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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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On a recent Saturday morning I woke up with a familiar feeling: nauseous, fatigued, wishing I could spend the entire day in bed. But for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t from a night of binge drinking. It was just a cold. My last drink was at the end of February after a night out with friends. It was also the last time I enjoyed a meal inside a restaurant.

Giving up the warm comfort of wine during a global pandemic is great timing on my part. It’s true that being quarantined means there is no pressure to go out for dinner or attend parties, where drinking is almost always an integral part of the night. But it’s also true that isolation has made the people I know more acquainted with their old friends gin, vodka and tequila. From boozy Zoom parties to “it’s wine o’clock somewhere" memes and jokes about hour-long lineups at the LCBO, alcohol is as synonymous with COVID-19 as physical distancing. It is the No. 1 ingredient to coping with the stress of quarantine. It quiets the loud and softens the hard edges of this new reality we are living in.

But not for me. I have to work hard for my stress release: Meditation, yoga and exercise take effort, consistency and time. Picking up a case of White Claw is much easier. Some friends are supportive but most don’t understand. I’ve been asked, “Why can’t you just have a few?” or, even worse, told “but you are so much fun to drink with!”

I wonder why quitting alcohol took me this long. My hangovers have always been ferocious. I would curl up in the fetal position, order a large pizza and try to fill in the blank parts of my memory from the night before. While waiting for the throbbing headache and waves of nausea to end, I’d Google, "can you die from a hangover?” (The answer is no, you can’t, because if you could I would be long gone.)

No hangover was complete without a good barf. My body needed the poison out. I have had alcohol poisoning more than a few times. The kind where you vomit for hours and by the end of it the only thing coming up is bile. I have thrown up in an airport, in a car on the way to the airport, a truck stop, the bathroom sink, the bathtub, at my parents’ house (after I had moved out), at a party, a bar, off the cottage deck, off the side of a boat, on an airplane – basically everywhere.

My hangovers caused me to miss more than one flight, weeks of work, a baby shower, a family Christmas party, lots of birthday parties and many other get-togethers with friends and family. I would send the “I’m so sorry but I can’t make it today” text and then lay in bed with severe anxiety and think about what an awful person I was for not being able to stop at just one or two drinks. If I did manage to drag myself out to an event hungover, I would not be present or enjoy myself. I would be wishing I was at home sleeping.

Having a baby last year made the prospect of an epic hangover even more daunting. As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Yet here I was poisoning myself again and again. Why did I have no control?

My last hangover was a doozy. My daughter was seven months old and I was looking forward to a night out. I told myself I was only going to have a couple of drinks but then proceeded to guzzle Champagne, a Manhattan, a few glasses of white and red wine and a few shots of something I can’t remember. The next morning my hangover was so bad that I remember looking at my daughter and wishing she would go back to sleep or that we’d left her with the babysitter. I was overcome with guilt: How could I wish my beautiful daughter away? And that is the day I decided to take control and stop drinking.

I have been sober for 229 days. The only “mommy juice” I drink now is coffee and lots of it. I wake up remembering exactly what I said the night before (though that still doesn’t mean I don’t regret some of the things I say!) and feeling mostly rested (I do have a toddler). Most importantly, I am present in my life at all times.

Some days, I still wish my daughter would just go to bed, but these thoughts are guilt-free because I know I am putting in 100 per cent effort and doing the best I can.

You don’t need to “hit rock bottom” or declare yourself an alcoholic to choose sobriety. There are plenty of reasons to stop drinking and avoiding a bad hangover is just one of them. With the winter approaching and new cases of COVID-19 rising, warming up by a fire with a bottle of red wine will be tempting. But I only need to look at my daughter: In a way, she is the ultimate hangover cure.

Amanda Finlayson lives in Mississauga.