In this candid memoir, Jill explores her life-long relationship with alcohol, and paints an insightful picture of Australia’s drinking culture. This is an edited extract from Jill Stark’s HIGH SOBRIETY: My year without booze.
The roar in my skull sounds like waves battering a shore. My head, planted facedown in a sticky pillow, feels as heavy as a waterlogged sandbag. My body is a dance floor for pain. Welcome to 2011, Starkers: a new year, a new start; same old stinking hangover.
Last night was huge. Dawn had broken by the time I staggered home. I remember cursing the light and the chirpy birds. It was, like so many before it, a night that had got away from me. It had been a ridiculously hot Melbourne New Year’s Eve: dry and oppressive, with a blasting northerly wind. I felt as if I was trapped inside a fan-forced oven. As I sipped my first drink — a stubby of beer — with friends in their backyard paddling pool, the mercury crept past 40 degrees. It was 6.00 p.m.
As the night wore on, there was champagne with strawberries, more beer, more champagne, and then even more beer. There were sparklers, dancing, and high-pitched phone calls to Scotland, where it was still the last day of the decade before. I vaguely remember a fiercely contested drawing competition with crayons, and, for reasons I can’t fathom, sitting atop a stepladder with miner’s lamp strapped to my head. Later, at another friend’s house, we had White Russians in tumblers, and tequila served in martini glasses. There was raucous laughter, and a Halloween mask, and Lemonheads songs played on a tiny pink guitar. I remember one of my friends vomiting in the kitchen sink, and the group blithely singing over it as if this was neither noteworthy nor unusual. I remember thinking, when’s this going to stop? Then having another beer for the road.
I roll over onto my side, releasing a deathbed groan. The alarm clock comes into view, its illuminated digits stabbing my eyes. It’s 2.00 p.m. Another groan; this one seems to come from my bones. My guts churn as a tribe of African drummers pounds out a rhythm in my brain, and I pay a grudging respect to a hangover that, having been almost a month in the making, has arrived with some fanfare.
Being conscious hurts. I gag as I think of all the booze I put away in December — one long party interspersed with stolen moments of sleep and tortured days at work.
But covering alcohol is my job. I’m the binge-drinking health reporter. During the week, I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At the weekends, I write myself off. For five years I’ve documented the nation’s escalating toll of alcohol abuse as a health reporter for The Age and The Sunday Age, so I know, more than most, the consequences of risky drinking. I’ve even won awards for my ‘Alcohol Timebomb’ series, which highlighted the perilous state of our nation’s drinking habits. But it hasn’t deterred me. I’m always first on the dance floor and last to leave the party. At the 2010 staff Christmas bash, I won the inaugural Jill Stark Drinking Award.
Bestowed upon me for recording the least amount of time between partying and turning up to work, I celebrated the honour with a beer. When colleagues remarked on the irony of my role as health reporter, I told them it was ‘gonzo journalism — just immersing myself in the story’. Then I danced into the next morning, breaking my own record by stumbling in to work after four hours’ sleep, my title safe for another year. I stuck the beer-stained certificate on my fridge, ostensibly to show off to friends, but really to serve as a reminder that this was, or should have been, a line in the sand. Yet the festive season leaves little time for self-reflection. There’s always another party. I powered on, and on, and on, until the hangover of all hangovers brought me here.
An ungodly noise reverberates around the room. It’s impossibly loud. I wrestle with the doona, unearthing my mobile from a pile of clothes. It’s my friend and colleague Nat. I can’t talk to her. The inside of my head is a graveyard for brain cells. Those that survived last night are clinging to life, resting on the backs of their fallen comrades, too weak to help me form words. I turn the phone to silent, waiting for the message-bank alert to vibrate.
‘Hi darl, happy new year!’ Nat trills in her singsong voice. ‘So sorry to bother you on your day off, but I really need your help. Brendan Fevola’s been arrested for being drunk, and I have to do the story. I need to find some alcohol experts to talk about whether he should be in rehab, is his career over, where to next, that sort of thing. Was hoping you’d be able to put me on to some of your contacts. Anyway, hope you had a good night. If you can call me back, that would be great.’ It’s an hour before I recover the motor skills to send Nat the contacts. Scrolling through my phone, I find the mobile numbers of Australia’s leading authorities on alcohol abuse. The chief executive of the Australian Drug Foundation, the chairman of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s working committee on alcohol, the head of the prime minister’s National Preventative Health Taskforce: these are men who trust and respect me, men who will draw on their decades of expertise to speak eloquently on the best road to rehabilitation for a troubled star footballer who has had one big night too many. Fev will be in good hands.
But what about me? As I lie here, enveloped by a sense of shame and the stench of stale pale ale, the only thing louder than the thumping pain in my head is a noise I have tried to ignore for months: the tick, tick, tick of my own alcohol timebomb.
I’ve been a binge drinker since I was a teenager. Growing up in Scotland, a place where whisky outsells milk, and teetotalism is a crime punishable by death, devotion to drinking is as much a part of my national identity as tartan, bagpipes, and arctic weather conditions. I had my first drink at 13 — a can of lager that my best friend, Fiona, and I stole from my parents’ drinks cabinet. We laced it with sugar in a failed attempt to make it taste less revolting, and drank it through a straw because we’d heard this would get us pissed faster. It would take many years before I warmed to the taste of alcohol, but I immediately fell in love with being drunk. It felt freeing, exhilarating, and endlessly fun and hilarious. It opened up a world where life’s sharp corners were blunted, and worries melted like chocolate on a sunny dashboard. I couldn’t believe it was legal.
Since then, I’ve rarely questioned my big weekends. Getting drunk is the social norm, and as much a part of life as eating and sleeping. When I moved to Australia in my mid-twenties, I was delighted to discover that my adopted country had a similar affection for alcohol, and was even more excited to learn that not only could you drink beer at the football, but also that every year on the first Tuesday in November you got a day off to get pissed and watch a horse race. This was my kind of place.
Many times I’ve vowed ‘never again’, as what begins as a few quiet drinks invariably turns into a lost weekend. Then, when the hangover fades to a dull memory, I do it again. Alcohol accompanies almost every aspect of my social life: parties, gigs, dinners, birthdays, holidays, book club, work functions. Even my dance class is held in a pub. Drinking socially has become an act as automatic as breathing.
But something has changed in recent months. My 35th birthday looms, I have a grown-up job and a ridiculous mortgage, and my knees now make a cracking noise every time I stand up. I can no longer afford to drink as though I’m a teenager. The hangovers are hitting harder and lasting longer. A big night out can leave me feeling flat for days. It’s not until now, my New Year’s Day nightmare, that I realise just how big a price I’m paying.
Copies of the book can be puchased online from Scribe Publications
Contact Jill via Twitter at @JillAStark