‘I was 49 when I had my last drink’: Harriet Tyce

HDo you know someone has stopped drinking? Don’t worry, they will tell you. The old vegan joke often comes to mind when I start talking again about how my life has changed since I gave up booze. But people usually have a joke with me and sometimes even seek me out. It’s amazing how many conversations I’ve had at parties where friends I used to get hammered with now come up to me between their fourth and fifth drinks and mumble that they’re starting to wonder if they should quit too.

As long as I don’t use the A-word. Alcoholic. That doesn’t make anyone comfortable. You weren’t that bad. And if your definition includes literal gutters, I wasn’t (although I have fallen down quite a few sidewalks in my time). Leonard Cohen’s words from You Want It Darker could have been written for me: “I struggle with some demons, they were middle class and tame.” After all, fooling myself with one too many bottles of barolo at a dinner party isn’t alcoholism.

But I guess I was that bad. No matter how respectable your dinner parties are or how expensive the alcohol you knock back, there are only so many blackouts a middle-aged mother should have. I was just fortunate that the structures of my life were in place enough that my alcohol use disorder remained very functional and I was able to deal with it without too much drama. Hopefully even on time. In a recent piece by former Loaded editor Martin Deeson in the Timehe quotes Ozzy Osbourne: “They give up when they’re fifty, or they’re dead by the time they’re sixty.” I was 49 when I had my last drink.

Like all the best, stop lit, it starts with the pain of being fourteen, the way social anxiety evaporates with the first sips of any alcohol we can get our hands on. I grew up in Edinburgh and underage drinking really wasn’t a problem. The off-licence in George Street was happy to sell vermouth at a discount to friends of mine wearing school uniforms – not even a pretext for due diligence based on the age limit. When I was fifteen, I drank so much and so quickly at a formal ball that I threw up all over the table during dinner at the Signet Library. Embarrassing, yes, but at least I continued with O-level law.

Thus began the pattern. The mistakes were bad, but I got away with it. That’s the problem with being highly functional.

Summer early 2000s. Barcelona. I had previously had gastritis, a painful recurring indigestion from binge after binge. Jack Daniel’s was always the main culprit and this Spanish escapade was no exception. On a night out with European friends who didn’t understand the urge I had to be completely obliterated, they quietly pointed out that there was no need for me to order double sizes every time, or down the drinks so quickly. I didn’t listen and paid the price, losing most of that evening drunk and emerging the next day with a hangover worse than most. When I ran short at the station, I couldn’t get to the toilet in time and ended up vomiting into a waste bin – a long, solid wire that felt weird and looked even weirder. When I brought my hand to my mouth, it was blood.

That was a warning sign. I was on the train from Barcelona and decided I should never drink again. When I got to the hotel, I made a list of my drunkest moments, my love letter to alcohol. I stopped when I turned fifty. Drinking pints faster than the rugby team at university. A night in my mid-teens on the shores of Loch Rannoch when I finally got drunk enough to kiss the boy I liked. Tequila and midnight blue skies at the end of A levels. A party on the beach in Gullane with an unromantically named guy called Terry. In all the flashbacks I was beautiful, dancing, a touch of glory on a rising star.

In my first novel there is a scene where the main character is drunkenly singing karaoke. She thinks she’s brilliant. The next day, her husband shows her the video he made of her performance and she sees the truth of it. A disheveled woman, makeup running down her face, she walked over to the Smiths. We never see that we are the drunkest in the room.

The blood didn’t deter me, the determination didn’t hold. Within a few days I was at a wedding in Madrid with a free bar serving vodka and Red Bull, which really gave me wings. I got away with it again.

Until I was twenty I was a criminal lawyer. I grew up reading about Rumpole of the Bailey and its Château Thames Embankment. It was only natural that when I started my practice I was drawn to the drinkers who frequented the pubs on Fleet Street every night. There were long periods when dinner consisted of five pints of Stella and a packet of crisps. I can’t kid myself that I got away with it back then; I systematically sabotaged myself, falling into senior lawyers’ rooms and showing up late and hungover the next day.

The shame the next morning is always real, the horror of putting it together the night before. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me as the calls start coming from concerned friends. The huge black bruise on my upper arm after a night in Pimlico, the cuts on my feet from the broken glass on the floor of a nightclub in Holborn when I refused to put my shoes back on. Taking taxis because I was too hungover to drive; avoiding people I barely knew for months after incoherently accusing them of being gatekeepers and belonging to a playground gang. I suppressed all anger and sadness sober and flowed out drunk.

Rock bottom is a strange concept. It allowed me to postpone a proper settlement for years. It wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t that bad; after all, I drank less as the years went by. I could moderate my alcohol consumption, cut back. Match the slowest drinker in the group, sip by sip. I didn’t drink every day of the week. I didn’t drink on my own. I didn’t drink in the morning. I planned my drinking for the coming evening. I didn’t drink or drive. I was no longer sabotaging my work, and besides, I had been a terrible lawyer. Writing crime stories is the kind of work you’d expect from a drinker. But alcohol still took up too much space in my head.

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Almost all the gifts I received on my 40th birthday were alcohol themed. Bottles of champagne, a sequined wallet in the shape of a gin bottle. Endless cards about wine time and why mom drinks. I was terrified. But not enough to stop me. Later, when someone in the publishing industry passed away and every social media post in his or her memory was a photo of a glass of champagne or a negroni, I thought about the pile of gifts I had looked at with so much shame. I didn’t want this to be the way I would be remembered if I went too early, red-faced, laughing incoherently, gin in hand.

One of my best friends died in April 2021. It was cancer, it was horrible, and it was emphatically not related to alcohol in any way. But we were born within two weeks of each other and seeing her life so short was a moment of reckoning for me. I could keep going while I was at it, or I could face the fact that I was more than a pickled brain in a pickling jar. It was time to take care of myself.

My last drink was on June 7, 2022.

Getting back to Ozzy Osbourne, what he’s talking about is known as sniper alley, this time in his early fifties, when it’s the last chance to make changes before we’re picked off one by one. A few friends have already succumbed to addiction and their untimely deaths are devastating to see. I may have left it too late to undo the damage I did to myself, but I’m doing my best. Yoga, weights, running. Maybe I’ll even try swimming in cold water…

I have been confronted with it. Some of my friends might argue you weren’t that bad. But my name is Harriet and I’m an alcoholic. I don’t go to meetings, but I do go to therapy every week. I repeat the mantras. One day at a time. Keep my side of the street clean. I worked out the steps in my own way. I am at peace with the shame of the past; I love waking up every morning with a clear head and a clearer conscience.

If I die tomorrow, I hope I will be remembered, but without a glass in my hand.

A Lesson in Cruelty by Harriet Tyce is published by Wildfire for £16.99. Buy it for €14.95 Guardianbookshop.com