As a disclaimer, I am not an alcoholic. This blog isn't about a long term battle with drinking. Moreso the battle to challenge the conditioning around drinking culture and addiction. First things first, let me pull apart when I first had the notion that alcohol was the gateway to fun.
I must have been around 14. My mam's friend had a son my age and I used to see him every so often in Whitley Bay. Let's call him Ralph (why not?). A full blown Geordie lad, Ralph had a very dry sense of humour and always mouthed off to his mam which she gave back tenfold. He introduced me to '2 Fast 2 Furious' where I first discovered the goddess Eva Mendes. For that reason alone, I can't say thank you enough. I loved spending time at their house because they both made me howl with laughter and the family dynamic was so different.
Anyway, picture the scene. It's Ralph's birthday party. I'm stood awkwardly at the side of the kitchen, not gelling with any of his banter obsessed mates. One of his cousins is very attractive, so I'm trying not to stare at her and go bright red. My uncle is drunk and flirting with another pissed woman which in all honesty is pretty gross to watch. In an attempt to avoid this cringeworthy behaviour, I head over to the collection of J20 on the utility room table. Do I go for the orange and passionfruit, or apple and mango? It's a tough call and as I mull the decision over in my mind, I suddenly see out of the corner of my eye the birthday boy enter the room. Ralph hurridley opens a cardboard box marked WKD, grabs a bottle from inside and struts out of the room. A flash of enticing swimming pool blue crosses my eyeline before I can process his actions. Then my nervous system kicks in and my heart races at his rebellion. That my friends, is an alcoholic drink!!! I can't even fathom how much trouble he's going to be in. Following him in awe, my breath stops as his family stand at the doorway and clock the drink. Oh no. Rest in peace Ralph, you were a great friend.
Wait a minute... Do my eyes deceive me? I watch in utter confusion as his parents find a bottle opener, pop off the lid and usher him back outside, a huge grin plastered on his face. WHAT? HE'S ALLOWED A DRINK?? It's official, they are the coolest parents ever! I hastily find my mam and reveal all, pleading my case with desperation. But no. She doesn't cave.
That's when I knew I'd have to find my own way of tasting this forbidden nectar.
There were golden opportunities in my teenager years; I'd sneak a bottle of Archers from downstairs and pour it into bowls of vanilla ice cream for my mates. We'd all giggle whilst watching a film, slurping on our delicious and disgusting underage rebellion. Or what about the cliche of drinking in the park? Here's a thrilling story for you, a boy I had a crush on pulled out a WKD from his rucksack by the swings. He revealed it was only 5% but I was too scared to drink it incase we got arrested. I kid you not.
The first time I ever got drunk was attending a posh birthday party where I felt all inhibitions fly out of the marque window (told you it was posh) and spent the night performing 'comedy dances'. I vaguely remember chasing after my mate and falling down onto a corridor of mattresses.
Of course all of this underage excitement comes from the knowledge that you are actively breaking the law. I totally understand the notion that drinking can be a thrilling way to step out of our families control when we are under 18, but when it comes to reaching the legal age, why do we still continue to do it?
The feeling of being drunk is what we now equate to freedom. A drunken person doesn't have the filters of self-consciousness that crop up in sobriety, so they can say what they really mean in that moment. The racing thoughts begin to dissolve. They connect to their body and feel warm, fuzzy and tingly when they've had a certain amount. It gives them superhero confidence and sexuality that reveals itself in an alarming way (for me anyway, do not let me near anyone when I am drunk). In contrast to these delicious effects, we have the darker end of the spectrum. The overwhelming emotion, aggression, lack of control, stumbling, dangerous vulnerability, sickness, dizziness, next day depression, hangovers, embarrassing behaviour and total destruction of awareness. After partaking in awkward nights out and being the consistently mortal one, I wanted to stop drinking for a while to give my head a rest. Boy oh boy did my eyes open to the reality of pissed people. The experience for the individual may be romantic, but when you are watching people slurring and staggering into a taxi, it really takes the magic out of it.
Claire Pooley's wonderful book 'My Sober Diaries' snapped me out of my vodka hazed view of drinking. Her journey as a recovering alcoholic is revealed, from day one of painful sobriety, through a whole year dodging the bullets of temptation in many more difficult encounters. Claire's observation is that modern media is adorned with alcohol; to the point where drinking is total normalcy in our culture. Take for instance television programming. It doesn't matter what show you are watching, 90% of the time it will feature a character having a drink. Even with all the amazing female leads on TV, I'm now unable to watch a programme without counting the scenes where the women collapse at home, swilling glass after glass of wine after a long and stressful day. It drums in a subtle message that alcohol is the first port of call when you're stressed or tired. Now seeing as most of us live in a perpetual state of exhaustion, it seems even more enticing to end the day on a high. I find it so tempting to go out and get pissed after watching chick-flicks about empowering women who are single. This stuff really does soak into your brain when it's underscored with Lizzo and hot women are in their pants.
Alcohol isn't necessarily an evil. I'm not saying I judge people who choose to consume it recklessly on a regular basis. In fact, I don't blame them. I'm just as enticed by its warm and huey edges. However, like an acting teacher once told our class, when you have the capacity to express yourself fully on a dance floor sober, then you are free.
People are often horrified when I reveal I don't want a drink. The amount of times I have heard 'what do you for fun then?' scares me. What do you mean what do I do? Is alcohol really your only way to experience play and connection? I won't deny it, it does make it harder to say no socially. It's hard to say no when your mates love seeing you pissed or when you want to be confident enough to approach someone you are into.
But when I am tempted back to Dutch courage I remember this.
The effervescent energy radiating from someone without alcohol is infinitely more powerful than any kind of drunken confidence. It's a huge turn on to meet someone who takes their individual self care seriously. It's amazing to dance with and talk to new friends and old without being intoxicated. Life is seductive and colourful enough. This applies to all of our compulsions. Alcohol, devices, weed, drugs, bitching, pringles. When we stop relying on these to give us courage or relaxation, we tackle our demons head on and allow ourselves to grow and thrive internally and externally.
Listen, I don't know what my future relationship with my drinking will be. But I plan on taking each opportunity for fun in my stride, without always needing the edge of booze to steer away my fear.
After all, fear is just a feeling. And when I stay with it sober, I come to realise I'm much stronger.