Most of us have that one friend, the one who defies the law of all laws. The organising principle of our existence. The universal law of cause and effect.
The one law that states that, where alcohol is consumed, a hangover will follow.
Then there is the one friend who, no matter how much alcohol they consume, never, ever gets a hangover.
I hate that friend. I have never been that friend. I have never had the luxury of looking back at my younger years and wistfully pointing out my adolescent vigour, my youthful exuberance and speedy recovery in the face of recreational substances. Historically, I wake up looking and feeling like the leftovers of a leech feast, shrivelled and broken. My brain feels like it’s shrunk in size, throbbing with the reliable continuity of the techno house beat you so enjoyed the night before. Bright lights (any light for that matter), loud noises, all food is a struggle.
All I feel like I can do is swathe myself in my duvet or ask someone to cradle me and pat my hair.
So I’ve always had painful hangovers. I’ve accepted it as best I can (which isn’t good at all, I am fully aware that I am at my most pathetic post-party).
What I didn’t realise is that as I got older – and I am fully aware that in my late 20s, the descent has only just begun – the hangovers would not only cause me immense physical pain, but beset me with a level of existential dread teenage me could not yet fathom. It isn’t the fluctuating intensity of young emotion, where every little thing is defined by vivid muchness. It is the slow, droning ache that you are already familiar with.
It’s the impending sense of doom that comes with the realisation of your own mortality. This physical and mental pain spreads from various joints and travels down neural pathways. You ask yourself in horror: surely my back / knees / shoulders / joints / whatever aren’t going YET? But it’s so soon!
Gone are the days where hangovers were primarily defined by inertia. No, they now also involve an internal vortex of swirling fears and doubts, not only related to dubious behaviour the night before, but concerning the very essence of being: what am I doing with my life? How did I get here? Am I happy? What was I thinking last night? Am I trying to escape from some fundamentally uncomfortable truths? What am I doing today? Why am I not doing anything today? Am I a failure? Should I apologise to my partner/friend/family for that one specific flaw of mine? For all flaws?
And worst of all:
Was my mother right?
I’m not sure what about, but she was right about something and it’s nothing good. Nobody ever told me about this and I demand a refund.
I’m not entirely sure when the shift occurred, or what even shifted. Perhaps there was a righteousness to my drinking as a teenager, a fervent adherence to social norms, an acceptance of the status quo: I am a teenager, I will make all the mistakes, and I will make them loudly, and drunkenly. Looking back now it seems like a somewhat uninspired revolt against the system, but nevertheless. The young have more margin for error.
I believe it’s the responsibilities. They’re more obvious when you get older. There are milestones you should be reaching, things you should be doing, more money you should be earning (I am aware being able to waste away the days for part of my youth due to relative financial stability is a privilege). Your time is divided into allotted time slots of differing value. If you have any free time, this has to be spent catching up on life admin, meeting that one friend you’ve been promising to see for actual months, that book you’ve been reading since December 2019, the food you need to make to prepare for pre-packed work lunch. There’s always something that needs doing.
Part of the reason hangovers induce such mental anxiety and guilt is because we have it drummed into us that busy-ness is a virtue. Every second needs to be used wisely and efficiently, every day needs to have something to show for itself, and successfully bingeing whatever the latest show is trending on Netflix does not count.
Alcohol compounds this sense of failure, of “I’m not doing enough”.
Aggravatingly, and in complete opposition to any me-against-the-system-mentality, it tends to be being productive and social that pulls me out of my mental hangover hovel. I feel less like a humanoid slug if I leave the cesspit of sadness and drag myself out into the real world. Lots of ibuprofen, a homemade electrolyte drink (lowkey hate myself for it but they feel remarkable, I’m particularly a fan of the honey, lemon, water and sea salt variety, look it up) and a trip to the swimming pool means it is no longer self-loathing I swim in, but the genteel rocking of a womb-like environment. Extra points if there’s a sauna to sweat out the regret.
If there is someone or something – friend, partner, dog – grab them. This is the tokenistic advice I shall offer in this article: hydrate, brave the day in a way that makes you feel like it’s not fully wasted (shops? walk? write an article? put a load of washing on? it can be hung out the next day, let’s not get ahead of ourselves), connect and communicate with someone.
And PLEASE try to get a good night’s sleep the next day. I tend to end up avoiding any moments of quiet and stay up into the early hours of the next morning, only for the suffering to continue an extra day or two.
Much of my day is spent telling myself in soothing tones that some days can be spent doing next-to-nothing. It is not a necessarily symptom of a life come to a shrieking halt, or in need of a U-turn.
Sometimes you just need gallons of tea.
It’ll all be over soon enough, don’t worry.