An Actor Consumes struggles through the first month of his self-imposed sobriety…
Ground Zero Percent
So here we are at the end of January, twenty-two days since my last drink. I lie. It was my birthday two weeks ago, and under the terms of our agreement I was allowed a glass of wine when G took me to dinner at Pidgin. Except I had two. Well, two and a half; one white, one red, then half a glass G left because she felt too guilty. And the complimentary limoncello for the table. I had more than my designated allowance, I confess (and it was heaven), but aside from that not a single drop. So how has it been?
Well, this is easy. I wave goodbye to the bottle with a picnic on the banks of the river at Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Sun is shining, the weather is sweet, and then I get on a plane to Gatwick. We touch down at 5am in the pissing rain and fog, and then I drive for two hours through rush hour on the M25 to pick up the dog from a suburb of Ashford. If ever the cosmos wanted to give me a sign that going teetotal was a bad idea, this would surely be the way to do it.
Nevertheless, I press on, and despite the best efforts of the universe I manage to get through the first seven days without too much difficulty. There are moments – Thursday afternoon, Saturday evening – when an ice-cold beer would undoubtedly slip down a treat, but customary over-indulgence over Christmas has left me genuinely bored of wine. It got to the point where it all tasted the same, and I was only drinking it because it was there. As soon as we get home I have literally zero desire to open a bottle, and my body thanks me for it. I eat well and sleep well. I get things done. I wake up at 6:30 on Saturday morning and go for a run. We take my daughter out for pizza on her second birthday and I spend the afternoon nap time working on my website. I feel immeasurably smug. Who would have known that giving up drinking was this easy?
Then Week Two arrives, and with it comes the nag…
Where were we? Ah yes, the nag.
It’s quiet to begin with, a gentle suggestion on Monday evening that a craft ale in the bath on my birthday might not be so naughty after all. I swat it like a mosquito, but it’s back in my ear the next night.
“Go on, a nice hoppy number from a local brewery. It wouldn’t be so bad; you’d be supporting local businesses…”
“…and some of these beers are seasonal you know, they might not be around to try next year.”
“That’s if the brewery’s still going of course. If the industry’s still afloat. If hops can still ferment after Brexit and Trump and…”
Swat. Swat swat swat swat swat.
It doesn’t make any difference. I’ve been bitten, and by midweek the urge to scratch is almost unbearable. Each day starts out well enough, but by the evening all I can think about is having a drink. Not getting drunk, just having one drink. I tell myself that I’ve earned it; I’ve managed a whole week, I should celebrate. It’s not like one glass of Rioja is going to throw the whole thing off course. And besides, I’ve proved to myself that I can last a week, do I really need to drag this out for seven months?
This goes on and on, and to be honest if it weren’t for my wife being right there with me I would almost certainly cave. It’s me that needs support, not her. Then she takes me out for a birthday dinner on the day of our three month scan, we celebrated by sharing a glass of wine, and the whole perfect evening serves as a reminder of just what I’m hoping to achieve by my abstemious endeavour. As long as she’s around I know I can get through it.
But there’s still one hurdle remaining: I have to break it to my friends.
Up to this point my newfound sobriety has remained strictly between the two of us. I mentioned the notion in passing to friends on nights out, but the situation and my well-known love of a drink meant that no one ever believed it would actually happen. I haven’t seen anyone since before Christmas, but that’s about to change. Months ago, before I had an excuse to give abstinence a try, I bought tickets for The Flaming Lips at Brixton on a Saturday. For the benefit of the uninitiated, this is a band who once put out an album called Zaireeka, so out there it came on four discs designed to be listened to simultaneously. Four CD players, four pairs of speakers. At the same time. Basic stage setups include giant inflatable aliens and LED tentacles, and one of their more conventional tracks is called Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Part I. They seem to exist in a permanent state of altered consciousness, to put it lightly, and here I was planning to see them without so much as a drop of liquor in my blood.
I roped a friend in at the last minute, and he was keen for a big night. That was certainly the plan when I bought the tickets, but now I was going to have to break it to him that he’d be flying solo. I text in advance; I find it hard to back down from something when it’s out in the open. We haven’t yet broken the news of the pregnancy to friends, so I claim I’m doing dry January. He laughs in my face. He seems certain he can lead me astray but I stand firm, even as the ubiquitous sight of face-paint, catsuits and dilated pupils makes it clear that large swathes of the crowd are on another level entirely. To make matters worse the afternoon has been worryingly difficult – I’m beginning to learn just how entrenched my relationship with alcohol is after I had to knock back three cans of 0% Bavaria Premium just to ease the pain – and I genuinely don’t know if I can make I through the evening without giving in to temptation. I begin to wonder if this was a mistake.
And then Wayne Coyne walks on stage, like a mad conductor leading his orchestra of insanity into the opening chords of Race for the Prize, and sends a hundred multi coloured balloons and reams of confetti into the enraptured crowd. There are tentacles, rainbows, electric gongs, glitter trousers, manes of white fur, a unicorn! A cover of Space Oddity that brings tears to the eyes. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss the carelessness that comes with intoxication. I do. Every time someone pushes past me with a pint in their hand I feel deep pangs of envy. But being sober I notice things that might otherwise have passed me by. I see the obsessive level of detail in the madness onstage, a sort of meticulous chaos. None of it makes sense, of course, but it doesn’t need to so long as it makes sense to them. For years I’ve thought of The Flaming Lips as a band you could only really, truly enjoy if you were on drugs, and now I realised I’ve missed the point; they are the drug. The songs, the show, are designed to alter your perception of reality. I dance like I’m high, then head to the pub for a Becks Blue nightcap. My friend refuses point blank to make the order and a hipster in a turtle neck laughs in my face, but then I go home and wake up fresh as a daisy. Ha.
Then, just when I thought I could handle it, strange things start to happen. We all need a constant in life, a rock to cling to when the natural order of things gets turned on its head and everything goes all turvy-topsy. Friends, loved ones, David Bowie; even they leave us in the end, but alcohol, on the other hand…now there’s a true pal. It’ll take the blame for anything. There’s literally no misdeed you can’t explain away by saying “I didn’t do it. It was alcohol.” That’s not to say you can justify it, that’s a different thing, but you can always rely on alcohol to at least make sense of a whole encyclopaedia of questionable decisions.
What they don’t prepare you for is what happens when you take it away.
Everything has side effects. It’s a fact of life. You win some, you lose some. If you’re lucky you get to weight everything up in advance and take the decision best for you. Take the anti-biotics and permanent liver damage, or live with a mild dose of fungal nail, and other commong dilemmas. Well, no one offered me these choices, so I’m here to tell you about a whole world of weird that opens up when you remove what was once an invariable from your life.
I’ll deal with the good first.
I’ve managed to get more done these past three weeks than I thought humanly possible. Complete redesign of website, four articles, a short story. It may all be rubbish, but I feel productive. I’m producing a play. I’ve watched my daughter learning to ride a balance bike by herself, and I’ve never been more excited to get out and go to the park even in this freezing January weather. I never, ever feel tired.
Which is just as well, because my quality of sleep has seriously gone down. By which I mean that my dreams have become so boring I’m worried that any imagination I may have possessed was entirely dependent upon having an infinite reserve of alcohol in my bloodstream, and now it’s dried up things are running out of steam fast. Twice now I’ve dreamt that I was going to a meeting. That was it. I didn’t even get there. Last night I dreamt that I was in bed waiting for my alarm to go off. What happens next? Do I stop dreaming entirely? Is it even worth sleeping anymore?
My tastebuds appear to have shrivelled and died. Not only are my sinuses in a permanent state of mild congestion, but the inside of my mouth is relentlessly cloyed with nondescript sweetness. I’ve developed a taste for terrible chocolate – buttons, coins, animal shaped things. So what, you might ask. Well, fair enough, but coming from the snob who once took two kilos of Patrick Roger single origin bars with him to Tokyo because he feared for the standard of dark chocolate in Japan, this is a something of an about turn.
But even that’s nothing compared to my reliance on Bavaria Premium 0%.
I’ve never been one for substitutes – Quorn, for example. Never mind the fact that it’s made from aggressively reproductive fungus spores and tastes like chewed gum, it’s a waste of time. It defeats the point of being a vegetarian by insisting that the only way to do it is by having tasteless knock-offs of the things you’ve sworn against. Quorn sausages, quorn lasagne, quorn chicken, it’s a disgrace, an insult to every vegetable seed that ever germinated. A vegetable is a thing of boundless wonder. Ask me to choose between plant and animal and I would drop the meat without a second’s hesitation. There is no slab of flesh, no ancient, wisened, corn-fed, free-roaming, dead sea mineral washed cow that gets within a tail-flick of the perfection of one single broad bean in the middle of July, or a rainbow basket of heritage beetroot in winter. Nothing beats a vegetable in season, and I say that as a staunch carnivore. There is no justification for Quorn. Nil. If you think you need a vegetable needs Quorn to validate it then you’re in it for the wrong reasons. You might as well end it all, because you’re sucking all the life out of a cuisine that should be filled with sunshine and happiness.
Anyway, I digress. I’ve always lumped alcohol free beer in the same corner of misery, thinking that if ever the day were to come when booze was no longer an option I would be cold brewing white tea to fill the hole. I laughed at my wife when she first bought a six pack of zero percent tinnies, but now I can’t get enough of the damn things. It all started when I was physically gagging for something savoury to drink. Water’s fine, and fruit juice is lovely, but sometimes I just want something with a bit of flavour that doesn’t have seven teaspoons of sugar in it. Becks Blue is thin, Brewdog Nanny State comes on like cement mix (turns out bitter needs that boozy richness), but Bavaria Blonde hit the spot. Now every time I feel like a beer I can have one, and it feels exactly the same.
Who am I kidding? It’s fucking dull.
On the final Friday of January I finally broke the news to friends over a feast at Smoking Goat in Soho to almost unanimous outrage. People clutched their glasses as though I’d announced that I would be confiscating everyone else’s drink as well, before flaunting ice cold beer and deep red wine at me like some sort of unobtainable prize. Even my wife told me she wanted me to drink so she could have a sip. In situations like these it’s reassuring to know that one has the full support of friends and family.
Then, on Saturday 28th January, Donald Trump signs an executive order barring citizens of seven largely Muslim countries from entering the US for a period of 90 days, in a clear breach of international human rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin. Two days later Theresa May publicly refuses to condemn the ban for fear of jeopardizing a post-Brexit trade agreement with the incumbent President.
I have never wanted a drink more.