Lesley Riddoch: Do you handle booze or does it handle you?

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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The festivities are over. Work beckons.

Over recent days, thousands of Scots have “had a good time” or “got oot their faces”, providing images of chaos, fights, staggering home and sleeping in bins for the edification of the finger-wagging unco guid and N’er Day tabloids.

For those who’ve had monumental hang-overs since Christmas, January may seem a good month to give up the demon drink. Until Burns Night. Or the first Celtic Connections concert. Or next weekend. After all, nothing else looks set to brighten a dreich, dark, politically uncertain, Trump-ridden, climate-changing January.

I understand. My own ideal celebration used to involve at least one large gin and tonic. The sort you pour yourself – bigger than the pub measure. There was no better way of getting out of the doldrums than a large dram – preferably island malt not cooking whisky. No better way to spend an hour flying to London when BA handed out free drink than sampling a wee bottle of wine – or two. Well their measures were so mean. No better way to watch Sherlock than with a bottle of chardonnay. No possible way to bond deeply with other human beings than with a drink in hand. And another one waiting.

Then on 1 August, 2000 something changed and I’ve been off the booze ever since.

Main reason? A realisation I wasn’t shaping life but was wasting energy recovering from a “good night out”. Dreaming, and waiting – responding to change instead of making it happen.

I remember laughing wryly at the Rab C Nesbitt episode where the gang end a holiday to Spain racking their brains for a totally new experience that will provide a good tale for the folks back home. Something they’ve never done before. Staying sober.

Drink is indeed habit-forming and allows folk to tolerate unduly boring and depressing situations. Scots generally think the opposite. Like the Irish, we have an almost mystical belief in the possibility of self-discovery through drink. Any brave explorer is applauded – even if the journey ends at base camp. That’s why folk can drink themselves to a virtual standstill here without doing much damage to social standing or self-esteem. Indeed, in serious drinking quarters there IS no upper limit. Whatever southern sophisticates say about less being more, Celts firmly believe more is more. The only crime is to quit the quest, abandon the adventure – stop drinking.

And of course, there is a gender perspective. Research shows women who binge drink attract harsher media criticism and more column inches than men. No wonder. Half the population has traditionally been relied upon to resist the temptation for escape or self-destruction in the face of life’s considerable pressures. If women show no greater restraint than men, what will become of our society, our families? Good question. As someone who once complained about Glasgow pubs without Ladies loos, I used to believe drinking was an empowering act of gender equality to reclaim “public” houses that were really the last bastions of private male privilege. There’s no turning back the clock on equality, nor should there be. But freedom to get equally hammered is a gey thin thing.

Feminism in the eighties was all about famous firsts – having every experience denied to our mothers’ generation. That produced a generation of female graduates and (usually lone) women in “men’s jobs” – but it also meant adventurous girls challenged social barriers that kept them nice but un-savvy, non-promotable and basically clueless. Never mind space, for many 80s gals the pub was the final frontier.

Back then, young women had gone “beyond biology”. The pill controlled fertility and women competed with men in almost every arena. It’s no surprise equality-seeking young women decided what was sauce for the goose would now be sauce for the gander – even if that sauce was addictive and destructive.

Once pubs ceased to be forbidden fruit, many women took the drinking culture home, where of course many had been secretly tippling for years. Now there is little embarrassment about having booze in the home and therefore no real limits to solo drinking.

But women’s bodies cannot handle alcohol as well as men’s. It may not be fair but it’s true. Women damage their liver far more through drink than men – there’s an increased risk of breast cancer and unprotected sex which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, vulnerability to attack and badly damaged self-esteem.

Being a woman is about being self-conscious all the time. Drinking allows that inhibition to drop and that makes women temporarily bolder. But it doesn’t get around the initial problem of being stuck – like men – in rigid gender boxes. And it creates internal distance between the sober self and the frontperson.

Scotland’s high divorce rate could be related to our dependency on drink as a social glue. Many courtships are spent in an alcoholic daze with each partner masking uncertainty and shyness by getting absolutely blootered – becoming another person for social and sexual purposes only to wind up sober one day beside a complete stranger.

Drink is generally not the biggest problem in a drinker’s life – but it stops folk tackling whatever really is. Amidst the madness of everyday life there are personal and collective moments of insight we must hear. But when they are awkward or challenging it’s easier to douse them with alcohol and deal with them later. Except later never comes.

Now of course, many Scots are quite able to have a few relaxing drinks and even occasional, enjoyable benders and then stop. I hugely admire those who can drink, or indeed do anything in moderation. For those attracted by excess, moderation is simply harder than abstinence. But that realisation now feels like a reprieve not a life sentence.

If a change is as good as a rest, then not drinking in Scotland is like having a second lease of life. I originally stopped for just three months in 2000 to see what might happen. It was great.

Apparently, I used to be the life and soul of the party. Now I’m quieter – hopefully the life and soul of myself.

If any of this chimes with readers, why not give it a go?

Three months on the wagon – then decide if you can handle alcohol or if it handles you.