'I wish I'd known you when you were a drinker.'
My paper hat is making my brow sweaty. People around me are starting to get loud and the smile plastered across my face is making my jaw ache. I think about getting up and leaving but I want everyone to think I’m still fun. So, I stay. I pick up a party blower and empty my lungs into the small plastic tip. The paper crackles as it unfurls, and I do a short rendition of Jingle Bells. I laugh along with my friends when every note sounds like a duck quack.
This is the 5th Christmas party I’ve attended in the past few weeks. I’ve done my bit, so far I’ve fallen on the person next to me after opening a particularly stubborn cracker, I’ve giggled as I’ve unwrapped a cheeky secret Santa gift and I’ve even thrown out some dodgy dance moves to the dulcet tone of Michael Bublé.
For a sober person, I think I’ve done pretty well?
I’m trying. I really am. You see, I want to enjoy Christmas, embrace the big day without a hangover and absorb the joy of my little lovable brats opening presents.
I want to hug sober Christmas and make it a cup of coco.
But this evening, with my paper hat splitting in half on my forehead, just as I’m getting into the merry yule tide vibe, a man, that I don’t know at all, sitting next to me at the dinner table, leans over and whispers,
‘God, I wish I’d known you when you were a drinker.’
Mike drop. Wow. My initial translation is simple yet disturbing. What he’s saying is that he would prefer it if I was not who I am right in that moment.
He would prefer it if I was drunk right now.
The statement is so loaded that it feels heavy on the shoulders of my festive jumper.
I should throw my lime infused fizzy water in his face, but I don’t.
I sit with it. I slow it down. I think about it.
His warm breath entering my ear canal had felt like someone holding a hairdryer to my ear. His words were slurred and he had a smell, like sour milk. I guess he must have read my blog because even though I'd never met him he knew I didn't drink.
My eyes flick quickly to what he’s holding in his hand. It’s a goldfish bowl size glass of red wine.Then I allow my eye to move up his body, I scan him, take him in. He's in a Hawaiian shirt with little Santas surfing blue waves. I notice that his face is bright red, and I can see little purple veins running in lines just below the surface of his red skin.
‘This man likes a drink’ I think to myself. ‘He wants me to feel like he feels even though he won’t remember this conversation tomorrow, he wants me to be part of his feeling’
I’m not quite sure what to say.
‘Why?’ I blurt out without meaning to.
‘Why do you wish you’d have known me when I was a drinker?’
The man looks shocked. Not the response he was hoping for. His eyebrows move and create a gathering of skin above the bridge of his nose, his bottom lip curls over a little, he’s confused by my retort.
‘Well, I think you’d have been a hoot! That’s all’ He says in past tense.
I think about launching onto a tirade at him, shouting ‘just because I don’t drink doesn’t mean I’m boring. Etc… but I do the right thing. I do an insane smile and tell him,
‘Alcohol makes me mentally unstable’
As I say it I cross my eyes and draw an imaginary circle with my forefinger next to my temple gesturing that I’m completely round the twist. He moves away looking a little frightened and doesn’t bother me again. I turn to the guy on the other side of me and we have a nice chat about garden fencing.
I’m distracted for a moment (I didn't knew there were so many side gate and latch options)Yet, I can’t shake the other guy off. His words hang in the air like the scent of an exploded party popper. Those 11 words from the half cut, red nosed stranger.. have put a downer on my night.
He’s irked me……
‘I wish I had known you when you were a drinker?’ I repeat to myself.
Since giving up the booze I can't let statements like this go. I can’t zone anything out. I can’t flick away personal digs like I would a fly off a carrot my dinner plate. I have to analyse until I understand. It's a side affect of being sober, my unpicked brain needs to break things down, flip them over then cook the other side. Comments like his stick to me like glue. I have to pick at conversations like the end of the cellotape, until I find the end, the reason for his words.
I'm listening to the fence guy but I'm thinking about the breath guy and slowly, the rest of the night passes. I have laughed at the right bit and even managed to do a little speech. After an exchange of well wishes and some covid safe arm waggles to say goodbye, I go home.
I go and sit in the garden with a cup of tea and think about what he said.
I come up with 10 reasons why he would have liked me better when I was a drinker.
(emphasis on the ‘he’)
1. He would have had someone to drink with.
2. He would have felt like I was on his wavelength.
3. He could have possibly slept with me.
4. He would have had a good story about me the following day.
5. He would have someone to blame.
6. He would have someone to laugh at.
7. My drunkenness would make his own overindulgence acceptable.
8. His humour was funnier when surrounded with drunken people.
9. His breath would have gone unnoticed.
10. He was guaranteed a fun night.
He wished he had known me as a drinker so his night out would have been more interesting.
I never came into the equation.
His night would have been more fun if I had been on the same ride. His joy over my mine.
A matter of Safety in numbers, arm in arm, as we zig zagged our way to the after party.
When I thought about it (probably wayyyyy too much) I comprehended that the man, with just a few words, had summed up not only my problem, but also the problem with modern day drinking culture.
His expectation of me and the expectations of society mean its ingrained in us to believe that we are better off being a drinker than being ‘a dull sober person.’
Questions make a queue in my brain. Lined up one behind the other vying for attention.
Is this why giving up drinking is so hard?
Because everyone wants you to drink?
To be like them?
Is drinking culture a side effect of simply not wanting to be alone on the ride?
I imagine a ticket collector leaning out of the window of an old steam train,
‘All aboard! Don’t miss the crazy train to boozy town! Don’t risk being different and standing out from the crowd. Drink …join in the fun. If we’re all doing it, it can’t be that bad! Come on…Do it for me! We’re all in this together’
Before deciding on sobriety I was the one running down the platform waving my ticket in the air.
'Wait for meee!'
I wanted to stay on that crazy train until it crashed into a tree.
The thought stopped me in my proverbial train tracks, I couldn’t help wondering if binge drinking is a collective problem rather than a personal one.
After breaking it down and looking deeply at the statement I realise... For the man sat next to me his need for me to be the person I was, the drinker, was very selfish.
He wanted me to be drunk so he wouldn't feel bad about being a drunk.
I, me, my story, my health, my self-respect, my smart choice, never entered his mind. He just wanted a drinking buddy. He just needed reassurance that what he was doing was ok.
But unfortunately his need, his unbeknown selfish comment is a toxin that sober people will be swimming against for a lifetime. The attitude that I was better, more fun, more interesting when drunk, is a fallacy that I will be fighting for the rest of my days.
I wasn't more fun drunk, I was a mess. My drinking was much more fun for the people around me.
But I don’t hate the man in the Santa shirt, or anyone that has this opinion because I was him.
I’d have done the same......
I’d have shown disappointment in people when they made choices that don’t run in line with me. I have berated people that have quit drinking and ridiculed people drunker than me. I’d have hung out with heavy drinkers so that my drinking didn’t seem so…. well, so bloody serious.
Like him, I never paused to consider the truth.
That perhaps this person was drinking because of trauma, blacking out due to being lost, having their stomach pumped because they were feeling socially insecure.
I’d never have paused and considered the reasons why.
And the reasons why are everything.
If we try and understand people’s reasons behind sobriety and drinking, then we have a chance at breaking free from this social crutch. We have a chance at not giving in to expectations and social norms.
We have a chance at an alcohol-free life. A life where we can be ourselves and socialize without falling over or risking our own safety.
We just need to make it easier for each other to be honest. That's why I write this blog.
As I sit in the garden and ponder all of this, I feel lucky. Lucky to have become honest with myself. Honest about alcohol. I sit and consider what I should have said in response to his statement. What would be the real truth?
I should have said,
‘Look, you wouldn’t have liked me drunk. I was unhappy and out of control. I was using it because I was lost, and didn’t know another way to fit in’
Perhaps if I had been honest, he would have walked away and considered his own statement further?
‘Why did I wish I’d known that woman when she was a drinker?’
A small ripple in a big ocean is better that a stagnant puddle.
I put my mug in the sink and head off to bed.
I allow the thoughts to seep into a place in my head where I can’t hear them anymore. Even though my jaw is tight from the fake smiling and my stomach is bloated from all the Christmas gluten I’ve shoved into my face hole, I manage to drift off to sleep.