For much of the population, Christmas has become a source of stress akin to the prospect of being taken to court, or undergoing major surgery. It looms like an awful, high-maintenance hydra, from which your only means of escape is booze.
But what if you're a recovering alcoholic? Without the one substance that kept the world at bay, how on earth do you stop yourself leaping out of a high window, your paper hat darting away on the slipstream? It might help to remember the reasons why you gave up drinking in the first place and, for that, you could do worse than revisit Christmases past.
When I was growing up, the only way to get through Christmas was to keep drinking slowly, throughout the day. Things improved when we became a two-television household. Aged 15 I went to the next door neighbours' party. I was being chatted up by a man at least 10 years older than me when I suddenly felt queasy, staggered into a darkened room, plonked myself down in a chair and proceeded to fill up a large tumbler with sick while he sat and watched me.
Aged 20 I went to a crowded party at the Chelsea Arts Club. The other day, two decades later, I ran into a man who'd been there. Apparently he said to me, referring to the rubber miniskirt I was wearing, "That skirt must be really hot," to which I replied, "Later, when you eat me, there will be gravy". I have no memory of this, but he claims he fled. Aged 24, at the office party of the newspaper where I worked, I spat white wine all over an editor's sleeve and thought myself hilarious.
There's something about the time of the winter solstice, of velvety hot saturnalia while the cold punishes the land outside, that gives people an extra sense of permission to push boundaries. In general, however (at least in Britain), only alcohol can truly release them. Festive imbibing causes people to experiment with sexualities that will fade faster than the smell of cracker cordite. Visiting a married couple for a festive cocktail session, we split a pocket-soiled Ecstasy tablet between us, and within minutes, the wife was on my lap snogging me, and insisting we all go upstairs for a threesome. After some exhortation from her, the husband went and lay on the bed but, on being stripped off, proved to be not in the least keen on the scenario. I was secretly relieved and weaved my way home.
And never is peer pressure so powerful. I'd been an ardent anti-smoker until one Christmas aged 28, on holiday in Portugal. I'd had a lot of port and sherry, and the boxes of 200 fags looked so pretty, and everyone else was doing it. It took me 12 years to give up. As I got older, the drinking sessions got longer and were increasingly chemically enhanced. The memories are more blurred and I almost wish I'd kept a diary of it all. This is when you fall back on feeling rather than memory, when all you can remember is depression, paranoia, or simple horror.
One of my worst Christmases ever was at the end of 1995. I'd had an unusually difficult year, with ill health and unemployment and drugs and fair-weather friends, all of which, strangely, eclipsed the fact that I'd also had my first novel published. I'd been hanging out with a well-heeled west-London crowd, obsessed with appearances and fluffed up with cocaine. I'd been seeing the gang's resident sociopath. It was one of those non-affairs that keeps trickling on, and all you do is rant about it to your friends, and makes you very glad when your twenties are over and you've grown up a bit. As the festive season approached, someone's pal came blasting in from the past, a notorious man-grabber. I should have seen it coming and left the self-serving pair to their own devices but, alas, one tinselly night, the vodka spoke for me. I opened my big mouth, threatened god knows what, had a crying jag when I found her jacket at his flat, and the whole thing turned into "A Drama", resulting in me being ostracised from the crowd for months. It really was the last straw.
That was my first Christmas on my own, alone in my flat, drinking all day, for more than a week. I actually envied a woman I knew who'd been sectioned and put in a mental hospital. The one remaining person in the gang who was still speaking to me was staying in a village in Wales, but called me from a phone box in the snowy square, for which I was grateful. I ought also to be grateful that I didn't die. I should have taken heed of that and got my house in order, and stopped getting upset about such stupid stuff, but it would be another seven years before I did so.
These sorts of memories ought to bring us up short when we're struggling, but the cunning trick alcohol plays is that it allows us to park our bad memories for a few hours more. The cycle can be never-ending if you don't look out. Christmas, if you take it too seriously, becomes the consummation of every inadequacy you've felt since childhood. If you're not hiding from rows, you're causing them, or feeling sick. And broke. It's no surprise that calls to helplines increase at this time of year.
I gave up drinking, after a huge crisis, in September 2002. I was on too much of a mission to care what people thought, and my first sober Christmas was lovely. People invited me over, but transport is a nightmare at this time of year, and I didn't want to be trapped in a house somewhere with a lot of drunk people, just in case. So it ended up with just me alone in the flat with food, candles, Classic FM's carols chart and the telly. Bliss. Then I had my first sober New Year's Eve to contend with. I went out, danced for a few hours, then went home to bed at 3am, only to rejoin the party the next afternoon. It all seemed normal, even when I accidentally drank from someone else's glass and the throat-burn brought me to my senses.
I was lucky that for me, after giving up drinking, there was no way but up. Many people relapse because their friends put pressure on them, or they're still stuck in the destructive situations that helped get them drinking in the first place. However, at this time of year, family and friends can exert a fiendish hold, and you may well find yourself feeling obliged to socialise.
Steve Smith, a residential manager for the social care charity Turning Point, sees many people who are in the process of giving up alcohol: "Christmas affects everyone in different ways, so people need to look at their own individual triggers." It might be stress, or it might be sheer boredom that sends you back to the glass. The other night I was out having dinner, and couldn't resist scrounging a spoonful of my friend's pudding, which turned out to be incredibly alcoholic. I had a brief Proustian moment, tinged with regret, and then it was time to go home.
If you're serious about staying sober, you need to put yourself first, and if it means spending the holiday period with just you, the remote control, and a couple of cats, then so be it.
'Cleaning Up, How I Gave Up Drinking And Lived' by Tania Glyde (Serpent's Tail) is published in paperback on 1 January. www.taniaglyde.com
Party checklist: Staying off the sauce
* If you decide to go out, make sure that you don't get stuck somewhere where you're dependent on others to get home; and ensure that you have the means/money to get home or to a place where you feel comfortable.
* Avoid gatherings where you know that you'll be the only non-drinker, or where people will be drinking excessively. If you do go, consider limiting your time and promise yourself that you will leave if you feel uncomfortable.
* If you feel happy to do so, let people know that you don't drink any more.
* If you're at a party, keep an eye on your glass and make sure that it doesn't get mixed up with someone else's, or topped up when you're not looking.
* Make sure that you know what support is available (voluntary/statutory agencies, Alcoholics Anonymous etc) over Christmas.
* Gather together a list of friends/family/support contacts that you can rely on for support, should you find yourself needing it.
From the social care charity Turning Point ( www.turning-point.co.uk)Reuse content