And so it begins again. This time last year, I decided to see how long I could last without alcohol. Not just a dry January for me. Oh no. I saw myself lasting right the way through till the following December. According to a doctor friend, your liver only really regenerates after 12 months. Less than that and the health benefits of not drinking are negligible.
You know how this story ends, although, to be fair, I lasted until 8 February. I’d been booked to give an after-dinner talk to a group of head-teachers at one of England’s most prestigious private schools and I assumed that the wine would be so good — it was an elite group of about a dozen top heads — that I’d have to abandon my teetotalism for one night.
Veteran alcoholics will recognise the siren voice of temptation in this anecdote — the seemingly reason-able excuse, the calm assurance that if you fall off the wagon you can clamber straight back on. Breathtaking naivety.
So the evening came and the wine turned out to be nothing special. Five-pound plonk from Sainsbury’s. But by then I’d already given myself permission to break the pledge so I just sat there drinking glass after glass, feeling both wretched and liberated at the same time. And that was it, of course. I started drinking again. Experiment over. Make mine a double.
Five weeks of sobriety was progress on the previous year. On New Year’s Eve 2014, I resolved to stop drinking for as long as I could but made an exception for 1 January. This was partly because we were having friends over for lunch and partly because I’d been given a good bottle of Meursault for Christmas. I reasoned that I wouldn’t stand a chance if that bloody bottle was sitting on my wine rack, winking at me night after night. No, better to drink it on New Year’s Day and then take the pledge.
Needless to say, when I’d drained the last drop before the first guest had arrived, I threw my arms up in resignation and thought: ‘That’s it. I’ve started drinking again.’ My abstinence had lasted all of 12 hours.
What can I do to strengthen my resolve? I’ve heard about these pills you can take that make you vomit every time you so much as smell alcohol, but that might make working at The Spectator difficult. In any case, that would only work if your will-power is stronger first thing in the morning, when you take the pills, than first thing in the evening, when you want a drink. Not sure that’s true in my case. Some ‘special occasion’ or other would furnish me with an excuse for not taking the pills, even at 7 a.m. after a run and a cold shower.
Some people reading this will chuckle with self-recognition, while others will think: ‘Christ, this guy’s got a problem.’ I used to think all references to ‘personality type’ and ‘genetic predisposition’ when it came to addiction were bullshit and it basically came down to how much self-control you had. The Peter Hitchens line. But as I get older and my self-control deteriorates, I’m coming round to the more forgiving view. Some people just seem more susceptible to alcoholism than others.
Self-control certainly helps when it comes to not succumbing, but I have plenty of friends who don’t have to exercise any restraint at all. They can take it or leave it. It’s as if they have something missing from their brains, although the truth is that it’s me who’s defective.
I fear I’ve passed on this curse to Freddie, my nine-year-old. He seems to genuinely love the whole ritual surrounding the nightly bottle of Chablis, from pulling the cork to sticking the next day’s bottle in the fridge. He’s so helpful, Caroline and I call him ‘the wine elf’. He’s either got the rogue alcohol gene or he’s a born sommelier. Then again, that may not be an either/or thing.
One reason I vow to abstain at the beginning of each year is that I’m bored with the whole psychodrama. Constantly fighting my own alcoholism, forcing myself to stop after the first bottle is finished every night, is boring. Better to just stop altogether. But this just raises the stakes rather than settling the matter. I realise I’m locked into this endless cycle, spinning round on different wheels.
Maybe the solution is to embrace it. I’d be homeless in four weeks, dead in 12. Happy New Year.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.