What’s it really like to be Tee-Total?

15 Dec


Alcohol has always been one of life’s great pleasures for me. In my mind it is associated with friendship, fun, companionship, moments of great excitement and celebration. Friendships that have long endured were forged over a few drinks. Disagreements that might have festered were dissipated by the simple act of sharing a couple of easeful drinks. Is it any wonder that so much of male bonding is tied up with alcohol in some way, from those half daft initiation rites beloved of public schools, posh universities and rugby clubs, to the club soccer trips abroad. Take the alcohol away from any of these events and it would be a sober affair in more ways than one.

My relationship with alcohol has also and always been tempered with caution. Like many people in Ireland I saw plenty of the dark side of it growing up, the horrible stench of it on breath, that dreaded squeak of the cork as it was hurriedly and furtively plucked from the bottle neck. The sight of anyone collapsed on the floor in a pool of vomit is not to be recommended for any child. As a result, I have always had a special sympathy in my work as a guidance counsellor for the child of an alcoholic parent – the dreadful guilt, the deep shame, the sense of responsibility, the constant and crippling anxiety about what would happen next, the fear of adult life being an entire process of pain. The ongoing questions of why and how the lives of good and much loved people can be so hammered into despair by the battering of life is another story.

Needless to say, as I grew up, alcohol and I quickly became friends. I found like many young girls that it gave me confidence to be wittier, prettier, cleverer and far more daring that I could possibly have been otherwise. Over the decades, there have been many, many late and great nights, wonderfully warm and companionable nights (and on rare occasions days too), glowing memories of silly and mostly harmless escapades, all night parties, heated arguments about literature, art, the right ingredients for a Cosmopolitan, the fireflies in Ambler PA, the utterly unassailable status of Brian O Driscoll as the greatest Irish sportsman of our time, politicians, Bono, Economics, Bacon versus Freud, Dickens versus Joyce. Alcohol has always helped me to summon up particularly finely tuned arguments and comments on such issues. With alcohol I have been able to become a political commentator of quite staggering insight, a sports pundit with a surprising breadth of knowledge, a literary critic whose talent (though as yet largely unrecognised) will be snatched up any day now by The Times Literary Supplement. An Art Critic par excellence! A singer with exquisite pitch! With alcohol I have walked the walk on six inch heels through the streets of Dublin, London and New York. With Alcohol I have been the life and soul of the party and entirely without holding a note or tune of any kind, have croaked my way through entire back catalogues of everything from Callas to Cobain. With alcohol, I have danced gracefully and not without elegance at many glittering occasions and held my own in the dress and deportment department at those same glittering occasions, amongst women taller, slimmer and prettier than I. And not ever made a fool of myself! What Never? Well hardly ever!

Wine in particular has been one of the finest pleasures to me and there is little in this world to beat a fine bottle of vintage Bordeaux and a plate of well chosen cheeses in the company of friends and good companions. I can tell you that the Shelburne does a fine Cosmopolitan as does Ashford Castle. There is hardly anything worse than a tepid Irish Coffee and do not ever drink Greek Retzina. It is the work of the devil!

But delicious alcohol that can so infuse us with joy and bind us to friends old and new, has the horrible dark side too and it can take hold of us, not let us go and destroy us. Raymond Carver’s excellent poem Wine is a compellingly honest description of how alcohol can unravel even the most successful lives and devastate even the most devoted friendships.

A couple of years ago, I found that a few glasses of wine at the weekend had somehow become a couple of glasses of wine on several nights (except Mondays and possibly Tuesdays) and an extra couple of glasses on a weekend night naturally! The justification was the toughness of the work, the challenges of parenthood, the need for chill-out relaxation time with one’s partner. Alarm bells began to ring somewhere in my head and unsettling old memories stirred.

But face forward always! It was time to quit – if only for a while! Me and alcohol – we’d had a fantastic innings and I’d gotten to my early fifties without collapsing in a pool of my own vomit and with my liver, my intellectual faculties and above all my significant relationships reasonably intact! What would it be like if I gave it up? Even for a while? I’d never even given it up for Lent! And being honest, I’ve always been wary of teetotallers and pioneers (as we sometimes call them). I have in my head and in my heart labelled teetotallers and pioneers as dry ould shites! And not at all like recovering alcoholics who I have in my head and in my heart as battling heroes to be encouraged and admired!  Would anybody ever talk to me again? Would I be dropped off the dinner party list? Would unkind people make easy snide comments at my expense?

About two years ago I began to think quietly and privately about stopping alcohol for a while, to test and prove my fixedness of purpose, to see what life without my lovely warm companion would be like. The fear of failure was so immense that I told no one, not even close family. It became a sort of secret obsession. I set a date in Spring and bought a quite expensive bottle of wine. As luck would have it, friends arrived quite coincidentally for a meal that night and we had enough to drink and lots to say as usual. At the end of the night I opened the expensive bottle of wine. I remember thinking it was so lovely, such an almost celestial pleasure, the rich subtle taste of it, the sound of the wine gurgling seductively from the bottle, and the line that always goes through my head when I see red wine in a glass ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ Only a fool would willingly relinquish such a delight! Even temporarily. Nobody else in the room that night knew the little battle that was quietly raging in my head.

What’s it like to be a teetotaller you may ask? How can you possibly enjoy life without alcohol? What about the parties, the banter, the warm glow of being in a group of people all nicely mellow on drink? No I don’t miss it. Not a bit! Yes if I am diagnosed with something incurable with death imminent in the morning, I may well head to the off licence and buy up several crates of wine, champagne and proper brandy. But right now, life is perfectly fine without my warm and seductive friend. Parties are still fun. People are still mostly delightful and stimulating company. Friends are still dearly cherished. And I’ve met some teetotallers who are the best fun ever.

I’m sorry to say that cheese at the end of a meal loses its lusciousness somewhat without a decent red wine but it’s probably no bad thing to ration the cheese intake at this stage of my life in any case. Diet coke is not a great companion for many fine dishes. I cannot cook boeuf Bourguignon without using at least half a bottle of red wine and I use wine in most other recipes where it is required. In certain situations, I’ll take a glass and pretend to sip it. On Christmas Day I will have a half glass of the best wine in the house. But having detested tonic water since the cradle, I have now become a complete addict. The best tonic water is Fever Tree and I will drink it with almost anything.

Please no lectures on the harmful effects of quinine! Thankyou!

A very delightful result of not drinking, and one secret that those cunning teetotallers have been keeping to themselves for far too long, is that one often gets to drive the most beloved people home and also the most interesting and the most fun. There’s nothing like a car journey late at night for catching up with or getting to know people.

People’s reactions have been mixed. Some think I’m completely mad. It’s likely that in some eyes I have now joined the ranks of the dry auld shites! Some kind souls have helpfully directed me towards the AA. Mostly however, people are bemused, amused and also more than a little interested. In these uncertain economic times, a whopping €100 has disappeared off the monthly shopping bill. In many countries beyond our little corner of the world, this sort of expenditure on alcohol would be considered variously as profligate, sinful, socially unacceptable and downright criminal. Yes of course I leave the party earlier now but age and other stuff has put me into the arrive late leave early department anyway. There have been other benefits too, including weight loss, much pleasanter nights’ sleep, fewer thumping headaches and fewer moments of regret over things that might have been better off unsaid.

I have made no commitments to teetotalism. By the time you read this particular blog, I may very well be tucking into a third bottle of wine, and if so I just hope it’s a good one. But for now, being alcohol free is fun, financially rewarding and healthy. I’m a designated driver anytime I want to be – a role always in demand especially at this time of year.

December 2011


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