Happy hours are here again

After 413 days on the wagon, Jill Stark called time on self-imposed abstention and now enjoys a glass of wine with friends. But these days

she’s kinder to her liver. Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas.

Boozing is the favoured endurance sport of journalists. The festive season is an alcohol-themed obstacle course – a sort of Tough Mudder of drinking debauchery.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I led the charge. At the 2010 Age editorial Christmas party, I won the inaugural “Jill Stark drinking award” for my services to boozing. Stumbling up to accept my gong, I laughed as colleagues remarked on how Starkers, the binge-drinking health reporter, had so diligently immersed herself in the craft.

Quietly, I was horrified. It prompted a period of self-reflection that forced a major change. On New Year’s Day 2011, after 20 years of weekend partying, I awoke to a hangover so horrific I decided to give up drinking. It was meant to be a three-month experiment but led to more than a year off the grog and a book, High Sobriety, documenting my journey and Australia’s love affair with alcohol.

The challenge of trying to stay sober in a nation awash with booze seems to have resonated with readers. Every week, I get emails and Twitter messages from people who say my story mirrors theirs. Almost without exception they ask the same question: What happened next? They want to know if, after nearly 14 months without alcohol (413 days to be exact, but who’s counting?), my relationship with the demon drink has improved.

The simple answer is yes, immeasurably. I drink far less than I used to. I rarely use alcohol to deal with stress, boredom or difficult emotions, and I seldom stumble home at 5am with only hazy memories of how my night ended up. But as all journos know, the back story to any good yarn is a bit more nuanced.

In writing this book I have unwittingly become the poster girl for sobriety. It’s humbling to hear you have been the inspiration for people to re-examine their relationship with alcohol. But it also brings its own pressure.

I’ve been approached by strangers in bars who ask, “Aren’t you that chick who wrote a book about not drinking?” as they eye the beer in my hand.

Some – like the BBC radio presenter who hadn’t actually read the book and said there was no point because ultimately I’d returned to drinking – have expectations about my year of abstinence that I can’t possibly live up to.

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My intention was never to demonise alcohol. Nor was it to say that life without it is fundamentally better. It was about trying to find balance. Taking an extended break from booze allowed me to re-evaluate its role in my life and restore that balance. But it didn’t lead to teetotalism.

I still enjoy a drink. A good glass of red with friends is one of life’s simple pleasures. And sorry to disappoint those who think I’ve found the magic formula to responsible alcohol consumption, but I’m not a Zen master in moderation who only imbibes according to the national guidelines.

While it doesn’t happen as frequently as it once did – and I stop well before the messy, mascara-running stage (it helps that it takes far fewer glasses of wine for me to feel hungover these days) – I have been drunk since my booze-free experiment ended.

The challenge is not letting old habits creep in to the point that the occasional big night out evolves into weekend after weekend of annihilation.

For someone who may be hard-wired to always crave more, I suspect this will be a life-long challenge. Alcohol is, after all, a drug. And as an addiction doctor points out to me in High Sobriety, the line between binge drinking and dependency is blurred.

So far I’m doing okay. I’d describe my drinking as mindful. I’m more aware of how much I consume, and why and when I choose to indulge. There are far more social occasions when I choose to drink moderately or not at all. It means I’m generally healthier. And if I get drunk it’s a choice not an accident.

But all this self-awareness can be tiring. It’s hard to detach when you have spent several years immersed in an issue both personally and journalistically. Sometimes you just want to have more than two beers without examining your motivations from 47 different angles or worrying you’ll be branded a hypocrite.

Still, I’d rather be here than where I was three years ago – emotionally and physically spent after limping my way to the finish line of a festive-season marathon.

These days, I’ve abandoned the “go hard or go home” mantra. Despite what our professional stereotype suggests, just because there’s a free bar doesn’t mean we’re morally obliged to drink it dry.

This year, my plan is to make it to New Year with my dignity and liver intact. And if I do drink I hope to do it in a way that won’t lead to my colleagues erecting a statue in my honour.

 

High Sobriety: My year without booze by Jill Stark, published by Scribe, RRP $29.95.

Jill Stark is a senior writer with The Sunday Age. High Sobriety was a longlisted finalist in the 2013 Walkley Book Award. Twitter: jillastark

Fiona Katauskas is a freelance cartoonist; fionakatauskas.com