An Actor Consumes decides to go sober in solidarity as his wife is expecting their second child with unexpected reactions.
Babies, booze and Billy Joel
My friend looks me straight in the eye, all expression drained from his face. There’s a beat. No scratch that, a pause. A Pinter pause, a protracted silence that’s brimming with hostility and deep rooted suspicion. Ten seconds pass but his eyes hold the stare. Expression begins to return, but it’s different this time and not one I’m familiar with. Gone is the welcoming smile, the mischievous twinkle, and in their place a twisting coil of mistrust that starts in the jaw, where his front teeth chew the inside of his pursed lips, then seizes his limbs in its constricting grip, clenching his fists and triggering angry spasms in his legs.
“I…I…I’m speechless. I’m genuinely lost for words. I don’t understand. What are you trying to prove? I mean, seriously, what the fuck are you doing?”
His words may be jumbled, but the message is clear: you’ve changed. You’re not the person I thought you were, and I don’t think we can be friends anymore. Taken out of context, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was guilty of some heinous act of moral treachery. It’s not a knee jerk reaction, far from it; it’s protocol, protection you keep locked and loaded in the safe of your mind for the day you pray will never come to pass when a partner confesses to cheating on you, perhaps, or you wake up to discover the most powerful nation on earth has elected a slimy, spineless mass of orange – a slug, a hideous, revolting slug – to be its president. It calls your very humanity into question.
I have to say, it’s not the response I was expecting when I revealed to people that I would be giving up drinking while my wife was pregnant with our second child.
And he was far from alone. Reactions ranged from bemusement (“But you’re not an alcoholic”) and mild concern (“Seriously? 7 months?”) to scepticism (“You’ll never make it that far”) and full on derision (“Are you fucking crazy?”). An accountant friend tried see it as a business move and came to the conclusion that it was a loss-making venture: I would be squandering eight months of opportunity only to then allow myself to drink at the very point when my prospects of boozing would be forcibly curtailed by a newborn baby. Even my wife, for whom the decision was intended as a show of solidarity, made it clear to me that she would be seriously unimpressed if I were to decide, come August, that I would be going teetotal on a permanent basis.
“Grounds for divorce”, she joked, but with some note of concern in her voice, as though that hard-earned glass of red she’d been dreaming of ever since those blue lines first appeared back in November was suddenly in jeopardy. She had unfinished business; the earlier than anticipated pregnancy had already scuppered plans for a week of wine tasting in South Africa, and there was no way she should be expected to drop her plans for some ludicrous notion of sobriety that I’d suddenly pulled out of a hat. While drunk, I might add.
I told her she could still have a drink, but it was of little comfort. Have you listened to Piano Man? Who wants to drink alone? She went on, almost irritated by now, and told me that I didn’t have to do this, that she wouldn’t think any less of me if I just carried on drinking like the man she fell in love with. So why am I doing it? My wife doesn’t expect me to, I don’t think of myself as an alcoholic, why go through the struggle of depriving myself of something I enjoy in moderation when I feel like it?
Reason No. 1
Well, first of all, I want to do it for my wife, even if she doesn’t expect it. Even without having to avoid all the things you enjoy eating and drinking the physical and emotional strain of carrying a baby is exhausting, and that’s before the blessed thing arrives. There’s nothing I can experience as a man that comes anywhere close to what she’s going through, but if I suddenly developed an intolerance to something I love, red meat for example, I would be pretty non-plussed if my wife decided cook herself a juicy T-Bone every night of the week, flaunting tender steak at me while I tuck into my brown rice and avocado. The same goes here. When you’ve been a couple almost ten years you do things together. Three years ago I made a vague promise of giving up drinking when she was pregnant with our first child, except it lasted all of ten minutes. Every week there was another swansong, one final night out, and then there didn’t seem any point any more. If she was disappointed she didn’t show it, but I was disappointed in myself, and I want to do better this time.
Reason No. 2
The children. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s true. I’ve always been able to burn the candle at both ends with extra heat on each side for good measure, and still have stamina to burn. I’ve powered (i.e. drunk) my way through hangovers that have seen better men fall by the wayside. It’s something I’ve always been proud of (that’ll be the latent machismo), but it’s not an achievement. It’s not going to get me anywhere, and recent events suggest it’s a talent I no longer possess. I want to look after my children with a clear head. I don’t want to be willing lunchtime to end just so I can go and catch up on the sleep I didn’t get. It’s not fair.
Reason No. 3
Finally, I want to prove to myself that I can. Of course I’m not an alcoholic, of course not, but my alcohol consumption is, was, definitely over the recommended weekly intake. It’s never worried me – find me a twentysomething that abides by those guidelines and I’ll give you a medal – but after one particularly heavy stag weekend late last year I found myself suffering symptoms of what could only have been alcohol withdrawal: sweating, shaking, sleep disturbance, increased heart rate, self-loathing. My bones ached and I had an acute sharp pain around my right lung, which a quick look on NHS told me could be a symptom of acute pancreatitis brought on by (what else?) excessive alcohol consumption. I found out at the wedding the following weekend that almost everyone at the stag had experienced some, if not all, of the above, but it didn’t make me feel any better. For the first time in my life I felt genuinely concerned about my health, and it occurred to me that, bar one month in 2007, it had been more than half a lifetime since I had gone over two weeks without drinking. For the record, I was thirteen years old. I’m thirty-one now. Almost every aspect of my life and the way I appreciate the things I enjoy – friends, food, music, travel – is experienced through the filter of alcohol. Even Saturday afternoons with the family are usually at the pub, then a couple of bottles and the rest with dinner until 1am. It doesn’t seem to affect day to day life, but how would I know when I haven’t experienced anything else since childhood? I’m bored. I want something different.
So I insisted. I wanted to, and I wanted my wife to enforce it when the time came. I would have a couple of months’ grace over the Christmas to get it out of my system, pre-agreed exceptions – a single glass on birthdays, an entire week at Glastonbury (there are times when resistance is futile) – but otherwise, as of our return from holiday on 9th January 2017, that’s it for eight months. It will be a struggle, yes, but the very fact it’s a struggle proves to me that it’s necessary. Not forever, just long enough for it to become the exception rather than the rule. Something to appreciate.
So, to clarify, I’m giving up booze to increase my enjoyment of alcohol. And over the next six months I’m going to be documenting my experiences as well as delving into the past to see what, if anything, I can learn about my own relationship with the bottle.
I hope you enjoy it more than I do.