Drink and Me: 'A bad hangover used to be my favourite accessory'

In a new series, five of our top writers speak candidly about their relationship with drink

Emily Houricane. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican

At a time where many of us may be feeling the effects of over-indulgence, here Emily Hourican examines why she considers alcohol to be a friend with benefits, not a soulmate.

Emily Hourican:

I am the child of a mixed marriage. My mother doesn't drink at all, and never has; my father drank like most Irishmen of his generation: in a way that seems excessive now, but was within the bounds of 'normal' back then.

My mother may not have drunk alcohol, but she was tolerant of drink. She encouraged it in others. Even in us, when we were relatively young. A half-glass of wine with Sunday lunch was very much the thing from the time I was about 14 onwards. I remember a gin and tonic on Christmas morning after Mass when I was 15.

The theory was that this kind of drinking would act as an inoculation, protect me from the bad kind: bottles of cheap, sticky, sweet stuff bought on the sly and consumed in bus shelters and round the back of the school disco.

The inoculation didn't work. I drank the civilised glass of wine at home, and a bottle of Martini Bianco on the bus on the way to the school disco. I was 14 and yes, I was That Girl. The one reeling through the car park at picking-up time, so blindingly and blatantly paralytic that the women who ratted me out to my mother told me, years and years later, "I really felt I couldn't not".

That was it for me and booze for quite a long time. I got to UCD with a very modest habit indeed - a gap year spent in Florence, Italy, taught me that 'nice' girls didn't drink. They had a small glass of wine, then went for an ice cream.

In UCD, though, nice girls did drink. Fun ones did, anyway. And so I drank. Those were the wild years. There were quite a lot of them. I drank, merrily, through college and much of my 20s. I got more discerning - no more Martini Bianco, and I've never been a fan of beer (it's a volume-versus-alcohol thing: so much, for so little). Instead I drank wine; whiskey; gin; Bloody Marys; frozen vodka (neat, never with mixers); brandy in balloon glasses.

Everything, back then, came with booze. Nights out, obviously, but everything else, too. A lovely mountain walk? Finish with a whiskey by the fire of some thatched pub. A trip to Tesco? Break it up with a quick G&T en route. Bad hangover? Brunch, and Bloody Marys. Hot chocolate? Add a dash of rum. Under the weather? Have a hot port. Not sure if you even want a drink? Try a brandy and ginger ale.

I drank through fun times and terrible times. I drowned many sorrows and toasted many successes. I went to work with hangovers; I turned up late and theatrically 'dying' to weddings, christenings, family lunches. A bad hangover was pretty much my favourite accessory, along with smudged eyeliner and boasts of, "I only got three hours sleep".

And yet, it was only every temporary, all this posturing with Pinot Grigio.

Because as strong, stronger even, than my father's example of excess, was my mother's abstention. It waited in the wings, dormant for many years, while I ran my course with the other version. And then, somewhere around age 27, it stepped forward and took over, neatly and completely. I began to drink less. A lot less. The hangovers, by then, had become a problem. I was sick of missing out on so many days because I was exhausted. I had a job I loved and wanted to do well, and I began to realise how incompatible that was with being constantly in recovery from a night out.

I stopped going out in the way I had been. I stopped drinking in the way I had been. But, I carried on with the 'civilised' couple of glasses of wine every night, for ages. Getting pregnant, when I was 29, put an end to that, and somehow, it never picked up again. First, I was pregnant, then breastfeeding, then pregnant again, more breastfeeding; pregnant for the third time. By the time I stopped breastfeeding the last, I no longer had the habit of drinking at all. It had become something purely social, and, with an intermittent social life thanks to small kids, weeks would go by without a drop.

I didn't miss it. Not at all. In fact, I confess that I became secretly quite judgey about other people's drinking habits. For a while, I contemplated giving up entirely. Except it didn't seem worth it when there was so little left to renounce. And there were occasions when I remembered what fun it could be. The odd Margarita, a shot of ice-cold vodka, or glass of Champagne.

And, always, the knowledge that, in times of trouble, a glass of good red wine was the most reliable weapon in my armoury. At the end of a bad day, something stressful or traumatic, when I felt unhappy, agitated, out of sorts with myself or, as a reward for something difficult, done well (a 10k run, say; or a tricky bit of public speaking that I had been nervous about), a glass of wine was my way to celebrate, and recalibrate.

I didn't abuse the system - this was emergency-only stuff; one glass, rarely two - but it was wonderful to know it was there; that I had a fail-safe, should I need one.

About a year ago, I began to contemplate a time when I might begin to drink more. Not lots more, obviously, but a little. The children are older; I no longer have to get up with them at night or early in the morning. I am not, generally, as exhausted as I was back in the days when I did have to do those things. I have more (a little more) free time. Perhaps, I thought, I'll be like the late Queen Mother, and settle down to a dry martini every day at 4pm?

Probably, I never would have actually done so - puritanical habits die hard - but it was a pleasant piece of contemplation. And then, last Christmas, my body played a truly unexpected and sly trick on me.

The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack. The second time, I decided it must be a panic attack. How else to explain the sudden, horrible racing, thumping, bumping of my heart, so loud I thought I could hear it outside my body? It happened when I went to bed, or at least that's when I noticed it. I had to sit back up and turn on the light. I put a hand to my chest, wondering at what point I'd better call an ambulance. Thump, bump, crash, thud. It is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've had. It subsided, eventually, after keeping me awake for hours, and I dismissed it as 'whatever.' And then it happened again. Very soon, a pattern emerged, and alcohol was the culprit.

So just exactly at the moment when I was contemplating a renewed and deepened relationship with alcohol, it has abandoned me. Now, instead of having a soothing, soporific effect, a single glass of wine acts like a line of speed. It is wildly stimulating, giving me a burst of energy that is great at the time, but, when my heart is still racing three or four hours later, making it impossible to sleep, the benefits do not seem that compelling.

It's hardly a bereavement, I get that. In fact, frankly, it's probably a good thing - the jury seems less 'out' on the health effects of alcohol than it used to be, with mounting evidence that it is not A Really Good Thing for any of us - also, I have one teenager and two soon-to-be teens in the house; perhaps it's a good moment for the generational abstemious role-model to make an appearance. And yet, I'm sorry. Sorry that one of life's great reliables has been taken from me. Discombobulated, that one of my certainties has been overturned (after all, if that can happen, what the hell else is waiting?). And a tiny bit bereft. Maybe it will come back around. Maybe I'll get to be the Queen Mother after all, sometime in my 60s. But right now, it is not so much that I have foresworn alcohol, as it has foresworn me. It has dumped me unceremoniously, and even though I wasn't that attached to the relationship, I wasn't ready to let go completely.

Alcohol was a friend with benefits, never a soulmate. But still.