a bottle of gin at the age of 14 – I had what I now realise was an extended walking-talking blackout. Oblivious, I put this down to lack of sleep. One Easter, I joked that I had stigmata on my palms. My doctor father informed me that they were more likely to be liver spots. And how I dined – or rather drank – out on that story.
For the next three decades, I loved liquor and it appeared to love me. I was smitten by the people and the paraphernalia, the venues and the venery; the look, scent, sound, touch and taste of the thing; the fizzing up nostrils and dank aftertastes. I relished the nihilism with which it knocked the world off its axis so that only the next drink mattered; the way it suppressed emotion and released it; the heady oblivion it brought.
I adored the very language used to describe this state, much of it kinetically Anglo-Saxon: trolleyed, ratted, sloshed, ripped, wiped, shot, smashed, blasted, blitzed, skulled, guttered, loaded, plastered, wrecked, trashed, slaughtered, wasted, hammered. Normal life was dull, booze life heroic. I craved the adventure, the emphatic loathings and fallings in lust, everything full on and full speed.
I loved others on drink. Smashed sex was clearly what sex was – being out of one’s head the way into one’s body. But, mostly, I loved myself: bolder, brighter, more coruscating, and thus obviously happier, or that was the idea. Not later that night, of course, when 4am paranoia kicked in. Certainly not the next morning, brain short-circuited, life curtailed. Not generally, what with my existence fixed in one small, staggering circle, in which nothing was ever confronted, or changed.
For, increasingly, there were things I did not love. The “scrapes” I got into in my 20s were less amusing in my 40s; moments in which I injured myself, alienated friends, and subjected myself to dismal humiliation. The “lost time” (never “blackouts”) that startled me in my early 30s became my routine way of getting home. And I was tired – stultifyingly, deadeningly tired.
But, then, friends inflicted on themselves the same and worse: UDIs (A&E code for unidentified drinking injuries); a litany of unremembered sexual encounters; sleeping rough after losing bag, phone and keys; episodes in which they soiled themselves. All of these people are middle-class, educated and hold down “good jobs”. Many are also parents, some of these narratives relayed by their infant children.
My epiphany came after I found myself on an inadvertent bender that started at 11am and ended asleep in a friend’s bath. When I add that the bender in question was a christening, you will begin to perceive the enormity of said spree. A summer of hell-raising had left me resembling Vegas-era Elvis Presley. I was leadenly unhappy, the heftiest I had ever been, unable to be around others without being a bottle down, and entirely unable to sleep.
And so, on September 15, I stopped – booze and caffeine – for an experimental three months. The first few days seemed Sisyphean. The brief moments of sleep I managed to snatch were so grotesquely night terror-filled that I would wake sobbing. I was dazed, moody, tearful; throat sore, glands swollen, tongue furred; pink-eyed, my eyelashes moulting.
For 15 days, I barely slept, then, finally – rest, a lifetime’s worth: the sleep lavish, dense, clotted; the stuff of fairy tales, engulfing me the moment my head touched the pillow. I still had nightmares, but they felt further away somehow, less of a psychotic hangover into my waking life.
People asked whether I would be able to do it, and I thought, “Pah,” stubbornness and obsessive-compulsive disorder taking hold. Everything was uncharted territory: how to socialise, relax, dine, be around family, have sex, and endure Downton Abbey sober. It wasn’t easy, but it was 100,000 times less difficult than I had imagined. I kept a sobriety journal, having always been repulsed by diary keeping. I did not attend AA, resisting the requisite “higher power”, but listened to innumerable AA-inspired podcasts. I worked at it because sobriety is work.
As 90 days approached, it was obvious that temperance had transformed not merely my insomnia, but my entire existence. Christmas morning marked 100 days. Everyone encouraged me to celebrate with a glass of fizz. Everyone apart from another drunk, who cautioned: “Do you want a glass? Two glasses even?” He was right – I wanted a bottle, more – so none has carried on being the better option.
The advantages have been legion. For a start, the sleep: I must never forget the sleep. Although, curiously, I tend to, as so many other benefits began vying for supremacy. At the most superficial level, I shed weight – and fast – a mortifying stone and a half. I also lost my booze face: skin hollowed and shrunken about the cheeks and eyes, yet bloated and overblown as a whole, dulled, panda-eyed, parched.
Alas, I never experienced the flood of energy that reformed boozehounds enthuse about. That said, not being permanently hung-over is never not a perk. Life is calmer, more plodding, more genuinely lifelike than the epic, all-or-nothing existence I had contrived for myself. Bores are now so intolerably boring that I have to avoid certain social encounters. However, interesting people are more fascinating than ever because now I can pay attention. While I’ll always be mercurial, I am no longer careering between the abject and the giddy.
At 90 days, I met someone with whom I have been able to enjoy my first sober, thus adult, relationship. He is moderate in all things except his love and support. If I had been drinking, we would not even have spoken. I would have dismissed his not being drunk as dullness; he would have shunned my histrionics. Yet, he may be the love of my not-so young life.
At 98 days, my mother was diagnosed with a sudden, fatally vicious cancer, and, for the last six months of her life, my abstinence meant I could give her my full attention. There were times when I longed to get smashed and blot it all out. Three months after her death, there are still times when I long to get smashed and blot it all out. However, my gratitude for being able to be present for her remains unbounded. I would have given 30 years’ carousing for one sober night’s watch over her bed.
I am writing this because it is not just my story. The way I drank is the way ever more of us drink, women not least. Every fresh news story about alcohol confirms that professionals drink dangerously, people over 50 drink dangerously, our entire society drinks with an abandoned, kamikaze glee. It has been difficult explaining my metamorphosis because listeners tend to say: “Oh, you weren’t a drunk – that’s just normal.” And it is.
People refer to our culture as “alcogenic”. It isn’t, it is alcophiliac. Drink is not merely the socially acceptable addiction, but the socially approved fix. Alcohol is how our society detaches itself from stress, be it the angst of work or parenthood. It is how it celebrates and mourns, marks the holiday and the everyday. Millions of people – like me – come under the category “functional alcoholic”, as if the “functional” somehow negates the disease.
What it won’t negate are its effects: cirrhosis, pancreatitis, cardiovascular issues, cancer, dementia, strokes, fits, diabetes, reproductive problems and depression. Excessive drinking costs the NHS £2.8 billion a year, excessive defined as beyond the recommended three or four units of alcohol per day for men, two or three for women. No one I have ever met drinks so little. Meanwhile, research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the average drinker would live longer if they avoided just one small glass of wine a week.
When I say “like me”, I am referring not only to my class but also my gender. Time was when fat was a feminist issue. Today it’s booze. Everyone’s fat, but women drink with a recklessness that suggests mother’s ruin has been transformed into mother’s little helper. The same OECD study revealed that the more educated British women are, the more slaughtered they are likely to be. And it’s killing us: the number of females aged 34 and under dying from alcohol-related conditions has more than doubled since the Eighties, and among professional women of every age the figure is up by a quarter.
I am not evangelical. I still have drink in my home. I take champagne to parties, and wish these were festivities in which I could play a part. I still want alcohol – I will always want alcohol – and I am trying to fathom an identity without it. I may not dance on tables, but continue to boast the loudest laugh in any room. I simply have to find other outlets for my largesse.
If my tone sounds uncelebratory, well, that’s about the sum of it. My reaction a year on reminds me of TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: a “cold coming”, hard, thankless, the benefits of which may be grudging, yet vital. I think of the poem’s close: “…this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death./We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods./I should be glad of another death.”
Eyes soberly open – the culture about me defamiliarised – it strikes me as bizarre that alcophilia should be a religion among men and women for whom drugs, smoking, junk food, and mere lack of movement would be viewed as unacceptable. It may have taken 30 years, but finally I have reached my limit. This is one celebration for which I will not be raising a glass.