I was never able to relate to those friends who breezily proclaim, “Oh, I don’t get hangovers!” before tanking two bottles of wine, rolling in at 5am, then getting up for a run before breakfast. In the decade since I moved from Smirnoff Ice to serious drinking, I have never not had a hangover after a night on the sauce. Never.
It was these hangovers, and the crippling ‘beer fear’ that accompanied them, that prompted me to give up drinking in my early twenties. It seems I am not alone in this, as the Office for National Statistics has identified a “significant” drop in the alcohol consumption of 16-24-year-olds, while one study found that the number of young people who don’t drink alcohol at all has risen by 32%. While many aren’t drinking in the first place, the transition is hard for those who are having to consciously change their behaviour.
I was 15 when I first got properly drunk. One bleak evening, when my parents were out, my brother introduced me to a dark wooden cabinet I’d never paid any attention to before. Delving behind a collection of dusty cut crystal glasses, I discovered countless bottles of varying shape, age and strength. Finding out that this stash had been hidden in plain sight for years was like discovering Narnia; I wouldn’t have been surprised if a half-cut Mr Tumnus had come galloping out brandishing a bottle of Cinzano from 1998. My brother took on the role of mixologist and handed me a plastic cup full of opaque liquid which left an astringent, burning sensation in my oesophagus. “Winter Pimm's, brandy, and tropical juice!” he exclaimed. “A couple more of those and you won’t care what it tastes like.” He was right. Two hours later I skipped up to my room, threw up in my waste paper bin, and passed out.
The ensuing hangover marked the first day of the rest of my life. My relationship with alcohol over the next seven years was a wild ride of exploration, mistakes and growth: underaged clubbing; an afternoon unconscious in the medical tent of a festival; countless naps taken in the middle of dancefloors in dodgy bars. And then one day, I couldn’t do it anymore. After a not-abnormally heavy night out, I jolted awake, my hands shaking, my heart palpitating so fast I thought it would give out on me. I feared for my life, desperate to drain out the chemicals that were still coursing through my bloodstream.
Then it happened every time I got drunk. The crippling pain of the morning after had began to outweigh the fun of the night before. After a hungover visit to A&E, adamant I was having a coronary, I realised that I had to stop placing such strain on my body, my mental health, and the NHS (who probably had more important things to be dealing with than a trembling, hyperventilating student with a hangover).
For extended periods of time, I cut out alcohol almost entirely, except for tiny sips of Prosecco at weddings before heading back to soda water. Eventually, I stopped craving the giddy haze of lagers knocked back in a beer garden in the height of summer and the way fizz on an empty stomach made my words slop enthusiastically out of my mouth like foam over the rim of a champagne flute. I enjoyed waking up clear-headed. I could dance all night before enjoying brunches that once I would have pushed listlessly around my plate before sprinting to the toilets to dry heave.
From the sober side of the coin, you realise that the level of alcohol in your system doesn’t correlate to how fun you are as a person.
But despite the positive aspects, giving up alcohol in your twenties can be unimaginably hard. The friends who once gave you disapproving looks as you slopped your seventh vodka lemonade down your top start saying: “just a couple. It won’t hurt. You’re so boring now.” I considered telling everyone I was pregnant (unsustainable) or newly religious (unbelievable) as it seemed no one would accept that the physical and mental discomfort drinking now caused me was too unbearable to risk.
I thought friends found me boring. Once I was the hot mess throwing up on the new carpet, heckling bemused seminar tutors when I’d show up to a 9am tutorial still wasted, or flirting with their parents, siblings, and anyone with a pulse. I was the one who took it too far so that their common-or-garden drunken behaviour could go unnoticed. And suddenly, the irresponsible one could hold everyone else accountable for their actions. I thought back regretfully to the times I’d pressured my friends to drink and realised that it was never because I thought they were boring when sober. If anything, I was concerned they would judge my drunken antics and find my drunken conversation childish and dull. From the sober side of the coin, you realise that the level of alcohol in your system doesn’t correlate to how fun you are as a person.
While some friends were less than understanding, I came to realise that my true friends genuinely didn’t care. Recently, I put a call-out on social media to see if anyone wanted to share their experiences of going sober. I didn’t expect any responses. Despite the statistical evidence, I believed I was alone in my quest for sobriety while my friends enjoyed their twenties in a state of perpetual inebriation.
And then I received a message from a friend who, unbeknownst to me, had also given up alcohol. Then another. A dozen more followed. All were people who I considered to be hilarious, and infectiously fun and none needed alcohol. They had various reasons for giving up drink: conservation of their physical and mental health, incompatible medication, growing out of the binge drinking culture, not enjoying drunk people’s company, an inability to cope with hangovers. But they all encountered similar problems: dating and socialising still centre around bars and pubs, friends mocked them, they felt less outgoing. One young woman now avoids having to justify her sobriety by always being the designated driver, another curbs her temptation to binge drink by only buying one expensive bottle of alcohol to make it last longer. All of those who’ve since started drinking again have done so for their own enjoyment, not from peer pressure. They realised that those who minded their sobriety didn’t matter, and those who mattered didn’t mind.
I now enjoy an occasional drink (singular) and have come to own my new lifestyle. Who knows if I’ll ever become a regular drinker again? For now though, I’m rather enjoying being that smug friend who “never gets hangovers”.
Image: Nik MacMillan via Unsplash