A man doesn’t walk into a bar

No more booze for July – and beyond? Photo: Alamy Stock Photo.

Richie Black explores what it’s like to undergo the stress of lockdown and the sobriety of Dry July – simultaneously.

This may seem like a familiar story but it’s still a worthy one – I think. 

I’ve spent many years with alcohol as an inveterate friend in times of crisis. Not a good friend at all – more the contrarian who will convince you to take leave of your senses for a couple of hours, then return them to you the next day with confused but excruciating intensity. 

The kind of friend who takes your money and beats you up a little – but you can make peace with grudgingly next Friday. Because what else are you going to do? Find a healthy outlet for your feelings? 

Drifting into June this year, I’ll admit, a circuit-breaker seemed like a notionally good idea. It had been a difficult six months in various ways – and, although I certainly wasn’t cutting loose every night, Jimmy Brings had become more than a passing acquaintance. 

We all make excuses to ourselves for bad habits but I was increasingly struggling to think of any new ones for mine. 

Not that I think I was alone, judging by the cacophony of recycling bins being emptied into the council truck every Wednesday morning on my street. To paraphrase Judith Lucy, “It’s like Belgium has come to visit.” But at least a lot of my neighbours have a justifiable excuse for binge-drinking: they have kids.

Funnily enough, it was the return of Barnaby Joyce to the federal front bench – following the National Party spill that ousted Michael McCormack in June – that properly made up my mind. 

We shouldn’t really dwell on the man’s obvious physical shortcomings. However, at a time when I was reconsidering my drinking habits, the sight of bloated, red-faced Barnaby – suddenly front and centre again – was, it seemed to me, a powerful and prescient indicator of the dangers of long-term alcohol use.

Now, I may be accused of casting aspersions on Barnaby – but he’s clearly not a model of restraint. At his first Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister was untamed; bellowing across at Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, his mouth a perfectly shaped hole to accept a schooner glass. 

Our Deputy Prime Minister. Photo: Mike Carlton/Twitter.

That his political comeback seemed to be forged on toxicity and venal power-tripping seemed to only confirm the perilous associations of dipsomania. It’s not a great way to get ahead in civil society – unless you want to lead the National Party. And at what cost? Blotchier than Barnaby by the time you’re 50?

In the dying days of June, lockdown still a few days away, I signed up for Dry July with a sense of optimism and positivity. It helped that I had a glass of wine at the time. 

Hunkered over the keyboard, I stabbed my details into the system with the unwavering intensity of someone who was going to be a glimmering image of health within the next few days. Having signed in, an automated response from Dry Duly greeted me with virtual open arms. 

Dry July itself is run with the character of a support coach – the kind of earnest individual you know would be personally disappointed if you let them down.

Still, they are supportive. I regularly receive updates from “Katie”  from the “Dry July Foundation” via both email and text, affirming various benefits I’ll be experiencing: improved sleep, hydration, healthier looking skin and so on. “How’s that for a natural mood booster?” 

And, we have to admit, it’s true – once you get into the swing of it, the advantages are palpable. Mornings, most obviously, change radically for the better. It really helps not to wake up feeling like you’ve fallen asleep with your face on a cheese grater.

Still, there are inevitably drawbacks to the process which can’t be denied. Even for those of us who limit ourselves to getting pissed on weekend evenings, the sensation of being bereft of alcohol can be pretty severe from time to time.

I actually went on a date on the first Friday of Dry July. We had already had a couple of meetups – these had all been pleasant and nothing to be alarmed about. 

Nevertheless, I’m fairly sure this person thought that I had, now under the influence of nothing more than a cup of tea, been replaced with someone else. Sure, I radiated good health – but as I sat there on her couch, stunned, cod-eyed and bewildered, I felt like a prehistoric man recently thawed from the ice.

What the hell was this unfamiliar world I had stumbled into? Why was I being required to respond rationally and even contribute polite conversation?

“Why are you so jittery and ill-at-ease?”

“I dunno.” 

“Have some sparkling water.” 

It wasn’t her fault. I had palpably lost any of my charm. Clarity, particularly these days, is not always necessarily a good thing – it’s confronting. Naturally, I fled.

This was in the initial stages of Sydney’s latest lockdown – when the rules were at their most vague. Since then, things have – as we know – only become more angst-ridden, the severity of Gladys’ 11am updates more intense. 

As we shut ourselves away, well-wishers correspond remotely in ways that might seem to be helpful but aren’t. “You picked a great time to give up drinking,” said a friend, via Messenger, the other day. 

Yeah, it’s a bleak time – and we’re all feeling it. Like I said, clarity isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Still, it’s welcome to avoid the feelings of anxiety that often come with a hangover regardless of whether there’s a pandemic happening.

And – as with the reappearance of a certain Nationals member – I managed to glean an element of the positive from the return of something malignant that won’t go away. 

Lockdown at least legitimises the imperative to remove ourselves from the fray. To sit in jaw-grinding, date-less silence in front of the television, the streets outside sombre and deserted, freed from a sense of our own social inadequacy.

Here, I can sit in solitude, nursing cups of camomile tea in jittery hands, as I binge watch old episodes of Star Trek. Consoling myself that, whatever the future might bring in these uncertain times, I’m not turning into Barnaby Joyce. 

Dry July is a fundraiser that encourages participants to go alcohol-free in July to raise funds for people affected by cancer. You can sign up for the challenge or make a donation at www.dryjuly.com.

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel.