The sobriety diaries
She’s a believer in alcohol, a fan of pubs, a ‘normal Irish person’. Today, Ann Marie Hourihane begins a social experiment: quitting alcohol for one month. How will she handle it?
Ann Marie Hourihane. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
I’m giving up drink. For a month. Starting today. I could not have done this without the generous support of my friends. A drinking friend, who said “Giving up drink? But you’ll never get that time back again!” Another drinking friend, with whom I share bottles of wine most Fridays, at a wine bar thronged by women like ourselves, and who was particularly heartwarming: “Who am I going to drink with now? This is really selfish.”
My nondrinking friends, on the other hand, gave me a warm welcome to the world of temperance: “Oh, a month isn’t long enough at all. There should be an article in The Irish Times every week about what it’s like to be a nondrinker in this country. Any fool can give up drinking for a month.”
It remains to be seen whether this fool can give up drinking for a month. The longest I have ever abstained from alcohol is three weeks. A month will be new. Although I’ve never attempted it myself, giving up alcohol for a month is – or was – a routine event in this country, as many people would spend November, the month of All Saints and All Souls, alcohol-free. Others would do the same in January, and perhaps during Lent too.
It was during one of these periods of abstinence, last November, that a friend commented that he had not gone so long without drinking since he was a child. His remark struck me at some strange level. The thought that my poor body and brain had not had more than three weeks without alcohol being poured over or into them seemed strange and somehow sad.
I should make clear that I am a firm believer in alcohol: as a stimulant, a social lubricant, a consolation and an occasion of sin. I am for it. One of our great cultural treasures is the pub, where you can meet people by accident and talk all night.
Three weeks ago I was in a pub on a Saturday night – a rare enough event – and it was a great pleasure to stop and hear the buzz of talk. There were televisions in the pub, but they were silent. That buzz of talk was the priceless part of the pub – although the women in the wine bar put up a fair show on that front themselves.
It annoys me that alcohol is added to the growing guilt list foisted on the modern woman or man. In the current social system almost everything enjoyable, or even feasible, is made into a cause of anxiety and doubt. One of my favourite newspaper headlines, from a scaremongering midmarket publication, reads: “Did my drinking bring on early menopause?” Ah, dear, it never fails to make me laugh.
It is undeniable that women cannot drink as much as men yet have never drunk more. It is also true that Alcoholics Anonymous, once the only game in town if you wanted support in not consuming alcohol, has been joined by other services and websites such as Hello Sunday Morning, which started in Australia and is aimed at young people; it supports them in giving up alcohol for three months, for a start. (I know, I know.)
Soberistas, an online communtiy of 26,000 people, most of them women and many of them from Ireland, was founded by Lucy Rocca of Sheffield in November 2012. “It’s a very buoyant community, some of whom couldn’t relate to AA. It’s a very specific demographic of middle-class professional women between 30 and 60,” says Rocca, who is in her 30s.
Soberistas is a product of Rocca’s experience. “I knew I had a problem with booze. It was out of control. But I wouldn’t have classed myself as alcoholic – I would not go to AA. There’s a lot of shame and stigma around problem drinking, especially for women. Soberistas works because it is an anonymous resource they can access from their own home.”
She calls its success heartwarming. “It’s restored my faith in human nature.” But she’s not surprised by it. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one out there.”
Women – and surely some men, too – feel, Lucy Rocca says, that AA is for quite extreme cases, not for normal people like them. “Of course if they do go along to AA they see lots of normal people like them,” she says. But in a way the confessional exposure of AA is intimidating to women, and the atmosphere is perceived as all-or-nothing and very male.
Ridden with guilt
Stephanie Covington’s book on this subject, A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps, identifies the male and female experiences of addiction as different. While addicted men may have to be brought to their senses and confronted with the reality and consequences of their addiction, addicted women are usually already ridden with guilt and all too aware of the damage they have done, and need bolstering and nurturing.
The AA still has its place. Malachy McCourt says he goes to an AA meeting three times a week. “It’s my insulin,” he says. “And it’s great fun.”
“How do you know if you’re an alcoholic?” asks McCourt. “It’s like having mice – if you think you have mice, you do.” Now 82, McCourt has not had a drink in 29 years. His father’s alcoholism ruined their family, as famously chronicled by McCourt’s brother Frank in Angela’s Ashes.
This terrible irony is visited on many children of alcoholics. As McCourt puts it: “AE said it: eventually you become the thing you hate.”
On the other hand there are those who think that AA’s very strictness could be preventing some problem drinkers seeking help.
The sexes drink differently, too. “You start at six, as you’re cooking,” says Lucy Rocca. “You finish that bottle with dinner and then open another one.”
So what can I expect over the next month? The Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly did a Hello Sunday Morning nondrinking month last year, at the instigation of the youth website Spunout.ie.
Reilly is 25, from Ballyjamesduff, in Co Cavan. Before a night out Reilly’s girlfriends would come around to the house with a bottle of spirits. “And you find yourself chatting and then you’d find a bottle would be gone and then we’d go into town.”
Reilly’s month of sobriety brought her better sleep, running every weekend and a late vocation to camogie. Her boyfriend is in the GAA, where young players in training are often banned from drinking, but of course those players are mostly male.
Male behaviour was one of the many things Reilly observed during that month. “You only notice that stuff in a nightclub then. Males only have the confidence to approach you when they’re drunk. A lot of the time their behaviour is not appropriate then. They’re touching you, groping you, grinding against you. It’s very hard to deal with when you’re sober. Your tolerance level for it is very, very low. You feel like saying, ‘Did your mother not teach you how to behave?’ ”
Sex and drink
Of course sex and drink are a powerful cocktail for everyone. According to Rocca, often when women give up drinking they lose sexual confidence, specifically in how attractive their bodies are. And they can also lose desire, even in – or perhaps specifically in – long-established relationships.
By the same token dating and online dating are terrifying, as Rocca puts it, and can increase a drinker’s drinking. That was her experience as a single parent. (She is now engaged.)
Almost all the nondrinkers I speak to sum up the attitude of drinkers towards them with the same word: “Suspicious.”
McCourt remembers disliking nondrinkers being around when he was drinking, and Rocca says, “I would have hated it.”
The aggression can be phenomenal. Reilly says, “I would just like to say that just because you’re not drinking doesn’t mean you’re dry. People saying, ‘You’re dry. You’re dry.’ Up here they’d say, ‘You’re a dry s***e.’ That’s a phrase I heard a lot.”
Drinking in Ireland has been driven indoors. A fall in pubgoing has been mirrored by the rise of wine. We’ve gone from drinking in front of the neighbours or workmates to drinking in front of the TV. There is an ugly word for our drinking now: atomised.
Wine is the staple
Experienced drinkers, and I include myself in this, have an almost limitless capacity for wine. And few drink more wine than middle-aged women. There may be a naggin in the handbag, but it is wine that is the staple of every girlie party and get-together, as well as the crutch for every woman drinking on her own at home in order to make the kids, the office, the mortgage or the existential despair go away.
Wine isn’t thought of as fattening (even though it is), yet it’s very strong: catnip for the Irish female. We’d drink hemlock if someone told us it was low in calories.
The only other person I know with my low opinion of wine is a woman who drinks Smithwick’s – yes, she is rather unusual. The two of us are always holding our hungover heads and saying, “I’m never drinking wine again,” like all those people blaming biological and psychological disaster on the “bad pint”.
Yet I’m drinking less now than I have ever drunk . I have revved the drinking up in the past few weeks, obviously, because I’m giving up for a month. But my consumption is chicken feed in comparison with a lot of my drinking friends’, and they all seem absolutely great, appear reasonably sane, and work hard.
Normally I have three or four alcohol-free days a week, and my wine consumption isn’t enormous, notwithstanding the Fridays. So I do understand, slightly, what nondrinkers have to put up with. “Will you not even have one drink?” people ask, even if you are driving. It is as if by not drinking you are holding out on them in some way, refusing to join in some lovely game. Even though we’re all a bit long in the tooth now to pretend that it is a lovely game.
And if drinkers would put you off drinking then nondrinkers would put you off abstaining. Nondrinkers are unhappy because the rest of us drink unthinkingly. (This is undeniable, and also enjoyable.)
They are dismissive of anyone who is trying to have a few alcohol-free days a week (yeah, it did hurt my feelings), saying things like, “If you have to put that sort of thought into it you really have a problem,” and then being very rude about people who are actually prepared to stop for a whole month.
This is where we came in. Although I should say that my best nondrinking friend does none of these things, is a lavish host and that his is the only house where you can routinely get a sherry.
Over the next month I just want to see what it’s like when a (fairly) normal person gives up drinking. It can’t be more difficult than giving up smoking.
What is your experience with alcohol?
Do you drink too much? Too little? Not at all? Not any more? More than you should? Or exactly the right amount? Click here to tell us – in 500 words or less – about your personal relationship with alcohol.