Updated: May 26
I am trying to stop drinking, but alcohol won’t let me.
It recommends itself using my inner voice, the advice of my friends and family, billboards, the radio, books, TV.
One drink won't hurt!
You can just have a couple.
YOLO! ; )
It doesn’t care how desperately I want to change my life or be able to trust myself or fill my time with other things.
Alcohol is like a charismatic bad boyfriend with a PhD in Neuro Linguistic Programming who has taken over my mind, fooled my friends and family, and refuses to let me go.
You’ll never meet anyone who makes you feel the way I do.
I’d just turned thirty and my drinking had been out of control since I could remember, but I’d recently started to care. It used to be exciting, social, lost weekends and wild weekday nights; adventures and dancing and climbing scaffolding to look at the city stars. Now it was the same every time. Quiet nights in. Just me and a bottle of wine, sometimes a boyfriend, always the Internet.
I loved it, but I wasn't in love. We wanted different things, but I didn’t know how to live sober.
“You don’t still stay up all night drinking, do you?” a friend asked, when I explained that I wouldn’t be able to make it out for dinner – although we hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, and she’d just travelled five hours to visit me – because I was still too hungover to be vertical.
“No!” I lied, instinctively. “It just got out of hand last night.”
She looked perplexed and I wished she’d leave. Because I loved her, but what do you do with non-drinkers? I tried my best not to know any, but this one slipped under the radar. Drinkers are wonderful because they don’t need entertaining. No plan required. You lead them to the pub and voila!
Her words echoed in my head long after she’d gone.
“You don’t still stay up all night drinking, do you?”
Was I not supposed to stay up drinking, then? Was it somehow ungainly and shameful and wrong?
The words hit a target I wasn’t aware resided within me. That sad, confused look! That was the reason I didn’t spend time with non-drinkers. Too judgey. So what if I was thirty and living the same life as when as I was twenty. I was a writer. (If only there were a key that adds a fanfare along with the italics.) So what if I lived in a shared house, with no food in the cupboards, still ‘borrowing’ money off Mum and Dad. That’s what writers did.
“But you’re a fun drunk!” a different friend told me, a year or so later, as I shared my longing for an alternate future in which I drank green juice and practised yoga and went to the theatre; a life entirely incompatible with my current relationships, habits and behaviours. I was thirty-two now, and there had been so many failed attempts at weeks or months of sobriety that I barely dared utter my mad craving for that healthy kind of life aloud.
Even I couldn't take myself seriously. Immediately after that moment, for instance, after I mentioned my dream-alt-life, I u-turned entirely. It was Friday night and this friend had agreed to accompany me to the cinema, because I was trying to avoid the pub, which meant trying to gain control of my life and raise my dangerously low self-esteem, none of which she realised, of course, and so, naturally, after the film, she suggested we go to see everyone, which meant pints in the pub, since that was where everyone was on a Friday night, and I had no will power. lnstantly, I lost sight of why I was so determined to steer clear of bars. Why was I being such a killjoy?
We decided to join the gang, just for one, or okay, if for more than one, we had to stop drinking at midnight. We couldn’t stick to our drinking rules for the duration of making them, but we didn't notice that. We made a pact to leave the bar at midnight, no matter what.
"Anyway, you don't need to worry," she said, conspiratorially en route to the Volunteer Tavern. "I've solved the problem of getting too drunk."
“Yes. The trick is to drink halves,” she confided, delighted at the simplicity of it, and I nodded encouragingly, feeling the soft part of my throat twerk at the mention of beer, as we walked from the cold, lamplit street into the warm, yeasty pub and waited for the bar man's eye contact. Youngish people sat at wooden tables, playing board games and laughing and looking at their phones and swigging frothy pints.
"Two halves of Amstel, please," I said, and the barman picked up two tiny thimbles of glass leftover from what I could only assume was some kind of teddy bear's picnic.
“Sorry, I mean a pint and a half!” I panic-shouted before I could stop myself.
The cold amber liquid ran up the glass, and I swallowed, relieved, took a swig as soon as the barman handed the drinks to me.
“Drinking halves is daft,” I told my friend as we made our way to where our group sat, drinking pints and smoking at the back of the beer garden. “You’ve drunk the whole thing by the time you get to your table and have to go straight back to the bar. A pint saves you a trip. And sometimes pints are five pee cheaper too!”
She shrugged, indifferent, not really listening, and I felt the dregs of my self-respect drain out the soles of my filthy Converse. Who was I saying this stuff for? Even I didn’t listen to me.
The lager was cold and fizzy and as it touched my tongue, I remembered that I didn't like the taste, which was strange since I was compelled, only seconds ago, to buy a larger serving. Still, I needn't worry about that now. I needn't worry about anything: I was drinking and all was well. I forgot my silly dream of sobriety, forgot my broader feelings of dissatisfaction, and my friend and I talked and laughed and shed secrets in our usual breathless, hurtling way. And then it was midnight and she finished her final half, and hugged me goodbye – she had writing to do in the morning, and a deal's a deal! – she put on her coat and headed home, and I watched her walk out, then headed back to the bar to order another pint.
“Last night was wonderful,” she text the next morning. “Seeing you was so nourishing.”
It is beginning to dawn on me that my current network can’t provide the support I need to give up alcohol. They can’t solve this problem that lies within me because they don’t understand it.
I read books about abstinence (Blackout, Drinking: A Love Story, Lit) and pore over posts on websites (Hip Sobriety, Soberistas) about the same, and I feel so inspired, so excited and determined, until the next time, out of nowhere, a pint sounds like a good idea, and I decide to 'just have one' and wake with a hangover. I make the same promise to myself: tonight I won’t drink, no way, no matter what, and then I break it. Over and over and over. Until I am so tired.
In my circles, alcohol was like water, life wasn't possible without it, and if that was wrong we didn't want to be right. Popular culture agreed – drinking was fun! – as long as you drank responsibly, which was so easy and intuitive that only the party-pooping government offered any guidelines. Booze solved your problems: loneliness, boredom, crap TV, ageing, ugliness, death. It provided sex and adventure, increased beauty – not just yours, but everyone’s! – the world itself’s. It turned up the colours, added a coat of hyper gloss to the matte finish of planet E.
Why would anyone give it up? I certainly didn't want to.
If I could only stop thinking it was a problem then the problem would vanish. Poof!
So why couldn’t I stop thinking it was a problem?
Because the truth was that I was thirty-three and I did still stay up all night drinking. And I really didn't want to. It didn’t happen so often as it used to, and the consequences weren't as bad, but I couldn’t predict when these rogue nights would be. A certain, unshakeable thirst struck and I kept on drinking after last orders, after all the alcohol was gone from the house, until we had to make use of the after hours booze shops that don't bother with decoration because they know they don't have to in their line of business. I'd lose my bank card, wallet, values, dignity. Sniff drugs so I could stay up longer talking to people I didn't much like about things I didn't care about.
And worse than those nights, and the Russian Roulette of not knowing when they were coming, was the way my life revolved around alcohol between them: the micro-managing of my consumption, pouring out minute glasses of wine to make the bottle last longer, trying to defer the time when I started drinking so I wouldn't get so drunk.
All the things alcohol used to give me: fun, relaxation, peace, belonging had gone. It was like I'd used up all the magic, and what was left was the headache.
And so I made a decision. I would give up drinking for a month.
I would do my first Dry January. I couldn’t wait.
One month without booze. With the support of a national campaign. How hard could it be?