After several weeks boozing up a storm in Vietnam, I set myself a Herculean task: I wouldn’t touch a drop in India, my next destination, for a full three months.
This was somewhat out of character. With me, drinking has always been part of the package, as integral, I thought, to my personality—or at least the personality I wished to project—as my writing or sparkling wit. That my sentences grew longer and more tortuous with each beer, and my sparkling wit duller with each glass of sparkling, was never something I really thought about.
It wasn’t that I needed a drink, that I woke up each morning wondering where my next drink was coming from, but rather that I always wound up having one, and that I tended not to stop once I had. I couldn’t think of a particularly good reason for not drinking. It was, as they say, always five o’clock somewhere. From the moment I started—late, but in earnest, at the age of twenty—I had been a staunch believer in the Kingsley Amis ideal of ‘every day drinking’.
The space in that construction is all-important, and it was my goal to erase it now: to stop drinking every day and get back to a normal, everyday relationship with alcohol. I certainly wasn’t planning to stop forever, only to learn how to manage the tap.
For all that, however, my primary motivating factor was vanity. Amis once wrote that ‘the first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree’. (The stern, uncompromising italics are his.) Unfortunately, as I entered my thirties, that advice was no longer working. Actually, it hadn’t been working for much of my twenties, either. After losing forty kilograms through sheer willpower in my late teens, I had gradually put thirty back on, with change, over the course of about a decade.
I had made things relatively easy for myself by deciding to get sober in India. While it’s far from impossible to find a drink here—and while I’ve faced tougher challenges in places like northern Malaysia and central Turkey, always with success—it’s true that the place isn’t awash in drink the way other parts of the world tend to be. But this wasn’t the only reason I found stopping easy: it turned out my willpower was still in working order, too, and the impulse to go out and buy a couple of beers disappeared entirely within a couple days. (It turns out I’m one of the lucky ones.) One day in Rishikesh, walking along the banks of the Ganges, I realised I was feeling happy: unambiguously happy, contentedly happy, happier than I had felt in some time. The fact that the weight was falling off me probably had something to do with this.
I hadn’t told many people about the drought when I initially decided to subject myself to it. I was planning to wait until I reached Spain in July to let people know what I had been up to. I imagined posting a photo of a glass of rioja or manzanilla above the caption: ‘My first drink in three months’, and catching everyone off-guard. But the siren song of social media—of likes and loves and shares, however fickle—ultimately proved too tempting. The difference between a photo of me taken two months ago and one from more recently seemed too impressive not to share.
The reaction was, to put it mildly, interesting. Most of it was of course positive: ejaculations of praise, great cries of congratulation, the sort of parade in the virtual street that we hope our every utterance on social media will inspire. You want to talk about addiction, consider the fact that my new sober, healthier, happier self was still unable to resist the junk high of a blue thumbs up.
But an equally significant amount of the feedback was subtly critical, or at least subtly self-defensive. (There were also those, albeit fewer in number, who seemed to be congratulating me as though I was never going to drink again, which annoyed me in another way, assuming, as they did, that I had become a teetotaller. I may not be drinking in India, but I have certainly made a point of patronising places where alcohol is available just to stick it to wowserism on principal.) The most common observation among the critics was that I appeared happier in the first photo (in which I was posing with a friend) than I did in second (which I had taken as a comparison shot). The second most common was something along the lines of: ‘I tried that once. It was awful.’
In High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze, Jill Stark wrote at length about the attempts of those around her to get her to drink:
It’s only been three weeks, but already some are treating my abstinence as if it’s a personal insult. […] My identity was suddenly reduced to the sum of the substances I’d chosen not to ingest. Despite repeatedly telling the host that I was driving, he insisted that I have a cold beer to toast the birthday boy, his brother. […] Eventually I had to tell him I’d necked a couple of whiskies before I left the house, just to get him to leave me alone.
One of my friends—a recovering heroin addict—summed up this kind of behaviour perfectly in response to the thinly-veiled criticisms of my decision:
It does seem like not drinking makes drinkers uncomfortable in the same way that vaping makes smokers uncomfortable or healthy eating makes non-healthy eaters uncomfortable, exercising makes non-exercisers uncomfortable, etc. Misery loves company, as it were.
I understand this implicitly. I have indulged in such dismissal myself, have shielded my own drinking, my own precious habit, from the discomfiting examples of others. I have trotted out the classic line: ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t drink’, which has been attributed to everyone from Churchill and W. C. Fields to Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, and have recited basically everything ever said by Dean Martin. I have paraphrased Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens—the latter of whom I once saw try to sneak a tumbler of Johnny Walker out of the Opera House in his breast pocket—who both employed versions of the line that they drank ‘to make other people more interesting’. (It never occurred to me that, while this was true, it simultaneously made me less interesting.) That I never trotted out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s equally relevant classic—’First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you’—goes without saying. I protested eloquently—or at least I thought I did, after having a couple—but I also protested too much.
Such protest has become the way of the world, and in ways that apply to more than mere drinking. The online political debate comes immediately to mind. The most common response to even the slightest hint of virtue—wokeness worn on the sleeve, conscience-triggering clickbait—is to write it off as mere virtue signalling. Knee-jerk whataboutism has become both a safety and fire blanket, a way of deferring analysis of one’s biases and denying responsibility for one’s actions. Anecdote—including articles like this one—is used not only as a substitute for data, but also too often as a denial of it. Anything that makes us feel even slightly uncomfortable about our personal positions and decisions is to be considered suspect or else summarily dismissed. It sometimes seems that we live in a world in which the defensive posture has become the default: everyone, always, is coming for us. They want to take our guns and our cocktails. The response, on both sides, is to lash out in what we claim is self-defence, to elect Trump, or police ‘hurtful’ speech, or tell someone who’s trying to lose weight that they looked happier when they were drunk. It’s enough to turn a man to the bottle.
But let’s not dwell too long on the fact that I just compared my decision to go without to the great political challenges of the day. Let’s end where we started: with the booze. The final scene of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright—which rivals Cassavetes’ work for its sheer alcoholic excess and is perhaps the most stinging critique of Australian society ever committed to film—seems a fitting way to go out.
John Grant: Look mate, I’ve given up drinking for a while.
Driver: What’s wrong with ya, ya bastard? Why don’t ya come and drink with me? I’ve just brought ya fifty miles in the heat and dust, and ya won’t drink with me! What’s wrong with ya?
John Grant: What’s the matter with you people, huh? You sponge on you, you burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child, that’s all right! Not have a drink with you, not have a flaming bloody drink with you, that’s a criminal offence, that’s the end of the bloody world!
Driver: Yer mad, ya bastard.
It almost calls to mind a Twitter debate. That I have played both roles in this acrimonious exchange—and plenty of other, more important exchanges like it—is ultimately, in its way, rather sobering.
Matthew Clayfield is a journalist, critic and screenwriter.