Wednesday 17 July 2019

'Why I broke up with booze'

For those of you who enjoyed Dry January, Suzanne Harrington makes a good case for staying sober all year round

Suzanne Harrington, who quit drinking 10 years ago. Photo: Hannah Maule-Ffinch
Suzanne Harrington, who quit drinking 10 years ago. Photo: Hannah Maule-Ffinch

Ten years ago, I ended a long-term relationship: one that began when I was 14 and lasted 24 years. It didn't end well - it had become abusive and controlling and I was sick of it, but for a long time had been too scared of being without it to walk away. Until one morning - January 16, 2006 - I woke up in the horrors for the very last time, and thought, 'I can't do this anymore.'

I'm talking about drinking, obviously. While my human relationships have sometimes veered into dysfunctionality, they were never abusive and controlling. That special relationship was only ever between me and booze. Something had to go - either the bottles in my fridge or the remaining sanity in my head. Self-preservation, fuelled by desperation, kicked in, and, with the help of 12-step recovery, I finally stopped drinking. Properly.

Mine is a pretty bog-standard story of someone with a drink problem (the problem being that I couldn't stop drinking for any length of time, even though I really wanted to stop), who finally got help and got sober. There are millions of us out there. Anyone who has ever been alcohol dependent - physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially or all of the above - will tell you what a huge relief it is to be free of it at last, and how alcohol-free life is the polar opposite of what you thought it would be.

The immediate advantages are obvious: no more horrendous hangovers; no more 'Oh-god-what-did-I-do'; no more of that special kind of shame, dread, regret, and remorse that is exclusive to alcohol more than any other drug. But what keeps people sober long-term is less talked about - basically, you find your mojo. Your real mojo; the one that lives inside of you, and not in a bottle. Everything you feel - energy, enthusiasm, joie de vivre - is genuine and not made from tequila slammers.

People still ask if I miss it. The truthful answer is no, not even slightly. Initially, I thought I would be in mourning for the rest of my life - the reality is that within a few months, I had begun to feel so good that I thought there was something was wrong with me. Fresh! Lively! Awake! Clear-headed! Even-tempered! What on earth was going on?

And all that energy - what would I do with it? Loads, as it turned out.

When you are no longer dragging a toxic sack of hangover behind you, it's amazing how much boundless enthusiasm you discover for a whole raft of new stuff. From yoga to sex to joyous early-morning dog walks, everything feels better, calmer, brighter, and more real. You learn to trust your reactions and gut instincts, because they are no longer drunk.

But here's the thing. Do you have to be a full-blown alcoholic to discover the pleasures of sobriety? (Never mind that our definition of alcoholic tends to be a narrow cliché of park-bench drunk, rather than the myriad varieties the condition includes - from indoor sherry tippler to high-performance professional via incoherent teen, sozzled senior citizen, or bog standard 'social' drinker who cannot go more than a day or two without 'socialising'). Are sober people only sober because they have to be? Or might living alcohol-free be something that is becoming more a lifestyle choice than something your doctor has ordered?

We all know that we drink a lot in Ireland. While not the in World Health Organization's top 10 drinking countries, we hover below tenth place with our consumption of 11.9 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year. The top boozers are Belarus, on 17.5 litres annually, followed by Moldova (16.8 litres), Lithuania (15.4 litres), Russia (15.1 litres), Romania (14.4 litres), Ukraine (13.9 litres), Andorra (13.8 litres), Hungary (13.3 litres), Czech Republic and Slovakia (13 litres) and Portugal (12.9 litres).

The thing with Ireland is that we binge... like crazy. Instead of drinking smaller amounts every day the way they do in, say, Portugal, we save ours up and then get hammered. WHO calculates that we are the second biggest binge drinkers in the world, after Austria, out of 194 countries. According to Alcohol Action Ireland, 75pc of alcohol consumed in 2013 was via binging, which is defined as more than five drinks in one sitting. (I don't know about you, but for me, five drinks would not be a binge as much as an appetiser before the real boozing began. Which is probably why I am in recovery, and not down the pub).

In Ireland, our heads are collectively in drink mode. Some 81pc of males over 15 and 79pc of females drink. Even though a fifth of the population are non-drinkers, we still spend €50 million a week on the stuff. Do the sums: that's a lot of drinks in a country with a total population of 4.6 million.

Anecdotally, non-drinkers report being treated with curiosity, bafflement, suspicion, even occasional borderline hostility ("What's the matter with you?").

People assume you are either a recovering alcoholic or some kind of supercilious killjoy weirdo (or both). In my personal experience, this what's-the-matter-with-you attitude is far stronger in Ireland than in the UK, where being a teetotaller does not rank as quite such a social taboo; people aren't that bothered one way or another.

In Ireland, declaring yourself a non-drinker is to set yourself apart.

But this may be changing, albeit glacially. The Dublin-based Sober Slice social group hosts regular meet ups which have outings and activities beyond the pub (talks, walks, game nights, yoga, etc - with around 4,400 members) and Funky Seomra hosts club nights without alcohol.

The only snag for non-drinkers is the Cinderella Syndrome, when a fun on a night out on the town can go pear-shaped around midnight - being sober in a drunken environment is, at best, boring, at worst, alarming.

Yet this excessive drinking thing seems peculiar to Ireland and the UK, rather than many of our European neighbours, who think getting rat-arsed is terminally naff, and recoil in horror from drunkenness as pathetic and bad-mannered.

We think it's hilarious, and collectively excuse each other and egg each other on. Sorry if that sounds judgey, but the more you step back from bender boozing, the more you see the social collusion that collectively permits it in the first place. And it's not pretty.

In the 90s, Ecstasy use rendered alcohol consumption temporarily uncool - the dance floor was full of Evian bottles instead of beer bottles - as booze was relegated to something your parents did. Today, as cocaine use has become more commonplace, it means you can drink more without falling over.

Combining alcohol with cocaine results, however, in a super toxic liver-basher called cocaethylene, which also messes with your heart. Still, when you're 22, you're unlikely to be worrying about your internal organs because you are still fully immortal. But as we become ever more health aware - from tobacco to sugar to trans fats, we continue to let go what does not benefit us - could our co-dependent relationship with alcohol be undergoing a reassessment? Even a small one?

Dry January is a thing now. People experience genuine changes to how they feel - we might miss the automatic reflex of going for a drink after work, or opening a bottle of wine in the evening, but within a short space of time, we recognise the impact - better sleep, better skin, moderated appetite, even mood, and the best of all, tons more energy. A skip in our step, a brightness in our eyes. And that's before we ever consider the bigger health benefits - like happy livers.

Unless you're an alcoholic, most normal drinkers drink from habit. Because everyone else does, because of social expectation, because of peer pressure, boredom, stress, anxiety, the weather, celebration, commiseration, because it's the weekend, because it's not the weekend, whatever.

It takes just 21 days to change a habit. What have you got to lose, other than a learned behaviour?

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