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Is drinking the secret of great friendship?

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Teetotal January is the month we have least fun. So what does that say about us, asks Lucy Foster?

ABOVE: Stylist's Lucy Foster

As months go, January is pretty depressing. Notwithstanding the cold and frankly obscene lack of sunlight, there’s also the sobriety. Hitching a ride on the wagon is never going to be sociable, but January is the time to do it. It’s the only month in the year you can get away with ordering a lime and soda without being eyed suspiciously, or indeed, the only time you can attempt a sober night out without your friends trying to surreptitiously send you home so they can have some real fun. Because everyone knows, if you’re not drinking, you shouldn’t really burden people with your presence.

Take this recent conversation as a case in point: “So I met this really lovely guy on Saturday but… it’s a no-go,” my friend tells me as we begin to warm up at spin class. “Oh right? What happened?” She pulls a face. “He doesn’t drink.” I nod sagely, because however handsome and witty and kind, there’s no fun in men who don’t do alcohol. I mean, what’s there to do on an evening that isn’t made 100 times better with a good wash of wine? Nothing. Not one thing. Apart from perhaps an adventure on the high seas. But that is absolutely it.

There’s a rule of thumb within my friendship group – and I’m not going to claim it as an original idea as I’ve heard it elsewhere – it is that you can’t trust people who don’t drink (aside, perhaps, from recovering alcoholics. And pregnant women. And Muslims. But I digress). They’re questionable. They have issues, dark secrets or a health agenda. They have no in-built urge to get obliterated on a Friday night with colleagues while occasionally oversharing (not so long ago I told a colleague about one particularly seedy university indiscretion – he looked mortified – I’ve never forgotten) and when going out for dinner they don’t look forward to the posh wine as much as they do the posh food. Because everyone does that. Don’t they?

Alcohol is, after all, a great leveller. It takes a swipe at our British reserve and hits it square on the back of the knees. If you go into the pub with a stranger, and come out five hours later, you’ll be friends. Because it’s a bonding agent; it makes you talk and it makes you share, and it makes you feel good, if only for a little while. I once went out with a work colleague ‘for one’ and we ended up dancing barefoot in a Soho bar. Four years later we still laugh about her hobbling home having misplaced one of her shoes – and she’s one of my closest confidants. Friendships can be made in one night and excess booze is often how you go about it.

I met my four best girlfriends at uni where we bonded over pints of cheap lager and neon shots. We have walked home together in high heels in the snow; we have held each other’s hair back; we have kissed unsuitable men; we have bemoaned said men over countless bottles of cheap wine. It’s our shared history; they are the milestones in our group’s 15 years together and when we meet, be it at weddings, christenings, or just a random Friday night, it’s assumed we do it with alcohol.

Now, I know what you’re thinking; I have a problem saying no. Or, if not that, I can’t have a good time without drinking. Well, let me tell you the truth; it’s both of those things, but there’s also more. All my relationships since the age of (let’s say for legality’s sake) 18 have been forged around alcohol. And not just friendships; I don’t think my boyfriend and I spent much of our first six months together sober; why invite the awkwardness and humiliation of a fledgling relationship when you can just gloss it over with an alcohol-soaked brush? And we still drink most nights – just a small glass or two before bed. But it’s such a vital part of how I socialise, and such a cornerstone of who I am, I’m starting to wonder whether I and my friendships can manage without it. And, having just turned 33, my health is a concern (I’ve never dared tell any doctor how much I drink nor have I counted the units myself although I imagine it’s a weekly average of around 20). Plus, as my friends start to fall pregnant, and cut down on their bingeing, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s time to grow up.

So last Boxing Day, I decided to give up drinking for four weeks. But I was unsure if I could withstand the temptation and social pressure to keep saying no. And slightly worried how my relationship with my boyfriend would fare, without the soothing effects of alcohol.

High sobriety

For many women in the UK, alcohol is an invaluable social crutch. It’s the go-to solution after a stressful day in the office – it helps you relax and, if you’re a private person as many of us are, makes it easier to talk about how you feel. It’s how you summon up the courage to walk into a networking event, to strike up conversations and it makes a business lunch far more relaxed and genial.

However, there are thousands of people in the UK who don’t drink, and somehow they manage to navigate the ingrained nature of our culture and say no to a drink not just once, but every time they’re offered. I’m intrigued so I meet up with Corrine, a 26-year-old recovering alcoholic, who has been sober – thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous – for four years.

“Since I stopped drinking I feel braver, stronger. I believe in myself,” she says. “For instance, I would never have had the confidence to go on stage, but I sang for a year at open mic nights at my local pub. And I have loads of things to talk about. I’m studying photography and I’m meeting interesting people all the time.” But surely her existing relationships have altered?

“Not really. I have a set of friends who are my closest because they know where I’ve been. But with new people, I don’t talk about what I was like before. I want to talk about today. I’ll only tell people [about my past] if it feels right or relevant.”

Riding the wagon

She tells me she feels no awkwardness when going out for dinner, or in pubs, or at festivals yet there must be some people who try to pressure her into accepting a drink. “Anyone who backs off [when I tell them I don’t drink], I think it shows they have a problem. I know that when I was drinking I wouldn’t want to go out with people who didn’t drink. It made me feel a bit odd about myself. But also I had so little respect for them because I didn’t think they had a life whereas in fact they had an amazing life. When people ask me why I don’t drink, I think it’s often because they have an abnormal relationship with alcohol – because they simply can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t drink.”

That sounds alarmingly like me. But, putting Corrine’s achievements aside, there is a fine line here. She drank for the effect of alcohol and couldn’t stop. Many of us drink for the effect and the taste, and can easily leave the pub after a couple of glasses. That’s fine, right?

“I’m not sure. I think people do have a really odd relationship with alcohol in the UK,” says a Muslim friend from university. He’s very funny, quick-witted and sociable – and has never touched a drop. He tells me that the reason why Muslims don’t drink is because the Qur’an teaches them to be responsible for their actions and not cause harm to others, and intoxication makes people do very hurtful, damaging things. It’s a strong argument – we’ve all had the morning-after remorse of not knowing precisely what we said, or why indeed we decided to say it. Then there’s the darker side of alcohol consumption; a 2003 Home Office report found that 73% of perpetrators of domestic violence had been drinking.

“The way I see it,” he continues, “it’s just part of British culture. But every culture in the world has their vices. It’s never been part of my life, so staying up until 3am sober is easy for me. And it would be easy for everyone to stay up to 3am if they weren’t conditioned to drink alcohol while doing it.” Well, I have four weeks to find out if I can manage a 3am sober finish and be perfectly happy. I imagine I’ll more likely be half-asleep on the pavement next to the taxi rank but there’s only one way to find out.

The Sober Truth

After four weeks without a drop of alcohol how do Lucy's relationships fare?

Friends

“Fozzie! Drinks?x” reads the text from my friend Lisa. “Would love to – not drinking until after the 22nd though. That OK?xx” I reply. “Oh, let’s do the 24th then.x” and I have my answer. Clearly it’s not OK. But putting that out of my mind I have to deal with New Year’s Eve first. We’re going to a friend’s with four other couples. And it’s great until six drinks in. Couples begin to bicker; the music goes on loud in the living room and a drinking game begins. I really want to feel like I can have fun without alcohol – but I’m boring. The next morning I feel smug, yes, but also jealous. The anecdotes being told don’t ring as true for me. My friends ask to meet up – but I decline. When we drink together, we validate each other’s thoughts and feelings. That simply won’t happen if we’re drinking tea. I feel slightly ashamed – if I can’t talk about my deepest concerns sober with my best friends, am I emotionally defunct?

Family

Both my parents think I drink too much. But I argue my level of drinking is not only expected in my profession but entirely under control. Dad’s having none of it: “You will die young, Lucy.” Their concern does make me feel guilty. Needless to say, they’re delighted I’ve knocked the booze on the head. In fact, my beloved mother is making a big deal of it. “You can’t have a glass of wine, Lucy,” she says as she pointedly pours a glass for everyone else. “But would you like me to make you one of my delicious cranberry mocktails?” It’s like I’ve walked onto the set of Bridget Jones’s Diary. But it’s easy not to drink. I can sit around with my parents for weeks entirely sober. And, if honest, I’m pleased I’m doing something that eases their fears about my health. I’m not sure if it was just because I was in the family home but I went to bed early, did the crossword with my dad, baked with my mum – it was genuinely wholesome. I engaged with my parents rather than getting sozzled at the kitchen table and it was brilliant.

Boyfriend

In the two years Jonny and I have been together, I can count the entirely sober weeks we’ve had on six fingers. But would we enjoy each other’s company if we weren’t silly and giggling; and could we have the tough conversations without a helpful loss of inhibitions? Jonny put it in slightly harsher terms: “You ruined Christmas. We were on holiday but we didn’t make the most of our time off. And it’s depressing to drink on my own.” We did stop going out. I would potter around in the bedroom, he would lie on the sofa playing on his iPad. The concept of being together at home is disingenuous if you both spend hours in different rooms. “You don’t take stuff I say so seriously,” was Jonny’s main positive contribution to the experiment. And he was right; I wasn’t so quick to react and was far more reasoned and rational. Staying sober is great if I want a chance of winning every argument. But even that isn’t as much fun as drinking.

Colleagues

Working with people who have become friends is far more satisfying than colleagues who remain strangers. So, after a tough few weeks back from the long Christmas holiday, a few of us fall into the pub on Friday 18 January, three days before I end my drinking fast. “What are you having?” colleague A asks. “Just a lime and soda please.” “Have a drink,” cajoles colleague B. “No-one will know” and everyone joins in, pushing me to break my promise. And here is the weird British drinking culture in full flow. They don’t want to be in a pub with someone who is sober – it’s boring and awkward. And I don’t want to be sober in a pub – for the same reasons. I want to be able to relax and laugh and enjoy the fact that it’s the weekend and I can shake off the shackles of work for two days. Suddenly, I feel horribly weakwilled. I came here because I knew I’d be forced into drinking, that these people would condone my behaviour. I sigh, swallow the self-loathing and order a red wine. And I feel like myself again.

What do you think? Is drinking key to forming lasting relationships in Britain? And is there any way to avoid that ingrained culture? Let us know in the comments below

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