Amy Liptrot celebrates a drinkless decade.
Photo by Mairie MacTague
Most of the time it’s no bother — being dry — at all but once in a while, unexpectedly, I stumble on a crack through which it all comes pouring back.
I cancel a speaking engagement at short notice. A bad reaction to my Covid vaccination — painful chills, splitting headache – means I’m unable to go and talk to a group of writing students. The host is immediately understanding and wishes me well but I’m rattled. I feel guilty, as if I am making up an excuse. I realise it’s probably the first time I’ve cancelled something like this since I’ve been sober.
I used to cancel all the time. I would regularly call in ‘sick’ or turn up spectacularly late. Of course I was never really sick: I was hungover, or still drunk. Once I lied to my boss that my grandmother had died — a plan cooked up while high — using for material, like a method actor, the genuine death of my grandmother a few years earlier. That bought me a couple of days of uninterrupted drinking followed by a guilt that would lead me to yet more drinking: the painful cycle of addiction.
In my fever, skin crawling, feeling poisoned, I am linked back to my hangovers. Time is not a linear progression but a web of sensory connections. It is eleven years ago and I’m incapable in bed on a sunny day, avoiding my life.
After writing my book The Outrun, I didn’t think my alcoholism was something I wanted to write about again. But this year, when I’ve marked a decade since I checked into rehab and stopped drinking, I notice new things about living in sustained, long-term sobriety, about the undramatic glory of it. My friends and family now trust I won’t drink. They are not alarmed when I call unexpectedly and even look to me for support. I now trust myself that I won’t drink. I don’t have to remove bottles from the house and I move through the world and look to the future with something of a clear-eyed confidence.
In the last ten years I’ve got through painful break-ups, unemployment, book publication, nerve-wracking public events and early parenthood without taking a drink. I’ve been to weddings, to nightclubs and — for reasons I can’t fully recall — on a tour of a whisky distillery: all completely sober. I’ve not lost a wallet or phone. I have male friends I haven’t slept with.
I’ve not woken up in dread and panic at what I’ve done the night before, with unexplained bruises. I’ve learned that, in fact, sleep can make me feel better rather than worse. I’ve learned that I can attend a social or sexual occasion unintoxicated.
The closest I ever came to drinking, to “picking up” as AA coins it, was when stumbling on photographs of an ex’s child I hadn’t known about. I was shaken and stormed out of my house and straight into a pub, went to the bar — bought some cigarettes. Since then, I’ve learned to recognise the kind of emotional jolt I used to handle with substances and to instead try to experience the difficult feelings and let them pass through.
For a few years I replaced the booze with large quantities of Coca Cola, accompanied by cigarettes — but both of these substances are only occasional indulgences now. Now I have successfully contained most of my addictive tendencies into the most socially acceptable forms of caffeine and the internet.
The gas and air I used at the births of my children was the only ‘drug’ experience I’ve had this decade, and I was spun out both times. Although rationally I knew it was acceptable to use this pain relief, I had crossed the hardest boundary of my life and was distressed. My partner had never seen me ‘high’ before, gabbling disinhibited as the midwives stitched me up, admiring her pretty hair like a girl in a nightclub toilet queue. The night after the births, my mind was racing, making wild connections, grandiose, all the births and deaths of my past and future tangible. I was scared and called for help. I explained my sobriety to the perceptive young midwife who said “you don’t like feeling out of control”.
She was right. I live with some carefulness, keeping regular hours, eating and sleeping well, attempting to “keep my side of the street clean” as they say in AA — to not do things that will cause me guilt. I spend as much time as I can outdoors and am alert to the seasons, to birds, to what the sky is doing. I relish all the interests that gradually came to fill the absence that stopping drinking left. I have a normal yet extraordinary life for which I’m deeply grateful.
Today I renewed my car insurance, ate ripe cherries, cooled my feet in the kids’ paddling pool, arranged for a friend to visit next month. All beyond my wildest dreams.
But a little part of me still senses the doomed ambition of the addict, that keening for more. I still feel like I have more in common with a street drinker than a lifelong teetotaller.
Crack: One of the only things that makes me want to drink is the change in the seasons. The first hot day of the year or the first twinkling lights of Christmas have such strong associations of beer gardens or mulling wine and I’m pulled. Each time I resist I grow stronger.
Day-to-day, I don’t think about booze. I can’t remember the last time I wanted a drink. I go to parties but tend to leave as other people get drunk. My partner is the strange type of person who has one or two beers and that’s it. I don’t think about drinking much apart from in my dreams.
Crack: Very regularly, I dream I am drunk. In my dreams I usually know I am not meant to drink and I’m sneaking around, lying, causing chaos. The relief I feel when I wake and realise it was just a dream helps me stay sober. My unconscious is keeping me safe.
In the first couple of years, AA was a lifeline and I gained tools from it, but, despite warnings to ‘keep coming back’, I haven’t been to an AA meeting for years. I don’t dismiss AA at all and might have another go at the 12 steps in the future but for now I seem to manage well without the fellowship.
Some things are lost. My relationship with music has dwindled, going to a gig or club is not what it was when I was pissed. But maybe that’s just getting older. It’s hard to know what is sobriety and what is simply time passing.
And I do miss some of the disinhibition, the first time getting a bit drunk with a new friend and the way it can break down boundaries. But I know that for me it was never ‘a bit drunk’, I was one of those people — you know some of them I’m sure — who can’t stop once they’ve started. I accepted this and now know that losing those brief golden hazes is a small price to pay for being able to maintain a relationship and a job. For being able to live.
I feel pretty sure that if I’d continued drinking how I was, I would be dead by now, by accident or suicide. If I’d managed to survive, my liver would be well on the way to seeing me off. Thus everything that happens to me feels unexpected, borrowed, magic.
Ten years is enough time for my cells to completely renew, for the alcohol to be grown out my bones, cut off the ends of my hair. I stopped drinking just before my 30th birthday and now I’ve just turned 40. It’s enough time to have built up a life. Most people I know now have never known me drinking. I have certain things and achievements but most important, the foundation, is my precious peace of mind.
Crack: the smell of the hand sanitizer everywhere this year. The tang of vodka, hollow oblivion suddenly takes me back.
And as time goes on the drunk me seems very far away. I’m busy with work and the kids, tired and responsible. But then there’s a crack, like the missed engagement, and I feel again the pain of addiction, I’m linked back to the guilt, gushing like the dark wine or strong beer. The cracks give me compassion for my past self and those still struggling. These timeslips are reminders not to be complacent and of my vast fortune in getting out when I did.
I used to find it depressing that an alcoholic would remain an alcoholic even after years of not drinking but now I am glad that a little of the addict remains, that I can sometimes taste the unravelling. It feels so close occasionally. I still have a certain obsessive tendency, certain weaknesses. It’s who I am and gives me empathy. And most importantly it gives me my writing. In my vaccination fever, my immune system irritated and defensive, in the decades-wide shadow cast by a hangover, I conjured this article. I channel my madness — the megalomania, the symbolism — into my writing, reaching in art what I was looking for in booze.
Compared to some of the old timers I’ve met in AA, one decade is nothing. These ten years are just the beginning. Now the real good bit starts.
Amy’s latest book ‘The Instant’ was published by Canongate in March. She will read from and discuss the book as part of our lineup for this year’s Camp Good Life festival.
Follow Amy on Twitter here.