This summer I’m seven whole years booze free.
I’m losing people already, I know. More or less everybody drinks. And if you’re wall to wall loving the booze with absolutely no negative aspects then this little bloggy clearly hasn’t got your name on it. But if you’ve ever felt a little bit sick of feeling a little bit sick, of pig-shat-in-head hangovers or feeling sluggish or anxious or mood swingy or living your life in a bit of a fog, then here is a sentence or two just for you.
Sentence is an apt word actually, as many people think of a life with no drink as just that. Only this morning I saw a Fakebook meme listing four possible things we’d give up for a million dollars, and nobody was choosing booze. One guy said he’d rather give up sex than drinking, and indeed from the outside a life without the alc looks a lot like an endless empty corridor of eternal dullness. The term teetotal does not help (not that it involves tea, Google origins if arsed), and nor does the word sober. A sobering thought is never a good one and that’s exactly how we picture it, the sobering thought of a life of sobriety, of no fun and drinking tea and awkwardness and boring old fuckers and one flat mood forever.
But giving up drinking has been the most brilliant, liberating and rock and roll thing I’ve ever done, and here’s how it happened and why I feel that way.
I never had a drink problem, or at least I didn’t think so. I didn’t drink every day or in the daytime, unless on an ‘all day session’. But I was a binge drinker, weekends with weekends usually starting on a Thursday, or sometimes a Wednesday, and I did this all through my late teens, twenties and mid way into my thirties. And I could drink a lot. That doesn’t make me especially gifted, it’s just a tolerance your body builds up. I’d split a litre of gin with a mate before we went out, and then move onto pints and add spirits with Red Bull or tonic again later, to get the energy back up. Or anything, really. I once tried meths as a drunken joke, necking a big mouthful straight from the bottle and let me tell you that stuff doesn’t half repeat on you.
My drinking was pretty legendary and got me into some noteworthy scrapes; jail in Mexico, jumping headfirst off a twenty foot balcony in Newcastle and somehow avoiding a spinal injury, accidentally drinking a bottle of my own piss after forgetting I’d relieved myself in some tonic water, sex aged 25 in some high rise flats with a 60 year old woman who had a four poster bed made from skirting boards. That’s just some of the printable stuff and the list goes on (and on). Although I appeared confident I wasn’t actually that confident at all, and drinking took me to places I’d never have the balls to go and I liked it for that. I remember a real drinker of a Scottish guy describing me to a mutual friend, and saying (broad Glaswegian): ‘That guy’s a boozah! And I can tell he’s a boozah cos I’M A FUCKEN’ BOOZAH!’ That made me feel quite proud, and also a little bit scared, cos he was a raging alcoholic if ever there was one.
But by thirty, after a straight decade of epic alcohol consumption, things were beginning to unravel slightly. I was feeling shabby on a daily basis, carrying a few extra stone in weight, chucking down Rennies like Seaworld chucks fish to seals, and convinced a heart attack was imminent if I ran twenty yards for a bus. It was becoming obvious that I did not have the iron constitution of a Keith Richards, and that I was clearly made of weaker stock. Nobody knew it yet but there was absolutely no way I could keep this up forever, and I started to ponder the controversial ‘other option’.
At this point in my life I only knew two people personally who didn’t drink. One was Frank Skinner, who almost played the lead in a film I was making, and the other was a film financier called Rob. Both had very different lives from mine so it was hard to draw parallels, but I was fascinated by how sobriety worked. How do social events go? I remember Frank saying he arrived early and left early, before things got too lairy. How do you get into a Friday night state without the booze? How do you RELAX? I can’t remember what Frank said to that (I was probably too pissed to recall the full conversation) but Rob did yoga and meditation and was so chilled generally that relaxing on a Friday night obviously wasn’t too much of a stretch for him. But it felt a world away from my own existence.
Then at that year’s Glastonbury I reached a bit of an impasse. I’d been drinking all day since the Wednesday and by the Friday evening I was feeling pretty broken. I watched a mate wearing only one shoe stagger off into shin-high mud to see Kasabian, so pissed that he couldn’t even say Kasabian, and I sat in my camping chair thinking, ‘There has to be another way.’ I didn’t join him, and not just because of my Kasabian allergy, but because I was sick of feeling sick, of living life in a fog, of stumbling around like a wino, sick of mood swings and beer tits and energy drops and sick of the acidic bile that always seemed to sit too high in my throat like a storm drain. The next morning I got up, swerved the vodka breakfast, drank loads of water, and did stuff I’d never done at Glastonbury before. Watched a puppet show, had my first falafel, tried a yoga class and had actual conversations with people. I did more regular Glastonbury stuff too, saw bands and listened to the music and felt a buzz from just the live music alone, which was a surprise, and most of all I took stuff in and remembered it. It wasn’t all just a patchy blur. Weird as hell, but also quite exciting.
Next up was a gig with the reformed Stooges at the Hammersmith Apollo, and I decided to secretly do it sans poison. Filled a wine bottle with red grape juice and necked it down on the tube, mates thinking I was on the vino. It felt pretty damn awkward at first but I soon got into it. My first sober mosh pit way more exhilarating than a drunk one, and then my first ever crowd surf. Iggy, as he’s wont to do, invited the audience onto the stage and I thought, ‘That’s it I’m in, I’m popping my crowd surfing cherry to dance with the fucking Pop himself, sober!’ I didn’t quite make it that far though, getting one foot onto the stage before being manhandled by security and thrown into a side corridor with my arm hoiked up my back like a felon. Me turning back and taking great delight in shouting, ‘Dude, I’m not even pissed!’
Soon after I announced to my friends that I was giving up drinking, which did not go over all that brilliantly with everyone. One friend pleaded, ‘Oh don’t give up drinking Mark!’ as if I was about to relocate to Australia, and the general response was muted at best. But I pressed on and they gradually accepted it, mainly because they now had a permanent designated driver. I took my friends out on the town, watched them making absolute twonks of themselves and wrote a comedy about guys doing nightclubs approaching forty. It felt great in so many ways. I revelled in the details and, yes, the tea drinking, ordering Earl Greys at the bar at 1.30 in the morning with unconcealable relish. I started to feel a buzz from sobriety that was almost as good as the one from drinking, partly because I was so way out of my comfort zone, but still doing it. I went to New York alone and made two music videos in a week, not knowing where the fuck I was going but now with the clarity of mind and energy to deal with the challenge. I did not have indigestion. I lost loads of weight and ran a couple of marathons. But in the back of my mind there was always this nagging thought; would I be missing out on life by drinking, or am I missing out on life by not drinking? Hmmm, not sure.
Then life slowly got in the way and I got depressed. We’d become new parents (enough of an upheaval all by itself), I had career and money worries, we had a run of failed pregnancies, and the booze slowly called me back (it’s like that). Pretty soon I was sheepishly back to drinking a few evenings a week to take the edge off life’s stresses, and for a while around that time I’d joke that, ‘Yeah I gave up drinking for two years, most depressing thing I’ve ever done!’ – and how everyone laughed. Not much gets a bigger laugh than a booze joke. Check Fakebook for pics of people holding tipples aloft and see how many likes that gets. It’s validating and deeply tribal, and never more so than in the recent Rona lockdown. ‘We’re all in this together and we’re gonna get wankered to get through it, the whole lot of us, YAY!’
But the truth is I was depressed for other reasons, nothing to do with not drinking, and ironically those issues were in fact made worse by drinking, not better. The next five years heralded a new era of a subtler form of boozing that will be familiar to many, two or three glasses of wine a night, sometimes may as well have the bottle, or a bit more. ‘It’s the weekend, let’s split three bottles between the two of us.’ I was back on the Rennies and the weeks just blended in an all-too-familiar fuzz. Weekends now more often than not starting on a Monday (it’s just a couple of glasses, right) and floating through every evening half cut, never quite engaged with anything and barely able to remember what I’d seen on TV the night before. Then the next day the thick head and grumpiness, the anxiety, the mood dips, the dehydration, and all day gagging for that first drink that would signal the release from the shabby cravings and the start of the evening again. Cos the evening can’t possibly begin until then, fun relaxing stuff cannot happen yet, not until that sigh-inducing release, not until FUZZTIME. An endless rollercoaster but not even a big exciting one, more like one of those rickety, ruddy-faced caterpillars they have at travelling fairs.
Added to this those looping questions were back again. Would I be missing out on life by not drinking? Or am I missing out on life by drinking? Hmmm, still not sure.
Then a saviour in an unusual form. Antibiotics. My doctors hammered me with them for four months to treat suspected prostatitis (which actually turned out to be a hernia, don’t even get me started), a process which affected my microbial balance or some such and gave me raging painful thrush everywhere. Mouth, bum, winky, the triple, and sexy times were off the menu and I just couldn’t shift it. It seemed like a possible way to control this was to stop all sugar, which supposedly feeds the yeast, and that included booze. So in 2013 out it went again, not as easy as before as this was a result of an overzealous drug spanking from the GP, rather than my own lifestyle choice.
But also this time things were different in two crucial ways.
One, I felt I had no option, and this stopped the endless questioning and ‘am I missing out on life by not drinking’ brainloops. I just refused to let my head go there. ‘I’m not missing out on anything. This is how it is now.’ Nothing like the possibility of never getting your little soldier sucked again to crystallise decisive thinking.
Two, I was no longer really depressed, as I had been five years earlier. A great therapist, not alcohol, had sorted that out (thank you eternally Mr Matt Hutt), and I now got to see non drinking a whole lot more clearly.
What I also gave it this time was time itself, which is what’s needed for any major change, as this stuff takes a bit of getting used to. I mean even something as trivial as dropping sugar from your tea takes some serious adjustment, doesn’t it? That stuff tastes like crap for ages! And how much bigger is giving up The Sauce?
It’s a huge transition.
It takes time for the cravings to go and to stop gagging for that all too easy (and illusory) feeling of release.
And then it takes even longer to get used to it.
Like my old fave gin, sobriety needs time to DISTILL.
It’s super strange at first but eventually with time, and lots of it, it becomes your new normal.
And as it became my new normal, that’s when I realised a shitload of stuff…
That everything I thought booze gave me, it actually didn’t.
I thought it made life exciting, but in fact it made it deeply predictable. Especially once I’d got past the wild twentysomething years and wasn’t waking up in a bush. But even then, when I had Bukowski on tap and thought the wild drinking made me some kind of intrepid adventurer, it really didn’t. It’s not really adventure when you’re getting to those places purely as a result of the old Dutch Courage, and surely a true adventurer gets to those places cos he’s brave enough, digging deep enough and feeling the fear and getting there anyway.
I thought it made me experience life in a more vital way, but in truth it was the opposite, cos every one of my senses was so dulled.
I thought it gave me energy, but apart from what I added to the booze (quinine in tonic, caffeine and an eye-watering array of shite in Red Bull, etc) it actually made me tired and sluggish.
I thought it made me happy and was all about joyful celebration, but in fact it made me depressed.
I thought it helped with problems, but it only created a brainzonk short circuit that anesthetised them, like the guys necking whisky after getting shot in an old Western. And like the Westerns it wouldn’t always work anyway, sometimes the booze would make things worse cos my perception was affected and the drama of everything was heightened. Then afterwards the problems would still be there and I’d be in even less of a position to deal with them, the fallout from the session giving me fewer mental and physical resources to find a solution.
I thought it relaxed me but it was just the illusion of relaxation, the same zonking short circuit that made my stupefied brain think all was suddenly tickety boo. But really that brain was like the top half of a duck on water (pretty brain-shaped ducks, conveniently), gliding along without a care when the real story was beneath the surface – legs going ten to the dozen as my toxin-bombed system screamed, ‘Fucking hell boys, let’s get this shit out of here, pedal!’ And many times the upper duck wasn’t even under the illusion of relaxation anyway. I thought it helped anxiety and specifically social anxiety, but as above it could also go completely in the other direction and I’d wildly overestimate bad vibes, catastrophising scenarios cos again my perception was so off. ‘This BBQ is going REALLY badly! Nobody is fucking talking to each other! What do we do?’ And then of course the next day anxiety was always way worse again anyway, once the hangover horrors set in.
I thought it created more connection with people, and initially sometimes it would do, during those first couple of drinks while we were still hanging on to some clarity. But it’d usually very quickly go downhill as we all became less and less engaged, brains and bodies on the back foot, fighting the chemical hammering. I remember me and my cousin Paul doing a BMX pub crawl round country villages in our thirties, and the first couple of pubs were great. Much laughter and tales of childhood adventures. But the other seven were altogether a different story. Less conversation, less laughs, less energy, all our efforts concentrated on being able to stay awake, ride a small bicycle on country roads and not die.
I also found that rarely, amongst fellow drinking friends, were we all in the same place at the same time, moodwise. We’d all be somewhere on the road between euphoria and monosyllabic, via many a detour, and seldom in the same order, more often than not never quite managing to synch up.
There’s also no end of times when the booze has actually pushed me and my friends further apart, often because I’d come out with a line that I thought was completely hilarious but was in fact deeply offensive, because my judgement was so banjaxed. Some relationships have never quite recovered from my drunken one liners and bad behaviour, and to those guys I deeply apologise. It wasn’t me it was the booze. Well, it was me and the booze.
On the other hand, sometimes the stars seem to align and you can have a boozy night out with friends that feels like The Ultimate Bonding Session Of All Time. (Sadly only small fragments of this memory usually available the morning after.) But, and I truly believe this, almost everything about these amazing nights in fact takes place in spite of the booze, rather than because of it.
Which brings me to the other key thing I learned from letting sobriety distill.
That what I thought I needed booze for, I actually had already.
For me, this is The Big One.
When me and my cousin (the one from the BMX pub crawl) were kids we used to get up to all kinds of shenanigans. We’d get my Mom to drop us off at the top of a huge hill on the way to his house just so we could run down it, laughing like maniacs. We’d dance around like twats. We’d play outrageous pranks that usually involved breaking something or pissing someone off bigtime. We’d dress up in his sister’s clothes. We’d do sleepovers and stay up all night, laughing our heads off at stupid shit, talking about nipples and looking at the lingerie section of the Freemans catalogue, pushing on til dawn but usually passing out around threeish. In short, we did more or less the same kind of stuff that people think they need drink for, but aged 10 and without the drinking.
Here’s something I think about a lot: booze is a relatively recent discovery in the history of humankind (which makes it all the more bonkers that it’s so ubiquitous and so frowned upon if you don’t do it) but if booze did not exist would we be going out with friends in adulthood and chatting and dancing and laughing and titting around and doing all the stuff we do whilst drinking?
Of fucking course.
Did people do that before booze existed?
I’m pretty sure it would be more or less the same in fact, just slightly less messy and without the puking.
Because here’s the thing, this stuff is INSIDE US ANYWAY. (I mean unless your life or childhood has been particularly traumatic, though I had my fair share of childhood trauma too and that doesn’t stop me twotting around like a loon.) It’s all completely there for us to access, but in adulthood it just takes a little bit more unlocking.
It makes me think of Bruce Banner in the 2012 Avengers, where they’ve spent the entire film trying to make him angry so he can turn into Hulk, and then he suddenly reveals, ‘That’s my secret, I’m always angry’.
That’s our secret too. We might not know it yet, but that inner party monkey is always inside us.
And once party monkey’s made a poison free appearance a few times, from there you start to realise that booze is like the Emperor’s New Clothes.
It’s like we’ve been duped, it’s a trick, Fool’s Gold that’s been ripping us all off bigtime.
So back to those q’s I asked Rob and Frank Skinner all those years ago, those answers my thirty year old self was so desperate to know… How do you get into a Friday night state without the booze? How do you RELAX?
You get into a Friday night state by doing Friday night stuff, just without the drinking. You watch trashy Friday TV, you see friends, you chat, you play a game, you listen to music, you dance, you see a band (well not at the moment, obvs), you do everything that a Friday night’s about for you, but you’re just not on The Sauce. Same with how to relax, you just do the relaxing things. The hot bath, the nice walk, the book, the big tickle, the sexy times, the little slob on the sofa, all the stuff that usually relaxes you but without your brain all puddled.
And gradually you start to realise that these things alone are ENOUGH.
Cos you’re experiencing them without the fog and it’s all suddenly as pure as this stuff gets, cos your senses aren’t blunted.
I know my thirty year old self would be straight back with more questions, so here’s what else I’d advise for the struggling young Mark and anyone else who might want to give this a go.
Be prepared for it to be daunting as hell at first, but it’s doable.
And get ready for some good news straight off, you still have a way to get high, and it’s called People. This is what we’re here for. To connect. Every amazing moment you thought you had because of the booze was actually because of the people. It was about company and connection and play. Booze just does the brainzonk and makes us loosen up enough to get there more quickly, but you can get there yourself pretty easily once you’ve learned to coax your monkey out.
And initially monkey will take a fair bit of coaxing. He or she will be shy. That first sober attempt at dancing, oh Jesus will that be awkward, they will probably not be the best moves you’ve ever thrown down but you soon realise that none of the pissed people are watching anyway, and out that monkey eventually comes, and when they do it’s fucking joyous.
If you feel socially anxious, and you no doubt will do, just hang in there and embrace it. Try and find the humour in it. It will probably get better and you’ll eventually settle in, but it’ll take some practice to get comfortable in your own skin without a skinful. Plus remember that some things are just twitchy anyway, for everyone, booze or no booze.
Also be prepared for some people not to like you giving up drinking, especially at first. Make sure you explain your intentions when you’re both sober and expect them to react like you just signed up for a dopplegang TV show, and that the real you will now be elsewhere. They’ll feel like you’re judging them and their lifestyle, and so you have to do everything in your power to not be that guy. Not even a hint of holier-than-thou, thank you very much. (Conversely with me I often have to stop myself going too far in the opposite direction and enabling their drinking a little bit too much, pouring them big fat special gin and tonics and shouting, ‘Let’s get pissed!’) Do everything you can to put them at ease about it, to help them realise that this is still gonna be a fun thing. I remember how self conscious drunk me felt around sober people, especially around someone with the razor sharpness of a Frank Skinner, and so I go out of my way to do everything I can to make drinking friends feel like I’m still one of them; to dance like the biggest twat in the room (not hard), to make sure they don’t feel that I’m sharper than them (not hard either, I’m a bit dense and know some bright people), and to let them know we’re in the same off our tits kinda place, we just took different routes to get there.
Remember to tell your fellow party monkeys that you love them, if you feel that feeling. This is one I still have trouble with, cos there’s nothing easier than getting drunk and declaring your undying love for your brethren. In fact ‘I fucking love you man’ is probably the number one thing drunk people say. But it’s not so easy when you’re sober, or at least not for me, so I sometimes have to push myself to express that. On the upside, when I do it’s absolutely genuine and I remember it the morning after.
Take peer pressure to drink with good grace, or at least initially. A good mate of mine recently tried to do a sober night but had her drink spiked by a friend who just couldn’t accept it, and that stuff is tricky. But it usually wanes pretty quickly. And if you’re doing all of the above and they’re still questioning your decision way later, then maybe you have to ask yourself if they’re that great a friend in the first place.
And finally, take your time… Don’t expect to make such a huge transition and for it to feel right in weeks or months. I mean it might do, but it could take longer than that. It’s probably one of the biggest changes you could make in your adult lifetime, but when it comes.., oh it’s a beauty. Slowly your rickety little ruddy-faced caterpillar rollercoaster turns into a big fuck off butterfly, and not even a travelling fair one either, like a Disneyland one or at least one from Alton Towers.
Someone recently asked if I ever miss drinking, insisting that if I was honest I must miss it in some way, and so I had to have a good think…
I guess I do very occasionally miss the speed and extremeness of the state change booze brings. I remember a friend having a bad day at work and skulling a bottle of wine in one, going from stressed out to propped up a radiator as if he’d had a lobotomy fifteen minutes later, which still makes me smile. There’s nothing quite like booze for that express train brainzonk (except shooting up heroin maybe, not tried that one) but it’s sadly so much more complex than that, and for me personally comes at way too high a price.
I also sometimes miss those extremes of hedonistic madness that booze used to bring; the jumping off buildings, the waking up in strange beds, but the price can obviously be quite high for that stuff too. Plus at this point in my life I don’t really want to be waking up with a woman more than twice my age in a four poster made from skirting boards, not least because she’d have to be over 100.
That missing drinking question also made me remember the old brain loop I used to have, which never comes up anymore, but I asked those q’s again anyway for the hell of it and the answers came back strong.
Would I be missing out on life by drinking?
Am I missing out on life by not drinking?
Equally resoundingly, fuck no.
In fact I’m pretty sure those initial yeast problems aren’t even an issue for me now and that I’d be fine to get right back on the booze if I felt the urge, but there’s just absolutely no way I’d want to.
I want to feel as alive and vibrant as I possibly can, to have all the energy I can muster, be as present as possible to watch my kid grow up, and not be a foggy-headed grumpy version of myself, constantly reeling from the current drink or the aftermath of the one before.
Not drinking has made me feel more connected to people than I have since childhood. It’s improved my mental health. It’s made the highs way higher and the lows more manageable. It’s been better for my physical health and it’s been seven years since I reached for the Rennies. It’s made me braver and given me adventures instigated by my own ever-hardening balls of steel, rather than a chemically induced short circuit. It’s made me dig deep, stop hiding and feel more myself than I’ve ever felt before. And I’m going to shut my face before I say something like ‘I’m not teetotal, I’m Me Total’.
Just before the big lockdown I went to a friend’s 50th, not one of those dire ones with balloons and high key lighting but a cool one at a cool venue – a brewery, of all things, it was literally a piss up in a brewery, and very well organised – with lots of people there I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was a bit twitchy going in but that soon became an excitement that didn’t leave me all night. I was buzzing, like a kid in a sweet shop but I didn’t even need the sweets. It’s a feeling that’s around a lot these days, a feeling of almost limitless potential that’s very similar to the feeling I always got from that first drink, only it actually stays around and doesn’t morph into something murkier.
It was so nice to see everyone and soak up the chat and the laughter.
At the end of the night I headed for the car, grinning like a maniac and turning back to look at the brewery building glowing in the night. It was covered in warm white fairy lights and also raining, so a pretty cinematic moment…
And as the distant music boomed I thought to myself, what a lucky quirk of fate this was, that gave me the time to let sobriety distill and reveal its rock and roll brilliance. I always thought that rock and roll was all about wild, vivid living that came from being uproariously off my box as much as humanly possible. But that was just blunting every single detail that came my way, and taking the edge off things hugely. Truly embracing sobriety, on the other hand, is bizarrely the wildest, most vivid, most intrepid and most rock and roll way of spending my days I can think of. Full tilt living, taking the good, the bad and the beautiful and drinking every last drop without a mixer.
In my twenties I joked I’d be teetotal by 40.
In reality it was actually 43.
I had absolutely no idea it’d be so intoxicating.