Sober for 11 weeks and count­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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’

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