Louise O'Neill: 'While I don’t miss alcohol at all, I miss the rituals that surround it'

Louise O'Neill on giving up alcohol.

Louise O'Neill: 'While I don’t miss alcohol at all, I miss the rituals that surround it'

There are a few beverages that I’m unable to be within ten feet of because I had an unpleasant experience as a teenager and even now, the slightest whiff makes me feel sick to my stomach.

Tequila — I was dared to drink seven shots in a row.

Guinness — another dare, this time to down a pint in less than five seconds.

Sambuca — a party where I tried to impress a boy by how much anise-flavoured liqueur I could down without gagging.

(Spoiler, it didn’t work) Absinthe — I bought it on school tour in Prague, had no idea how strong it was, and drank half a bottle because Kylie Minogue looked really cool as the Green Fairy in Moulin Rouge.

That last experience was particularly horrendous, and resulted in vomiting so profusely for two days that I lost ten pounds in weight and greeted my aunt’s news that she was pregnant with a whimpered “stop talking so loudly, I beg you!”.

It was stupid, immature behaviour, most of which can be chalked down to testing my limits, a complete lack of understanding about how much alcohol I could tolerate, and a rampant eating disorder which meant I was drinking on an empty stomach. My parents were relatively lenient with me, rightly guessing that the virulent hangovers would be punishment enough.

For months after these incidents, I would swear off drinking — indeed, after the Absinthe debacle, I didn’t touch alcohol for nine months. I still went out, dancing to Shakira and, eh, Nickleback (the early 2000s were a difficult time for us all), but I appointed myself the designated driver, travelling the back roads of west Cork in my little Ford Fiesta until the wee hours of the morning. I was, as you can imagine, very popular during this period.

This has been a pattern that has continued throughout my adult life. Not to the same extent, obviously, there’s a point around your 19th birthday where drinking to the point of nausea is no longer considered cool.

I wasn’t a regular drinker; I didn’t have a civilised glass of wine with my dinner every night or meet a friend for a beer after work. But when I did go out, it was usually Out Out, red lipstick and crippling shoes on, yes please to the suggestion of jagerbombs and would we go to Coppers?

Then, usually after I did something stupid — a belligerent argument, a lost credit card, an ill-advised hookup with an ex — I would decide that enough was enough, and stay sober for months before it began all over again.

This makes it sound as if I had a problem. I didn’t. I don’t.

There is no doubt that we have a skewed relationship with alcohol in this country, with rates of alcohol abuse amongst the highest in Europe, and, according to studies, alcoholism is implicated in at least three deaths in Ireland a day. But I have had addiction issues and I know what they look like, and my relationship with drink wasn’t problematic. It was simply all or nothing — I didn’t see the point in having ‘just the one’, or opting for low alcohol beer and ‘fake’ bubbles instead of the real deal. I didn’t drink for the taste, to be honest. I drank for the buzz, the thrill of being tipsy.

I drank because it was fun, and when it stopped being fun, I stopped too.

I’ve been having a Dry January for about three years now, give or take. I’ve occasionally tried a sip of my boyfriend’s wine or attempted a half glass of prosecco to toasting a book being launched, the premiere of the play, etc. But I’ve given up after a mouthful when I find myself light-headed, any tolerance I might have developed since my adolescence long gone.

It’s become easier to be someone who simply doesn’t drink at all, asking for a sparkling water and a slice of lime in a gin glass in order to make it feel more special when my friends are ordering fancy cocktails.

I’m often asked if I miss it and the answer is complicated. I’ve come to realise that while I don’t miss alcohol at all, (I could happily spend the rest of my life without it), I miss the rituals that surround it. I miss the camaraderie and the bonding, that sense of intimacy that a shared bottle of wine — and lowered inhibitions — can bring.

I’ve made some of my best friends on wild nights out, spilling secrets in dark corners of pubs and clubs, falling into a bed together afterwards, lying top ‘n’ tail. The intimacy might be a false one, but at least it’s quick. I was doing a panel interview a while ago and an author, one I greatly admire, asked me if I wanted to go for a drink afterwards.

The look of faint disappointment on her face when I refused, as I had fallen at the first hurdle and there was no way for our potential friendship to commence, cut me deep. The peer pressure to drink isn’t as overt as it was when I was a teenager but it’s still there, in small ways.

When you say ‘I don’t drink’, it’s obvious that some people automatically assume you’re boring. You’re being put into a certain category as a friend, and it isn’t the fun one. But I suppose I have to weigh up the price of being fun, and see what it cost me.

Was it worth it?

Best-selling author Louise O’Neill is one of the strongest feminist voices in Ireland today. If you have any concerns or issues you would like Louise to answer you can confidentially do so by submitting your question here

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