You wake dry-mouthed, with a dull drumming behind your eyes. What happened last night? Did your friend catch that passive-aggressive dig you made, or are you inventing an expression their face didn’t make? You want a hash brown. And a post-mix Coke. Why is the sun so loud? Also, you’re the recurring element in every bad thing that has ever happened to you and it’s probably because you’re fundamentally unlovable. Your burp tastes like rum.
There’s no better time to utter the words, “Never. Again”, than in the throes of a hangover, and by the end of December, many of us had been battling one for four weeks straight.
Dry January is upon us: a resolution and a reset, a pledge and a prayer.
But if drinking is so fundamental to your life that you need to challenge yourself to quit for a month, I may have some bad news for you.
I’m no better. I’m chronically anxious, and wine is better than Valium. Pinot gris hits my bloodstream and I unclench my jaw, laugh more easily, hate myself a little less.
But in the morning, anxieties come flooding back. We borrow joy from our future selves, repaying them in renewed loathing. As the calendar pages flip on, my hangovers have been replaced by comedowns; the effects of four drinks now reminiscent of “black Tuesdays”. There’s an emptiness now that can’t be filled by greasy food. There’s a little voice saying, “You know you shouldn’t do this.”
It’s so heavy with stigma that it’s difficult to admit, but I have a problem.
I can have one drink, but not two. If I have two, I’ll have six. If I have six, I’m texting my ex. If I text my ex, I’m on the hook for a $280 therapy session. I can’t afford to live like this.
“Alcoholism” conjures up images of glazed eyes and slurred speech at 11am. “Sobriety” suggests someone fragile and self-righteous, always on the verge of relapse and silently judging everyone who imbibes.
But what about everyone in between?
What if you don’t think about alcohol between Sunday and Thursday, but your recycling bins go tinkle-tinkle-crash on bin day? What if you rely on a stiff drink to pick yourself up after a long shift? If your dopamine receptors spark at the sound of a popping cork, you cave to the suggestion of “just one more” then wake up to a negative bank balance and a medium-ugly stranger, you can’t watch football without a cold one, or you get disappointed when your Bumble match suggests a cafe instead of a wine bar?
Illustration by Robin CowcherCredit:Robin Cowcher
The space between having “a problem with drinking” and “a drinking problem” shrinks the longer you think about it.
I quit drinking when I caught myself having too much fun too often. I’d come to expect unease when my friends were slow to respond to my texts the next day, sure that I’d said and forgotten something unforgivable, hating the person I became with a buzz just as much as the person I was sober.
I didn’t have a drop in 2020. When restrictions eased, I’d nurse my sodas with lime and watch my friends let loose as though through a window, so aware of my sobriety in the presence of their discarded inhibitions. Once I’d proved I could go without, I let myself drink again, relishing in my self-control and forgiving myself when I lost it. I’m doing better, but I can see my limits stretching once more, and I sense another break on the horizon.
Drinking culture is so Australian that sobriety seems reserved only for people whose enjoyment of alcohol has ruined their lives. Dependence is so shrouded in shame that we ignore it until we can’t any more.
It feels like admitting to a problem means adopting an immediate solution, as though struggling to identify your limits means you can’t indulge at all, but that may not be true. All-or-nothing will set many up for failure, a religious restriction only building the temptation to break and binge.
Maybe to curb your impulses, you need to taper off. Maybe you need a month, or two, or a year to reassess your relationship with alcohol. Maybe you’ll run that cycle a few times before you really learn. Maybe, for now, it’s enough to be aware of it. You’re not going to quit — for a while or for good — until you’re ready.
I opt for mocktails some nights, and when I do, I don’t miss the black Tuesdays, or the medium-ugly strangers, or the scrolls of shame at 16 unanswered and incoherent texts to my ex. I doubt you will, either.
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