My secret to finally finding true love? Giving up booze: Writer found the alcohol-induced memory lapses suffered by Emily Blunt in new film The Girl On The Train disturbingly familiar
- Hannah Betts quit booze in September 2014 after a day-long bender
- Friends still don't understand why this caused her to call it a day
- Despite her being the 'life and soul', for Hannah, the party was over
Gazing at a woman's face in extreme close up, I can see her eyes are bloodshot, her lips chapped, her cheeks flushed with rosacea. Her mouth hangs open in animal confusion as she feels the bruises on her shoulders and the seeping wound on her scalp.
I'm watching The Girl On The Train - the thriller of the moment - based on the Paula Hawkins novel that has sold millions.
I am supposed to be riveted, rapt. All I feel is overwhelmingly sad.
Hannah Betts with her monthly alcohol consumption before she gave up drinking
Because - at times - that's been me, that bruised and bloodied creature, forced to play detective about my own body, my own life. Waking and waiting to be told what I have done - managing, not managing, to negotiate the drunken obstacle course I have created; and this not in my teens or 20s, but in so-called 'responsible' middle age.
And I am by no means alone. Friends have had similar experiences of drink-induced memory loss and injury; laughingly dismissing them as 'brain blanks', 'war wounds', or 'UDIs' (casualty speak for 'unidentified drinking injuries').
A hard-partying fortysomething refers to them as 'soiree scars' and drink-induced black-outs as 'social strokes'.
Bravado apart, many will empathise when Rachel - the film's alcoholic heroine, played by Emily Blunt - is asked why she sought out a therapist, and answers: 'Because I'm afraid of myself.'
I stopped drinking two years ago, at the age of 43. After 30 years of largely happy - if somewhat hysterical - carousing, I found myself bloated, weary, more miserable than I'd ever been, incapable of being around others without being a bottle down and unable to sleep. 'Afraid of myself' is about the sum of it.
Emily Blunt as alcoholic Rachel Watson in The Girl On The Train
Rachel's horror is her terrifying lapses of memory. As she notes in the novel: 'Blackouts happen, and it isn't just a matter of being a bit hazy about getting home from the club... It's different. Total black; hours lost, never to be retrieved.'
My own lost time was mostly of the former variety. The 'I know I got a cab, but remember no details' thing.
And, yet, at times, I too had missing moments. How many? I guess I may not be the best judge. Friends would tell me about swaggering antics, being kissed by people I didn't want to kiss.
I should immediately make clear that my drinking was never anywhere near as bad as Rachel's. I had good friends, a great job, and - I am reliably informed - was known for being good fun rather than a total nightmare.
My boozing was enthusiastic, but never an obvious problem. I didn't drink every night, rarely appeared drunk and never allowed alcohol to affect my work.
That said, I always drank faster and more fervently than anyone else, which meant more anxiously. (Would there be enough? Why were the glasses so small? Should we order another round?) And I never wanted a glass, two glasses - half a bottle, even. I wanted the whole damn lot. More given the opportunity.
Drinking was my hobby, my most committed relationship, my joy. I relished the nihilism with which it knocked the world off its axis so that only the next glass mattered; the way it suppressed emotion; the heady oblivion it brought.
I drank to escape stress, boredom, and - ultimately - myself.
And, yet, one of the reasons people have found my renunciation so difficult is that I drank no more than anyone else in our alcohol-obsessed society.
'You weren't an alcoholic,' others tell me. 'That's just normal.' And it is.
Sure, in the month before I gave up, I'd gone up to a bottle of red a night when on holiday or out on the tiles.
Hannah has had experiences of drink-induced memory loss and injury; dismissing them as 'brain blanks', 'war wounds', or 'UDIs' (casualty speak for 'unidentified drinking injuries')
However, in the run up to that last month of bingeing I'd knock back what friends and colleagues refer to as 'the usual': half a bottle of wine an evening whether on my own or with others, with the odd night off in between.
Given that there are ten units per bottle, this new normal added up to around 25 units a week.
In July 2014, a study published in the British Medical Journal argued that 12 units a week - less than a pint or large glass of vino a day, and two fewer units than the Government's recommended limit - can have an adverse effect on health. Personally, I have never met anyone who drinks that little.
Middle-aged women such as myself have been at the forefront of this transition into kamikaze carousing: a shift from an occasional, festive glass on high days and holidays to Mumsnet's 'wine o'clock'. Time was when fat was a feminist issue. Today it's booze.
We drink with a recklessness that suggests mother's ruin has been transformed into mother's little helper.
Middle-aged mothers whose children have left home are the fastest growing group of hazardous drinkers according to a YouGov survey, while people with degrees are almost twice as likely to drink every day and admit to a problem; a correlation stronger in women.
And, put bluntly, our addiction is killing us. The number of professional women of every age dying from alcohol-related conditions is up by a quarter since the Eighties.
All of which means a good many female viewers are going to watch Emily Blunt's performance and shudder. There is much that we will recognise. The pitying looks from strangers, drunk texting, the hangovers that leech from 24-hour to rolling. And, of course, her blackouts.
Readers will recall Rachel's horror when she lurches into consciousness the morning after the night before.
'I wait for the memory to come. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it's there in front of my eyes in seconds. Sometimes it doesn't come at all. Something happened, something bad.'
Rachel is asked why she sought out a therapist, and answers: 'Because I'm afraid of myself'
My memory losses were more: 'Was I an idiot for those last couple of hours?' with me guilt-texting friends and lovers to apologise without knowing what I was apologising for.
Such lapses happened a little more towards the end of my drinking. At a friend's wedding, a married man kissed me in full view of his wife. I remembered that I had fought him off. I hadn't.
The next day was torture. As Rachel laments: 'I'm going to feel terrible all day. That twist in the pit of my stomach. And I'll be telling myself, it's not the worst thing I've ever done.'
Humiliating as I found this episode, it is small fry compared with my friends' sad and shocking encounters, which include: 'Intercourse with a stranger a week before getting married', and 'never remembering anything about sex before the age of 40.'
One 50-year-old designer who wished to remain anonymous confides: 'Blackouts were the norm. The last thing I'd remember would be falling into bed with someone, removing clothing, then - nothing. This is how sex happened.
'But, then,' she adds, 'my flatmate had terrible blackouts and used to wake up worried she'd killed me. And my daughter recently added tracking software to her own phone so she can see where she's been the night before.'
Hannah's memory losses were more: 'Was I an idiot for those last couple of hours?' with her guilt-texting friends and lovers to apologise without knowing what she was apologising for
Another acquaintance endured blacked-out shopping binges, spending hundreds on items she can't remember.
Chloe, 43, a charity worker and mother of two, knows this blankness only too well. 'It's weird having no recall, doing things that are so completely out of character. It's as if it happened to someone else, yet you're responsible. I've hurt myself - waking up with injuries including a black eye that I can't explain.
'The times I most regret are when I was gratuitously unpleasant, saying things I shouldn't - something I still feel slightly sick over. The memory loss makes it feel so much worse. If you can't remember, you're always left with that paranoid feeling you might have done something awful, which is terrible for your mental health.'
Recently, she lost her bag, keys and mobile phone while on a night out. Still, her colleague at work once had to sleep in her driveway after doing this 'so things could always be worse'.
Like me, all these people are educated, middle-class, and hold down good jobs. Many are also parents, some of these antics relayed by their children the morning after.
As with Rachel, the evidence will often be etched on their bodies. I still boast scarred knees from a topple into some King's Cross roadworks, a dodgy elbow from plummeting down a flight of stairs and assorted faded cuts. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, at times, I have risked my life for my love of the mother's ruin. I have certainly hazarded other things: health, relationships, my dignity.
My epiphany came in September 2014, after I found myself on an inadvertent bender that started at 11am and ended at 7pm asleep in a friend's bath.
When I add that the bender in question was a christening, you will begin to perceive the enormity of said spree.
'Rachel's words could easily have been mine: "I'm not the girl I used to be",' says Hannah
My hosts still don't understand why this caused me to call it a day, saying: 'Everyone was plastered. You were the life and soul.' But, for me, the (30-year) party was over.
Rachel's words could easily have been mine: 'I'm not the girl I used to be... It's not just that I've put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it's as if people can see the damage written all over me, they can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.'
At last, even I could see it.
That night I stopped drinking, and haven't touched a drop since. As my immediate goal was sleep, I also ditched caffeine. For the first few days, I ached as if I had flu. I was dazed, moody, tearful; throat sore, glands swollen, tongue furred. I got conjunctivitis and my eyelashes fell out.
The brief moments of sleep I managed to snatch were so night-terror-filled that I would wake sobbing. For 15 days, I barely slept, then, finally - rest, a lifetime's worth. By then, compliments were pouring in. At six weeks, I glowed. My face had lost its booze bloat, and I had shed the stone-and-a-half I had put on over my drunken summer.
By three months, it was blindingly obvious that my life was a thousand times better from abstaining.
Sober, I have fallen in love. If I'd been drinking, my boyfriend and I wouldn't even have spoken. I would have dismissed his not being drunk as dullness; he would have shunned my histrionics.
And, alcohol-free, I have been fully present for both my parents' sudden, lacerating deaths in the past 12 months - loving and supporting rather than escaping into the void.
I still want alcohol at times - I may always want it - and I am having to fathom an identity without it. However, at least now I know what I've done of an evening and can take responsibility for it.
Unlike The Girl On The Train, I am no longer an unreliable witness - in my own life or in others.
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