Drink and Me: 'Listening to other people's drunken drivel is sobering'

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

Niamh Horan. Photo: Kip Carroll

Niamh Horan

At a time where many of us may be feeling the effects of over-indulgence, writer Niamh Horan examines the motivation behing drinking

Niamh Horan:

The very first encounter I had with alcohol came through a friend I used to go out clubbing with. She was absolutely beautiful. Platinum-blonde hair, big brown saucers for eyes, and a body like an old-fashioned Coke bottle.

The boys loved her; the girls purred close to soak up whatever social currency she emanated, and I quickly discovered that she was the best wing-woman I could ever ask for.

On Friday nights, we would sit in front of her mirror, slowly building our physical armour. We would steam our hair into poker-straight lines, and I would watch as my friend smeared blood-red rouge on her bee-stung lips - long before lip injections were invented.

After our physical transformation, I was ready for the bar. But my friend needed a little extra. She told me she couldn't walk into the place without having a drink first.

She turned every head once she stepped through those doors - but it didn't matter what came next or what anyone said. Or how good they tried to make her feel. It was something on the inside.

And so it sat on her vanity table, the glass of Dutch courage. As vital a part of her make-up routine as the brushes and perfume.

It was my first inkling of the power of alcohol. But it would be years until I realised it wasn't the problem in this situation. It was the 'solution'. My friend's real problem was fear. The drink was just what she used to cope.

My own long journey started on my 18th birthday. I didn't drink until then because of a pledge I took for my Confirmation. That night, I raised a glass of Champagne with my parents, and for the first time in my life, I felt like an adult.

From there, it was pubs at weekends, followed by a nightclub until 3am. Tia Maria and milk tasted like a chocolate milkshake, and it was just something to keep my hands busy. My main attention was focused on boys and dancing. Drink was something that helped the process along. It gave me a nice buzz, but never really took over in a way that I had to have it there.

Looking back now, I think staying sober during my teenage years - until I was 18, at least - saved me from a lot, in what is a particularly vulnerable time for most people (one-in-four Irish teenagers report having their first drink at 13). I didn't know it then, but I had so many little insecurities that the mix of spirits and self-doubt would have been more lethal than any concoction I could have found behind a bar.

And if I am being honest, those feelings never really went away.

Gradually over the years, I realised I was using drink every so often to ward off uncomfortable feelings - just like my friend.

On a date, a glass of wine could give me confidence, or ease me a little better into conversation.

After a busy week, I could use it over dinner with a friend to destress.

There were many blow-outs in my 20s. Like the time I was the only one who dressed up as a prostitute for a 'pirates and prostitutes' house party (when I turned up, everyone else was some version of Long John Silver) and so I proceeded to do the most instinctive thing I knew at the time to deal with the social awkwardness: drink straight rum at a speed that would have made Blackbeard proud.

Perhaps it's for my own good that I don't remember the rest.

By the time cocaine flooded the scene - and it is back with a vengeance - I was done with wanting to get out of my head.

I started drinking less and, by default, that meant me being around people who were drinking more. Hearing the drivel that is spouted after more drink than people can handle has been consumed, was a reality check.

How many times that had been me.

And I saw how cocaine makes things worse. The greatest unofficial PR stunt ever pulled is the perpetuation of the myth that it keeps you sober. Over a few hours, it turns people into motormouths, speaking the same nonsense as those who are drunk - except their monologues are speeded up. By the night's end, they sound like they're speaking in tongues.

But back to booze - when it came down to it, I didn't want to overdo it any more. And for me, 'overdoing' it simply meant drinking too much and for the wrong reasons.

It wasn't until my 30s that I met someone who gave me good advice for managing alcohol.

She said: "Check your motive."

I began to watch how I was feeling before reaching for a glass of wine.

I realised there is a difference between the drink you have because you enjoy the taste, or because it makes a good accompaniment to a meal, and the drink you pick up to still your nerves. And it's a very fine line in between.

It turned out that the 'right' kind of drink only came around once every few weeks at most. And on those occasions, one or two glasses over the course of an evening would suffice.

These days, I now look for the right reason to drink and the right context.

Here's what I learned did not fall under that heading: the glass of wine on my own in front of the TV; drinking on an empty stomach; drinking too quickly; drinking if I was in any way not in good form; drinking without having water to pace myself; and, most importantly for me, drinking - like my friend once did - for Dutch courage, or to numb out any feelings underneath.

In facing all the wrong ways I used to drink, I can now more thoroughly enjoy the good moments to have a glass of something nice.

Not to sound like a budding Jancis Robinson - my wine knowledge is incredibly sparse - but I also found in my 30s that learning about wines, or at least hanging out with people who could show me a thing or two about a good region and pairing, helped me appreciate drinking more for pleasure than anything else.

And still, when I close my eyes and think about the nicest glass I've ever had, I can't tell you the year or region. But I can still feel the sun shining on my face, the sea salt in my hair, what music was playing, the bikini I was wearing, and exactly who I was with.

I've learned that alcohol taken in the right way is like good background music. It is the backdrop to a nice evening; a subtle presence rather than an overbearing one. It helps set a positive vibe. But good company and real connection should always be the main event. Even if you are sitting in silence, enjoying the moment. Without that in mind, it doesn't matter what label is on the bottle or how much you take to make up for what's going on inside; you're drowning out what could have been a good memory with poison.

We don't have to be addicted to something to want to change our behaviour around it.

Human beings - as frail as we are - have a tendency to misuse anything that can temporarily make us feel better.

I think when we talk about 'unhealthy drinking' we typically take the definition to the extreme.

But what I found is that the truth is usually a lot subtler than that.