I had my last drink five years ago, in the early hours of the morning on 1 January 2013. I think it might have been around 2am. I wouldn’t have described myself as drunk. I would have said I’d had a few drinks. But I was drunk. If I had tried to drive, or write, or give a talk in public, I’d have done these things badly. Feeling neither happy nor sad, I raised the glass and swallowed the booze. It was some kind of fruit punch.
At the time, I didn’t think this would be my last drink. I thought it would be my last drink until my birthday, on 30 April. For 10 years, I’d spent the first four months of every year as a teetotaler. There had been two exceptions. One year I started drinking on 27 April, because I was in a houseboat in a harbour and I was offered a glass of wine. I hated myself for those three days. Another year I did not quit until March, but punished myself for that lapse with eight months of sobriety instead of the usual four.
But maybe, I often thought, sobriety wasn’t exactly a punishment. I liked sobriety. I slept better. I lost weight. My skin became clearer. I definitely felt fitter. My concentration improved; I could buzz through a book in a few hours. My mind was sharper. I felt lighter, happier. I no longer turned up to appointments late, sweaty, reeking of alcohol. I had more time. I remember one conversation after 15 teetotal weeks; the guy I was talking to said he couldn’t believe how young I looked. He really meant it. Sobriety rejuvenates you like nothing else.
Then my birthday, my drinking day, would come around again. I’d have a sense of nervous anticipation, a queasy feeling that I didn’t want to start drinking again, combined with a queasy feeling that I did. In any case, I felt compelled to start drinking again; that was part of the deal I’d made with myself, because I really wanted to drink. I wanted to drink for precisely the same reason that I didn’t want to drink – because I had a drinking problem. Drink seemed to have a strange, brain-sucking power over me. On my birthday, I would wake up feeling the sort of anxiety you feel before a date or a party. I was going to start drinking again. Tonight, I would be in a different world.
When I try to explain my drinking problem, it goes like this: in my head, I was a moderate drinker, but after I’d had a drink, I wasn’t. The more I drank, the more I wanted to drink. Drinking increased my thirst. I wanted the second drink more than the first, and I wanted the fifth more than I’d wanted the fourth. My thirst always increased over the course of an evening. But it also increased, in a more subtle way, over the course of a month, a year, a decade. Drink added something, but it always seemed to subtract more than it added, and the only way I could get things back to normal was to drink more, and all this drinking began to wreck my mind. And then I’d stop, and I’d be sober for 120 days. Being sober felt great. So why did I always go back to drinking?
The first few days of sobriety provided a clue. On day one I’d wake up with a hangover. The next day I’d wake up with a phantom hangover. The day after that I’d wake up, and put my head under the duvet, waiting for the pain and the sickness. For a few seconds, my mind would be racing. What did I drink last night? How much did I get through? And then I’d remember: nothing. I drank nothing. And without the shroud of a hangover, my mind would feel strangely defenceless; any emotion could just barge in and march around for hours. In those moments, I understood something about why my drinking was a problem.
During the times I did not drink, I was not aware of wanting to drink. I did not crave it or sneak around and drink secretly. Being sober made me think of chainsmokers whose craving disappears on long-haul airline journeys. They know they can’t possibly smoke, so they just put the whole thing out of their minds.
Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist and addiction expert, told me it was the same thing as when you put a piece of meat in the fridge, and your dog paws at the door, whining and trying to force the door open. But if you convince the dog the door is locked, it will stop whining and walk away.
Every year, I stopped whining and walked away. I went to pubs and bars and drank fizzy water. In the evenings I drank tea. I saw that most people, almost everybody in fact, did not care whether or not I drank at their parties. Some people don’t even notice. I just said: “I’m off the drink.” People just said: “Cool.” On planes I was happy not to drink the little bottles of wine. I did not drink low-alcohol drinks. I did not have little nips of this or that. I knew I was not going to drink, and this knowledge made me not want to drink. I felt in control. I knew I would drink again on my birthday. I had a persistent fantasy that, the next time I started to drink, things would be better.
They never were. I could never drink in moderation. I could never have just the one, or just a couple. I always wanted more. I was never quite in control of the amount I drank, as if my brain had been damaged. Something felt wrong, and this feeling of wrongness would get worse as the year wore on – summer worse than spring, autumn worse than summer. During the times when I drank, I had another persistent fantasy, which would pop into my mind every so often: a big, fat, round tumbler of super-strength vodka, shimmering under a layer of ice, so strong it smelled like petrol. The perfect drink. That was my fantasy when I drank, and it was still my fantasy on the day I slugged my last drink, some kind of fruit punch, in the early hours of 1 January 2013. In just 120 days, I thought, that big fat vodka will be there, in some fancy minimalist bar, waiting for me.
In the five years since that moment, I have not touched a drink, and I have not wanted to. My drinking days seem far away, almost like a life lived by somebody else. Drink – the very idea of it – seems rather sickening. Quaffing sour or pungent liquids in order to make yourself dumber? Preposterous! I have the same feelings about alcohol that I had when I was 10. It’s dangerous; it’s disgusting; it causes cancer; it rots your liver and makes you look, and smell, like a much older and sicker person. Still, I’ve never stopped wondering why it grasped me so firmly, and for so long, why I allowed it to ruin parts of my life, parts I will never get back. What did drink offer me that was so much better than sobriety? What, exactly, was its magic?
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