Let’s get one thing straight, right from the start: This is not about desire. I am not writing about necessity. It is not about addiction. It is not even about excess. This is not because I have to, but because I choose to.
New Year’s Day and I felt empty. I felt turned inside out. I had been slightly sick and I had horrific diarrhoea, the sort that flushes you through until all that is left is a hollow husk. Feeling drained, I had been unable to get up properly.
I’d done small things, like taken a shower, then been a little more ill and then needed to lie down to recuperate. As I lay somewhat feebly on my girlfriend’s sofa with my head on her lap and the burble of the television somewhere behind my closed eyelids, I felt embarrassed; embarrassed and guilty because I knew that my patheticness would mean that we failed to meet some of her friends. By the time I was confident there was nothing left to come, it was too late. By the time we arrived at the pub in Old Street they had already left and it was all my fault.
But, contrary your expectations, I did not have a hang-over.
Oh, all right. Maybe a little one. When I first awoke there was a dehydrated crinkle to my brain, but it faded quickly enough. I’d drunk a fair bit the night before, but not to excess. Not like I used to. I hadn’t felt drunk as we’d walked home through the damp shadowed streets of West London. I’d consumed probably less than I had on many a Friday night over the years after which I would have sprung out of bed with ease on a Saturday morning. No, honestly. I wasn’t. My stomach was still upset three days later.
But this isn’t about any of that. I’m just setting the context.
On the evening of New Year’s Day I cooked my girlfriend some dinner whilst she read the paper. The Guardian’s magazine was full of helpful advice about how to live a prosperous and healthy 2011. It was the usual pointedly appropriate mix of drink less, eat more healthily, do more exercise, make time for life rather than just work. One section discussed cutting down on our media, the never-ending ways in which we are plugged in the world. We should, it argued, make sure we are connected, but with how people really look as well as their profile pictures.
‘I gave up Facebook last year,’ she said. ‘It was surprisingly easy. I might do that again.’
Self-denial has never featured high up my list of ways to be entertained, but, without thinking, I said: ‘I wonder what I could give up.’
‘Beer,’ she replied without hesitation. ‘Or,’ she gave the matter some more consideration, ’alcohol generally?’
‘Now, let’s not be silly.’
But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed. I can be a contrary bugger at times and there was something about the social experiment aspect that would be interesting.
(Plus, you know, I need material for these things to come from somewhere. Ah, my life: Nothing but a vehicle for your entertainment.)
‘Yeah, right,’ guffawed my Kiwi friend, when I initially touted the idea. ‘You know what they say, David? Only those with a problem have to completely abstain.’
Yes, thank you, but this isn’t about problems. I do not have a problem with alcohol. I frequently don’t drink. I rarely drink during the day under any circumstances, simply because I find it difficult to then get anything else done. I don’t race home from the office craving a beer. I am not one of those people I see around, the woman in the power-dressed stripped business suit nipping at a hipflask as the seven-thirty morning commute train arrives in London Bridge, or the scabby guy with the burst blood vessels in his cheeks picking up cans of Strongbow Black when I collect my Observer from the newsagents early on a Sunday.
But I am a habitual drinker. Whilst it’s not as though I’m churning my way through four times the recommended limit every week, I do enjoy my drink. Going to the pub forms the foundation of my social activity. When I haven’t seen a friend for a while I always suggest we meet for a beer. I enjoy nice wine with a meal. I confess I do that thing which supposedly marks the alcoholic from the casual boozer - I drink alone. I take pleasure in a beer or a glass of wine or a whisky and water after an evening writing. Ultimately, my sub-conscious associates relaxing, down time, allowing space for my thoughts, chilling out, whatever you want to call it, it comes with an alcoholic drink.
But the thing is, these are all my choices. I know that I don’t have to do any of these things. I don’t have a physical yearning to imbibe? I don’t believe that I have a mental crux that makes social interaction impossible without lubrication. I don’t think I’d be bored if I didn’t drink.
Yet as I wrote about music and got on with life Lent got closer and closer and somewhere in the back of my mind I began to get slightly apprehensive: what would happen when I stopped drinking altogether? Would social occasions feel weird?
Would people look at me oddly, so defined am I with glass in hand? Would I simply hide away in my flat being somewhat boring? And crucially, for someone whose only non-alcoholic drinks of choice are ginger beer (but more than one these days gives me heartburn), tea, coffee and water, what the hell am I going to physically do with myself whilst those around me quaff till it dribbles out their ears?
I wrote the first draft of this blog on the first Sunday of Lent. The night before I went to a party. On paper it was one of those events where perhaps a drink or two might have eased things along slightly. A charity bash at my girlfriend’s parents’ place and whilst her family and friends are absolutely lovely and have made me feel welcome in their circles, I would still be surrounded by people I didn’t know that well. All of whom would be enjoying a drink. Somewhat to my surprise, it couldn’t have been easier. Time flowed on by and, although I found myself adrift and swollen with tap water whilst frequently having to politely decline her Father when he proffered the open wine bottle, the evening was thoroughly enjoyable.
The morning after, however, was weird. Initially everything was fine, but once in the shower I felt a ringing sting shoot through my head. As the afternoon wore on it dulled to a consistent throb, but even though I was five days sober I was the one with the headache the day after the party. At times life really isn’t fair.
Which left me to wonder, what will happen next? Will my much feared insomnia, fuelled by deep sleeps, late rises and too much caffeine return? Will I find myself suddenly much more productive or, as paradoxically I found trying to carve this blog out, lethargic in my writing? Leafing through my diary shows numerous events coming up where not drinking may be socially unacceptable, not least a stag do. Am I going to find myself shunned and ridiculed by a society where the consumption of alcohol, if not quite at the mythological levels splattered across the tabloids suggesting a high-street hell or Gomorrah Great Britain, is at least the common ground for most formal engagements?
Well, sod it. There’s only one way to find out. Keep dry and carry on.