Alcohol doesnt have to affect your life dramatically to be problematic. When I realised I had missed the same event two years in a row because I was suffering after a heavy night, I knew I had to change
It was the worst hangover of my life – and I have had a lot of hangovers. There were several very bad things about it, from the roiling nausea that made getting out of bed or even drinking water impossible to my questionable decision to take my mind off it by watching the anxiety-inducing film Get Out (not a great choice if you are feeling anxious). But one of the worst things about it was that it was entirely predictable.
I don’t mean it was foreseeable the night before in an “Oh, I really shouldn’t have a third glass of wine” way, but rather that, earlier that week, a still, small voice had told me as I reached for the gin that, if I continued normalising drinking like this, sooner or later I would wake up massively hungover and full of regret. I had heard that internal voice before. It had been saying similarly annoying things for years. This time, though, it was clearer than usual. But, like all the other times, I had poured myself a drink and ignored it.
My drinking career took off in earnest when I went to university aged 18. Free from the shackles of my home town, I was more than ready to embrace the bright lights of the student union bar. The day of my graduation, I was so hungover from my first encounter with tequila the night before (my timing was never good) that I spent the entire ceremony praying I wouldn’t throw up. But I was young. Hangovers could be shrugged off. Looking back, university was probably the last time in my life when drinking a lot was anything close to resembling fun.
I didn’t ever plan to get drunk. But after a few drinks I lacked an off switch. The day before the hangover to end all hangovers, I had gone for a late lunch with a friend; we shared a bottle of prosecco. We went to a bar afterwards. Then we went back to her house for some wine. Still, the hangover was almost avoided, or at least tempered – until I passed my local pub on the way home and a saw friend of mine standing outside. I went inside. That wasn’t the end of it. I dealt myself the killer blow after the pub closed, in my kitchen with some friends; we drank all my homemade rhubarb gin (cannot recommend) and sloe gin.
I didn’t drink to excess all the time. Life would have been impossible. But I drank heavily just enough – once a month, sometimes more, not often less – to give myself, in the end, crushing, deep, dark anxiety. Long, lost, miserable days in bed, curtains closed against the sunshine, trying to piece together the night before.
Nothing truly bad ever happened. I didn’t lose my job – I am self-employed and I have a forgiving and flexible schedule. None of my relationships ended because of my drinking. But it didn’t matter. Alcohol doesn’t have to affect your life in a dramatic way to become a problem; there are plenty of small, insidious ways in which it can get you. Drinking was affecting me negatively – and it wasn’t just the physical aftermath. Last summer, I went to a wedding and ended up drunkenly haranguing my best friend of 24 years, detailing every resentment I had with her and every way in which she had ever pissed me off. She didn’t talk to me again until recently. My feelings had been building for a while, but would I have voiced them in that way without alcohol? Never.
There was something else: on the day of the hangover in question, I had tickets to a once-a-year concert. It was an ambitious plan, even without the hangover. It was a Sunday and there was a replacement bus service for part of the journey. That morning, I knew I would never make it. As I lay there, defeated, I realised that I had made plans to go to the same concert last year – but I didn’t go, because I was hungover. I could no longer ignore the fact that my life was stuck on a loop. This was it; this was the end. It had to be the last hangover.
And it was. I have amazed myself and become what I thought I was incapable of being: an occasional, moderate drinker.
I started by stopping. I gave up alcohol entirely. I didn’t know for how long– it was a big, frightening change. What if I could never drink again? As is traditional, I took it one day at a time. I joined a Reddit support group called Stop Drinking, which is fantastic: helpful and non-judgmental. Now that I am drinking occasionally, I don’t use it much – it is aimed at people who want to stop drinking entirely – although I peek at it sometimes to reassure myself that it is still there. But it got me through those first few strange, untethered days and weeks without alcohol. As I read about other people’s experiences of sober socialising, holidaying and living, I gradually became confident I could do it, too. I never thought a group of strangers on the internet could help me change bad habits built up over more than two decades, but they did.
After just over a month of abstinence, I had a glass of wine at a dinner. Then another. Then I stopped. I didn’t want to drink a swimming pool of booze any more. I felt great about my month off. My head was clear and the anxiety was gone. I lost weight and my skin was glowing. I didn’t want to go back to old habits. In the end, it wasn’t easy, but it was simple. I had had enough.
There have been a few revelations along the way. Socialising without getting drunk is still fun – something I had never imagined. Conversely, there are some people I rarely see now; our relationship was built around getting drunk. If you feel self-conscious staying sober when everyone else is in their cups, don’t. People – especially drunk people – don’t pay as much attention to you as you think. I often drink non-alcoholic beer. No one notices and the pressure is off. If you are nervous about socialising when stone-cold sober, remember that the first 20 minutes or so is the worst; if you can get through this, you will make it. Best of all, when people start slurring and repeating themselves, you can go home – amazing.
Expect to be viewed with suspicion, however. Since my new, improved relationship with alcohol began, I don’t think I have encountered a single person who hasn’t questioned my motives. In my experience, the most suspicious people usually have an issue with alcohol themselves. No wonder: alcohol is a dangerous and highly addictive substance. Yet it is everywhere, something I noticed when I stopped mindlessly pouring it into myself. I am amazed people are ever moderate drinkers in the first place. Alcohol is a powerful adversary. We should be kinder to ourselves about taking it on and failing.
Drinking in moderation is not the answer to life, the universe and everything, of course. I still feel like crap when I wake up – the cruel trick of ageing. Life’s problems don’t go away. But I feel, on most days, capable of facing them. Waking up without a hangover continues to be a revelation.
I am, of course, writing this before New Year’s Day. But I fully believe I will be waking up in 2018 without a hangover. Next year, you can, too. If you want to, that is – you have to want to.