In my youth, I had what appeared a bulletproof approach to boozing - I didit... often and lots,but never truly paid for it the next day. Whilst girlfriends and flatmates were retching in the bathroom or groaning mournfully from the sofa, I seemed to sail through unscathed, bemused by the gulf between our notions of a hangover. I wouldn't have troubled Mensathe morning after a big night out, but I'd never thrown up, didn't get headaches, nausea, memory loss or paranoia. No matter how blotto, my in-built homing beacon always got me back intact, with wallet, keys, mobile and generally dignity accounted for. Some people are good at sports, art or academia but my gift seemed to be pissing my student loan up against a wall whilst avoiding the immediate splashback.
It was a truly fun time in my life which produced great memories and better friendships but you have to know when to pull the plug and in my case it was some six years ago when I woke up after an epic binge which began in Fulham and wound its way back home to Brighton via East Croydon, taking in two house parties, one nightclub and many, many pubs.... as I'd only later recall.
Finding myself on a Monday morning, the wrong side of 30, still dressed in the bespoke disco-leopard onesie I'd donned for the Fulham party Saturday night, I was left to piece together my weekend. Staggering around my flat, looking for a bag and phone a niggling feeling told me I'd long since lost, I caught my reflection in the hallway mirror - the dishevelled lovechild of Cats, Starlight Express andRab C Nesbitt stared back through red eyes, squinting against a gnawing shame it couldn't yet identify.
With my flatmates all out at the type of 9 to 5's I'd chronically avoided, no means to call any of my fellow partygoers and no clues yet posted on facebook, events remained consigned to flashbacks. “The fear” began to set in. In over a decade of debauchery I'd never woken up in a jail cell or next to a corpse and despite having a big mouth, people were generally entertained, not offended by the things that came out of it, even when three sheets to the wind. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years, that bulletproof armour showed signs of serious wear, no doubt accelerated by my status as a 30-something, habitually single, habitually pissed, budget Russell Brand. Each time I attended a friend's wedding which clearly cost more than my endeavours as a “creative” earned me in a year, getting blind drunk and kissing a bridesmaid were poor substitute for bringing a meaningful +1.
As my stamina and tolerance for intoxicants decreased with age, lost belongings, lost hours and lost pride took an uptick and the blasé confid....arroganceof my youth was replaced with the type of niggling self-doubt and post-party anxiety which now drove me nervously back to my local pub / second home that Monday lunchtime to search for my phone and see if anyone required an apology.
The look on my friend the manager's face when I walked in made me cringe before I even knew why and I soon learned that no amount of Jaeger bombs bought for the staff the night before would quite compensate for the damage I'd later cause. She filled me in on the lowlights while I shrank in my chair. Apparently inspired by my own wild attire (and 24 hours of drinking), I'd gone full feral, attempting the wormwhilst diners tried to enjoy their roasts, enthusiastically teaching a confused TV celebrity a snail/squid/velociraptor-based fist-bump (don't ask...) and finally, in my coup de grace, knocking the beloved, antique pub mascot from its plinth on the bar whilst play-wrestling with Coco the pub dog to “prove once and for all who's hardest out of a leopard and alsation”.
One of the oldest, most decorated boozers in the country, its pride and joy this ancient stone statuette of a beguiling lady with magnificent lobster claws who's graced the bar since long before the oldest regular was born.... and i'd snapped her fucking head off! I might as well have killed a barmaid.
In an amazing show of solidarity for their unworthy but equally loyal clientele, the tavern paid the three figure sum to have her repaired by a specialist. Despite, or maybe becauseI couldn't even remember actually doing it, it was a wake up call which finally roused me from my perpetual state of “morning after”. In the intervening years, I've cleaned up my act, found an incredible lady, become a devoted dad, developed a meaningful career, bought a house and a sensible family car. I'm not saying I've been a choirboy – I've also broken bones on a stag do, been thrown in a skip and had an entire hotel in Berlin evacuated, but regular next-day jitters are thankfully a thing of the past.
The last time I experienced them was nearly six months ago when a friend's 40thbirthday celebrations took a turn for the absinthe. Coming round on the sofa at home, clothes strewn on the floor and partner and son now out, my total lack of recollection of the night's end had my nerves a little frayed.
Where had we finished up? How had I got home? Had I spoken to my family? What had I done? Ringing friends, it seemed yes, we'd been pretty spangled, but a good time was had by all and I'd left of my own volition around 3am on two legs as opposed to all fours, which was something I guess. So why did I feel like I'd done something naughty? My girlfriend wasn't answering her mobile, but I reassured myself that she never bloody does. I checked my clothes - no bloodstains or loyalty cards for brothels... no photos on my phone of passed-out mates with their eyebrows shaved. Maybe middle aged maturity really had snuck up on me. As marmite on toast filled my tummy, I allowed myself to relax. Yes I enjoy a party, but I also have a decent moral compass. I'm too grateful for the love and respect of my friends and family to really jeopardize it, even when paralytic. To use a crude phrase, don't shit where you eat! (I've always said if you're gonna get an entire hotel evacuated, go to Germany to do it!)
Notching up another win for the “hangxiety” experts now recognise as a physiological reality, it seems my grey matter was simply messing with me. As alcohol targets the Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor, the brain and central nervous system receive chemical messages inhibiting the activity of nerve cells. The brain calms, less neurons fire and blissful chill / uninhibited debauchery ensues. This de-stressing effect is exacerbated by blocking of glutamate, the brain's main excitatory transmitter. In this state, even shy or typically anxious people begin feeling invincible, but behind the scenes, the brain is panicking and attempting to chemically right the ship. Remove the booze, glutamate spikes, gaba plummets and you start worrying that that Berlin hotel has a bounty on your head. Add a dose of memory loss into the mix and it's easy to see why so many of us worry unnecessarily the day after a skinful. Research shows already shy or anxious people experience it the worst.
In my experience at least, 9 times out of 10, acute hangxiety proved not to be the result of any bad form, but an unpleasant and unfounded symptom of a restless disposition. There was something missing back in my alsation-wrestling days; a hole that's now been filled by my family. As I settled my own nerves that groggy morning six months back I accepted with a somewhat nostalgic sigh I'd clearly left all that hedonism and foolishness behind....“There's nothing wrong with driving a sensible family car I thought. There's nothing wrong with being 'mature'.... I'll always have Berlin.”
And then my fiancé returned from buying a hat....