Sober on St Patrick's Day

Updated: Jul 2, 2019


Artwork by Judi Benson

Ah, how easy it is to accidentally drink too much on St Patrick’s Day, when all around the world, people gather in pubs to don Guinness-sponsored fluffy green top hats and drink with absolute impunity. Or thereabouts.


Saying that, it’s pretty easy to accidentally drink too much when it isn’t St Patrick’s Day as well. There’s always something that requires a little drinky: good news/bad news/someone’s birthday/weddings/illness/stress…


Then there are the alcohol-pushers.


“You know what Mary’s like, it’s impossible to stay sober when she’s in town!”


There’s always a heavier drinker around to utter that devastating phrase: “Pint?”


If you’re anything like me, all this accidental drunkness is probably not even your fault. In my early twenties I stumbled upon the ultimate culprit for my frequent alcohol mismanagement. More effective even than the Bad Influence Best Friend (BIBF™), I discovered the Problem Drinker Boyfriend (PDB™).


Like BIBFs, PDBs had certain things in common: they drank more heavily than me, loved how much I drank, and rarely pulled me up on my mad/bad/rad behaviour. The only trouble was how clearly I could see the P in them, and how strongly I felt it my duty to tell them so. Often.


PDB1.0 turned aggressive and lecherous. PDB2.0 became needy and unhinged. PDB3.0 shifted fun nights into dim witted arguments. No matter how fascinating and sweet the boyfriend started out, their problem drinking emerged to shatter my romantic illusions a few weeks or months or — let’s be real here — days in.


Alcohol, a key part of our relationship, unleashed a beast within them, and it was only a matter of time until we were shouting at each other in the street. I would sprint away, mid-argument (an elegant technique for conflict-avoidance I learned in my teens and hadn’t upgraded since) too hammered/immature to think how else to end our escalating, looping duel.


I remember the very first time it occurred to me, that I might have a P of my own. The thought arrived in my head, completely new like an alien landing, after a nightmarish tussle with PDB3.0. We were holidaying in Greece with one of his oldest drinking buddies and my beer-loving dad, which, on reflection, might not have been the wisest combo.


This became exquisitely clear in the early morning of my dad’s first night when PDB3.0 arrived home to the apartment we were sharing, unable to walk or speak English (or any of the human languages). A quietly livid neighbour handed him to me, having found him stumble-crawling along the corridor unsure where he lived or even what he was. PDB3.0 looked up at me, from the floor, and I saw immediately that he was brain damaged. Possibly forever.


My happy hour hangover was in full flower as I listened to PDB3.0 snore, oblivious, beside me. I scrunched my eyes shut tight, swore not to happy-hour again, wondering when I was going to grow out of having holidays like this. The place and person were different but somehow the situation was the same. Am I the alcoholic? I thought, incredulous. Because someone definitely is! How did I keep choosing them from the line-up?


The foreign thought dissolved as quickly as it formed. Off that alien scuttled, burrowing under more comfortable notions of myself as sweet and enduring and put-upon. Yes, that was more like it. A bad picker, maybe. But Problem Drinker Girlfriend (PDB™)? Absurd!


The next afternoon me and my dad were happy-houring in the Irish bar again (oops!) when PDB3.0 walked in, greenish and shame-faced, cheek still creased from sleep. With a sheepish glance at me, he took the pint his pal offered and drank, thirstily.


I swore under my breath.


“You’re too soft,” my dad muttered.


Hot shame, likely ancestral, flushed my system as I swallowed the ancient BS — that it was somehow my responsibility to keep that man-behaving-badly under control. The women who had gone before surged in my veins, shrieking, crying, railing against their drinking men, and I promised to avenge them, to take a harder line with my poor, hopeless love-interest, to set him straight, but I could only murmur that he probably shouldn’t drink again given the state of him last night.


Besides, I had more pressing matters, like getting served before happy hour ended, and I promised myself and The History Women that I’d leave the relationship as soon as our feet touched familiar soil. We all quietened down in the face of lager.


PDB3.0 was apologetic and sweet, genuinely sorry, telling me how awesome I was, and begging me not to hate him.


“It’s not my fault,” he said. “Lee just put the pint in my hand! What am I supposed to do?” He was genuinely bemused.


Feeling frustrated and ineffectual I took my bargain pints and returned to where Dad was sitting, to reflect on my general failure as a woman.


I drank and stewed and stewed and drank. These bloody piss head men, forever blaming someone else for their out of control drinking. It was never their fault! Why did they have to be so sloppy? Did I not set a fine example?


“You didn’t even seem drunk,” people would tell me after I discovered I’d bumped into them mid-blackout.


Worse than the embarrassment of being linked to the drunkest man in the building was the way that it interrupted my good time. This night, for instance, was cut short when PDB3.0 became so drunk as to be a danger to himself (my pride) and so I took pity on him and helped him home — pure-hearted, noble, put-upon me, without a thought for myself — I made him a sandwich, and shoved him into bed before returning to pick up where I left off, and, spurred on by his bad behaviour, I disappeared headfirst into a brown out of my own.


For many years I was the innocent party. A gentle, fun-loving dreamboat with a sad knack for picking the one man at the party/pub/university/restaurant who couldn’t handle his liquor. By PDB4.0 I was seriously beginning to question.


Could I have a part in this? Sweet, creative, wholesome lil me? Might I, myself, moi, have a tincy problem? Not with booze, obviously, but with something.


Seeing my spiralling anxiety and depression a female friend (ever my saviour) encouraged me to go to the doctors and I embarked on my first foray into counselling: CBT, with a woman called Ruth who smiled far too easily, and who I desperately wanted to make happy (this is how I feel about everybody) but who I was sure couldn’t help.


I told her all about PDB and his terrible drinking problem and how happy we would be if only he didn’t get so drunk and nasty all the time, and she asked questions about me, which I didn’t know how to answer. For instance, why was I so obsessed with how much my boyfriend drank?


“What difference does it make to you?” she asked. “You don’t have to drink as much as he does, do you?”


“Of course not!” I said, affronted. I wasn’t that stupid!


Somehow every question about myself ended with me talking about my boyfriend, which, after her gentle observation, even I could see was unusual. But the truth was, current PDB was the source of all my problems!


Leaving the sessions I mused on her questions. Why was I so obsessed with PDB’s drinking?


As I asked PDBs Ruth-inspired questions, like, “Why is it that you prefer being drunk to being sober?” and, “What is it you’re getting from alcohol?” I began to consider these questions for myself. I started to wake up to the reality of my drinking and what it was costing me.


With Ruth’s help it dawned on me that I was trying to control PDB’s drinking as a means of controlling my own. I had singlehandedly struck upon the least effective and most painful method for managing your drinking ever.


Ruth reminded me that I didn’t have to drink when PDB did, and I was so relieved — my problem was solved! Until I discovered that she was wrong.


I did have to drink when PDB did. If anyone, anywhere was drinking, I had to drink too.


Finally, I began to recognise my own problem. In the end it was those beautiful, unhealthy, talented, hilarious, heavy drinking boyfriends that made me see.


St Patrick’s Day is beloved by drinkers because it’s one more freebie in a long line of perfect excuses to drink. Years later, I’m so grateful that my pattern repeated itself so painfully, so perfectly, that finally, I was able to see it. With help I grew to understand it, and over time, my behaviour became semi-conscious.


I began to wake up.

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