I’ve just done a year of not drinking.
This is one of the more surprising things I’ve ever typed.
It’s me, after all. All my adult life, I’ve loved a drink, loved the unbuttoning that comes with a few glasses of something delicious, the golden softness the world takes on. How generous and glowing you feel, when you spill, just a little, over your own edges. When you can expand, loosen up, become yourself, only merrier, sillier, more buoyant.
A year, people have said, incredulous that I’d even try it. Are you – sure?
The year is over, and here’s the thing. It has been so, so easy. I feel like I’ve cheated, because the willpower involved has been zero. I have wanted this year, I have needed it. It’s felt like a gift, rather than a deprivation. A lifeline that has pulled me through 2018.
It’s only exhilarating to take your foot off the brakes if you’ve never crashed the car. When you’re secure in your happiness, hey, piñata it around all you like, see what falls out. You can ride the dodgems of deep drinking like I used to, all blurred control and whiplash-collision and hilarity edging to injury, if you’re whole, and your heart beats safely behind your ribs. I’ve been too insecurely stitched together, this last little while, too afraid of what would smash, all the bits that would fall off.
The trouble, I’ve found, with trying to drown one’s sorrows, is that there is a species of sorrow that, far from drowning, turns into a kind of crazed zombie mermaid instead, all teeth and tangling hair and bony grip, pulling you down into the blackness. There’s nothing for it but to drain the wine-dark sea, and go out hunting in the mud, harpoon in hand. I don’t know if I’m rid of them yet, or if they’ll be waiting for me, regenerated, the other side of a few wines. I need a bit more time to toughen up, before I find out.
I knew not drinking would be a counter-cultural experience. In my life, it makes you someone suspicious. Someone uncomfortably dull, your weird downer (be it religion, depression, addiction, self-discipline) casting a cloud over everyone else’s good times. I decided to do all my usual socialising, only with a soda and lime in my wine hand.
If you’ve met me for the first time in 2018, I’ve probably been been a bit quieter and more thoughtful than I would have been before. I’ll have listened to you talk, more than I’ve wittered away. I’ve held the silences, let myself feel awkward, not just blurted some nonsense at you for the sake of filling in the gaps.
I’ve danced and danced, more freely than I ever thought I would, for the sheer love of it, way into the early hours, with nothing to blur the bass. I’ve done my Kate Bush special at karaoke, partied to the end at hen dos, weddings, birthdays, Big Nights Out. I’ve spent a week living and writing with strangers who became new friends. Booze is no longer the ctrl+v shortcut that pastes in FUN. (‘What’s it like,’ old mates have asked, ‘out with us lot, sober?’ And I’ve laughed, and told them the truth. ‘Exactly the same.’)
Heading home undrunk, I have looked the night tube, the darkened city, square in the face, and the clarity has been power. Writer-me has devoured the extra time to notice, to really abide with what is there. In the early hours of the morning, you see how not-ok we are. For so many of us, the need to climb out of this social reality is overpowering; we burn for escape, ascension. It needs soaking away, the tyranny of obligation, that don’t wanna-go-to-school feeling you have to squash, your own exasperated parent, every Monday morning. Too often we end up stealing from ourselves the things that we need, to get the things that we want.
This year has confirmed what I’ve suspected for a little while: booze is a shit analgesic. Like tablets you pop for a headache, with ‘may cause migraines’ among the side-effects.
On which note, a year of no hangovers has been heavenly. It’s no small thing to know weekend mornings bring only light and peace and freshness, that the dawn is innocent of last night’s consequences. That I’m able to get up on the exact same level as my daughter, full of chatter and energy, without a banging head and a revolting stomach.
Rather than making me feel more grown up, not drinking has given me back my younger self. Kids live in this reality; they are irredeemably here and now. There’s no escape route, nothing to dull the edges. No little door you drink something to fit through, and tumble into another world. You feel everything, as it happens. Time and memory don’t slip away; your experience is one continuous reel, the camera held steady, the lighting unflinchingly true. It has been a return to having to invent and then build my own ladders out of the day-to-day. Which has been, this year of muling away in the world of my book, exactly what I have needed.
I’m too much of a sensualist to be tee-total for good. But I reckon I’ll need the gifts of sober 2018 for a little longer. Whenever you see me next with a drink in hand, you’ll know. The weather in my life has changed. I’m sunny inside again: cheerful enough for mischief. Knowing I can be a bit of a rogue, without fearing the pain that waits, two glasses down. I’ll be properly seamed up, scarred, but all of a piece. Wise enough for the pleasure of nonsense; strong enough to know that true joy has nothing at all to do with what pours out of a bottle.