Drink and Me: 'Irish people will do anything to protect their relationship with alcohol'

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

Stefanie Preissner. Photo: Kip Carroll

Stefanie Preissner

At a time where many of us may be feeling the effects of over-indulgence, author Stefanie Preissner talks about her decision to give up booze and three day hangovers.

Stefanie Preissner

I wake up. My eyes are stuck together with the glue from false eyelashes, sleep, and probably tears. The pillowcase looks like a child has learned graffiti. My hand is stamped with ink from three different nightclubs, and there's an unchewed kebab in my mouth. I lean out of the bed and spit it out, noticing that I clearly did the same thing last night. The small movement of leaning out of the bed has poked the bear - the bear being a hangover. I will not recover from this for three days.

I'm chuffed with myself for waking up in my own bed because my standards for what constitutes a good, safe night of drinking have plummeted so low that I can achieve them by simply waking up at home alone.

This is what weekends used to look like when I drank alcohol. It wasn't that everyone else was up at 6am on a Sunday, jogging through the park before sitting down to brunch. Some of my friends were in a similar state. Half-humans wrapped in duvets scattered across Dublin, united by the telltale wrist stamp that was often the only memory of where the night had taken us.

If we had all managed to not lose our phones, the texts would start in the afternoon. The hive mind of the group would piece together the night, until we came to the last person's blackout, and the story would disappear in a flurry of laughing-crying-face emojis.

The laughing-crying face was perfect for how I felt about that time. I laughed about it at the time, but I was desperately unhappy. Nothing about the nights was enjoyable. My feet were sore, my bank account was depleted, my friendships were bruised and my self-respect was the price I paid for entry to the club.

We're taught from very young that drinking is cool, fun, and what you have to do to be social as an adult. It takes effort on your part to learn for yourself that it's not. The difficult part about identifying that I drank too much was that I was hanging out with other people who were also drinking too much - that was a form of preservation for the behaviour. When everyone is doing something, it's hard to identify it as dysfunctional.

For the first few years, I even had my friends to go through the hangovers with. We were like people who get closer by experiencing trauma together. We'd hole up in someone's bed, order a week's wages' worth of carbohydrates, and deconstruct the night in gentle tones so as not to trigger headaches or worse. We live in a world that offers bottomless cocktails at brunch, and happy hour and ladies' nights. We drink to 'unwind' and to 'relax' - this is the way alcohol has been marketed to us. It's nearly impossible to call out binge-drinking when it's part of our cultural identity. There are too many people benefitting from it for anyone to put their hand up and call last orders.

I cannot tell you enough how much I do not miss those nights. And yet, when I tell people I don't drink any more, and that I don't go clubbing, they tilt their head at me and search for a reason.

Am I pregnant? Am I on antibiotics? Am I an alcoholic?

They'd down a triple whiskey before they'll accept my triple 'no'.

Irish people will do anything to protect their relationship with drink. We defend it, we laugh off criminal behaviour as 'the crack'. We call people 'dry balls' or 'dry shites' if they try to highlight the dysfunction of drinking until your amygdala shuts off and you have no impulse control. Falling over, starting fights, losing your memory, losing your belongings, getting sick or wetting yourself are not normal side effects of normal drinking.

And yet every time I say I don't drink, people need to label me to distance my conclusion of my drinking from theirs. I wasn't drinking in the morning. I wasn't drinking on my own. I wasn't hiding empty bottles around my house. I wasn't even drinking every week, not to mind every day. But I still noticed the impact alcohol was having on my life, and have seen the benefits of giving it up. I was sober curious.

I've ruined pillows, clothes, carpets and other people's handbags. I've spent the cost of a sun holiday in a single night. I've taken copious painkillers to make Sunday hangovers bearable. I've learned that there is nothing casual about casually drinking more than five pints in a night.

Five pints! I hear you scoff. That's the issue. Irish people seem to feel proud of how much they can drink. There's a social currency when someone can 'hold their drink' and not be seen as 'a lightweight'.

Look, if the statistics about how many young women are presenting to doctors with liver damage or any of the other awful health statistics aren't enough to convince you, then an article in a Sunday paper won't either. Many of you might even be reading this with a hangover. It's no bubbles out of my sparkling water what you do with your life - I just wanted to share for anyone who might find it helpful that there is a brilliant life on the other side of Scotch. If you're sober curious, there are many of us out here.

It's not all sunshine and sparkling water on this side, though. It's tough to be sober in a world that wants you drunk. Sober people are threatened by you. People want to label you alcoholic, pregnant or contagious. The worst part of being sober though, is being around drunk people. They think they're hilarious.

In fact, they are loud, smelly, tedious, and repetitive beyond tolerability. I don't attend most events where people get drunk now, because seeing people you want to like getting drunk makes it impossible. I'd have to be drunk to tolerate those events, and I don't want to be drunk, so I opt out. It means that there are things I would like to attend, but the cost to me is too much.

Sometimes I miss the ease with which I could achieve oblivion with alcohol. Sitting next to annoying people at parties or events is much easier when you can get sloshed. Dealing with grief, sadness or anger is all much less effort with alcohol, but that kind of avoidance has never served me, really. I drank because I could. I drank because everyone else was. I drank because I was uncomfortable in myself and in the company I was with. I drank because I thought there was nothing else to do. I drank because I thought people liked me better drunk. And maybe they did.

Being sober hasn't fixed those insecurities. It's a slow process, but at least now, I act, I remember everything I say to people, I behave intentionally, and if people want me at an event, I can be sure they want me for me, and I won't ruin any special occasions for anyone. Because, while I found drinking 'relaxing', it was not relaxing for anyone around me who was sober enough to notice.

Just give it some thought. For lots of you, it won't be a problem at all. But for others, those of you who have ever woken up and not known where you are, or who have singled out one type of alcohol and sworn off it, those of you who've told yourself you're not drinking on a night and not been able to follow through on the commitment - maybe now's the time to make a change. Not drinking for a while wouldn't be a problem for someone who wasn't dependent on it.