independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Giving up drink was the best thing I've ever done

Katie Byrne celebrates four months off the booze with a nicely chilled glass of sparkling water

I remember an anecdote that comedian Frank Skinner told about giving up alcohol and the reaction he often received. "You're lucky," people would enthuse, "you remember everything from the night before". "Yes," he agreed, "but there is nothing to remember because all I do now is sit in front of the TV."

I relate. Despite my better attempts, my social life underwent a seismic shift when I gave up alcohol. Most nights out now are trying without alcohol to lubricate social cohesion.

I can't speak for alcoholics because mercifully I'm not one, but I think there is a fallacy surrounding the social habits of ex-drinkers.

Many think we opt out of social situations because we don't want to be inveigled by temptation; that if we have one drink we'll fall off the wagon and end up poised – mouth wide open – under the beer tap.

In fact, the big fear is that we'll fall asleep such is the boredom. You see, nights out in Ireland are long – unfeasibly long when you're not drinking.

If you have dinner booked for 7pm and you leave a nightclub at a reasonable 3am, well that's eight hours of socialising; a work day, so to speak.

Add to this our inherent social awkwardness and it makes for a bit of an Odyssey when you're not drinking. The irony is that Irish outgoingness is generally alcohol-induced. We need the alcohol to alleviate our crippling social shyness.

This is one of the reasons I gave up alcohol four months ago. It became apparent that I wasn't comfortable in a social situation until I heard the familiar glug, glug, glug of wine being poured into my glass.

I realised that it was a social crutch, that I felt naked in a nightclub if I didn't have a glass in my hand. Hence, I couldn't get enough drink down me on a night out, and I often noticed that women of my 'type' were much the same.

We alpha women have an unusual relationship with alcohol, in particular wine. It presses our self-destruct button. Sorry to go all Oprah on you, but I think we're terrified of our potential.

My main reason for calling it a day, though, was when I had to admit that every mini crisis in my life had been caused by alcohol. Every argument with my friends and partners, every lost item, every missed flight. All those bad decisions . . . Yes, there was drink taken, officer.

Alcohol is a drug, and its legality and availability makes it all the more insidious.

I often think back to the days when head shops were on our high streets. If you went into one of those shops and bought a drug that blurred your vision and affected your mobility; a drug that made you say things that you regretted, argue with people that you loved, vomit, black out, wake up beside somebody whose name you didn't know and spend the next two days with a ball of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, well, at the very least you'd be deeply disturbed.

You probably wouldn't do that drug again. Yet this is an average night out for a lot of people.

This brings us to the issue of 'balance', and the question I often receive: "Could you not just have had one or two?" The short answer is: "No chance." The only reason I ever drank was to get absolutely, as my father would say, elephants. Isn't that the whole point?

Besides, I never actually liked the taste of it, despite my best wine buff pretensions. Velvety texture – gulp – soft tannins – gulp – whisper of spice – gulp, gulp, gulp.

How can you drink 'sensibly' when alcohol contains an instantly addictive element that makes you want more and more, irrespective of what kind of state you're in?

And with this moreishness comes amnesia. I really believed that I was just going out for one or two when I used to drink. But without fail, four drinks in, I'd be on the hunt for devilment, no matter what I had planned for the next day.

Of course, there are those who can have one or two drinks "to be social". They are the same people who can eat half a Turkish Delight and leave the other half for the following evening. God bless their self-restraint . . .

While we're on the subject of chocolate, giving up alcohol has brought on an unnatural sweet tooth. Apparently this is all part of the process.

If societal convention allowed, I would happily leave the starter and mains and order three desserts when I'm in a restaurant. Deep in my heart, I know I could eat 36 Kinder Buenos in quick succession . . .

But besides the size of my bottom, the cavity in my back molar and the acceptance that it's near impossible to hook up when you're a single sober person, there are few cons. It's otherwise been uphill all the way.

I was lucky in that a few of my friends gave up alcohol at the same time. Many more have followed suit by abstaining for a month here and there.

We have, what we call, Sober Club outings. The irony is that we bond more deeply on these nights out. Our conversations seem more sincere, probably because we are in each other's company because that's all we want: each other's company.

When you read literature about giving up alcohol, it tells you to arm yourself with an arsenal of excuses for that moment when someone says "just have the one".

This hasn't really happened to me. Of course, this is when I start getting paranoid. Why aren't people encouraging me to drink? They're being a little bit too supportive for my liking. Maybe I do have a drink problem.

When I look at it objectively. Sobriety is simply becoming more socially acceptable in Ireland. We're generally becoming more health conscious, and with that, a trend is emerging for sober living. You only have to look at the alcohol-free events that are mushrooming up around the country.

This isn't to say that people don't judge. When you give up drinking, the inference is that you had to give up drinking. Many think the subtext of "one sparkling water with a dash of lime" is "one day at a time".

It makes you wonder what actually defines alcoholism in this country. We seem to only brand the people at the very opposite ends of the spectrum: the wretched and the seemingly 'recovered'.

We define ourselves with three locations in Ireland: our home, our workplace and our local. Drinking is our national pastime.

Would foreigners have considered me to have a drinking problem? Probably. But they'd probably think you have one too.

I believe there is a difference between a drinking problem and problem drinking. But maybe I see a clear distinction simply because I'm Irish.

There is also a clear distinction between staying sober because you don't want to drink and staying sober because you can't take a drink. And yet many don't see the distinction . . . because they're Irish.

Either way, it's the best decision I have ever made. Like a lot of people, I drank to absolve myself of all responsibility. And when you reclaim that responsibility, the opportunities are truly endless.

Irish Independent

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