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A sobering exercise

An enthusiastic drinker decides to give up alcohol for a month

Nina Caplan | April 7th 2009

I am not an alcoholic. I don’t get sick, fall down or start my day with tots of whiskey. But I do love wine. I am entranced by the socio-historical and chemical properties of the vine. It is, for me, an intellectual pursuit–albeit one that is also literally intoxicating.

The threshold of addiction is a foggy place. You more or less know when you’re dependent, and you know when you're independent. But most of us stumble around somewhere in between: we’ll just have one more; we don’t need it, we just like it; we could stop anytime. My social life runs on alcohol like a bicycle on its tyres: it could keep moving without it, but the ride would be bumpy and uncomfortable and I would worry about looking foolish.

So I decided to give up drinking for a month. How hard could it be? Not that I thought it would be easy: not only do I enjoy drinking, but also I am good at it. I merrily buy fine wine and hold it well. Yet given my lack of discipline, going completely without seemed easier than moderation. I believe La Rochefoucauld had it right when he said, "Moderation is the feebleness and sloth of the soul, whereas ambition is the warmth and activity of it."

Supportive friend:  "Seriously? For a whole month? Wow. You should write about it. People love to read about the misery of others."

Less supportive friend:  "In January? Are you mad? What other joys are there at this time of year?"

Even less supportive friend:  "I’m just off out for a lovely evening of dinner, chat and lots of red wine. Oh, and martinis. Envious?"

So I did it. It’s not difficult. Just dull. I felt unsociable. I missed the glow of self-satisfaction that alcohol brings, and the clear division it offers between work and recreation. I would cook dinner for a friend, watch her down half a bottle of wine and feel guilty for not joining her. (It was like when I gave up smoking years ago: I hated being unable to provide the comfort of cigarettes to others.) I missed feeling like part of a tradition of literary self-destruction.

When fellow journalists toasted a departing colleague with bad cava, I sipped water and felt gloomy. I attended a drinks awards ceremony (masochistically, surely) and realised I couldn’t be bothered to talk to anybody. How does one negotiate the cracks in social discourse without alcohol? All of those conversations you would rather not have, all those people you want to talk to but don't know where to start. How do you extricate yourself from an undesirable tete-a-tete when your exit line is "I really must get some more Pelligrino"? I hadn’t realised just how much fun I thought I was having simply because I had a glass in my hand. 

Horrified friend: "Never give up booze. Ever."

I didn’t miss drunkenness, which I rarely indulge in anyway. Nor did I miss the bad free wine at book parties and theatre openings, as guzzling the unworthy stuff leads to a hangover and little else. I did not pine for pub culture, which mostly involves drinking terrible wine so that the men you’re with can down lager and stare at a television behind your head.

But I did miss selecting just the right wine to accompany a dish at a dinner party (food-and-wine pairing is my favourite party game), and the glass I would sip as I cooked. I missed the bubbles that would dance the Charleston over my tongue in the first sip of champagne at the start of a smart evening, and the rich, spiced raisin of an armagnac at the end of a decadent meal.

Though it turns out that what I missed the most did not involve alcohol consumption at all. For me the biggest boozy pleasure is slavering over a good wine list. It seems I’m less a hedonist than a fantasist. Anticipation is silkier on the tongue than the finest vintage.

The month felt long. I don’t mean time dragged—in fact, the long, free evenings I’d envisioned never materialised. I still went out all the time, and did precious little exercise (despite all those nights of quality REM sleep). But there were no elisions, no blurring of events between the first shared bottle and the second. For a month everything I did was clearly delineated.

So what else did I learn after a month of stone-cold sobriety? That it's over-rated. There is a reason why people drink proportionally more the less they like themselves: alcohol takes you, as so much slang for drunkenness has it, out of your head. I’m no self-loathing Hemingway or Parker, but a month is a long time in your own uninterrupted company. Nobody wants to spend that much time with me—not even me. This is despite the fact that I found abstinence to be good for my self-esteem, not the other way round. People keep asking me if I feel healthier. I don't, particularly. But I do feel smug.

I discovered that I use alcohol the way Susie Orbach claims women use fat: as a locus for blame, a red herring. Off the sauce, I was still tired, lazy and prone to overeating carbohydrates and chocolate. I still spent too much money, talked too much and went out too much. In fact, none of my problems can be blamed on drinking alcohol, except the one that involves drinking a little too much.

With my month over, I’m faced with the real challenge: moderation. Bacchus help me, for my own inclinations certainly won’t.

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