I wrote this about a year and a half ago, when I first gave up alcohol. I knew that I couldn’t drink anymore because of the destructive and dangerous effect it was having on me, but I wasn’t happy about it. Reading this, I remember just how much I was dreading spending the rest of my life without booze.
I’m so happy that the feelings I write about here didn’t last all that long. There is a lot of writing here, and a lot of it I still stand by – how society in general has a lot to answer for in terms of making it very hard to even contemplate becoming teetotal, for instance. But the negativity I felt back then about ditching alcohol is long gone; these days I couldn’t be happier that I don’t (and will never again) touch booze.
A counsellor whom I visited for a while in the months that followed my acrimonious and emotionally devastating divorce, once said to me that he thought there was no truth in my belief that ordinary life (that being daily, routine tasks that we all undertake such as going to work, supermarket shopping and cleaning the bathroom) was a bit dull. The point that I was trying to make was that my excessive drinking and (by then, long abandoned) hedonistic days of raving had (or still did in the case of alcohol consumption) provided a longed for and indeed psychiatrically beneficial respite from the daily grind, and that life sans such escapist indulgences seemed, well, a bit dull. The point that my therapist was attempting to convey was that if a person’s life is sufficiently fulfilled, the need to derive pleasures from artificial means such as drugs and booze is simply eradicated.
A nice thought and one which, eight years on, I am still striving to prove true in my search for self-fulfilment and happiness. But a thought nonetheless which stirs a niggling doubt in the back of my sober mind – that once a person has exposed herself to such highs and freedom from self-consciousness and inhibitions, it becomes very difficult to ever go back.
Human beings have always sought relaxation from the stresses of life, the source of that relaxation stemming from a wide variety of legal, illegal, morally acceptable and socially frowned upon substances as remedies for a little escapism. The need then, to flee from everyday life is not a new phenomenon, despite the moral panic that has escalated in recent years regarding alcohol abuse and ‘booze Britain.’
During the Gin Crisis of the eighteenth century (as depicted in Hogarth’s painting of the same name) it was thought that on average, Londoners were imbibing roughly a pint of gin every week, an amount that sounds shocking to me – and I have drunk a fair old amount of alcohol in my time. Drugs too, are not a twentieth century invention and it is believed that mind-altering substances have been taken since the days of the Stone Age. Drug paraphernalia was discovered a few years ago on the Caribbean island of Carriacou, which dates back to somewhere between 100 and 400 BC. Drugs consumed such a long time ago most likely were not taken for the recreational purposes that people take them for today – rather they were more likely to have been used to actuate spiritual, trance-like states of mind. But still, the need to temporarily adjourn from the norm has been with humankind for thousands of years.
In the twenty-first century we are subject to contradictory social values, not least in the arena of drug and alcohol abuse. The hypocritical nature of the media and government when dealing with the issue of (in particular) alcohol is noticeable all around us. I became teetotal in April 2011 and living without booze has brought the double standards and contradictions home in a stark way. Chavs are bemoaned for their frequent imbibing of alcopops, whilst middle class dinner party goers are forgiven for their excessive consumption of Merlot, Barolo and Bordeaux. Politicians are quick to berate the youth of England for their delinquent, alcohol-driven behaviour witnessed each weekend on the nation’s city streets, and yet the government’s Responsibility Deal, introduced in the summer of 2010 in an effort to tackle the country’s growing drinking problem, appears to have been reduced to little more than a series of half-baked undertakings.
Supermarkets have been instructed to label 80% of bottles and cans containing alcohol with details of their alcoholic content by 2013, and the advertisement of alcoholic products within 100 metres of schools has been banned. But issues such as inappropriate marketing, curbing licensing hours and introducing a price per unit method costing structure (thought by many in the health sector to have the potential to impose a real impact on alleviating the alcohol problem, and highlighted in a report by the University of Sheffield which was published in the Lancet medical journal) were thrown off the agenda and never even discussed.
The fact that several key members of the drinks industry make up the group is notable, and even more notable is the fact that the Royal College of Physicians, Alcohol Concern, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the British Medical Association, the British Liver Trust and the British Association for the Study of the Liver all expressed an inability to support the Responsibility Deal due to their belief that the compromised agenda of the group would do nothing to help stem the growing tide of alcohol-related illnesses and premature deaths in the UK.
Alcohol is ubiquitous. With ad buffers on the TV (Come Dine With Me), in-your-face promotional offers for cheap beer and wine in supermarket aisles, TV programmes and films that feature alcohol being knocked back like water, and which often normalise and celebrate getting drunk, it is almost impossible not to think that everyone is out there getting pissed on a regular basis, and that it is completely ok.
Drinking is so revered in our culture that I, as a non-drinker, have become an oddity for not partaking in it. I have been expelled from a club, a club that I took completely for granted when I drank alcohol. If you are square, the school swot all grown up, a quiet sort who does not feel the need to show off at parties, you were never invited to join.
But if a hedonistic streak rules your social persuasions and you are usually found amongst the loud, cigarette-smoking, steadily-becoming-drunker-and-drunker brigade in the back garden of the house party, then yes, you are most definitely in the club. Of course, temporary exclusion is an option; pregnancy, a course of antibiotics, major illness – these are all bone fide reasons for fleetingly bowing out of the club. Giving up alcohol because you are not in control of it, because it has affected an unshakeable grip on you, because you never want to allow a single drop of it near your lips ever again for fear of it killing you – these are reasons that are tantamount to a lifelong exclusion.
Can I say, hand on heart that I am happy to be relegated to membership of the squares’ club, hangin’ with the fuddy duddies? Stuck in the corner with the grey-haired and the ankle biters, sipping a mineral water whilst sneaking frequent peeks at my watch to find out how long I must wait before I can politely leave? No, I can’t. It still doesn’t feel like me, to be cast out from the mouthy drunks who dance wildly, and laugh too loudly at the Best Man’s rubbish speech, and who huddle outside smoking and discussing some gossip that seems far more significant than it ever does the next day.
I spent all of my adult life (and most of the transitional years between childhood and full maturity too) as a fully paid up member of that group, amounting to two thirds of my life. Leaving that significant element of my being behind is taking some major re-acclimatization.
For the most part, I have taken the easy way out since I made the choice to become teetotal, hence my growing fancy with Come Dine with Me and other variations of meaningless televisual distraction – staying at home sober is definitely preferable to going out and staying sober, although I hope it won’t always be that way. I have found it much harder to say goodbye to the old me than I ever imagined, and equally difficult to become acquainted with the personality left behind in her absence.
When engaged in activities that never involved drinking copious amounts of booze (i.e. spending time with my daughter in the park, meeting friends for coffee, going to the cinema – although I have to admit that the last one was usually sandwiched between a couple of pre-film beverages and a skinful afterwards), the issue of losing my membership to the erstwhile beloved drinkers’ club does not rear its ugly head. That’s my safety zone.
I heard a lyric on the radio the other day that has stuck in my mind; Bruce Springsteen’s Better Days, in which he sings ‘But it’s a sad man my friend who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company.’ What came first – hating my own company and drinking to obliterate it, or drinking until I hated the person it turned me in to? The booze that is sold to us through advertising and the media is not a substance I recognise; happy images of laughing friends sharing a bottle of wine over nibbles.
Alcohol has disappointed me and left me with something of a sense of being cheated, mis-sold. It has taken many years to realise it, but alcohol is not for me and it does nothing for me other than turn me against myself. It robs me of my self, and in becoming sober, I have discovered that my self, well, she’s not that bad after all. It has taken a few weeks but I am beginning to see that the years I spent drinking was time spent trying to run away from myself. I hated myself and of course the vicious circle of drinking, self-loathing, drinking, self-loathing, only serves to exacerbate this.
When I first embarked upon this new, sober chapter in my life, I took it for granted that the key to all my problems in life lay with alcohol – after years of abusing the stuff, it made sense to herd all the negativity I had experienced in to one box, label it ‘Booze’ and close the lid on it. I began to do some research on the subject, mainly by searching the internet for alcohol dependency, how to give up drinking, female alcoholism and recovery from addiction. My search criteria screamed out ‘Help!’ to anyone who could guide me out of the mire that I had spent so long floundering in.
In addition to the various websites and books I scoured, I talked honestly and frankly to friends who I knew had their own addiction issues, and gradually I began to piece together a picture of the alcohol-influenced world that we all inhabit. After giving up drinking in April 2011, it soon became apparent to me that I needed to garner a fuller understanding of alcohol, why it has been so attractive to me, why it retains such a hold on me, as though it were a particularly desirable but destructive lover who I just cannot leave behind.
I cannot bear the thought of spending the remainder of my time on earth with booze lurking around my thoughts, a tormenting presence that is constantly propositioning me and which I have to turn away from, yearning and desperately craving its magic but never allowing myself to give in. And so I decided to start writing – to construct a convincing and lasting argument for myself and anyone else out there who has seen their souls ravaged by the demon drink, pertaining to why a life without alcohol can be fulfilling and happy and not at all boring, and why in the end, going teetotal is the best choice to make for those who are unfortunate enough to be saddled with the misguided belief that one drink is never enough.