Embarrassed by her alcohol fuelled bad behavior, confirmed wine lover Healthista Editor-in-chief Anna Magee gave up drinking 18 months ago. She thought it would be easy. It wasn’t.
18 months ago I made a decision to stop drinking. It wasn’t a snap ‘new me’ thing but a tough choice I had thought long about. Since then, I’d love to say standing around at parties drinking mineral water in a wine glass has been effortless but 12 months later – more than giving up swearing or coffee or even carbs – it remains the toughest thing I have ever done.
I’ve nurtured many a relationship in Chatenuef du Pape, pickled happy occasions in margueritas and numbed sad times in rivers of sauvignon blanc. I have cast the glue of my friendships and in hindsight even part of my personality on the gregariousness that a few glasses of merlot lent me. Now, without my ‘fun tonic’ I feel a new illiteracy in celebrating or comforting myself and others without a ready chemical hit in a glass; like learning a new language. But something has kept me coming back to my mineral water in a wine glass. Perhaps being half a stone lighter, having the energy to go to the gym again in the mornings, being alert every day at work, not worrying about what I did or said last night and – joy of joys – being hangover free.
Though my 20s were spent getting plastered on Saturday nights, my drinking ‘career’ never took off until my 30s. About six years ago Kevin, my husband woke up one morning and declared himself done with alcohol and hasn’t as much as sniffed a drop since. Before this, he was in the championship drinkers’ league, a raconteur and the bones of parties. I played the part of the social brakes by making sure we always went home on time. Once he stopped, he’d drive to parties and began taking that sober-type part so naturally I drank more.
Four years ago, I got home one night slurring – only a little – and my cheeky 20 year old god-daughter who was staying with us called me ‘Mrs Drunky’. At the time I didn’t care. I wore my hangovers like badges of honour, bonding over morning-after emails pinged between offending girlfriends of the ‘I feel sick but wasn’t it fun’ variety.
I wasn’t a huge drinker. A (large) glass every other night and the occasional uncountable binge every couple of weeks. But I was a misbehaving drinker. In my day to day life as a health journalist I have to take forensic care over every last detail and going out drinking became the way I let go of that control freakery. It was my bit of bad; a socially-sanctioned escape. Most days I was a green tea drinking, carb dodging, news-analysing, fully-paid-up member of the Refined and Conscientous Citizen brigade. On nights out I fell out of cabs, danced like a tragic aunt, flirted with strange men, ranted about the economy and come morning, blamed the bottle.
For a while it was delightful. Once on St. Patrick’s Day night I was at the pub with workmates and in my Marc Jacobs dress broke into a full drunken jig when some Irish music came on. Strangers were videoing it on their phones and it was great source of hilarity in the office the next day and for years after. But as a senior editor it can’t have enhanced my reputation.
I was a risky drunk too. Once I took a cab home from the Groucho Club, my regular haunt, with a man I didn’t know who tried to grope me in the back. I must have given him my card too as the rest of the night he kept texting me. This is cute when you are 26. Not so much when you are 38.
Over-sharing became a thing too and I first realized this at a work Christmas party as early as 2007 when I woke up the next day vaguely recalling telling a colleague I barely knew embarrassing details about my sex life. Unbearably ashamed, I couldn’t look at her for weeks.
Most of all I hated the hangovers. There’s current talk of Generation Sober, 20-somethings giving up drinking to get a sharper hangover-free edge at work. I come to this trend 20 years late more worried about losing not so much my edge as my livelihood altogether. Seriously. At their worst, my post-drinking middle-aged hangovers were lasting 48-72 hours. When you work for yourself, sitting at a desk for up to three days unable to think of anything to type but ‘My head hurts’ is an expensive problem.
Then a friend – let’s call her Alice – started AA. She became the confidante to whom I turned to talk about the small but gnawing worry I was developing over my drinking. Did I have a problem? Alice was still the woman I knew and loved and laughed with, albeit a little less wild on nights out, but that was okay. I admired her for moving through her problem drinking, not letting it define her and admitting she didn’t want to do it anymore. The way Alice saw it, if people didn’t like it, tough. But in the past I had heard friends in AA talk about ‘rock bottoms’ that I imagined meant ending up in A&E or spending your mortgage in the pub. I asked Alice about hers and she said it was simply falling flat on her face in the garden drunk one night when her daughter had come out and asked for help with her homework. At 43 it was the moment she realized she ‘didn’t want to be a middle aged drunk.’ Rock bottoms are relative she explained, they’re not always about ending up in a police cell.
I had no real rock bottoms only a string of slow descents. After a Friday night at a food editor’s house where the cuisine, champagne, port wine and more wine flowed I found myself, a supposedly smart woman with a husband and a mortgage getting home blind drunk at 5am. The next morning unable to lift my head, let alone speak it hit me. At 42 I wanted to be done with being drunk.
The first time I gave up booze was late summer 2011, after a magazine asked me to stop drinking for eight weeks for a story. I may never have stopped without being forced in this way to experience what it felt like. During it, David Smallwood, an alcohol counselor at the Priory ran an ‘Alcohol Disorder Audit’ on me and gave me a score of 11. This wasn’t exactly Spinal Tap and some people he said score over 40. Still, anything over eight could be classed as problem drinking. Plus, alcoholics are made not born and nobody starts off with the DTs or having vodka on their corn flakes, he explained, their tolerance increases over time and they use more to get the same high.
There were glitches though. I was at a launch party standing next to an esteemed columnist I had worshipped for the last 15 years. Holding my mineral water in a wine glass, I could think of nothing smart or witty to say and headed to the bar quicker than you could say ‘A large merlot please!’ then had another and another. It was only ten days in and the next morning when I spoke to David Smallwood, he said the litmus test for most people is to go a fortnight without drinking. ‘If you think you have a problem, stop for two weeks. If you can’t, you probably have,’ he said.
I managed to get back on the wagon and after the first four weeks my energy increased and people remarked about how well I looked. Plus, the niggling eye and sinus infections I used to live with disappeared. I’d never connected them to drinking before but according to Allergy UK, red wine is full of ‘histamines’, a common allergen and many people react to it with streamy or puffy eyes and nasal congestion. After eight weeks of no hangovers and a new clear head, I wanted to keep going.
Though I managed to fall into my old drinking habits for the next couple of months, there was a new awareness that I could choose not to drink and feel better for it. So at the beginning of 2012, I took advantage of the extra resolve any January 1st brings – clichéd as it is – and gave it up.
There’s no denying some nights out over the last year have been less fun – or a different kind of good time. There’s an upshot. I no longer have to negotiate two days of hangover into each week so I want to go out more. But my nights are tamer. More opera and theatre or having early dinners with friends over a mock-a-tini but I have also started to see people I might have previously thought of as too ‘tame’ to spend a night out with and have enjoyed their company hugely. Being alert and able to listen more I recently had a moment of feeling being more connected to what someone was saying because I was sober.
But I miss the screaming and ranting so much and think in time this will affect my relationships. I have already become the boring one to some friends because I don’t drink and have a couple of diehard ‘drinker’ mates who can’t accept it for love nor money. I call them the Booze Bullies – smart, successful girlfriends who can’t fathom my not drinking. Transplanted sober now into our old nights out where I would previously have got as drunk as a sailor, they need to know why. Why, why, why, they ask – if you weren’t an alcoholic. ‘You weren’t even that bad a drunk!’ one said. ‘I loved you drunk,’ another exclaimed. More than anything friends demand a reason or that you have ‘just one’. As I am not pregnant or on doctor’s orders they’re suspicious of my motives, like I am somehow cheating; breaking the rules of mateship and bonding or hiding my real reason. ‘Is it because Kevin doesn’t drink?’ one asked recently. I honestly don’t know. But does it matter if it’s my choice?
It makes me wonder whether maybe some of my friendships were based entirely on drinking and sad to think whether they can really exist without alcohol in the mix. ‘It’s not the same now that you don’t drink, Anna,’ commented a girlfriend recently during a night out where in the past I would have stumbled home drunk as a sailor. It added a whole new emotion to the not-drinking equation – guilt at the dynamics of my nights out having changed.
Newly sober on a night out recently, I walked into an old haunt at 11.30 looked around and saw that clear tipping point most nights hit around midnight, the descent from chit-chat into madness Mrs Drunky loved so well, made my excuses and headed home. 18 months ago I would have happily ended up drinking and reveling into the small hours. But I wasn’t Mrs Drunky any more.
Though I still love parties, I am invited out with old drinking buddies less as I always leave early – just as I start hearing the same story a third time or spot mid-conversation the softening eye-glaze of the freshly drunk. I may not have morning-after war stories but I work longer and more minus hangovers – which sounds sad but in these economic times, helps my work, ideas (and cash) flow.
Mostly, I like the knowledge that I am not risking doing god-knows-what with god-knows-whom at god-knows-what-time – and feeling better, pure and simple. Mrs Drunky still sits on my shoulder on nights out whispering ‘Oooh go on, let go a little you deserve it.’ But for now at least, I smile, order my mineral water in a wine glass and ignore her. One sip at a time.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.