A few Saturdays ago I went to a friend’s dad’s memorial at a pub in Obs. It was lunchtime and my house was full of workmen and the morning had been chaotic, and as I drove there I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to drink today; I’m not in the mood – I’ll just have a diet coke.’ I’m not a good daytime drinker – alcohol at lunch makes me grumpy and hungry, and I knew I’d have to go home and deal with painters and kids. ‘Yes;’ I thought. ‘What a good plan.’ So, in the door I walked, said hello to friends, and then was asked if I’d like a draught. And immediately I said yes. I drank it down, and then, inexplicably, had another. And worse – I harangued a friend who did have a coke because he was going surfing later. The beer made me grumpy and hungry, as I knew it would. I went home and had to deal with painters and kids. I drank water and coffee but it didn’t help; I felt blech and my day was kind of ruined.
And you have to ask, what the hell? What is this about? And I think, simply, habit. It’s a habit to drink. Sometimes alcohol is lovely and tastes delicious and improves your mood and your day, but sometimes it doesn’t. And yet it remains really difficult to just say no. It took moving to Sweden to realize that we South Africans are a thirsty, hedonistic bunch. For dinner parties at home we’d cater roughly a bottle of wine per person, only to find our friends wanted water and milk and soft drinks. Which meant we drank it all up ourselves and had a rip-roaring time, but really. I’d go for lunches in groups and be the only one ordering Chardonnay. Eventually it got embarrassing and I stopped.
But we South Africans do drink a lot. We do a lot of things a lot. I suspect it has something to do with how we live down here, and how kind of nuts and Wild West-y it is. Life is lived in technicolour – we work hard and play hard, and while I wouldn’t change it for the world and I love the spontaneity and the aliveness, I do think my relationship with alcohol could bear a little scrutiny. Why do I drink when I don’t really feel like it? Why is it easier to accept a glass of wine than admit I’d rather have a lime and soda? And then, if we want to take the argument even further, why do we need the social lubricant in the first place? Don’t we like each other enough to sit around a table and chat and catch up on our lives without being half pissed?
Last Sunday was an interesting experiment. I had lunch with two close girlfriends, both of whom love their wine. Since we’re doing Sober October together nobody was drinking. I’m sure it was the first time I’ve had lunch with either of them where alcohol was not involved. We had grapefruit ‘cocktails’, and then they had a non-alcoholic beer each and I stuck to soda water and lemon. We ate a beautiful rib stew in the sunshine, talked non-stop, shrieked with laughter and two of us literally fell off our chairs. It was a wonderful afternoon. Then we drove home without feeling sleepy from wine or worrying about a roadblock somewhere along the way. Because even if you wait till you sober up before you drive you’re never completely sure you’re within the limit.
For the past two weeks I’ve been in a vague state of panic over a birthday party I’m attending at my favourite venue this coming Friday. Because it’s one thing socializing with people who are also refraining from drinking and you’re all smug and in cahoots, but being in a smoky bar where waiters keep offering you another glass of champagne (my favourite) will be another story. Still – even though I’ve never been a huge drinker (at varsity I was always the semi-sober one who went home first), and three glasses of anything are my absolute limit – I feel that this is a good exercise to undergo. Not just to give the old liver a break and to drop a few pre-summer kilos, but to see whether all this booze is really necessary. And to observe myself in a social setting without the help of a drug. I had a meeting with a teetotal sound engineer a few months back who was telling me how much people’s voices change when they drink. Once, as an experiment, he used sophisticated sound equipment to record people speaking before they had their first drink and then as they consumed more alcohol, and he said it’s incredible how our voices get lower and slower till eventually we’re almost unrecognizable. Kinda scary.
For me, there are few things more pleasurable than a glass of good wine at the end of a long day. Or, an icy cold beer when you’re hot and thirsty and harassed. It gladdens the soul and relaxes a mind that’s been in overdrive all week long. And it just takes the edge off like nothing else. I refuse to believe that when drunk moderately and mindfully alcohol is a bad thing. It’s the other way that’s not so great – when we do it because we do it or because other people or doing it and it’s the default option. And it’s particularly bad when it’s a daily crutch or we have so much we make ourselves sick or when we become aggressive and unpleasant. And so far I’ve missed it much less than I expected. In fact, I’ve not missed it at all. After this experiment I might opt not to drink in the daytime anymore. Or, only very seldom when it’s a special occasion or I’m on a certain friend’s deck where a glass of vino and happy times just go hand-in-hand. And while I’ll never give up wine, it’s been good to give up wine for a while. Just to see how life feels without the insulation. Pretty good, actually.