As an Englishman, I was, as we all are I think to a greater or lesser degree, raised to view beer as a gift from above; a reward for work well done, for life well lived. It was and is seen as the inevitable conclusion to a long week, the necessary fuel for any festive occasion, and the perfect way to spend a sunny/rainy/snowy afternoon by the fire/pool/pool-table. Yes, there were the casual (and causal) links with hooliganism, domestic violence, and ill-health, but these were exceptional, a result of a small number of unruly and eneducated troublemakers who simply couldn’t handle their drink (a badge of honour to be earned, to be treasured, to be brandished proudly at any given opportunity, of course) or didn’t know when to stop. Blameless was and is the beer itself.
We hold these truths to be self-evident. But why?
A few months ago I was put on some pretty hardcore medication for my depression and anxiety. It was a short-term measure to help deal with a particularly bad time I was having, and it came with one small condition: no drinking, for two weeks. I welcomed it. I’d long realised that drinking made me worse, but lacked the willpower to do anything about it.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: I’ve been and on and off alcoholic, in varying forms, since I was about 17. Back then it was a couple of nights a weekend of cider in Fleetwood’s or the Cupola House. Then at 18, on to Chicago’s, where Mondays got added, and soon Tuedays and Wednesdays too. Most of the time I’d miss college, and when I attended it was with a hangover – and a pita bread in my pocket – from last night. Then there was university, where, as every student in the UK is obliged to do, I got wankered every night, and half of the days. Working in bars, of course, never helps. Then there’s the beer at home, and then the wine at home…really, this could be a very long story, if I allowed it to be.
Anyway, I welcomed this chance to be dry for a bit. It gave me time to feel better, but also time to think about the act itself, and in turn the purpose of drinking and the culture of acceptance and inevitability that surrounds it. Hell, if you don’t drink, people think you’re a bit odd: isn’t that just fundamentally fucked up? WHat I wanted to get my head around was why drunk or drinking is the default setting to our lives, the thing we’d all rather be doing if we aren’t, and the thing we look forward to doing the most. Why is this the case? Because, once you stop, and look, and think, for more than just a couple of minutes, but not much more, then the whole thing makes very little sense at all.
Here are the bad things about drinking alcohol: it gives me headaches the next day; it makes me feel sick the next day; it makes me sleep all day the next day and therefore waste away a good percentage of my life; it robs me of ambition; it robs me of basic competence; it makes me do stupid things; it makes me regret; it makes me talk even more shit than usual, and then forget what I said; it makes forget conversations, and the people I had those conversations with; it just makes me forget; it’s expensive; and worst of all, it makes me hate myself and want to die.
Here are the good things about drinking alcohol: it makes everyone else seem more interesting; you don’t notice how drunk and stupid other people are; and it makes you less fussy about who you sleep with. Though of course, think about these, and you’ll see that they’re bad things too.
I can think of literally dozens of examples where drinking has led to bad things happening. I’ve lost jobs, and I nearly lost my whole career. I’ve hurt myself and others, too often. I’ve lost memories of great nights that I’d rather remember. I can think of not one occasion where it has proven to be the right thing to do, where not drinking would have somehow spoilt the experience.
I quit drinking for two months, then lapsed. In that two months I felt better than I had at any time in the preceeding 13 years. I was happy, productive, relaxed, sociable, amiable, and positive. I need to stop again. I am none of those things when I drink.
We’re conditioned to drink, against all logic, against all reason. We celebrate drink, celebrate drinking, and drink to celebrate. And it kills us.