“High Sobriety – my year without booze” by Jill Stark (2012)
I read reviews of this book when it was published last year and if I thought anything one way or another about it at the time, I honestly don’t recall. I certainly had no interest in reading it. Then, a few weeks ago, I caught up on several episodes of The Book Club in one sitting. In one of them (March, maybe?) they discussed “High Sobriety…” and I found the discussion really interesting. One of the guests on the episode was Paul Dempsey, lead singer of Something for Kate. He was quite complimentary about the book. But he really had me paying attention when, quite reluctantly, he admitted that he had not had anything to drink since reading the book and wasn’t sure when he would again. Jennifer Byrne found this astonishing and made such a fuss that Marieke Hardy eventually, and also reluctantly, confessed that she, too, had abstained since finishing the book. My curiosity was well and truly aroused. Why were they uncomfortable with their revelation and why was Byrne so astonished? I decided I wanted to read the book.
There really isn’t a lot to tell you about the book that isn’t revealed in its title. Jill Stark didn’t drink any alcohol for a year and wrote a book about it. The point of this blog entry, really, is not to tell you about the book, but to tell you about me, about my (mostly one-step-removed) relationship with alcohol, the way this book made me think, and the way it has changed my life.
I can’t remember the last time I actually drank a whole alcoholic drink, maybe it was 9 or 10 weeks ago. Stark’s experiences as an habitual binge drinker who wakes up with the world’s worst hangover on New Year’s Day, 2011, and makes a vow that leads to a year without drinking, has no connection to my life at all, really. I am pretty sure I’ve only been drunk 4 times in my life. Never drunk enough to forget things and never drunk enough to make choices I regret. Nevertheless, I usually have one or maybe two drinks if we are out with friends. I used to like drinking Jack Daniels. Mostly, I think, because it was unexpected. A hard spirit that didn’t fit with my sparkly, bouncy, pink glitter persona. I liked that drinking it inspired conversation. I liked explaining why I drank it (that at 16, sneaking into pubs, I drank what the much older men I was with would buy me, and they had rules. Jack and coke. No ice. No straw. Or neat. End of discussion.) More recently, I took to pear cider, along with about half of the population, and drank it like the cordial it is. But my god it is sweet and sickly!
Despite the fact that I have almost nothing in common with the author, I found the book fascinating. It made me think a lot about the role alcohol plays in my life and the lives of the people I love, and I haven’t read a book that has made me think this much in a long time.
I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life watching the effects of alcohol and the impact of drunken decision-making and it has never appealed to me. I am a self-confessed control freak. Making a conscious choice to let go of that control is about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. I’ve always joked that it is easy to NOT drink under those circumstances. But in all honesty, it’s much deeper than that. I say none of this to offend or upset anyone I love, but there are alcoholics, heavy drinkers and binge drinkers in my closest circles. I am surrounded by them. I have watched the way in which alcohol changes the tone and the purpose of events I am involved in, one way or another, all of my adult life. I have excused and condoned and enabled.
Alcohol is at the core of everything we do as a society. It is at the core of almost everything Luke and I do as a couple. Events that are alcohol-free are a curiosity, not a norm. I meet my friends at pubs and host BBQs and get-togethers where the arrangements around buying alcohol and consuming alcohol are paramount. And this is where my relationship with the book becomes clearer. Because, even though I have nothing in common with the Jill Stark at the beginning of the book, sober Stark experiences and writes about all of the things I experience all of the time. In the book, no one she knows can really get their head around her decision to stop drinking. I laughed out loud at a conversation she recounts where she is essentially accused of being boring. I have been called boring on many, many occasions over the years. Boring? Really? Only a person who is threatened by what my preference to NOT drink on occasions suggests about them could possibly call me boring. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of unflattering things you could say about me, but boring isn’t one of them. I don’t need alcohol to be the life and soul of the party! In fact, the more I drink the more boring I become, actually. That’s when I start to worry about whether I can walk straight and what people might think of me… It’s just not worth the bother. So, why does my NOT drinking cause so much angst in others? Stark and I are both wondering…
Month by month, Stark combines her personal experiences with a statistical exploration of the Australian obsession with alcohol. The statistics about spikes in ambulance call-outs, acts of domestic violence and drunkenness and violent behaviour on public holidays are enough on their own to show that we are a country completely consumed by the consumption of alcohol. And the picture she paints is anything but glamorous.
By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book I had made the decision to never drink alcohol again. And as Stark points out, people just don’t get it when you say you don’t drink. Only yesterday I told a beautiful friend that I had decided to remove alcohol from my life and his immediate answer was, “but you’d drink champagne for a toast, wouldn’t you? You’d have to!” I think I’ve chosen an interesting future. It won’t change me much at all, not doing something that I hardly ever did any way is not earth-shattering. But, like Stark, my decision will have an impact on the people around me. It’s an interesting path I’ve decided to walk down and I am excited to engage in conversation with people as a consequence.
So… do you drink? Drink a lot? Not drink? Whatever your personal drinking story, I recommend the book. I found it fascinating and hope that it has as powerful an impact on others as it has had on me. But I must advise, in all fairness, that it comes with a ten-out-of-ten tissue warning at its conclusion.