When I awoke the next morning, I was in a strange bed and he was next to me. I had no idea how I got there. I staggered out of his apartment and vomited on the bus. I was at my lowest ebb. Blackouts like this were happening all too often. I was 26 and I had spent the last ten years in a fug of alcohol and bad behaviour.
The broken friendships, the gin and tonics until I passed out in a dodgy club at 3am, and the grovelling letters of apologies to fuming dinner party hosts. (‘Yup, sorry I ruined the game of Trivial Pursuit, took off my top and demanded everyone dance’) had all taken their toll.
I knew if I didn’t take the first step to sobriety, I would probably end up in a gutter before my 30th birthday.
So I did. No AA, no props. I just stopped drinking there and then. And I have never touched a drop since. For someone like me, there is no such thing as one glass. I lack the sensible gene that stops you reaching for the nth glass of white wine and falling off the bar stool blind drunk. I am a sober alcoholic. Fine as long as I stay away from the demon drink for life.
For most of the year, sobriety is manageable. Most of my girlfriends are now trying to stay ahead of the ageing curve, so are quite happy to swap their Martinis for Matcha Lattes. Even the midweek dinner party has become ‘soberish’, and I feel on the same page drink/sensible conversation/early bedtime wise.
That is not to say I don’t miss alcohol. I do. But I am not hopping up and down with my tongue hanging out at the first sniff of a Brandy Sour. That is until this time of year. As the party season gets under way, I find myself swept along on a wave of cheer and fancy cocktails. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but when the supermarket shelf is stacked with offers on Christmas wines, you know that ‘festive’ is simply code for ‘let’s all get steaming drunk’.
If I am honest, it is at this time of year, that I wish I could have a sneaky nip of vodka to get me through yet another gathering of acquaintances and near-strangers. I get that it’s the season to be jolly and that glasses of Cava/ Dom Perignon can pep you up and kick-start the booze-fuelled togetherness. I can even forgive that time in the evening when complete unknowns hug you and then burst into tears.
What I don’t get is the overwhelming pressure to be part of the ‘festive fun’. The insistence, to ‘have just one small glass of mulled wine, Kate’ when I politely shake my head and put my hand over my glass of Evian, jangles my sober nerves. Don’t they understand that as a sober alcoholic, I can’t drink EVER!? And that includes at their Christmas shindig.
I suspect that behind the maudlin faux love, there are a lot of people in midlife knocking back far too much drink like I did.
And statistics bear this out.
According to a 2019 study in The Lancet, a total of 84 per cent of Irish adults drink alcohol, with Ireland having one of the highest per capita consumption rates in Europe.
Some 54 per cent of Irish men, and 26 per cent of women, were classified in the study as heavy episodic drinkers. This is defined as having at least one episode of 60g pure alcohol intake in a 30-day period.
New figures show alcohol consumption is declining amongst young people, leaving those in middle age largely responsible for Ireland’s continuing high rates of alcohol consumption.
In Britain, NHS statistics show that the baby boomer generation are now the problem drinkers, and are set to overtake young people as the country’s problem drinkers.
The figures, analysed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, show that a staggering 30,642 over-50s were admitted to hospital for mental and behavioural disorders linked to alcohol in 2018/19, up from 25,288 five years previously.
I am not surprised. Our generation grew up with liberal attitudes towards drinking. Remember the time when getting trollied and staggering out of a club at 3am was par for the course? After years of wine-o’clock and dancing on tables, it’s not easy to go sober at our age.
Yet there seems to be a subtle shift in our attitude to drinking. In the age of clean-living Instagrammers, and the rise of the wellness movement, we are eschewing things that are bad for us. Suddenly being ‘Sober Curious’ and ‘drinking mindfully’ are all the rage (especially amongst the young).
It would appear that waking up bright-eyed and being alcohol-free is seen as liberating and empowering, instead of boring and a bit sad.
Indeed some of my friends, now in their mid-fifties, are beginning to twig that ordering an Uber and standing upright at the same time is actually quite a good look. Others of my just-trying-out-sobriety-for-size friends tell me how wonderful it is to wake up after a party and dig into a plate of scrambled eggs without the stomach-churning nausea and a liver screaming out in pain.
I have to admit, it feels good to be ahead of the curve for once, instead of the party-pooper sipping on flat ginger ale and sulking in the corner.
So if you are one of the many wondering how to navigate the party season sober this year, here are my tips…
Top tips from a sober alcoholic
DON’T PANIC WHEN YOU ARE ENTERING A PARTY WITHOUT ANY DUTCH COURAGE
You arrive at the party and look around. Everyone is in conversation, laughing and drinking. Take a deep breath, nobody knows you are sober, smile and go with the flow.
YOU CAN CONCOCT GLASSES OF FIZZ THAT LOOK JUST LIKE A GIN AND TONIC
Making yourself a coca-cola with ice and lemon looks remarkably like a rum and coke. Not only will it fend off the Drinking Police, the sugar and caffeine will up your energy and give you just enough buzz to get into the party spirit.
MERRIMENT CAN BE FAKED
Once you realise that drumming your fingers on the host’s kitchen table and watching people crack open the Champers is borderline depressing, you learn to fake it. Join everyone dancing the conga and you’ll find yourself laughing along with everyone else. See – you can still be the life and soul.
KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE
When it gets to the ‘repeating themselves and laughing at their own jokes’ stage, you know it’s time to go.
YOU’LL BE GLAD YOU DID
The next morning you wake up and a wave of happiness washes over you. Whoa! What is this? You feel great! You don’t want to crawl back into bed and hug the duvet for a week. Gone are shivers and the fear. You want to share this feeling with the whole world. Only problem is no one else is awake. Yet. They’ll soon learn.