It’s 30 years – 1991 – since I quit drinking alcohol, and how well I recall the fear and anxiety as Christmas loomed that year. How would I get through the festive season without booze? It was the mainstay of every social occasion at this time of the year – such a mainstay that I once completely missed the family Christmas dinner because I was knocking back gin and tonics with drinking pals.
In the first months of sobriety, I started to fear Christmas. A few weeks before the festive break, a wise counsellor told me: “Stop projecting into the future. You might have fallen under a bus by Christmas Day. Get through today.” And actually, it was fine.
I now look back on 1991 like the beginning of enlightenment. My only regret is that I didn’t stop drinking years before.
Almost every folly, almost every metaphorical car-crash (and a few near-miss real ones), almost every insane choice and mad, embarrassing and mortifying memory is associated with my dreadful problems with alcohol.
It’s all very well saying “what’s past is past” – but these things aren’t past, because in later years flashbacks return to haunt me.
I suppose there are many different reasons for an addictive habit, or perhaps an addictive personality, but Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which has long experience in supporting sobriety, underlines that we have to take responsibility for our own choices. Ben Affleck saying he drank because he felt trapped in his marriage just won’t do.
There are a hundred explanations why people drink to excess – depression, family issues, an inherited tendency, bad luck, opportunity, loneliness, insecurity, the culture of drinking in a job. I can identify with all of them and have made all the excuses. “Imposter syndrome” was one of them – I would be found out that I wasn’t really the person I pretended to be – along with stress and insecurity.
Yet there was also the perverse streak that I liked the recklessness – as well as the taste – of liquor. I liked the way it made you feel crazy and insanely brave. I liked the over-the-top element, as when an old colleague I met in the street said: “Come on – let’s go and get Russian-drunk!” (He had reported from the Gorkian depths of Russian drinking.) I loved it when the author Kingsley Amis said: “The sweetest words in the English language are – ‘let’s have the third bottle’.”
But the third bottle is never enough, and the fifth and sixth would follow. Then come the horrors, the memory of degradation, the sense of wretchedness and remorse.
Getting sober wasn’t easy: human beings are creatures of habit, and the association of ideas – going to the pub or the party and getting smashed – was a habit of life. It was associated with friendship, comradeship, laughter, solidarity with mates, hilarious stories. And in the good times, these occasions were memorable. Listening to Maeve Binchy and Seán Mac Réamoinn converse wittily in Dublin’s old Pearl Bar was like being at table with Oscar Wilde and Oliver St John Gogarty.
So I had to learn to find laughter and good talk elsewhere. And so I did – and without the nightmare hangovers that followed, when I felt maggots were creeping all over my skin.
And I came to recognise the difference between the alcoholic and the normal person. There’s nothing wrong with a session in a pub, for most people. The public house is one of the great institutions of civil-
isation – a centre of warmth, friendliness and good cheer – and I think it’s desperately sad that hospitality is currently under such constraints.
I don’t approve, either, of Ireland’s bossy licensing laws – why shouldn’t a normal person buy a bottle of wine before 10.30am? AA studies indicate that about 85pc of people are normal drinkers: maybe 15pc are on a spectrum from excessive drinking to serious alcoholism. But even if someone is an alcoholic, they have to address that problem themselves and get help in doing so – it’s not the shopkeeper’s job to police their issues.
I’m not sure just why I stopped in 1991: my mother had died that year, and some psychologists suggest that a parent’s death is the trigger for true adulthood. Maybe I found, with age, the hangovers becoming too overwhelming and the constant mishaps and accidents exasperating. I found support from other recovering alcoholics too, who showed me there was joy in sobriety. And something my late husband said was hugely encouraging: “Mary, you’re quite effervescent enough without a drink.”
And so it all came to focus on Christmas, the top of the year for alcoholic celebrations. This year, it will be so challenging for boozers – locked up at home with stashes of the bottles, contemplating the depressing circumstances we’re currently in. I can identify with their feelings, but, as we say, it’s only a day – and “when you drink to drown your sorrows, your sorrows learn to swim”.