Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s most recent book is Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for a Cure, from which this essay is adapted. He is also the author of Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown and Ghosted, a finalist for the 2011 Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
It is Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day, or another Yuletide morning following a boozy Festivus kind of night. And now, instead of a holly-jolly soul, what you feel like is a parched partridge, stapled to a burning pear tree.
That is because while you slept, without truly resting, the cells that are your body became acutely inflamed, turning your organs rigid and therefore unable to absorb water and nutrients. In desperation, your system has sucked moisture from your brain, shrivelling it horribly. So now your shrunken mind is pulling at the membranes attached to your skull, tormenting your head while tugging at the very fibres of your being.
Then there’s all that hydrochloric acid (more commonly known as paint thinner) gurgling in your stomach, and the formaldehyde (a by-product of breaking down methanol) being released into your system. To deal with all these toxic invaders, your liver has sent out kamikaze troops called free radicals, who don’t know when to stop. So now, in trying to save yourself, you’ve got rogue killers roaming through your body, looking for fights wherever they can, causing all kinds of pain and nausea until your brain stops thinking of water and begs for mercy instead.
This is when the physical becomes brutally meta. You start to go fetal, and roll onto something that feels like a fish, but is actually your soul. And your squishy soul is moaning and laughing beneath you, as though you did this to yourself. Because, of course, you did.
There’s really no time that rational humans knowingly make themselves so quickly, severely sick, as when they get downright drunk. But, of course, realizing this just compounds the punishment: adding deeper levels of metaphysical disturbance to the already established physical pain.
So really: Why did you do this to yourself?
It is a question I’ve been asking for most of a decade, as I’ve travelled around the world, researching and writing a book about hangovers, while searching out a cure.
During that time, among interviewing experts and reading reports (and for reasons that make substantially more sense in the book), I jumped off buildings and into glacier lakes, drove around racetracks and through the Alps, drank mugs of chimney soot and olive oil, was boiled in a coffin and buried in hay, took every tincture, tonic, elixir, extract, powder, potion and placebo I could find, in hopes of discovering a remedy.
And while I did eventually find one (at least one that works for me), intrinsic conundrums still remain.
Alcohol is among the most mysterious, dichotomous molecules in our universe, and we've been trying to understand its essence, meaning and various effects since we started to drink the stuff, which was pretty much right from the start.
It has always been there, in all the stories as long as we have lived them: A gift from the gods, a nefarious trap, a truth-telling serum, the devil’s brew, fundamental medicine, insipid poison, pure depressant, inspiration liquefied, liberation intrinsic, a monkey on your back, a fiasco, hellfire, the signature of civilization, sunshine held together by water, darkness in a bottle, the night before, the morning after.
In psychological terms, alcohol is a “disinhibitor.” To quote philosopher and psychologist William James, it has “the power to stimulate the mystical faculties of the human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticism of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the ‘Yes’ function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth.”
But while the idea and feel of a “Yes” function is obviously enticing, what about the comedown; the follow-up of “No! And God I feel like hell! And what on Earth have I done?” And why, once the pain is survived (as in childbirth or writing a book), do we seem to ignore or forget it so quickly – and then allow it to happen again?
After spending so long thinking and writing about hangovers from every possible angle – historical, philosophical, spiritual, sociological, medical, musical, etymological, entrepreneurial, personal and way too personal – you’d think I’d at least have some ready answers. But, as with so many questions about our relationship to alcohol, they lead to other, deeper conundrums.
Hangovers have plagued us for all of human history – altering the outcomes of wars, weddings, the World Series – and yet still we have learned almost nothing about them. Certainly there have been no state-sponsored attempts to address the hangover as a legitimate medical condition – the explanation being that it is an illness for which you have only yourself to blame. And so we continue to suffer.
Famous Shakespearean actors have vomited on stage. Boris Yeltsin was found early in the morning outside the White House in Washington, in his underwear, trying to hail a cab to get some pizza. And there are several reports – although difficult to verify – of an Indian man who awoke, after a night of heavy drinking, to find that he was being slowly digested by a giant anaconda.
But there are also good things that come of hangovers. In certain ways, they are akin to our ability to feel pain. If we fall asleep with our foot in the fire, we’ll pull it out before going up in flames. But when you’re deep inside an awful hangover, it feels like so much overkill, torture, so hard to reconcile – does it really have to be so extreme? And why must it go on so long, well after the warning has been heeded?
We can probably all agree that if the hangover has a basic purpose, it is that of a well-meaning warning/aversion system – both evolutionarily and personally.
And for some, it does seem to work that way. During my research, I encountered people (though very few) who got drunk once, had a horrible hangover and never got drunk again. I would call them outliers, if not outright liars. But evolutionarily, the persistence – possibly even the intensification – over time, of our susceptibility to hangovers does make a lot of sense.
Sure, historically, drinking alcohol has brought disparate groups together, increased the birth rate, fought off certain diseases, sparked new connections, new ideas and new art, and increased the enjoyment of life. But then (as during the Gin Craze of the 18th century) drinking far too much has also done the opposite – and people start dying in the streets, babies are stillborn, and the basic structure of society begins to fall into ruins.
So, in a very general sense, the near-universal awareness of hangovers does appear, at least in the long run, to regulate the balance of human and booze. And what’s a bit of personal pain compared to the survival of the species? It could also explain why we’re so resistant – on a possibly innate, seemingly illogical level – to the idea of a simple hangover cure.
During my long, tumultuous quest for a cure, what I eventually grew most wary of was blind skepticism.
The pervasive habit we seem to have fostered, to disbelieve in something as blatantly possible as a hangover cure – without even realizing we’re doing it – has become increasingly bizarre to me. And it seems to suggest something fundamental: A subconscious need to suffer for intangible sins? Or maybe an evolutionary mechanism capable of overriding logic and the limits of imagination, so that we don’t all get stupid-drunk every single day, and make a mess of everything until the reins of power get picked up by the most dangerous of lunatics: teetotalling narcissists with unconscionable hair, tiny hands, a love for lies and the will to build walls.
As H.L. Mencken once said, “All of the great villainies of history, from the murder of Abel to the Treaty of Versailles, have been perpetuated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.”
But I digress.
The truth is, I never expected to find a cure. And when I did, it coincided so directly with my life falling apart that I didn’t know what to do with it. I became like a man scared of himself, yet undaunted by the morning. And that is very dangerous.
Having discovered an antidote, I took it and took it and took it, and, in so doing, caught a long, unsteady glimpse of what consuming immense amounts of alcohol with no obvious physical repercussions can quickly become. I went through an intense and dramatic descent – from sunward arc to rocky crash, unbound potential to slobbering beast. And I learned that if you remove the most aggressive and acutely physical symptoms of hangover, but leave the more insidious ones – exhaustion, lethargy, anxiety, hollowness, depression – it’s like slipping into an alternate universe, one full of fears and problems you never knew existed, your life and liver constrained by scars and bars.
Also, in today’s world you don’t need to be a writer to feel the deep paradox of choice – that, counterintuitively, the more options you have, the more miserable you become. Hangovers can serve as a reprieve from such anxiety: Your only choice now is to somehow feel better.
The fact is, after all this time, I just don’t know: Are hangovers good or bad? Why do we keep on having them? Are they affecting us worse than ever, but for vital reasons – an evolutionary necessity, or just a leftover, meaningless scourge? Is there a legitimate reason we fake all this know-how even while throwing up our hands, throwing back so many drinks, throwing up beside our beds? Or do we simply, deep down, not give a damn about illness until all the way inside it?
Maybe an all-consuming crapulence, taking hold for just one day, allays our most buried fears – a sort of psychological inoculation against the inevitable sickness, breakdown and darkness from which we can’t return: a preparation for death more potent even than sex or sleep. Glad tidings to you and your kin.
During the many years I worked on my book about hangovers, I know I became less healthy. I gained a lot of weight, lost some equilibrium, complicated my innards. I didn’t feel well. I was filled right up and weighed right down – so that sometimes it was hard to sit, or stand, or walk across the street. And I hated this feeling I still can’t seem to shake – that every day is just another morning after. Never a new beginning.
In hopes of better health, I retreated to my hometown for a spell, to spend some time with my folks and visit various doctors. After yet another appointment, I crossed the street to catch a bus. But next to the stop was a small antiquarian bookshop. So I went in there instead.
It was how you might imagine: quiet, with books in rows on shelves and in stacks from floor to ceiling. At the front of the shop, behind the large wooden desk that served as a counter, stood a woman with long silver hair, magnificent lines in her face and perfect posture. She was at least two decades older than me. There were three open books on the desk in front of her, and we exchanged nods as I moved into the stacks.
I spent a while looking at titles, running my hands over the shelves. I had no place to go and might just have kept on going, touching every book. The woman and I glanced at each other, until finally she asked, “What are you looking for?”
“Books about booze,” I said. “And drinking. And getting drunk. And hangovers.”
And then she said something that stopped my hand:
“I love hangovers.”
“What’s that?” I turned and walked toward her.
“I love them.”
In a photo, she might have looked elderly. She was calmly guarded, but also electric. It was like seeing an old soul that has somehow grown young as the young body has somehow grown old. She was very beautiful.
“Can you tell me why?” I asked her.
She nodded. “I can drink almost anyone under the table. And then I get extremely hungover, sometimes for days. But the thing is, I love it. I love it so much more than getting drunk.”
I suggested to her that this might have to do with choices. She asked me to elaborate.
“It’s like you’ve put your body in a state of crisis," I said. “But you know it’s one with a time limit. So your mind gets a brief vacation – because this is what you have to deal with, and for now there’s nothing else.”
“That’s exactly it.” Her eyes flashed.
Part of me was aware of the strangeness of the moment – or, rather, the extreme narrative convention. This was a dust-mote-filled antiquarian bookshop, after all, where the silver-haired bookseller spoke like a prophet about the one thing above all else that obsessed me.
She liked what I said about time limits. It was, she explained, how she’d been living her life – in three-year reinventions – based on reading Soren Kierkegaard and his ideas about meaningful change. So, every three years, she embarked on a new journey. The past few cycles were Buddhism, then bars, and now she was part way through Quakerism: “It is my way of travelling to all sorts of places, for a good length of time, but without ever having to go very far.”
I asked if she minded if I took some notes. She wanted to know why, and so I told her I was writing about hangovers. She gave me a placating nod. I asked about the years of bars.
“I’d go to a different one every day, starting at happy hour," she said. "I’d drink and talk to the people there, and listen. A lot of the time, I went to the Legions. I’ve always done that, actually. My parents were in the military. I was a child of the war, and I felt connected to those old men. A lot of them gave their lives, even though they survived, and alcohol was their only retirement plan. The bar stools were stained with urine. That’s where I fell in love with hangovers.”
She watched my hand as I wrote.
“Of course, there are still a lot of people and places like that. And I still go see them and have a drink. That’s one of the things about these three-year journeys: I can take a bit of each into the next. I still practise Buddhism, I still go to a bar once a week or so, but now I’m doing this: I’m a Quaker who works in a bookstore – what you need to read is John Barleycorn, by Jack London.”
The advice was offered without a pause, as if she knew I should hear it instantly. It was not only urgent and perfect, but also presumptuous. After all, John Barleycorn is a classic. And if I was really doing what I said I was – writing about hangovers – I’d be a fool to not have read it. But, of course, I am a fool. And she just knew it.
“It is everything that a story about drinking should be: mistaken, flawed, true and revelatory – full of beautiful words and utterly terrifying.” We were moving through the stacks together now, looking for the book. I would probably have followed her anywhere.
“I have always loved alcohol,” she said. “But, oh, you have to be so careful with it. What Jack London learned is that when you mess with something so strong – get right in and roll around – you are inviting death into your bed. And then you can’t just kick it out.”
In my head, I pictured how I slept – so often alone, fully clothed, waking in starts and drenched in sweat, as if there are spectres in the bed: on one side a cure, on the other a curse, with just a single serpentine S between.
She found the book – a slim, weathered paperback – and I told her I’d like to buy it.
“When you’re done,” she said, “come back and we’ll have a drink in the shop. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I open a bottle of wine.”
I said that I would, and she could tell me about her hangovers.
She shook her head. “My hangover stories are boring. Like Buddhism.” She smiled as she handed me the book. “I like it that way."