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How I Stopped The Party.
Stories of excess and moderation
Expectations for 2020 were pretty high. New Years’ eve in some bum nightclub in Belfast, I was sweating out Vodka and whites and desperately swinging out of some young one to Maniac 3000. Still, deep in my heart, I wanted something better, I wanted a change! Did it all come true as I expected? Hell no! Things got way worse than I ever could have possibly imagined! Who saw this coming? I took a photo of myself over Christmas as a ‘before I quit drinking’ photo and another today, and I look worse now? There’s no justice in this world. I’ll tell you that much.
So I did dry January with minimal difficulty, my Christmas hangover lasted until probably the 28th to be fair. I decided from there I would go on for 90 days. There was a synchronicity in that, 90 days from the 1st of January lead to my birthday on the 30th of March. I figured that way, at least if I got to my birthday and was dying for a drink, I wouldn’t be breaking my word. So that was my first milestone, I would get to 90 days and then decide. Ironically my birthday was the day Leo Varadker locked Dublin down. I barely escaped back to Belfast without ending up under house arrest. So it was clear at this point things were going in an unexpected direction, and I wouldn’t be getting to a pub anytime soon.
In general, my friends’ responses to my initial plans of going sober were a mixture of ‘good for you’ and ‘don’t call me until you get back on the drink’. I can understand both positions. I knew I could do the challenge. I never had a problem quitting something once I actually say the words ‘I quit!’. I stopped smoking the first time I ever tried, and I suppose drinking would be no different, I was wrong. People don’t slag you for quitting smoking. When you quit drinking, every bartender becomes a stand-up comedy,
“You know there’s no alcohol in them, pal! Oh, you must be driving!” It seems like everyone and their grandmother wants a turn to call you a fruit for giving up the pints. If you’re going to quit drinking, my advice is to become a bit of an arsehole. Don’t be afraid to tell people to go suck a lemon, having a bit of bite in you gives you the freedom to behave as you like.
I achieved my 90 days, but by then, I was already locked down. Going back on the drink than would have been me alone in the house with a monk haircut and a bottle of tonic wine, and I honestly think I’m better than that; though not by much. So I decided I’d stay off the drink until the end of the lockdown. There were times where desperation crept in, boredom, loneliness, and occasionally (probably), full-on madness. Still, I learned to ride the waves of feeling without any liquid stabilisers. In reflection, I’ve always used alcohol as a performance-enhancing drug. Either to deal with uncomfortable feelings, loneliness, boredom or to be Mr Sociable when I don’t feel like it. The problem with that is that I have too much fun, forget I was tired and waste a week’s worth of energy and all my money, in one night. Learning how to socialise without booze has been an education, one which will help me stay off the hooch in the future. I think about socialising like sports, you have to warm up first, and you shouldn’t judge yourself if you aren’t at your best; socialising is a skill.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on my history of drinking. I remember the first time I ever went ‘drinking’, which was a bit grandiose for what actually happened. I was about eleven or twelve at the time, and I skipped boxing training with my mates. They nicked some of their parents’ drinks. My parents didn’t drink, so I had no drink to steal, and I took a sip of some of their Vodka in a Tipperary kid’s water bottle and nearly died. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted in my entire life. I then grabbed a can of Coors lights and guzzled what I could to cover the taste, which was actually pretty good. We then put on the boxing gloves in Ballinteer pitches and had fights, and I busted my mate’s nose and never got caught to this day (sorry, mom.)
On one level, complete abstention from drinking feels somewhat unnatural. I like drinking and having the craic, but I think my personality, being extraverted, I am very prone to having too much craic. Regulation and discipline have had massive benefits, in that I am closer to achieving some of the bigger goals in my life than ever before. Alcohol is dangerous and can make you comfortable in situations you should not be comfortable. You end up drinking too much if you don’t have any goals because you are incapable of feeling positive emotions otherwise. You feel positive emotion in relation to achieving your goals, so no goals, no positive emotion. The closer you are to the goal, the more positive emotion. For more information on this, you should read ‘The Greatest Thing I Ever Learned In Martial Arts.” The idea that you can float through life without a goal and not end up in existential agony is bullshit. There is a rule in story writing, even if it’s only a glass of water, every character must want something, or the story breaks down. What do you want? What's your goal at the moment?
These six months, I’ve realised how much I care about spending time with people I love and how little that actually has to do with drinking. It has been a time of profound loneliness for most people, being quarantined alone, and the temptation to use booze to pave over those feelings is strong. Instead, I’ve tried to find more ways to connect with people, even in small examples, like making eye contact with people on the street and nodding hello, or having those small-talk interactions which everyone usually avoids. Even a few of these micro-interactions will make you feel better and less likely to engage in serial sauce drinking escapism. The cycle is that, if you use alcohol as liquid confidence, you will never develop confidence in social situations when you are sober. So paradoxically, the medicine you are using to treat your social anxiety, is what is making you socially anxious in the first place.
From my twelve-year-old start, you thought I would have descended into madness right away, but I actually didn’t. Drinking and smoking didn’t fit with my worldview at the time because my parents didn’t drink. When my friends or their dumb brothers tempted me with X, Y, and Z. I had no problem saying no. However, in secondary school, my willpower waned for various reasons.
I remember the first house party I ever went to. It was in the bottom floor kitchen of one of those five-story Victorian houses in Rathmines, a mansion compared to Rathfarnham bungalows. I didn’t feel like I needed to drink. I was probably afraid of getting caught, but everybody was already pissed, which was pretty unnerving when I arrived. When you have no experience with drunk people, you can be slightly scared by displaying affection and lack of inhibitions. Two female classmates were in hysterics with how much they loved one another and were probably another can of druids away from shifting the face-off each other. Needless to say, this alcohol business was getting a bit more interesting. I felt like the choice was to start drinking or be rejected by the gang? So my horny teenage brain overwhelmed my resolve and soon I was having two cans of druids in the Dodder and making a fool of myself along with everyone else.
In later years drinking became like a job, like a weekly shift at the factory for twelve pints of Guinness. I even had a journal where I wrote down how many cans I was consuming every week. On Friday, the end of school was a serious buzz with the anticipation of a big slab of dutch gold and some madness with the boys. There was fierce competition amongst us, and the worst thing in the world to be was a slacker or a lightweight, a person who couldn’t hold their own in drinking. Looking back, we did a lot of dumb stuff, but there’s a lot to be said for testing your endurance. Ancient Samurai used to train their endurance with week-long drinking sessions and then showers under freezing cold waterfalls with hangovers; maybe we knew more than we let on. Life was very easy for us. We could have stayed inside playing video games, but instead, we went out adventuring. Drinking was a way of inducing the chaos and danger of the natural world, and there’s wisdom in that. That’s another reason why I drank too much; my life was boring! Drinking makes boring things exciting, so if you are living a life that does not set your spirit on fire, you are going to be more vulnerable to chronic partying.
So, in addition to endurance, climbing the social ladder was essential to me; I wanted to be the coolest. Certain tribes have initiation ceremonies, where you have to cut off someone’s head, and you’re in, but for our crowd, it was: excess. Whoever had the most endurance for partying was the king. The prevailing morality was as long as I didn’t get kicked out of school, I could do whatever the Sam Hill I wanted. Boy did I. Two-three days on the tiles, wandering about Dublin like a big drunk cat. Honestly, I have no regrets about any of that, I made the best friends I’ve ever met, learned about myself, people, love, life and all the things you don’t get taught in school. Still, all good things must come to an end. There is a steep price to destroying yourself every weekend and having to spend the rest of the week rebuilding your constitution so that you can do it all over again. It’s a cycle, a habit, and not one that leads to a good place. You don’t want to be at a party at 6 in the morning for the second night in a row, wondering if you can distract your mates long enough to jump in a taxi. I don’t know how many times I shook my head on the way home and wondered: when am I ever going to learn?
What kept me trapped was a combination of fear of rejection and the uncertainty of who I was going to be. Drinking paves over the doubts in your head, even the unwelcome thoughts of a hangover, are more welcome than the other thoughts that say, what are you doing with your life? Where is this going? Who are you?! So much of my drinking was about fitting in, feeling loved, and escaping the responsibility of growing up. Still, at some point, you have to focus on what’s important, and there are other benefits. One thing I’ve noticed is a sense of pride in being a good example for people to follow rather than just another person tempting them to ruin. There’s a lot of rope to hang yourself on these days, and having one person you can believe in and follow is a powerful thing. I’ve had it in my own life, and I hope to be able to use my life to impact others in the same way positively. One person can make a difference, no matter how big or how small, you can be that example for another person who is down at the bottom of the barrel. In that sense, we are all responsible for the state of the world; a scary thought.
There is a real love in drinking. I heard someone once say alcohol is female, and I can definitely understand that. There’s companionship and cleansing in the ritual which I have to tip my hat to. There have been times over the last several months sober where for some reason, I just felt like crying. I felt actual grief for not being at the party anymore. I knew I could never be that guy again and I grieved like I had lost a friend or a beloved pet. A part of me had died, and that’s always sad, but there’s hope on the other side.
The little games I played during the session, talking about ideas, plans and dreams, have now become the reality of my life. Putting down the beers has allowed me to start putting things in place for my career, making my website, and working on my first book, my play. No matter how small, achieving these goals adds fuel to the fire for achieving the bigger ones. So even though these last six months have been a metaphorical kick in the testicles, I’m glad that I stuck to my guns and kept going. In the end, no matter how bad life gets, you’ve always got your endurance. I love the mad times and the strange people I met, but I am doing work that requires a steady hand and a clear conscience. Saying ‘feck it’ and not caring is one way to start an adventure, but another, is to start caring and finally take back the control you gave up so long ago.