Stephanie Merritt on binge drinking

'Enjoy drinking in moderation,' says the mimsy, purse-lipped government admonishment that must now accompany all booze advertising, a phrase which to me has always seemed the ultimate contradiction in terms. Those three words - 'enjoy', 'drinking' and 'moderation' don't belong in the same sentence; the only enjoyable part of drinking, surely, is doing it to excess, and that joyless little sentence is the equivalent of climbing astride a Harley-Davidson and being told not to go too fast. I once interviewed an earnest young comedian who was teetotal and he told me it was because he didn't like the taste. I found this astonishing. Who - with the possible exception of Malcolm Gluck - ever got involved with alcohol for the taste? I felt he had spectacularly missed the point.

I belong to the original binge-drinking generation. We didn't call it binge drinking in those days, we just called it 'going out'. The media styled it 'ladette culture' and though I don't remember consciously buying into that idea, there was something about the leading lights of that trend - the likes of Zoë Ball and Sara Cox - that chimed with the way my girlfriends and I saw ourselves in the early Nineties. Ball and Cox represented strong, ballsy young women for whom going out drinking was part of a general exuberance and assertiveness. The obvious parties disapproved, of course, but for my generation it was a skewed kind of liberation. If blokes were allowed the fun of getting pissed and loud and a bit lairy, why should we be expected to stand coyly by the bar sipping at one glass of white wine all night?

And it was fun; amid the recent doom-laden statistics, this has tended to be forgotten: people go out drinking to excess because sometimes it's enormous fun, provided you're watching out for each other. Granted, the aftermath is often less of a blast, but there is a bonding that happens over those blurry memories, and a nice kind of levelling too; when you've all at some point had to be carried into a cab or helped to break into your own house; when you've had a friend hold your hair back while you threw up in a flowerbed before returning undaunted to try and snog someone, and you've done the same for them; when you've all seen each other at your most uninhibited, your funniest, your nastiest and messiest, you acquire a kind of honesty that I wonder how on earth people achieve without the drink.

Then it turned out that we can't have equality in everything. Earlier this year, statistics were published showing that the number of women in their thirties and forties dying of drink-related illnesses had doubled in the past 15 years. Our little livers are not built for such quantities of alcohol, and what seemed like a blow for freedom 15 years ago is now killing us. I'd cut down on drinking a couple of years ago, for health reasons, but I still hadn't achieved that grown-up ideal of moderation. My version of cutting down meant not drinking for a couple of weeks, and then sinking the whole fortnight's-worth of units in one session. Not only did this result in crucifying hangovers, it meant that I was still making an arse of myself in public, which is less funny at 34 than at 21. But the binge-drink death statistics scared the hell out of me, and I sent off for one of those home liver tests.

While I waited for the results, I tried to calculate how many units had passed through my liver in my drinking years, which covered almost exactly the 15 years of the survey. I arrived, by an estimated average of five bottles a week (a conservative estimate for some years, but accommodating the year I had off to have a baby), at a rough figure of 30,420 units. Working on the recommended limit of 14 units per week, and assuming I live to be 70, my lifetime allowance would be 37,128 units. Which means I've had most of it already. It seemed just as well, then, that at the beginning of this year I decided I was tired of the binge-abstinence roller coaster and gave it up altogether. Being predisposed to extremes, I've always found it takes a lot less willpower to abstain completely than to have one or two glasses and then stop.

This almost-total abstinence (I fell off the wagon in quite a big way at a party in February, but only that once) might go some way to explaining the mystifying fact that the liver test came back green. Green for go! Green for healthy, like a fresh salad. How could it be? One friend suggested that I must have a portrait of my liver in the attic somewhere, showing its true state. I went to see Professor Roger Williams, the surgeon who performed George Best's liver transplant, and who told me that home liver tests are a giant rip off. But, on the bright side, he also said that, unless you have actual cirrhosis, the liver will almost completely repair itself from alcohol damage with a year or two's abstinence.

I've been off it completely for three months now, and I often miss it, though the self-righteousness of refusing a glass of wine has kept some of its novelty, as has the clear head. But I need to work out how to divvy up the 6,708 units I have left to me in this lifetime. It seems the answer might be to spread them out, to see if I can finally learn to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Perhaps I might even get to appreciate the taste.

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