Last night I went to a restaurant and had to have some ginger shit instead of any number of awesome-looking beers and wines. Then I went to a pub and had two and a half pints of lime and soda. Then I went to someone’s house where the only available soft drink was water. Reader, I drank it.
On a mild Sunday in December, shortly after the end of term, I was driving to Oxford with a screaming hangover. I was making this woeful return journey purely in order to work. In December. This felt so unreasonable that I had gone out in London with some graduated friends the night before and painted the town 50 fairly bright shades of red. And it was on this fateful day that I was driving back to Oxford exhausted and now a delicate shade of green.
All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I was listening to Capital FM and not my usual, and more reasonable, choice of Radio 4, and why I was influenced by a radio advert about waving goodbye to alcohol for the entire month of January. In theory it sounded great. No hangovers for a whole month. No waking up wondering what the hell happened the night before and why my pillow was covered in Hasan’s. I might be able to get some serious work done. I might be able to take up an edifying new hobby. I might even lose some weight.
What really hit home was hearing that the charity being advertised was Cancer Research; my aunt had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Going dry would be a way of doing something that showed this had affected me, that the experience hadn’t just passed me by. I would be able to raise some decent money for charity along the way. That day, I signed up to become a ‘dryathlete’.
Having told my friends and broken the sad news to the legend that is Wadham’s barman, there could be no turning back. As a result, the festive period was spent getting as drunk as I reasonably could. Indeed, the fact I was going to be embarking on the Dryathlon journey became a helpful excuse whenever my parents accused me of drinking to excess. I approached New Year’s Eve like a death row prisoner approaching his last meal. I was going to binge and gorge my way through my last night of libatory enjoyment.
This was achieved with such success that I got through the first few days of January without too much difficulty. The first problem I encountered was my father challenging me to drink whilst sharing out a bottle of wine amongst the family. Otherwise, however, the fact that early January has become a period of acceptable detoxing and healthy living in modern Britain meant that I was generally in company in my abstinence.
Indeed, a few friends even misheard me and thought I was going several steps further and training to take on the Brownlee brothers in a Triathlon. Sadly not. They were rather unimpressed and significantly less amused in discovering the true nature of my challenge. By comparison, it paled.
The first real test came towards the end of the first week. I was getting ready to come back to Oxford and wanted to see some home friends who I had not yet managed to fit in around the succession of enforced family social occasions that we call the Christmas period. Unsurprisingly, they wanted to meet in a pub and catch up.
This was not a problem in itself. I have, on the very rare occasion, been to a pub before without drinking. However, this has only ever been as a result of compulsion, under that unfortunate title of designated driver. Sobriety was being enforced for good reason and with legal consequences for disobedience. This time, however, the only restraint was my willpower, which is, at the best of times, weak. (During an unsuccessful period as Wadham Boat Club Captain, I was in charge of imposing two week-long drinking bans. I was the only person unable to stick to either of them. And that was after just one day.)
My friends took it upon themselves to mock my choice of non-alcoholic drink (lime and soda, an entirely reasonable choice) and to try and tempt me with their pints after the arrival of each round. Being the strongly willed individual I am, I made it through unscathed.
This, however, was scant preparation for the return to Oxford. I had thought that I would use my abstinence to take up something new at university. I’d had high-minded ideas about getting involved in one of the many societies on whose Freshers’ Fair mailing lists I still linger. Or I was going to use my evenings to get seriously fit or cover some of those books on a reading list that do not have a star next to them. At the very least, I was going to take advantage of Orange Wednesdays or go to some plays.
Reader, I am ashamed to say that I have achieved none of the above. Instead I have mostly stuck to my normal social life which almost entirely revolves around licensed establishments. The consequence of which is that I have become very used to being the butt of jokes for not drinking. A few friends have, to their credit, reduced their own consumption out of solidarity. However, most have done exactly what I would have, and mocked me relentlessly.
Some particular evenings have stretched my resolve. At the end of 0th week, I handed in two pieces of coursework which make up a considerable element of my degree. After the stress of getting them finished, all I wanted was a nice pint of college bar Ansell’s. Instead, I was reduced to drinking Shloer in hall before spending the evening nursing a squash in the bar.
I had to compensate for this by watching a particularly good episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, which, to some degree, did indeed persuade me of the benefits of not drinking. Then there was the first bop back, most of which I spent trying to persuade people significantly under the influence to drop any money they had into a collecting pot.
Essentially I had to get through a weekend of people celebrating the end of collections, a bop which, without alcohol, was quite a revelation, and a Sunday evening without a single beer. Wadham Bar was fast running out of Pepsi. I soon feared I’d have to move onto squash permanently. This is what my life had become.
Since then, there have been many other evenings spent in the bar nursing a Diet Coke (the stocks of which I have now exhausted – apologies to anyone who has been craving one over the last couple of days) and there was a small test at a darts match when all I could drink was sparkling elderflower cordial.
But the most difficult test of all came a few days ago. It was the first time in my four years that I had managed to book in for Burn’s Night in Hall and I had no intention of missing it. In advance, I had reluctantly agreed to give my tot of whisky to a friend who could not conceal his glee. So I was prepared for disappointment as soon as I stepped through the door.
Having to refuse wine while my dining mates revelled in getting extra helpings was, however, immensely more tedious than I had imagined. And the greatest injustice of all was when I realised that the pudding, a Scottish take on the Eton Mess laced with whisky, had to be given away so that I could not possibly be accused of cheating. I am aware that this sounds like the ultimate ‘first world problem’ but I am usually an incorrigible glutton, so I was pissed off. Much of the meal I had paid for was going to waste on others in the room.
To suggest that the first 19 days of this have been any serious ordeal would be embarrassing. It would suggest that people who do real things for charity like those who run marathons, or even those who do proper triathlons, are on a par with someone giving up a treasured pastime and, worryingly, it would indicate that I was an alcoholic.
So I am relieved to say that it has not, on the whole, been too bad.
Furthermore, to end this article with the benefits of abstinence and a stream of platitudes about feeling better (indeed I do feel marginally better, although there has been no discernible reduction of the waistline) would be self-righteous and misleading.
However, I have realised how central booze is to our social culture (especially student social culture) – and how much I like it. I have undoubtedly made it harder by not avoiding boozy situations, but the latter is remarkably difficult.
The most testing element of being a dryathlete has been getting used to being handicapped in most social situations. What I can impart to anyone who might be considering such a dry spell is that, in many social situations, a sugar or caffeine high can be almost (although not quite) as effective as a drink. I have been relieved to find out that being sober among a group of drinking friends does not necessarily make one into a social pariah.
I will, however, resume drinking with considerable relish on the 1st of February. Before that sainted day arrives, I have a couple more hurdles to surmount. I have not yet attempted to sample Oxford’s clubbing scene without a drink, having made my excuses at every possible opportunity so far. I feel I should really take this on before I can declare my Dryathlon a success. And on the last night of sobriety, I will be in attendance at a Boat Club Curry which will mark one last night of difficult temptation.
Finally, it would be wrong of me not to shamelessly plug the charity I am raising money for and to beg of the charitable amongst you out there (who have made it to the end of this excessively long article) to spare the price of one drink – ideally an expensive one – for a very good cause. I will buy you one in return and watch you drink it with bitter envy.