This column first appeared in the Western Mail in November 2020
From Dylan Thomas to Richard Burton, us Welsh have a long, time-honoured tradition of boozing our faces off.
A few years ago, I took a residential course at the former Shropshire estate of playwright John Osborne. The receptionist told me that when the charity that now runs the property dredged the pond in the garden, it found hundreds of discarded champagne bottles. They put that discovery down to the number of parties Osborne hosted where the high-carousing Burtons were guests of honour. Myth or otherwise, it feeds into that national stereotype that when it comes to alcohol, we’re rather adept at chucking it down our necks at a rate of knots.
But is it more than a stereotype?
Wales has the highest levels of binge drinkers anywhere in the UK, a 2016 survey from the Office of National Statistics revealed. Almost one in seven adults in Wales admitted to drinking 14 units of alcohol in a single day – the equivalent of six pints of beer or six glasses of wine.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that the pandemic has led to an increase in alcohol dependency, with support charities reporting a sharp rise in self-referrals. One charity leader told me that the notable growth has been in so-called “middle-class drinkers” – teachers, police officers, doctors and other professionals who have slowly found themselves unable to cope without alcohol in these times.
Alcohol addiction has been on my mind a lot this year. There are people in my life whose relationship with alcohol is problematic at best, and life-destroying at worst. Yet it is normalised, glamorised and encouraged everywhere you look. From omnipresent “Gin o’Clock” memes to TV and film characters, alcohol is portrayed as an accepted part of life in a way that (thankfully) smoking no longer is. We’re told that glass in hand is the easiest way to relax and be the best version of ourselves.
Like so many things, when you start to notice that cultural normalisation, it’s impossible not to see it everywhere. Meanwhile, the cost of alcohol to individual lives, to families, to the justice system and the NHS doesn’t get anywhere near as much airtime.
Earlier in lockdown, I came to the overdue and reluctant realisation that after a 26-year love-hate relationship, alcohol was no longer my friend.
Call it age, but even the slightest hint of overindulgence resulted in hangovers lasting for days. Aside from the horrible physical effects, the emotional consequences were starting to catch up with me too. More likely to eat poorly, skip exercise and feel sorry for myself, I began to question what drinking gave me, and whether it was worth it, particularly as my weekend drinking was now all solo and sofa-based, by necessity.
Kingsley Amis, one of literature’s most notable drunks, summed up the torture of the hangover, thus:
“When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover…You have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is.”
I don’t know about you, but my problem is that when I’m in a hungover fug all sense of reason and perspective disappear. The dread feels real and heavy and never-ending. As I said, I blame my age.
I realised at the end of the summer that for the first time since my first illicit sip of Mad Dog 20/20 in the park as a teenager, the downsides of boozing were far outweighing the benefits. I realised it was a habit I stopped questioning years ago, and that it was time to put my alcohol consumption under the microscope.
After one particularly indulgent weekend, followed by a week of feeling like an anxious sloth with self-esteem issues, I decided enough was enough. I reluctantly accepted that hangxiety – that unshakeable, all-pervasive feeling of dread that lingered for what felt like weeks – was no longer worth an hour or two of relaxation.
So, I called time on drinking. And honestly, to my surprise, I’m not missing it one bit. That’s possibly because I’m not socialising in any meaningful way anymore, and all the things that used to involve booze (tedious black-tie events, gigs, dates) are now off the cards for the foreseeable future. December will be month four of being alcohol-free, and the longer it goes on, the less I miss it and the more I notice how we are sold the myth of alcohol being a toll-free life-enhancer. Reader, they lie. In my experience, it takes away plenty.
I did cave once, post US election, to celebrate the result. But I didn’t enjoy it and poured the rest of the bottle away. Honestly, I don’t recognise myself. But mainly in a good way.
I feel happier, fitter, more productive (Radiohead face) and best of all, what with being locked up, I’ve had no socially awkward “Expecting, are we?” questioning to navigate. I’ve found new ways to switch off, and have replaced wine with books, baths and dog walks. I hate to be THAT smug person, but I wish I’d done this years ago.
I can’t say I won’t ever drink again. That was never the point, for me. The goal was to get through the rest of the year with my mental health intact. I wanted to spring out of bed of a Sunday and make the most of the freedom to walk, run, be in nature.
Life feels better and more manageable without alcohol. And with a quiet Christmas on the horizon, I’m raising a glass (of water) to making different choices, and to other possibilities. Iechyd da, and all that jazz.
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