Adrian Chiles: The Good Drinker
In an excerpt from his latest book, The Good Drinker, author, and broadcaster Adrian Chiles talks about drinking and the benefits of alcohol moderation.
Drinking has been the focus of my social life since my mid-teens. If a night out didn’t involve alcohol, I wouldn’t much fancy it. I’d probably give it a miss completely. And I’m afraid that remained as true at the age of fifty as it was at fifteen. All the drinks I’ve put away in my life, laid out in a line, would stretch about three miles. But how many of those drinks did I really enjoy, want, or need?
If I walk along my three-mile line of drinks I’m appalled to realise that by the one-mile mark, I’m already seeing drinks I could have managed without; drinks I could have not drunk without diminishing my enjoyment of anything one jot.
Just as everyone’s got a different idea of what constitutes moderate drinking, there’s plenty of disagreement as to what heavy drinking looks like. I reckon I was firmly in this category. In five or ten years, the way I was going, it was clear to me that I’d have had to stop drinking completely or face some pretty dire consequences with my innards.
To punish myself for my stupidity I have considered abstinence, but there’s too much about drinking that I enjoy. I always want to be able to take a quiet early evening pint or two with a friend or share a bottle of wine over dinner somewhere.
I went through a phase of marathon running in my thirties. It was more staggering than running, to be fair, but I got myself around four marathons. One of the many benefits was that it was yet another stupid excuse not to curtail my drinking – ‘I do all this running, so I’m sweating all the booze out anyway’, and so on. But I remember reading somewhere how important it was to stay hydrated.
One line particularly stuck with me: ‘If you’re feeling thirsty, it’s almost too late: your body is already dehydrated. Your thirst is your body’s way of telling you that, so take on water even if you don’t feel you need it yet.’
So, if you’re a heavy drinker, even if you’re experiencing (as I did) no noticeable ill effects, think about moderating while you can. Because there’s a fair chance that one day, if you don’t, moderation won’t be an option. It will all be too late; you’ll just have to do without. For the love of drinking itself, it’s worth considering.
I’ve since come to realise that, for me, drinking has long been nothing less than a way of life. First and foremost, alcohol is so woven into the fabric of my life, in all sorts of different ways, that it would take a great deal of unpicking. I wish it wasn’t so, but there you are.
One Lent, during which I wasn’t drinking, a friend of mine got married. I knew there would be lots of nice people at the wedding but, I’m ashamed to say, I wasn’t much looking forward to it because, for me, there wouldn’t be any drink involved. As it turned out, I had a really good time, but it became startlingly clear how reliant I was on alcohol. It wasn’t so much the social interactions I struggled with; the laughing and chatting were no problem. It was weirder than that.
Whenever I needed a break from a conversation, I’d say I was off to get a drink, but there are only so many soft drinks you can be bothered with, so I’d wander off in the direction of the bar without getting a drink. And then I’d get into another conversation, which I’d bring to an end by saying I needed to go to the toilet. But because I hadn’t drunk my customary quantity of fluid, I didn’t need the toilet. No matter, I took my empty bladder to the toilet anyway. I just stood in there for a couple of minutes, having a bit of a break, marvelling at how alcohol had somehow taken charge of the whole rhythm of my being.
Addictive as it can be, the problem lies less in the thing itself than what we do with it. It’s like fire, which can warm you, keep you alive when it’s cold, and cook your food to feed you. But it can consume you too; burn you to a crisp. These things can all destroy your life or enrich it. Making sure it does the latter, rather than the former, is the key thing.
I always assumed that my friendship group, which was 98% made up of drinkers, merely reflected society, but that’s nonsense. All my friendship group reflects is my own image: the image of a drinker.
It turns out that all my life, without realising it, I’ve been sure to surround myself with other drinkers. Whether this is a good or bad thing is beside the point; the reality is that this is what my life looks like, and this is what I must work with. If drinking is a part of all your friends’ lives, it’s a real challenge to stop drinking completely. If I were to stop drinking completely, things would change. I wouldn’t be disowned, and I’d still be in touch with my friends and have good times with them, but it would be different.
It’s for this reason I was loath to give up drinking completely. Rightly or wrongly, there would be a social price to pay. If I had to stop drinking, for whatever reason, then obviously I would do it, and most of my friends would be right on board with that. But how much better, and easier, to find a way of cutting down instead? I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the society I know, alcohol is a big part of life. If you say it shouldn’t be like that, I wouldn’t disagree with you. So, it’s greatly to our advantage if we can find a way of making the stuff work for us, rather than the other way around.
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