8 October 2017
If you speak to anyone who knew me in my uni days, you’ll know that a saintly attitude to all things alcoholic has never been part of my style. I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get cheerfully smashed whenever it presented itself, and was even paid with a six-pack of beer (Black Label, no less – talk about a class act) when I did stand-up comedy at the Student Union. Whether or not this improved my act remains a mystery…and is one of the many reasons I thank God almost daily for the invention of camera phones only after this time. At one of the big party universities in South Africa (the amount of beer drunk by our tiny student population of 7,000 was always a point of pride), going ‘large’ was standard, and I look back on that time with huge fondness, and a wincing liver.
At this point, I would also like to insert a warning to my children for when they are older, and as nuggets of parental wisdom go, I’d say it’s pretty significant – never ever (ever) drink the yucca at a Rowing Club toga party. Being woken up at 5am by the Sunday Times truck is always a bit annoying after a big night. When you open your eyes and can actually see every bolt on the truck’s tyres because you’re sleeping on the central reservation of the main road outside your university (having been carried there on the sofa you’d fallen asleep on – bloody rowers and their ludicrous upper body strength), it’s time to make a resolution to steer clear of all lemon-based vodka punches for good.
However, in all this time of happy debauchery, I can pinpoint less than a handful of times where I tucked into a drink because I felt I ‘needed’ it, and with kidneys that were wont to throw an infection at me on a regular basis, going out stone-cold sober was never really a hindrance in terms of enjoying myself. Talking at the top of my voice or making a tit of myself is not something I’ve ever had to rely on alcohol to help me do, so its presence on a night out was generally more as part of the fun rather than the point of the exercise. If I couldn’t drink because I was antibiotics, that really wasn’t a good enough reason to stay at home.
My endometriosis kicked in just a month after I finished university, and with it came the need to consider ‘lifestyle choices’ – the dullest of all the choices, let’s be fucking serious. Along with a special diet to try and manage my symptoms, I was forbidden from indulging in my favourite beers, red wine, and G&Ts. This was a proper case of ‘hashtag sad face’ as I enjoyed these things enormously, but I was willing to do anything necessary. The fact that this gave me a kind of reverse version of the ‘Heathrow Injection’, where I lost about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in six months, was certainly a case for ‘hashtag smug face’, which made up somewhat for the lack of yummy Merlot in my existence. But, dark times were ahead… My first glass of red wine after a six-month break absolutely sank me. I was embarrassingly drunk after about four sips, hungover after another four, and fast asleep about 15 minutes later. I was suddenly the world’s cheapest, and dullest, date.
Gradually I worked out that wine and champagne were the major no-nos, but that clear spirits like gin were fine. However, I would be able to nurse that G&T for well over two hours, and my absolute limit for many years was two – unless I really wanted to feel like a warmed-up corpse for two or three days. Gradually this amount has been reduced even further to, well, almost nothing. For the past year, I’ve had to concede defeat and stop ordering my beloved amaretto sours (has there EVER been a more perfect cocktail??), as any alcohol at all means I can literally feel my liver and kidneys growing too big for my body. It’s like my organs are doing an impression of a helium balloon, and it bloody hurts. So, I am now the lucky llama who is pretty much faced with the choice of Coke or sparkling water when ‘out out’ (although, can we just have a moment’s shout-out to the GENIUS makers of Seedlip non-alcoholic spirit – it’s sensational with tonic, but not available everywhere just yet).
Much as I would still like to be able to enjoy my favourite alcoholic beverages, the fact that I can’t drink isn’t something that bothers me or makes me any less likely to go somewhere I know people will be drinking (when even my sons’ favourite soft play centre stocks wine for the grown-ups, this would be nigh impossible anyway – I’d like to add that I can well imagine that the addition of wine to an adult’s experience of soft play could only be a vast sodding improvement). What has become rather boring, however, is the reaction of other people when I decline a glass of prosecco and ask for something soft instead. After running through the various reasons why I bizarrely wouldn’t want a drink (pregnant? alcoholic? puritan?) the person who offered me the drink will more often than not ask with an exasperated air, ‘then why not?’ I have tried saying ‘it just doesn’t agree with me’, but this tends to elicit a reaction that suggests I’ve just announced that I’d quite fancy shagging Donald Trump. However, the more detailed description of my whole alcohol/swelling internal organs link is way more detail than anyone needs at a cocktail party.
By then, my ‘freak’ neon light is fully flashing above my head, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll need to have this ‘why I don’t drink’ conversation at least seven or eight more times that evening. One memorable dinner party consisted of me being thoroughly questioned on this topic for the entire starter and most of the main. While I have absolutely no problem verbally wanking on about myself for hours on end, I can’t possibly imagine that this is a topic that would fascinate anyone? Surely we should all still be arguing over Brexit? Or judging other peoples’ parenting? Or complaining about the cost of installing nuclear bunkers in our gardens? I can’t be alone in thinking that whether or not I have a glass of wine is literally the least interesting topic of conversation in the entire history of, well, wine?
I have developed my own theory about this fascination with non-drinkers (or, at least, the ones without a ‘valid’ reason for abstaining), and it comes down to the simple matter of judgement. Not my own, I must clarify. I have absolutely no opinion on someone else’s drinking habits - whether you crack open a bottle of Pinot at 5pm on the nose because your children have screamed non-stop since school pick-up, or if some days you fancy a pre-lunch aperitif, I can’t see why I would possibly care. In fact, I often wish I could join you. Likewise, if you get tanked on a night out and I need to hold back your hair as you have a chat with the porcelain telephone, I would only really start feeling somewhat judgy about your behaviour if you literally puked on my shoes. It’s your body, it’s your decision, and as long as it doesn’t endanger you or anyone else, I can’t summon up the energy to feel one way or another about it. In fact, there is never a shortage of something to drink when you come to my house, even though neither Mac nor I drink any of it ourselves. If you come for dinner, you will not be expected to neck litres of nettle tea – there’ll be a variety of delicious options, and even the prospect of taking home any remaining open bottles as we won’t want to waste them – surely that’s no bad thing? Adult party favours for the win!
This ‘judgement’ I speak of is entirely projected by other people onto me, which I think you’ll agree is rather strange. Surely it has no impact on your life? I will still get louder and sillier as a night out progresses, and will happily be the last to leave the dancefloor. As an added bonus, I’ll be able to drive you home afterwards, while having no objection to the fact that you’ll probably feel the need to tell me how much you’ve always loved me at least 17 times. When you wake up the next day and want sympathy for the fact that you’re hanging like a pair of dog’s bollocks and still have to try and effectively parent your children all day, I will be full of sympathy - not pointing and laughing as I jog past in my athleisure wear.
I have no moral objection to other people’s drinking, but I do object to being labelled as a party pooper for not indulging alongside everyone else. I also don’t particularly fancy a round of applause when I do decide I really fancy a beer once in a blue moon. Drinking is not a moral issue (unless it compromises your treatment of others, or indeed yourself), and I’m dubious of campaigns that try to make people ‘Sober Heroes’ for charity. If you want a drink, have a drink. If you don’t, then don’t. But if you feel like you’re somehow powerless to make that decision in the face of peer pressure, whatever age you are, then that’s a conversation you need to have with yourself. And, hopefully, the people around you won’t make a big deal of it if you make the decision not to.
P.S. This photo of my 20-year-old self doing stand-up was taken by one of my best friends (and now godfather to my youngest son), Trevor Crighton. He’s @trevorcrighton on Instagram.