Sober for 11 weeks and counting
This weekend marks the official beginning of the “party season”: that onset of national binge-drinking that lasts until January 1st – less festive carousing, more Saturnalia. During December, Britons imbibe 41 per cent more alcohol than the monthly average, consuming in excess of 600million units. Over Christmas (a period that appears to get longer every year), 54 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women are expected to drink more than their recommended guidelines. New Year’s Day sees the highest number of emergency admissions for acute intoxication, the Saturday before Christmas the next highest, with drunken accidents costing the NHS £3billion per year. Usually, I am an enthusiastic partaker in this annual ritual. As a lifelong boozehound, I love everything about alcohol: its effects, the metaphors used to convey said effects, its paraphernalia. And I have the literal scars to prove it: raw knees from a topple into King’s Cross roadworks, a dodgy elbow from careering down a flight of stairs, assorted bleached cuts.
Despite priding myself on my ability to hold my drink, my body boasts war wounds from what in A&E parlance is referred to as UDIs: not a Unionist splinter group, nor form of birth control, but Unidentified Drinking Injuries. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, at times, I have risked my life for my love of mother’s ruin. I have certainly hazarded other things: health, work, relationships, clarity.
Me and Bacchus, we go way back. An introvert who talks an extrovert game, booze Teflon-coated me, despite the bruises beneath. I adore it, and the feeling appeared mutual. When I moved house the Romanian who helped me exclaimed, eyeing my well-stocked bar: “You hef no television, yet you hef Alcohol Design Concept?” Priorities, Sorin, priorities.
This year, however, I enter the party season 76 days dry – 11 weeks sober tomorrow – and intend staying that way until at least midDecember. It has defamiliarised who I am, and who we are as a culture, to me. At a time when we are having our first debate on drugs in a generation, I am asking myself why drink is the great national addiction we ignore, and the personal addiction that I somehow celebrate.
Britain lives for its booze: ’twas ever thus. We relish the idea of ourselves as lovable hedonists, always ready with a joke and a jar. Nevertheless, the past half-century has seen a change in alcohol’s status, propelling it from luxury to staple. Oiled is the new normal: be one at home, at large, at leisure, or interacting professionally (term used necessarily loosely). We feel we need alcohol to relax, to socialise, to parent, to have sex.
In September, Macmillan Cancer Support revealed that the average Briton spends almost £50,000 on alcohol during their lifetime, London’s drinkers sizeably more. Meanwhile, a study published in the BMJ in July argued that 12 units a week – less than a pint, or large glass of wine a day – can have an adverse effect on health. Personally, I cannot think of anyone I know who drinks that little.
Women have been at the forefront of this transition: a shift from an occasional port and lemon in the snug to Mumsnet’s “wine o’clock”. Drink is now a feminist issue. Those with degrees are almost twice as likely to imbibe daily, and admit to a drinking problem, a correlation stronger in women. At its most extreme, the number of alcoholrelated deaths among female highflyers has soared by 23 per cent over the past decade.
I stopped drinking in a quest for sleep. I set myself three months in a bid to quash the insomnia that has dogged my existence. I also ditched caffeine. It worked. After 15 days of headaches and wakefulness, I sleep normally – beautifully — for the first time in my life.
Here is a list of the other good stuff that has happened: my health has never been better; I am significantly less stressed; mortifyingly, I have lost a stone, despite making no changes to diet or exercise. I have listened to people, organised my life, and found things I had thought lost. I look younger, my hair is shiny, my skin glows, even my teeth are cleaner (less sugar and not brushing them p-----). I have not been “flooded with energy”, as everyone and their dog promises, but I fear I am not the “flooded with energy” type.
As for the downsides, there are none. Given how appalling the idea of sobriety is, the reality is embarrassingly easy. I have not missed drink socially. Quashing professional stress is a work in progress (I have gone from being a headbanger to a Headspacer — advocate of the bestselling meditation app). I have never liked doing things when people tell me to, so party season renunciation works. Moreover, going booze-free is now a movement, especially among the young, with pensioners and the over-40s society’s functional drunks.
I am faced, then, not with a Christmas of kamikaze revelry, but a number of big questions, not least: when my three-months is up on December 13th, what am I going to do? The “alcohol-free” website, Soberistas, a secular Alcoholics Anonymous, divides drinkers into those who can quaff moderately and those who can’t. I am and have always been in the latter category, despising moderation in all things.
Sober, I have seen through the behaviour of fellow large livers: the “wit” that fails to mask glasswatching anxiety; the “generosity” the purpose of which is to keep one’s own glass filled; the dazzling “fun girl” who, three drinks down, almost lost an eye to a martini glass, while setting fire to her skirt.
That was me, in Soberista terms. In AA terms, that is me. From the age of 14 to 43 my life has been brilliantly, Britishly dominated by anticipation of, and reaction to alcohol. And now I am confronted with a decision: what is it going to be?
Good health: ‘I have lost a stone, despite making no changes to diet or exercise,’ says Hannah. ‘Even my teeth are cleaner’