Status anxiety

Giving up alcohol is not as much fun as I’d hoped

There is pleasure in the self-denial, but all the joy has gone

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

Two months ago, I set myself the target of losing 11 pounds in time for the Spectator’s summer party on 1 July. To help achieve that, I swore off alcohol and, had I succeeded, my plan was to start drinking again at the party. I managed the weight loss, but didn’t make it to the party because it clashed with a board meeting of the educational charity I set up five years ago. The upshot is that I haven’t started drinking again and I’m debating whether to remain teetotal in perpetuity.

Temperance has its advantages. I’ve experienced almost no headaches or stomach aches since I gave up the booze, although that may also be connected with my diet. I’ve cut out bread, biscuits, crackers, potatoes, pasta, ice-cream and chocolate and tried to limit myself to about 1,000 calories a day. I’m permanently hungry and often gagging for a drink, but the upside is a sense of moral superiority when seeing my less abstemious friends, particularly when they’re washing down carbohydrates with copious quantities of wine.

I remember hearing Keith Richards say that one of the few compensations of giving up heroin was watching the different emotions flitting across the faces of his former drug buddies when he declined to partake. First they looked shocked, then bereft, then resentful, as if he was passing judgment on them — which, of course, he was. My friends’ reaction, when I tell them I’ve given up drinking, is similar.

Feeling sanctimonious is one of the by-products of self-denial and, pleasurable though it is, should be resisted. In the same way that born-again non-smokers are the most virulent anti-smoking bores, I find myself leaning towards all sorts of authoritarian causes I’ve previously rejected. A sugar tax, for instance. In the past, I’ve dismissed this as a form of thinly disguised puritanism, wanting to penalise people on low incomes for indulging in the simplest of pleasures, but now that I’m abstaining from that pleasure myself I feel a sadistic inclination to deny it to others. Inside every fat man there’s an Andy Burnham struggling to get out and demand a Frosties ban.

At least in the case of sugar my zeal is tempered by the knowledge that I’ll start consuming it again before long. With alcohol, I’m not so sure. I used to have a wonderfully uncomplicated relationship with booze, but I made the mistake of giving it up for a couple of years in 1999 to prove to Caroline, then my fiancé, that I wasn’t an alcoholic.

I started drinking again about an hour after we’d got married and it wasn’t as much fun as I’d expected. I turned into a more self-conscious drinker than before, monitoring how many glasses of wine I’d had, sometimes switching to water for a bit and generally trying to delay the point at which I moved on to hard liquor. Alcohol ceased to be a source of pleasure but one of neurotic self-examination. After 14 years of this tedious drama, it’s a relief to be free of it.

There is a psychological cost, though. The most pleasurable part of drinking is the first glass of the day — that warm sense of euphoria as the alcohol enters your bloodstream, buttressed by the sure knowledge that you’re not going to do any more work. Later in the evening, midway through the second bottle, the self-loathing begins to kick in, climaxing the following morning when your children burst into the bedroom at 6 a.m. It may sound weird, but these swings between peaks and troughs provide my life with a kind of structure; it’s a rhythm I’ve become familiar with. Now, with no cork to pull at 7 p.m., I find myself in one mood all the time, neither euphoric nor depressed. Emotionally, it’s a flat line.

I’m quite enjoying the stability, but I can see myself getting bored with it. I had dinner last week with a man who’s been teetotal since struggling with a bout of cocaine addition when he was young, and I asked him whether this was a problem for him. I was hoping he’d say that, in time, the body’s natural rhythms kick in, but no. ‘I haven’t experienced anything resembling euphoria for over 20 years,’ he said. As he looked at me wistfully, it was obvious that a little part of him still hankered for it.

Am I prepared to pay that price? Probably not.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Sue Smith

    Ah well, that’s what happens when you’re always looking for “fun”!!! Growing up isn’t “fun”, but I can still recommend it.

    And school students think lessons should be “fun”. That was always a problem for a teacher like me who thought learning difficult things was serious business. Good to know they can all still find “fun” in a bottle, though.

    I like Wagner, but unfortunately that isn’t “fun”. Guess that’s why his popularity has waned with the younger generation and why head-banging is their preferred ‘fun’ activity. That and binge drinking, drug taking, aggressive street-fighting, shouting and swearing.

    That’s all “fun” to a generation of terminally empty heads.

    • Jay Igaboo

      “That’s all “fun” to a generation of terminally empty heads”……… sheesh!
      I agree with you to a fair degree but lighten up a little.
      I like Wagner (Ride of the Valkyries was the regimental march of one of my former units) and the cinecasts from the NY Met last year of DIe Walkuren was superb, but I like anything that hits my ear right, which can include country, Latin, rock ‘n’ roll and lots of other low-brow stuff too.
      You’re a teacher, Sue, it’s your JOB, and it should be your calling to enthuse them.
      In the army I did a short two or three day methods of instruction course, which served me well in instructing others, and fun was definitely to be used as an instructional aid when appropriate.
      I know it’s hard to teach kids if their parents aren’t doing THEIR job, but you don’t get so serious that kids switch off your teaching.
      I also admit that Army instructors are ever-so- slightly advantaged as discipline is that little bit easier to enforce than in an educational/indoctrination system that is in thrall to PC.

  • Deiscirt

    Liked the honesty and insight in this article very much Toby. Cheers.

  • Precambrian

    If life isn’t enjoyable without booze, you have a problem more serious that a few pounds of extra weight.

    Why do so many people equate enjoyment with intoxication? The more you drink, the more you live in a chemical fantasy rather than the real world. Useful, as a night cap, after a stressful day, but as a pre-requisite for enjoyment it shows a spiritually-sick hollow person living a lie.

    People who drink heavily are not “enjoying life”. They are doing their utmost to block out life with unreality; and as such are never people to be role-models (because their path is ultimately nihilistic).

    • I would say that’s true of narcotics: I don’t thinks it’s true of drink — and certainly not in Toby’s case (or mine).

    • polistra24

      I have no idea what “spiritually-sick hollow” means. Content-free buzzwords.

      For some people alcohol does make life better. It’s a fact. The problem is that alcohol also makes life TREMENDOUSLY shorter. Heavy smokers typically lose 5 years from the end; heavy drinkers lose 30 or 40 years.

      I had to face that decision at age 33. Drinking was enabling me to advance in an extrovert career, but it was already starting to mess up my health. I decided not to die at 40. After the alcohol stopped, I had to reshape everything to fit a sober and realistic introvert.

      So far, at 65, it’s worked.

      • post_x_it

        Just to clarify though, you’re talking about some pretty serious volumes of booze?
        I haven’t seen any evidence that one or two glasses of wine with your dinner make your life TREMENDOUSLY shorter.

        • Quite the contrary: even those that like to condemn alcohol have to confess that the evidence says a glass or two of wine a day is good for most people.

    • Jay Igaboo

      You’re right on the money, so matter how much drinkers BS about it.

    • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

      Name me one great sober author, musician or poet and I’ll name you 10 addicts who are better and gave the world more.

      • post_x_it

        Does anyone really get by without some sort of intoxication?
        Note how many teetotallers have given up drinking because they found god or became flying yogis or some such pursuit. So they’ve found a way to talk or meditate themselves into a stupor without the help of booze or drugs, but the principle is still the same.

        • One can get by but, as Toby has noted here and previously, once you’ve tasted of the elixir the alternative is boring. Mine’s a Freixenet tonight, in case you’re wondering.

          • blandings

            I’ve switched to sparkling water – surprising variety available – big bubbles, little bubbles – you get the idea.

          • Heh heh heh. I drink sparkling water every day: welcome to the club!

          • blandings

            But not instead of alcohol – rescue me

          • Oh dear, well I didn’t like to mention it. Are you SURE there is no other way? One little drinky-poo is too much? Or two?

          • blandings

            I’m demonstrating strength of character.
            For a while anyway.
            Got the engineer’s report on the TR7 I fancied – no buy. It’s a shame: I had almost persuaded “Sexy Steph” to slink across the bonnet for me. I don’t know which of us is the more disappointed.

          • I’m demonstrating strength of character.For a while anyway.
            Love it! I’m demonstrating strength of had-it-ness after two days of packing, hauling, driving, furniture re-arranging (no place I show up at has the seating and kitchen space anywhere near right) with a beer in a frosted mug. On the other hand, I’m in training and I’m building strength and when I leave these hills I’ll be able to fit into my Laura Ashley summer linen suit once more.
            Got the engineer’s report on the TR7 I fancied – no buy.
            Let’s sigh together and then look for the next TR7 possibility. I probably felt similar when I briefly considered bidding on Agatha Christie’s writing desk from her London mews home but decided against it because it was reported to be shabby and in great disrepair.

          • blandings

            Agatha Cristie’s writing desk? I guess you would have taken it out at weekends for a gentle pootle round the neighbourhood.

          • Hah ha. Yes, it would have been a vintage more ladylike version of this:

          • blandings

            My mother had a foot powered trestle table thing that ran her sewing machine. maybe you’re too young to remember them. I used to think that if she rigged it up to some wheels she could have pedalled down to the market on it. Having said that, she had a bike.

          • I think in documentaries of ye old weavers I might have seen something like that. I take it that the bike was a regular kind and not a Harley?

          • blandings

            My mother on a Harley? – Don’t be cheeky.
            My mother liked American soldiers you’ll be pleased to know-A good source of nylons, cigarettes and chocolate – She had a good war I think.

          • Wow, such a different time. And immensely frightening I should think, even for those that had it better rather than worse. I’m going to try not drinking so much this evening. Three glasses of white wine before dinner last night… not a habit that I as an aspiring athlete should have. I shall think of your teetotalism to inspire me, though I don’t think I’ll have just one glass: I’ll be thinking the whole time that ‘this is the only one’, so better to have two!

          • blandings

            I’ve just had half a bottle – sorry to let you down.
            To lie or not to lie -hmm

          • Ooer! Well I’m sure you did good for yourself while you had a chaste liver, and now you’re doing good for yourself in another way : )

          • blandings

            Thankyou for being so understanding.

          • P. S. I commented not half an hour ago that I like exercising in the wood-floor garage because I know a beer won’t get me there. I meant a bear but as C. put it, two days of no beer and already the Freudian slips are coming out….

          • blandings
          • Cheetah kits are sweet and cuddly and don’t grow up to be instinctive man-killers such as leopards (and lions, in the right context).

            I am in the woods in Georgia. The owner of this place (more than a cabin, less than a year-round-living house unless one likes dark houses and small spaces) says that she hasn’t yet seen a bear here, but they start being seen in greater numbers in August, September and October when they are foraging in advance of the winter. We’re leaving at the end of the first week of August, so perhaps we’ll see one. Though I rather hope not, esp. if it’s a close encounter.

          • pedestrianblogger
          • It would be an ambitious bear that climbed up two balconeys and clawed his way through the upper one’s screen….

          • blandings

            It’s not the bears you have to worry about

          • No, it’s the chiggers!

          • blandings

            I read somewhere that the easiest way to tell the difference between a grizzlie and a brown bear is that when you shin up a tree to escape, one of them can climb after you and one of them can’t.
            Can’t remember which though.
            Oh well!

          • Well, it’s easy here because they’re all black bears round here and they’re all … black. More or less.

          • pedestrianblogger

            “Black, more or less”? Are you implying that some of them are Pandas?

          • Now THAT would be a sighting!

          • blandings

            black bears as well?
            Can they climb?
            Climbing is my only tactic when confronted with gigantic man eating things – I would look a right lemon if it came after me.

            I also read somewhere that you don’t have to be able to run faster than a bear – just faster than your friend. So always go down to the woods with a slow friend.

          • Black bears are good at everything except pondering the theological-political question. They can climb like billy-o and outrun you, as well. This is why I wore a pea-less whistle on my summer treks in the Canadian wilderness (my boyfriend and I; no phone and no weapon; just a tent and our food pack and the canoe). I figured that if confronted by a bear (they usually just run off, but one couple was mauled to death in the same park where we started out from), I would blow that whistle to kingdom come. I’d end up deaf but the bear would be scared witless and we would survive. Fortunately I never had to put this theory to the test.

          • blandings

            “Black bears are good at everything except pondering the theological-political question”

            Hmm. Cross black bear with human and what would you get? A really crafty bear maybe, or a bear that crochets little hats. Doesn’t bear thinking about – I’m going to bed – goodnight girl.

          • Goodnight Mr Everything Bear.

          • blandings

            I used to wear my girlfriend’s jeans.
            That girl was well put together I can tell you.
            Love has a style all of its own.

          • blandings

            “Cheetah kits are sweet and cuddly”
            I dare say, but ma’s on the roof.

          • ! : )

      • Frank Marker

        That’s fair enough if you are writer of the calibre of a Hemingway and Patrick Hamilton or a comic like Peter Cook, but if you are just a man in the street then you just become selfish, boring and in some cases thoroughly nasty, just ask the families who have to deal with them. There aren’t many people who are entertaining when they are drunk, apart from the aforementioned Cook. In most cases we Brits just can’t carry off ‘drunk’ very well.

    • blandings

      I have just abandoned drinking.
      You’re wrong.

  • Mark

    Hey, Toby, moderating or stopping boozing is a lot more fun than oesophageal
    varices, really it is.

    • Jay Igaboo

      I had to Google that – nasty, very nasty. I wonder how common it is in drinkers v non-drinkers?

      • blandings

        I avoided looking – is it really that bad?

        • Since we’ve never heard of it, B, I shouldn’t worry.

  • Peter

    I think that I drink heavily, but seldom become so intoxicated that I could not do my job (I can be called after hours). I suppose, Toby, in your position your work may have a wider audience – although it never stopped Jeffrey Bernard!

    As an intoxicant, alcohol is pretty lousy, but everything else is banned. I can understand Precambrian’s objections to intoxication – but I think that as long as it’s delineated in advance, it’s a recreational pursuit, much like getting dizzy on a swing or a roundabout as a child.

    Much like smoking and yoga, some people are wired for it, and others aren’t. But I would ask that you don’t turn against the people who enjoyed your vice before you abandoned it, as so many former smokers do.

    • Never heard that one has to be ‘wired’ for yoga. Have you tried it?

      • Peter

        Yes, and juggling as well. I had time for it when I was an undergraduate.

        • post_x_it

          You managed juggling when you were wired? Blimey, that takes some doing. I thought the yoga was pushing it, though I have a particularly energetic friend who has been known to go straight from a rave to a Sunday morning yoga class.

      • Frank Marker

        Must be the ‘new’ style yoga that Madonna is doing.

  • Oh Toby, give it up. The attempt, I mean. Alcohol has been with us for thousands of years because it makes life better. Your problem is that you need something else to ‘lead’. I mean something that directs your urges because you are committed to that something. It might be having a certain physique, with muscle and all that stuff girls like: so you dedicate yourself in part to that, and then food and drink follow — and are restrained — by that dedication. Or it may be that you want to learn a difficult subject which means a different sleeping schedule which affects the time in which you drink: learning that fascinating subject is the leader. Someone with street cred could write a book on this and make a million. Instead it’s just me. But I think I’m right.

    • Peter

      You are right. Drinking requires discipline – that’s why adolescents are usually quite bad at it.

    • Liberty

      He may find that as he gets older alcohol is no fun. I always enjoyed it, often had roaring good nights with no hangovers and could sleep in when under 40. But hangovers, broken sleep and a ruined following day [especially difficult when the hassle of and responsibility for small kids came] became more frequent afterwards thus forcing restraint. Now, post 60 I just cannot take it any more. If I have a glass with dinner I am sleepy, intoxicated and it ruins reading, telly, conversation, etc. and if I have another I get all that plus sleep is ruined and so is the following day. So I have virtually given up. I don’t buy for home consumption. I can manage half a pint of beer in the pub and a glass with a dinner if eating out and that is it. 2/3 glasses/halves a month, tops. I am slimmer, happier and more energetic with it. I don’t miss it.

  • amphibious

    Is this the same Toby young who, last century wrote drivel about how he had a dope habit and the need for prohibition was to have a Law to protect people (like him) from themselves?
    Way to ignore the Enlightenment!

  • Stephen Marsh

    Good article.

  • Stephen Marsh

    Though I suspect it might have as much to do with yeast and sugar as alcohol. I had terrible stomach issues and headaches and my doctor advised cutting out yeast and sugar and alcohol for 3 months initially. It worked but he advised continuing for another 2 years before re-admitting things to my diet. He advised avoiding wine, beer and whiskey but sticking with gin and vodka. The latter was dull but gin was a revelation. Delicious and clean but not that good with food, so I set out to make my own. I now have a gin that pairs well with food and drink little else. I can eat sugar and yeast and drink gin without the consequences of before. Plainly the quantity of alcohol can dictate the consequences but I find that I get all the upsides and few of the downsides from a reasonable moderation.

    • Jay Igaboo

      I don’t know if it will wreck you, but have you tried sloe gin?
      It’s the easiest thing in he world to make.
      Despite being teetotal all my days, whenever I was abroad I used to bring back some booze for friends of relatives.
      On one occasion the plane I was on had only gin left in the duty-free so I bought it. As it was late in the year and the sloes were out and “bletted” i’e nipped by the frost, which releases the little bit of fructose in them, I picked some, put them in bottles, added equal amounts of gin and sugar ie 1 part sloes, 1 part sugar and 1 part gin, shook it gently for a couple of seconds every three days or so, and it was well received by those drinking it at Christmas.
      I believe it is the basis of pink gin. it certainly had the colour.

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  • The Red Bladder

    As I take the cork out of my breakfast I cannot help but think “how sad to deny oneself such pleasure”.

  • Jay Igaboo

    “Now, with no cork to pull at 7 p.m., I find myself in one mood all the time, neither euphoric nor depressed. Emotionally, it’s a flat line.”
    Take your wife dancing, Toby.
    Ballroom and Latin American.If you’re doing it right, it will take you through every emotion there is, because if you don’t connect with the emotion of the particular dance, you ain’t dancing, you’re only exercising. I’d rather dance with a partner who connects with whatever emotion the dance requires than a technically brilliant gal who doesn’t.
    In an evening of dancing, you feel love and tenderness in the waltz and rumba, lust anger and arrogance in the tango, sheer exhilaration and joi de vivre in the jive, cha-cha,and samba , a sense of death and drama in the paso dobl-plus and an endorphin high from the exercise.
    And when you take the missus home, you’re both primed for another of life’s activities that can give you that elusive euphoric buzz you’re looking for.
    And it’s all beneficial to your health, unlike the bottle!
    I’ve been teetotal my entire life, having as a child witnessed too much of what drink can cause.
    I’ve never had a deliberate drink in my life, although various “friends” tried lacing fruit juices with vodka, which I detect immediately by the taste of alcohol, which I don’t like.
    I think I was under the ‘fluence slightly when a girl friend who was at art school invited me to a dance and I was assured that the punch bowl was full of fruit juice (a naivety possibly unparalleled even by those already blind drunk.)
    The did feel rather good, but I was dancing, which makes me feel good anyway!
    I get plenty of highs ( and lows!) without drink or drugs.
    I cannot conceive of anything that can compare with the feeling of your children being born, witnessing the Northern Lights after walking up a mountain was a profound spiritual experience that was quite euphoric, a bit of danger is exhilarating- life’s full of opportunity for enjoyment with the bottle.

  • Giving up drink is easy, but you’re messing with your head by giving up food at the same time! I had to give up alcohol a couple of years ago in preparation for an operation and decided to try going teetotal. I don’t miss cheap plonk at all but I do occasionally miss fine wines and craft beers, but the compensation in terms of energy levels is fantastic, plus no hangovers, ever. Also – that smell of cheap booze when you have to clean up after a party! Yech!

    On the other hand I’m still overweight.

  • misomiso

    The next step is giving up Gluten Tobes!

    • Gluten is a normal part of the diet for most people on the planet and has been so for centuries. I am very skeptical of the new trendy ‘intolerance’ and think someone will be debunking it/laughing about it in a handful of years — while finding the true culprit, which is most likely an over-reliance on sugary carbs in general.

  • beenzrgud

    As someone with recently discovered gluten intolerance it came as a blessed relief to find that hard liquor is gluten free. Give up the booze, you must be joking !

  • lakelander

    I’ve found this regime works well: I only drink at home if we have visitors. Away from home or out socially I allow myself alcohol.

    I started this at the beginning of the year and have found I have greatly reduced my intake, some weeks not drinking at all. It has saved money and helped me to lose weight as it’s surprising how much of my drinking was done at home. I can still enjoy a pint if I go to the pub or a glass of wine with a meal out. As far as social occasions are concerned, no one notices any difference and I don’t have any explaining to do.

    • Since I hardly ever have visitors and it’s mostly my mother-in-law, that wouldn’t work for me!

      • lakelander

        You could have a glass of Bristol Cream together.

  • Jingleballix

    Drinking hard stuff is tough

    Beer and wine is fine……though not all the time.

    The old red is good no doubt….but two bottles a night gives you gout.

    At the end of the day moderation is key.

    None for the first 6 days of the month, then no consecutive days drinking for me.

    • post_x_it

      Don’t give up the day job!

      • Jingleballix

        Give me a chance, I’ve only had one beer!

  • Sten vs Bren

    I heard he started drinking when his parents told him that he was going to a comprehensive.

  • Des Demona

    And much as wine has played the infidel
    And robbed me of my robe of honour, well
    I often wonder what the vintners buy
    One half so precious as the stuff they sell

    Omar Kayyam 1048-1131

    That’ll do for me, Tommy. Nuff said.

  • blandings

    “Later in the evening, midway through the second bottle, the self-loathing begins to kick in,”
    Never experienced that – I’m just a happy little drinker.

    • Me too, though I’d be lying if I said that there was never a morning when I didn’t think ‘oops’ about the night before.

      • blandings

        Guilty pleasures are the best