Back from the drink

I tell people I had my last drink six months ago. But that’s not quite true. I was at a party in a big Victorian house. People were standing around and laughing.

A man rushed past me, into the garden area. Weeks later, he apologised; he’d been naked, he said. I had no idea. At that exact moment, I was draining my final drink. He smiled at me. I can just about remember his grinning face. I can’t remember what the drink was.

Then I walked home, through the snow. There was an interlude of helping somebody get up a hill. A few people were involved. At home, I thought I might have another drink – there was a bottle of sambuca and a bottle of Scotch in the kitchen. A single malt. I looked at the bottles. I couldn’t decide which to have. Something sharp and peaty, or something sweet and sticky. I walked across the kitchen and took a glass off the shelf.

I didn’t think I had a drink problem. I’d had one in the past. The problem, in the past, was that I wanted to drink, more or less all the time, because I wanted my life to be different. With problem-drinking, you want dramatic change. Normality feels hopeless. You go out, and you start drinking, and, after two or three drinks, things do begin to look a little different.

As evening turns into night, the illusion intensifies. All the people who want their lives to stay the same melt away. So you get to spend a few hours, off your head, with other crazy people. When you wake up, you’re never absolutely sure where you are. You sometimes get a sense of relief when you see you’re at home. Then a horrible sinking feeling when you realise that’s the last place you want to be.

But that was years ago. That was a different world. For years, I hadn’t wanted my life to be dramatically different. I just wanted to take the edge off. So I drank every day. The idea was to stick to one or two glasses of wine. Wine feels civilised. But it doesn’t have to be. After I drank the first glass, there’d be a 90 per cent chance I’d want another. After the second glass, there’d be a 95 per cent chance I’d want a third. Still, I managed to stick to a bottle a day, mostly. I was a regular in two or three pubs. Sometimes I went to any old pub. Some of the pubs smelled of beer and sweat and dirty carpets. I’d have a drink, to take the edge off, and slide into the evening. Maybe go back to somebody’s house later, for a nightcap. Maybe it is a problem, I kept thinking.

So there I was in the kitchen, glass in hand, looking at the bottle of sambuca and the bottle of Scotch. A nightcap, I thought. What’s it to be? I couldn’t decide. For some reason, I wanted to want a drink, but didn’t want a drink. Very odd. Most unusual. I stood looking at the bottles for a while. About a minute.

It’s odd what you miss when you stop drinking. For instance, nobody tells you that hangovers have their uses. But they do. When you drink too much, your life begins to fray around the edges. Which makes you anxious. Every morning, you wake up to a blast of fear and worry. Luckily, though, this fear and worry is not your most urgent problem. You feel sick. You have a splitting headache. Your stomach feels bad. That’s your most pressing problem – and it will keep your mind occupied for a couple of hours. When you stop drinking, you think it’s the drink you’ll miss. But, for a couple of weeks, you miss the hangovers too.

For the first day or two, you wonder what it’s going to be like, being in places that smell of beer and sweat, and sitting there, for hours, stone cold sober. How will you cope with it all, without being lubricated by booze – the pub noise, the coarse language, the men who prod you and say, “Oi!”, the smokers, the jokers, the jars of nuts and Bombay mix, the pork scratchings, the slow unfolding tragedy of people’s lives?

And then you think: duh.

After that, it’s easy. Not drinking is awful if what you want to do is drink. But it’s fine if you don’t want to drink. After a couple of months, you look at drinking from a distance. You begin to understand what it did for you – it gave you something else to think about, rather than your life. As your life unravelled, it created a need for itself. It burrowed its way into your life. It crept up.

I was holding the sambuca in one hand. Scotch in the other. I wasn’t really thinking clearly. I had, after all, been drinking.

I wanted to want a drink. But I didn’t want a drink. Very odd. Most unusual.

I put the bottles down. Then I put the glass back on the shelf.

Susie Boyt returns next week

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