I have never drunk so much bloody sparkling water.
I’m not even sure if I liked it before. In fact, I don’t remember ever drinking it. But, like a lot of people who are dependent on one thing, when you get rid of it, you always need a replacement.
Dry Jan is coming to an end – the day I never thought would come, as I stood in my kitchen pouring a bottle of pinot down the sink a la Phil Mitchell at the start of the month.
But it has and here I am: one more week of long conversations about the benefits, smugness when splitting the bill because you’re always a tenner better off than everyone else around the table. (Smugness levels went into overdrive when I learned that nine in 10 Brits broke Dry Jan this weekend. I bumped into someone who had: “I was so bored of being bored” he shrugged.)
Pubs, wine, hangovers – they somehow made me normal, part of a set of city-dwellers who work a bit too much and spend a bit too much and drink a bit too much
But I’m not here to be smug, merely to share my experience of going against one of the most deeply ingrained British cultural institutions. For a month, I have seen with sober eyes that drinking is everywhere; weddings, funerals, christenings, Friday nights, Sunday lunches, office parties, birthday parties, break-ups, engagements, in front of the TV, at the cinema. Us Brits like a drink. And before January 2016, I wore it as a badge of honour. Pubs, wine, hangovers – they somehow made me normal, part of a set of city-dwellers who work a bit too much and spend a bit too much and drink a bit too much. To be brutally honest, it’s the narrative I’ve always thought I should have as an ambitious, young-ish writer in a big city – and I’ve always been irrationally suspicious of people who don’t think or drink the same way.
So what did I learn? As someone who drinks a lot (and has alcoholism lurking in my genes); as someone who wraps it in her identity –south-east London pubs, east London pubs, wine on the Southbank; as someone who sees wine as a way out, an escape route to Brighton, an exit to work stress. Or in other words, as someone for whom wine is much more than something to pair with a meal, how has a month without wine been?
1. We drink too much
This month, the government lowered the number of units adults should have to one glass of wine or one pint of beer a day. Normally on a Friday night I have at least half a bottle, if not more. This month, every single work event I have been to has offered free wine. Every single social event I have attended, people have been drinking (bar brunch, I’ve done a lot of brunch). Will we one day see drinking the way we now see smoking? Will it seemed outdated and passé? Drinking has been around forever, and if you ban it, people only seem to want it more (see the prohibition). But, as it’s taken thousands of people to be diagnosed with skin cancer to understand too much sun is bad for you, what will it take for thirtysomethings like me to slow down on the booze?
2. Anxiety isn’t cool
I’ve written before about how my drink-infused anxiety manifests in my alter-ego, Shelby. But this is no Sasha Fierce to a Beyoncé. This is a wide-eyed, manic, romantic chasing the sun and all the millions of things that might be. Shelby is me, on a hangover, throwing everything I have and know into a pit of self-doubt. I haven’t seen Shelby all month. Do I miss her? Sometimes – she tends to have more fun; but with the fun comes the calamity and the chaos and the soul-searching lows.
3. Me and my friends talk just as much
This did surprise me. Bloody hell, I can talk. But that’s no bad thing. (Our conversations probably make a lot more sense.)
How do I be brave and adventurous, without the gentle nudge of alcohol? I’ll get back to you if I find the answer
4. How do I let my inhibitions go sober?
Here’s Shelby raising her unbrushed head again. There’s a certain sense of unpredictability that can come with a bottle of wine in a pub; the night seems long and possible. I’ve met people; I’ve had the courage to approach people I admire or fancy. It’s opened doors and opened me up. And it’s something I’ve sorely missed. How do I be brave and adventurous, without the gentle nudge of alcohol? I’ll get back to you if I find the answer.
5. Drinking is about not being in control – that’s why we do it
As lesson number four illustrates, I clearly get a kick of being a wayward. And drinking is the short cut to losing control. When the rest of our lives our so controlled, from the 7.34am train every morning to the weekly run to daily deadlines, is it any great surprise we seek a (sometimes) safe way to feel off course – even just for an evening?
6. I’ve changed my mind about people who don’t drink very much – and the story I tell myself
And finally, an apology. If you don’t drink, or if you don’t drink very much, I can guarantee I made some very unfair, unfounded and just plain stupid assumptions about who you are and what your life is like – probably based on my relationship with a glass of wine. And a memo to myself; it’s just a glass of wine, that’s all. It really doesn’t really have to mean that much.