I realised this morning that my birthday kind of whisked quietly by this year, yet last weekend I spent 3 happy days visiting family and celebrating.
Last year it was an event, “my first sober birthday”, it felt like we were celebrating two achievements – over 6 months sober and officially surpassing any risk of joining ‘The 27 Club’.
I ensured that the house was booze free and while it was a small gathering, it was also a fucking huge moment. I was turning 28 sober, the first birthday in 10 years where I hadn’t touched a drop. My massive smile was real.
To be honest, I thought this year’s birthday would be more of a doddle – over 19 months sober, in a great place, living a good life. But on the eve of the celebrations, of course, my mind wandered.
It conjured up some anxiety about being around alcohol again. Since lockdown, I’ve had no exposure, we’ve been living in bubbles and I’ve gotten used to not having to put my shield up on a daily or weekly basis.
In the days running up to it, I built up what it would be like faced with people clinking a glass in front of me, cracking a can, or popping a cork. When in reality, throughout my sobriety I have visited pubs with friends, gone to gigs, been to BBQs where people are drinking.
But, was it just the fact that I haven’t had to put my shield up for 4 months, or was it that when the distraction of a large celebration wasn’t there (my first sober birthday) my mind still holds onto birthdays being a huge piss up?
I laid in bed and thought back to old birthdays and realised… I can’t actually remember many. 11 years of birthdays are almost forgotten. I do remember my 21st and my 26th, but that’s pretty much it… here’s why.
It was the year after we’d graduated uni, back when me and all my uni pals still lived in Cambridge. I was working and living in the pub at this point and we loved a drink.
I remember planning birthdays, almost like a schedule from school. I’d have an intricate plan of the times we’d pick people up, or people would come down the pub, all centred around being there as early as possible. This wasn’t just a night out, this was a weekend-long-bender.
I remember it being a sunny day, beers in a pub garden, then back to the house to change and get ready for the evening. Probably about 10 pints deep we walked into town, continued smashing pints until we went to a club.
A couple of years earlier there’d been a joke, centred around by how much I drank and my love for Jagerbombs, that I should drink a shot for each of my years. Well, I wasn’t going to turn that down, especially if they were paying.
If I’m honest, most of the day and night I have described is blurry and not all there. However, the shots, the shots I can remember. I can play this out like a movie.
I thought I was the king. The bartender lined up the first 10 Jagerbombs. Jesus, I can almost taste it typing this.
There’s a big group round me of all my friends, all waiting for me to drink this stupid amount of booze in one go. I felt giddy, I felt alive, I felt like The Man. Bang, bang, bang, bang down the hatch. I remember feeling a sweet fizz come up my nose of Red Bull, I remember gagging silently as people cheered and slapped me on the back, which didn’t help.
I settled with a beer back at the table, until someone suggested the next 10, then a last one to finish. I remember thinking ‘nah, not now, I can’t do it now’. My head had gone fuzzy, I was more than drunk.
I headed back, bartender smiling, people gathering. Me grimacing and them shouting “bring it on” it was like I was about to win some medal in the Olympics. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Down they went. Crowd cheered, I stepped back, but this time, my body wasn’t happy.
I waited until the crowd dispersed, then was sick on the bar. Luckily, due to not eating all day, it was liquid. No one noticed. Someone just spilled a drink right, I mean that’s what it smelt like. Gross.
The night went on.
Now sure, I know, I was 21, of course I was going to live it up and get smashed – true. But what I didn’t know, is that when I went down the pub to drink off the hangover, continued with a roast on the Sunday and staggered into work Monday, that this would actually be my daily routine 7 years on.
My 26th I now remember for a different reason. I was in Greece, sailing around the Greek isles. Beautiful boat, places, food, you name it.
At this point in my life I remember thinking “I’ve settled now” gone were the days of 21 shot birthdays, puking on bars, getting thrown out of clubs. This was civil, and although the drinking wasn’t reckless, the way I was drinking was still questionable.
Looking back I realise now that my alcoholic mindset was in full swing, I just didn’t know it. It was difficult to notice when I was 21, because 21 year-olds do that, right?
In Greece, my mind centred around where the next drink was the whole time. I’d tell myself, and others, “hey, we’re on holiday!” Looking back now, I’d say I was obsessed, but at this point also secretive.
It’s funny how self conscious you are. I never wanted to be the first one to mention having a beer or a gin, yet as soon as the word was said, I was pouring those drinks faster than you could pop ice cubes into them.
We were staying on a boat and I had trouble sleeping, so I always made sure my last Gin was a healthy measure so I was able to sleep. I remember a few times I took them to bed with me.
This was one of the best holidays of my life, and I still remember it as such, but it’s also a pivotal point that I look back on and realise that all my behaviours on that trip were of an alcoholic nature.
I think we all look back on specific times when our drinking was bad, like birthdays, Christmas, Easter, anniversaries, etc. but, in reality as alcoholics we didn’t need these calendarised holidays – we created events to drink.
Towards the end, I made my life about creating events where I could drink, without judgement. See that’s the key, without judgement. Opportunities to get leathered without attracting attention, without being different.
Before I was a morning until night drinker, essentially unable to control myself, I’d still want to drink all the time, but a lot of the time I’d stop myself because it would seem “out of the ordinary”.
I’d go out, create, attend anything I could, even if I wasn’t interested in order to drink. See, I was a social drinker, until I had to, I didn’t want to drink alone.
Drinking a litre of vodka on your own, is vastly different from doing the same at the pub while you celebrate someone’s birthday you don’t even know. When you are alone, it’s a problem.
I’ve created so many of these events throughout my life, that now they need redefining. But it takes time, I can’t manufacture events like I used to, especially in order to not drink…
I’m at peace that these events will come slowly over time and now, just like my birthday, I’ll be able to redefine each one.
Turning 29 felt quiet because I didn’t have an itinerary of pubs, friends, and drinks. I was with the ones I love, having a pretty lovely, normal time.
And you know what, I’m loving the new normal.
And I definitely don’t miss hangovers.
Love, Ben xx