I am in L.A. and sober long enough – a week, maybe – that I'm feeling smug and powerful. A bit superior over my travel companion, Lou, in fact; who had a deathly hangover all the way across the Atlantic. We're cat-sitting for my friend Emily, a screenwriter I met on a writing residency. She's going to New York to see family for Christmas and can't wait to escape her glitzy home town. "Fucking La La Land."
"You should try living through an English winter," Lou says.
We are thrilled to be here, especially when Emily leaves us a membership card that means we can see most of the Oscar contenders for free. We're suffering from self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder and eager to escape reality by any means possible.
Emily's cat is nervous of us, but we do our best to make friends, changing her litter box every day and playing with the light pen. One time, while I'm doing the laundry downstairs, the cat disappears, and Lou and I make up wild projections of how she escaped through a door that was closed the whole time. We find her, hours later, chilling at the back of a wardrobe, like a little furry magician.
It is one of our calmest and most varied holidays together. Without booze we are placid and curious with time to kill. We cycle along the coast, walk to the Hollywood sign, hike the canyons. My Big Not-So-Secret Plan is to stay sober for a year and L.A. seems a good place to kick off. Rollerblading, poke, green juice. Officially, My Year Without Alcohol (fanfare) will begin on January 1st but I'll probably start sooner because I'm so excited. I'm bored of drinking, sick of hangovers, tired of the way every weekend turns into the same pub-based blah. The regret, the junk food, the shame spiral. Why wait?
Christmas Eve eve we walk along the L.A. River in the sun. Not drinking is so easy and brilliant that I wonder why I've never done it before. I'm more productive, more energised, and I can feel my face getting less puffy by the day. I am smashing life, finally. And I never want to drink again. Or not for a year, which is pretty much the same thing.
Walking back into the city, tired and hungry, feet aching, we come across a pub. It's after lunch time so we wander in, dreaming of hot food. The smell of yeast and hops reminds me of my childhood and my heart starts pounding because suddenly I can feel it, the magnetism in this dark and empty room, the invitation to sink into anonymous day drinking. No more thinking of what to do or be or say. Just rest. Laugh. Criticise. Indulge.
Resting my elbows on the polished mahogany bar I'm hit with a kind of sensory drinker's showreel of all the other times I've sat, elbows resting on similarly sticky counters, in similarly gloomy rooms, to swallow another day down. Lou doesn't look at me. We just wait.
No one appears to serve us and I begin to feel panicky. Is it that the window to drinking has swung open or that I want it shut? I can no longer tell. The absolute clarity of my sobriety dream seems very distant. The soft spot at the back of my throat twitches and I gulp. I can no longer recall why it is important not to drink. I only know that when the barman asks what I want I'll say lager.
It turns out the bar isn't actually open yet, and we leave, irritated – purportedly with the bearded hipster who took so long to dash our hopes of hot food. We walk out, blinking into the sunlight. My heart bangs in my chest as we walk down Melrose, disappointed or relieved I don't know. It's like a bomb has been thrown into my psyche and I'm quiet for a while, chasing my tail but with thoughts. We eat slices of pizza, and don't talk, and for the first time it occurs to me, in a way that feels significant, that perhaps I can't just stop drinking whenever I want.
As soon as we get home Lou open the welcome wine Emily left us and grabs a glass from the draining board.
"I thought we weren't drinking," I say.
"You aren't drinking," she says, sitting at the table and pouring herself a huge drink.
I want to rip her head off. I can't believe she is doing this to me.
She doesn't understand what the problem is, why I am trying to control her. "What difference does it make to you?" she snaps eventually.
I can't explain that watching her fill the glass nonchalantly, after all our discussions, feels like a bespoke form of torture. Doesn't she know that I'm giving everything I have here to stay strong? I'm so angry, and I'm overreacting, but I can't stop. It feels like the deepest betrayal. Because I want to drink too, and I don't know if I can manage not drinking if she is going to keep doing this!
"You shouldn't drink because you're alcoholic," I say, totally monotone, and Lou tells me to go fuck myself.
The day, which started out so peaceful and enriching, is ruined for a bit, and I stomp around the block, raging at Lou until I feel calm enough to re-enter the apartment without pushing my thumbs slowly into her eyeballs. She's smiling now, carefree, of course, and I decide to see the funny side. We take Emily's membership card and walk through the pink dusk, arms linked, to watch Joy.
On the way home Lou dodges into a convenience store. "Please don't say anything," she says.
She stays up drinking whiskey and watching soccer while I go to bed before I'm tired just to change my consciousness.
It is dawning on me that the satisfaction and pleasure, the ease with which I've been not drinking has been conditional; success has depended on booze being completely out of the picture, of nobody drinking in my jurisdiction, nobody offering or selling me alcohol. Which isn't my world. Which isn't the world. I don't know how I'm going to get around this.
The next day is picture-perfect bluebird-sky and I wonder what all the fuss was about. It's so funny how the night can twist your thinking! I apologise to Lou for calling her alcoholic. She is suffering and just wants to get the Christmas food shopping done, so she can, "lie down and celebrate properly," she says. We drive to Ralphs where I find myself loading up the trolley with white and red wine, Prosecco and beer.
"I thought we weren't drinking," Lou says. Poor thing, she can't keep up. I laugh, because neither can I.
We start the Prosecco first thing, and it's all so festive that by the afternoon I'm throwing up. Not exactly what I'd dreamed of when I pressed the thin rim of the champagne flute to my lips, Prosecco glitter spraying my nostrils.
I am beginning to see through my own lovingly crafted illusion of alcohol, that there's what I think it's like and what it's actually like.
The evening I imagine as I eye up glittering spirits, and the night that results from drinking them do not resemble each other. Like the erotic love scene the cinema-goer enjoys compared to the anxiety-ridden dry humping in paper-pants that the actors experienced. (Actually both of those sound really good.)
Alcohol and what it gave me, the person I imagined I became, were to a lesser or greater extent, illusory; the best work of a secret internal alcohol-obsessed brain director who knew all the hopes and fears that would nudge me into drinking time and again.
What if alcohol never had, and never would make me prettier, funnier or cooler? Worse still, what if it used to do that stuff, but now it just made me sick and sad, and that prettier, funnier, cooler version of me would never be seen or experienced again? How could I live in the real world – long rejected – after all of the exhilarating years with the illusion?
I needed resources and people who would help me stick to my decision, and show me a different way of life. Books and websites and podcasts that would educate me about the nature of addiction and the different ways it could present: Blackout, Drinking: A Love Story, Lit, Hip Sobriety, Soberistas, Recovery Elevator and SHAIR helped a lot. Over time I learned to stop trying to do it by myself, in secret, and I asked for support. Gradually, I told the people closest to me what I was doing. It wasn't quick or easy, but I began to build a defence against the first drink because that was the one that always got me drunk. My life began to change.