How A Decade Of Sobriety Finally Taught Me To Drink
It’s not about needing to drink. It’s about having the option.
Two months after I quit drinking, I fell dick-first into a fling with a co-worker at the bar where I collected glasses. She was 21, four years my senior. It was fun at first, but it wasn’t long before my insecurities, and up to 20 phone calls a day, tore it apart.
When she started spending time with a handsome older trainee manager, I knew I’d lost her. At a work party I watched as they kissed in front of me. I nearly threw up. I stumbled outside and slumped to the pavement, humiliated.
It hurt the way only a broken heart does: entirely.
No one at the bar knew about our thing. In the hope of winning her back, and because I’m an idiot, I respected her wishes not to make it public.
Without knowing where else to turn, I told my brother. Though we’re almost as close as siblings can be – we’re fraternal, not identical twins – we weren’t close.
"I wish I could take you for a beer," he said. "We could talk about it."
"Can’t we talk without one?" I wasn’t about to pick up a bottle, to break this promise to myself, because of her. Or anyone else. He shook his head. As young men, unsure of ourselves yet unwilling to compromise, we drifted apart.
Hurt and headstrong, I chose ideals over intimacy. When people asked how long I was quitting for, I'd tell them I'd start again when I felt like it, even though I felt like it a lot.
I was resilient and determined and stubborn enough to keep it up for 10 years.
Sobriety suited me. It gave me a cause, a mission. It also gave me a superiority complex and made me an insufferable shit much of the time. I don’t preach, I’d say, grinning like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, before telling everyone how great not drinking is.
I’m surprised I didn’t have pamphlets printed.
Long-suffering acquaintances praised my willpower. "I couldn’t do it," they’d say, and I’d nod like I understood, hearing only the sweet sound of validation. Unquestioned conviction is absolute.
And I did enjoy being sober. I could dance and drive home and wake up without a hangover. I could spend all my extra money on travel. But I still needed alcohol: I needed others to drink past their own fears and insecurities before I could fully cast mine off.
I never said this out loud. It didn’t fit my narrative, and the narrative was everything. Instead of dealing with anxieties I didn’t understand and discomfort I refused to recognise, I constructed a reality that suited me better.
Look how together I am! Look how hard I’m winning! Cranberry juice tastes great!
Most people bought the story. I certainly did. But I wasn't exactly a reliable narrator. Turns out making life choices off the well-meaning but ultimately misguided thoughts of your 17-year-old self is never a good idea.
I barely know anything now, at 32. Back then, I knew less than fuck all.
My third year of university I lived with six other students. A friend of a housemate visited for the weekend and we spent the afternoon talking. When my sobriety came up, I expected the usual questions: Are you an alcoholic? Was there an accident?!
Her question caught me off guard: What the fuck are you afraid of?
It was punch in the throat. I seized up and shut down. I’d never been challenged like that before, and I didn’t like it. I felt naked. I felt stupid.
"I’m not afraid of anything," I said. "I enjoy being sober."
I wished I had a pamphlet to give her.
I was terrified, of course. I just didn’t know how to admit it. My fear was crippling. I was afraid of losing control. I was afraid that I’d never leave my hometown, that I’d just become one of the drunks propping up the bar where I worked. I was afraid of intimacy, of not being good enough. I was afraid of an average life.
It seemed that alcohol offered only limits, but abstinence came without borders. That was the promise. That was the lie. Because eventually my identity was so entwined with sobriety – I’d clung so tight to it for so long – that I was afraid to let go. I wasn’t sure who I’d be without it.
After the barroom heartbreak, it was two years before I slept with anyone else. Riddled with acne and self-doubt, I struggled for confidence for years, but by the time I went to university, at 19, all the time I'd spent in the gym was working in my favour.
Cocky enough to meet people, but too insecure to let anyone get close, I spent much of my early twenties drifting between casual flings, searching for a suggestion of intimacy. It worked fine for a time, because that's what everyone else wanted too.
There was a house party in the final days of university, the last before graduating. I got there late, hoping to avoid any initial discomfort, but the music – some kind of dubstep – was disorienting and total. The stale smell of weed left the upstairs off limits, and the ketamine crowd in the kitchen kept me at arm’s length.
Downstairs I found a quiet room and talked to a girl I recognised. We’d hooked up briefly in our first year, and though we had chemistry, I’d barely seen her in the two years since. For the first time that night, I relaxed. The crowd thinned in the early hours, and when she got up to lock the door it was clear I was staying over.
We were mid-flight when she asked me if I believed in God. I laughed. Then she asked if she had said that out loud. When I looked confused, she told me she dropped a pill while I was in the bathroom. Then she asked about my favourite breakfast cereal.
It was fun, and entirely ephemeral. In the morning we kissed goodbye. No numbers were exchanged. No regrets. I saw her again four years later at a bar in London, and in a glance we each pretended we didn’t recognise each other.
By 27 I was in a relationship with an Australian I’d met while travelling in Sydney. We began dating in early 2010, when she visited London, and we were long-distance for over a year, subsisting on Skype and WhatsApp and long-haul flights with short stays.
On a trip to Sydney in November 2010, ten years and four months after I quit, I told her I'd like to share a bottle of wine. She ordered a shiraz, and we toasted to us. It smelled of pepper and tasted only of alcohol, and I felt a slow burn as it slid down my throat.
I’d wanted this for a long time, but I didn’t want to do it alone in a dark room with a bottle of whisky. After a decade of isolation, I wanted to share it. It felt good.
It didn’t last.
By my second glass, the wine had folded me inward. I spoke quietly, starting sentences I didn’t finish. The mood dropped. It was disappointing. When you spend so long building up to something, it’s no surprise when the result isn’t quite what you’d hoped for.
"Is this what you’re like when you’re drunk?" she asked.
After a long pause, I gave the only answer I could.
"I don’t know."
In February 2012 we married in small ceremony at a vineyard south of Sydney, where we danced and drank champagne until we passed out on the marital bed.
It was just over a year later when the marriage, soluble like temporary stitches, began dissolving. During our attempts to reconcile, we began seeing a relationship counsellor. As my wife described our issues, the counsellor looked at me and made notes.
She told me I might be depressed. I shook my head. Depression is an “other people” thing. But at this stage, with the life I’d built quickly unravelling, I was willing to concede there was a problem and I might be it.
A week later my GP diagnosed me as a major depressive. I was 30.
"But I’ve always felt like this," I told him. "Since I was a teenager at least."
He offered a sympathetic nod. He said it was common for it to go undiagnosed, especially among men. I thought I just wasn’t an excitable person. I thought I was just Northern.
I thought about choices I’d made during my teenage years. The reasons I struggled to get out of bed, to leave the house. The reasons I couldn’t connect with my peers. The reasons I gave up drinking. I thought about my relationship: my lack of engagement, my lack of motivation, my mood swings. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
"There are some great medications out there now," my GP said. "We’ll have you back in a happy marriage with a couple of kids in no time."
I nodded. The diagnosis was a revelation, and it might save me. But it couldn’t save us. There's no pill for that.
"I love you," my ex said, "but I need you to be happy."
It wasn’t something I could promise. I told her I could be happy sometimes, but I knew sometimes wasn’t enough. She had struggles of her own, family stuff that had left her worn down, at the end of herself. We each needed support the other couldn’t offer.
A trial separation in the summer of 2013 turned out to be a dry run for the real thing, and in June we lay on her bed, holding each other through fits of tears, grieving the loss of a future we wouldn’t share. We were married for 15 months.
In February 2014, I moved back to London. Between starting a new job and picking up a life left behind, I was having trouble meeting people and connecting.
My therapist offered a solution: Stop focusing on difference. It sounded simple, but I’ve always struggled with similarity. Difference is my default setting and sobriety was a way of embracing it. Similarity, it turns out, is a tricky lens to focus. Alcohol helped.
I started by making an effort to go for work drinks. Sitting in the pub, allowing myself to be a part of the group, I understood then that this is the process alcohol facilitates: It washes away difference and brings bonds to the surface.
We are none of us the same. But we are similar. And that’s worth toasting to.
It’s five years since I started drinking again, and it’s a balancing act. My brain is old rope, it starts to fall apart if I drink too much. It’s why I avoid beer: More than one leaves me low with a week-long hangover I can’t shake.
When I do drink, I stick to whisky, or wine. Things I can sip slowly.
I don’t regret my sobriety, and I don’t begrudge those who don't drink. The opposite, in fact. Sobriety was there when I needed it. I learned a lot about myself and at a time when I didn’t understand my own mental health.
I can manage without meds, most of the time, but it requires discipline. I have to look after myself. Drinking is part of that discipline. At 32, a marriage behind me, a heart with fresh scars, I’m tempted to distance myself from people, to hide. Alcohol is another tool in my arsenal. It’s not about needing to drink. It’s about having the option.
Luckily, I’m a happy drunk. I’m told I have a certain walk when I’m tipsy; my giggly shuffle, as I call it. It comes complete with a perma-smirk on my face and an easy-going charm. When I start quietly singing, rolling the cold glass on my forehead, it’s home time.
But there is a point, before the singing, that fords the chasms of difference and doubt. There is a point, a drink or two deep, when I’m not hiding any more.
A few weeks ago, my twin brother came to visit me in London. We’ve long since settled the disputes and differences of adolescence, and though we’ve spent much of the last 15 years living in separate cities, he’s my best friend.
Outside the station we embraced. We talk most days, but it was good to see him in the flesh. His long-term relationship had recently ended, and I’d been worried about him.
We walked back to my flat, to the casual observer more like friends than twins. We’re the same height, but that’s about it. We are at once different and the same.
"We should go out somewhere later," I told him. "Get a drink, talk about things."
"I’ve not been drinking much lately," he said.
I laughed. "We don’t have to."
He laughed too.
"No, we should. We're long overdue."
All this week, we’re talking about mental health. Read more:
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