Could I quit the drinking but keep the hangovers?

I may be crazy but I like that next-day feeling, as if I'm getting a fresh new start.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 4, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

Hi Cary,

How can one keep the hangovers?

I don't get typical hangovers. Sure, I get the urge to eat lots of greasy food and feel all the shame that comes with how I acted the night before. And I can only sleep for four hours. But generally, they're not so bad. I don't get splitting headaches or feel catatonic or wish that someone would turn out the lights. In fact, it's almost always been quite the opposite. When I'm hung over, I feel genuinely inspired to do something with my life -- to write that ballad that people will hum along to, to write that letter to the girl who broke my heart, to sign up for that solo performance class I've been avoiding. And then there's some part of my brain that cuts out the fluff. My words are more direct. My humor becomes even more deadpan. If I want a sandwich, I don't mull over for 10 minutes whether it's worth putting on my shoes to cross the street to the deli, I put on my fucking shoes and go get a sandwich. And then I eat it. And all of that shit I've been worrying about for weeks: about never getting Erin back and how my friends annoy me and how maybe it's OK that I'll never be a successful comedian because there's plenty of lovable losers, right? None of that seems to matter much anymore. Everything cuts to the chase. Being hung over is the time I'm most "in the moment."

I just gave up drinking for six weeks. I felt like I needed a break. My life has been made up of too much wasted time and I didn't feel all right about how much of that time was wasted by alcohol and socializing. Plus I make too many decisions when I drink that I regret later. The six weeks of not drinking was nice. Life felt quieter. I gravitated toward little things that I had been neglecting: renting '80s movies on Saturday nights, cooking for myself, stuff like that. Sometimes the quiet life would feel a little boring or even sad, but at least I felt all right about the guy whose quiet and sad life it was.

Then one night after the six weeks, I felt like I wasn't sad anymore. I felt like I was confident and in command and had a pretty solid perception of where my life was, now that I was in control of it, and wanted to kick back with some friends in the way that only alcohol seems to allow you to do. It felt great. The second night didn't feel as great when I found myself at a party being overly competitive and cruel about a board game and started cock-blocking a nice guy I had just met over a girl I wasn't especially interested in, but who had given me a couple of smiles earlier in the night. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring just in case she was whimsical enough to go home with me. All of that felt shitty the next day. But what didn't feel shitty was being awake at 8 a.m. and, despite all the shame, feeling more alive than I had in weeks. I came into my office and worked on a project I've been putting off, made a pitch to a friend that we finally get moving on that comedy partnership we've talked about for years, and made damned sure that I was registered for that solo performance class because, you know what, there's a few things I want to say to people right now.

Someday, the drinking will have to stop. I know that. If nothing else, I want to have a daughter -- OK, I'd settle for a son -- and neither of them deserves to grow up with a dad that is the guy I become when I drink. But Cary, I know this sounds crazy: I'm terrified of giving up these hangovers. Because somehow they seem like the closest thing to a home my dreams have. And I'm scared to get locked out of the house.

Morning-After Bill

Dear Morning-After Bill,

Ah, the hangover, that neglected stepchild in the drinker's menagerie. Let us sing its praises. From childhood I remember cartoons of men with hot-water bottles on their heads, tiptoeing around, wincing at the sound of the bubbles in the Alka-Seltzer.

Your attachment to the hangover: I recognize this, too. At that moment when the spirit reenters the body one feels a kind of hypersensitive bliss, part self-torture and part enlightenment. As I sit here with a migraine coming on, having taken my meds and watching with satisfaction as they blunt the pain, I realize that the migraine going into remission feels curiously like a hangover: the quiet, the extraordinary sensitivity, the satisfaction that it is all over, or mostly all over.

Why does no one sing praises of the blessed hangover? Maybe it is taboo, the secret enjoyment of a few. But I remember early on liking certain things about the next day: the quiet, the serenity, the feeling of having purged the poison from my soul, having ranted and raved and made inappropriate passes at inappropriate moments in inappropriate places and survived to chuckle gingerly at the memory -- in the early days, anyway, when such things were remembered.

What a wonderful and romantic time that was, to laugh it off and go eat an omelet.

Later the events of a typical night would become a terrifying mystery.

Yet even then came sometimes a gentle shame that verged on self-forgiveness: Yes, you exposed yourself, but only for a moment, and only on a dare -- and you were drunk, my lad! You were drunk beyond all reason, and good for you! Someone had to do it! Good for you, my lad!

And where would you find a home for your dreams? Without a hangover to inhabit, where will they live? Oh, but your dreams may have a home in your heart if your heart will just grow warmer. If you are like me your heart is cold most days. The dreams arise in the mind but if the heart is cold they have nowhere to alight, so they flutter in the air and exhaust themselves. Alcohol seems at first the only thing that will warm a landing spot for your dreams.

But as it turns out, other things will do. As Baudelaire wrote, "Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue no matter: But get drunk!" Translations vary, that's from memory, and it's better in the French ("Il faut vous enivrer sans trêve. Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous"), but you get the idea. Song and poetry can certainly do it. We know that now. Sitting around a fire can sometimes do it. Surfing can do it. The love of a woman can do it. Even dogs can warm your heart to a temperature in which dreams can survive.

What else can replace that blessed state once the drink is gone? Well, those of us who have quit do sometimes talk about the "emotional hangover," but not as a pleasant phenomenon. Still, excess in any form can bring its partner, mild remorse, and if mild remorse seems to be a kind of gentle enlightenment, then there's your poison, my friend. Knock yourself out. Stay up all night on coffee lusting after your best friend's wife.

Humility comes also, I guess, and that simplicity of spirit that comes of being beaten.

The hangover blooms in a softened mind that has been beaten like beaten gold. The hangover is blessed surrender to the frailty of the moment. The moment is all there is then, when you are beaten sufficiently, and the moment is a gift. That's why they call it the present, as the cliché goes.

I'm not going to play the wizened scold, or the happy convert. You know when enough's enough.

So why indeed don't more people speak honestly about the strange bliss of the hangover, of those moments when, hung over yet curiously elated, you start in anew on a project dear to your heart?

I suppose it is because of what comes later, though I don't mean to make this a cautionary tale. I just wish I knew what makes it all go so bad. If I knew I'd be a rich man. I'd sell the cure in a pill.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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