Sometime early in the millennium, I quit drinking alcohol - chardonnay - for a few months, just to see if I could. I counted the days. After several self-congratulatory alcohol-free months, I cautiously reintroduced it. Al and I were on our first trip away without the kids, who were then about 19 and 20. The Kangaroo Island wines were irresistible. What was the harm in two glasses? Clearly, I could control it, having gone so long without.
Two weeks later, I was back to daily work stress and self-soothing every evening with most of a bottle of chardonnay, carefully leaving at least one glass in the bottle. Why shouldn’t I drink? I worked hard. I also commuter-cycled about 14 kay a day and despite years of living with Type 1 diabetes, I was fitter than most people my age. I didn’t have a drinking problem.
By retirement, I’d reduced my normal drinking to about two glasses of chardonnay a night. I relished that punctuation mark in my days. We’d had a rough couple of years since I’d finished working and wine, I thought, helped. Except when I was wide-awake every night after only 90 minutes sleep, berating myself for having stupidly drunk wine again, despite the absolute knowledge that it was ruining any chance I had of sleeping.
I quit drinking again in 2019. Seven months this time. I wasn’t euphorically alcohol-free – I was dealing with too much grief - but I felt in control. I cautiously reintroduced white wine one hot afternoon sitting in a piazza in Cordoba, Spain. Honestly, I was a bit bored. Wine felt right. I knew it would interfere with my sleep. So what? For various reasons I wasn’t sleeping much anyway. I might as well enjoy wine in Spain. Right?
Back home, into routine. One or two glasses of wine a day isn’t a problem, is it? Plus, I had a couple of alcohol-free days each week when I went out to evening choir rehearsals. Except for the nights I’d get home around half-nine and quickly down a couple of chardies ‘to help me settle’. Settling meant three hours sleep on a good night, then, fuck, wide awake, and cursing myself as I journalled that I’d stupidly done it again.
How did I become this addict? Why do I have this problem with alcohol? Why have I battled to control this habit? Could it be that the problem is the alcohol?
Alcohol hardly featured in the English part of my childhood – 1956 until 1964 - before we emigrated to Australia. ‘Adverts’ from the time, proclaimed that ‘Guinness is good for you’. In one memory, my mother, in her late twenties, is sideways on her car seat, legs out of the open passenger door, smiling, face raised to the sun, as she savoured her drink. ‘Ooh, shall we stop, Fred?’ she’d said. It had been a tease, a game that my older sister and I were invited to enjoy. Kindly, Dad – how lovely he seemed - parked the Wolseley at the country pub, disappeared inside then returned with a tray. Lemonade for my sister and I, and crisps, with a twist of salt in a blue wrapper and shandy for mum. He’d have a ‘half of lager’. I don’t remember hearing the word ‘beer’.
At home, as far as I was aware, tea was the drink of choice. Almost from infancy we drank tea with milk and sugar. If it was too hot, we poured some into our saucers, which was later discouraged for being a bit ‘common’. Lemonade and Tizer – bottles of ‘pop’ - were special treats. Another bubbly thrill that I associate with our maternal grandmother was Dandelion and Burdock; ‘sassparilla’ she said in her Yorkshire accent. We drank fizzy Lucozade if we’d been ‘poorly’ and needed pepping up with a bit of glucose.
Once after a family dinner outing, my mother, wearing her fur coat, fainted in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant. I’d gone outside with her while my sister, Ruth, remained inside while dad paid. Mum had been feeling unwell. I stood solemnly next to her. ‘She’s probably drunk,’ I heard from a couple of passers-by. ‘She’s not, she’s my mummy and she’s fainted,’ I declared, standing guard. So I knew that ‘drunk’ was bad.
My parents didn’t become drinkers and smokers until after they’d begun their Australian lives. Their late-1960s/early 70s social life involved beer, wine and Craven Special Mild cigarettes, mum’s dispensed fashionably from a black Glomesh case. Ruth and I practised our teenage smoking by filching mum’s cigarettes. Couldn’t pinch dad’s. He’d know and his reprimands, depending on the mood he was in, could be ferocious.
My parents drank beer – there’d usually be a couple of long-necks in the fridge – and wine. Wine came in glass flagons and was dispensed into a carafe. Sophistication. That was before the wine bottling parties of the early 70s. My parents and a few friends, all with kids our age, pooled their funds and bought plastic vats of claret and chablis. Dad had a device to cork the bottles. Empty bottles were washed and sterilised in the oven. My sister and I, with dad's encouragement, happily drank an inch or two from the tops of the accidentally overfilled bottles so the corks could fit. Fabulous fun; joy and conviviality. Mum was entertaining and flirtatious – usually not with my dad, who was cheerfully engaged in the practical tasks of wine bottling. At evening’s end, the wine was divvied up and the adults, fully tanked, drove their families home.
This was us being happy. My parents, ‘respectable’ good, church-going people, had our best interests at heart. I never saw them ‘rolling drunk’ or passed out. Dad occasionally admitted to having had too much to drink on a night out and had once confessed to parking the car until he’d recovered a bit so he could drive home. This was acknowledged as a bad thing; one shouldn’t get this drunk. Drinking to such a point was scorned. If mum was ever sick, it was because she had a migraine. As teenagers, we never doubted this.
I began drinking at 14. I learned early that I hated ‘the spins’ and even worse, vomiting, after too much. An excruciatingly nauseous experience with beer put me off it for life. My drinks of choice: apple cider, sweet Spritzig and Mateus rosé, Moselle, Bacardi and coke, whiskey and dry ginger, Advocaat and Lemonade and when I wanted to look cool, portagaff - stout and lemonade. With alcohol, I could socialize, joke, slide down stairs, sing and dance like an exhibitionist. My parents knew my sister and I drank illegally at licensed premises but accepted it. We were still up early for church on Sundays, where I sat in the front pew in my surplice and veil with my fellow choristers. I was developing nicely into a normal drinker.
During my lifetime, I’ve pitied people who don’t drink, wondering what sort of twee fun they could possibly be having. I’ve generally had hilarious times drinking with others or relaxing solo-drinking chillouts in front of the television. I've sneaked cask-wine into dry church socials and a bottle of whiskey into a dry end-of-year school ball. Without alcohol, I considered these events to be unendurable, and perhaps they were. I’ve also combined my passion for wine with cycling kilometers around wine regions in Victoria, France and Germany. Healthy, normal living. And normal sleeping, well, for a couple of hours before the inevitable waking and self-admonition until dawn. Occasionally I’d stick a couple of fingers down my throat so I could vomit and stop the nausea. But this was only at special events, once or twice a year. Or so I tell myself. Otherwise i drank a steady, measured stream of chardonnay, which I started drinking in 1981 for ‘medicinal’ reasons: it had less sugar and I had-newly diagnosed diabetes mellitus, as they called it then, that is Type 1.
I’ve quit on and off over the last 52 years, like many habitual drinkers, to periodically prove to myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic, with all its gutter connotations. I didn’t touch a drop during two pregnancies but shamefully admit that my children were introduced to alcohol with their breast milk. What hope did they have? I protected them from all manner of harm, swaddling them in sensible swimwear and smearing them with 50 plus sunscreen. Yet we raised them in a happy, functioning alcohol-filled family.
Like so many, I succumbed to the lie, in advertising and my environment, that alcohol is essential to every occasion worth enjoying. I’ve never, until recently, considered that it’s a highly addictive carcinogenic drug that has altered my brain chemistry. When I was young, I didn’t want my parents to know I smoked tobacco and didn’t smoke in front of them – both smokers at that stage – until I was 19. I quit smoking completely at 23 and was roundly congratulated. No one ever encouraged me to just have one, because it wouldn’t harm me.
Just over a month ago, I quit my wine habit for good, largely inspired by my son, now in his mid-30s who quit alcohol completely six months ago. I’m resolved never to drink again having battled with my addiction for too long. For support, I've immersed myself in a whole new world of 'quit lit' and sober social media, something I've never tried before.
Now I just need to quit banging on about it.