Drink or swim
Whatever happened to the happy hangover?
by Chris Wright
I LOOKED IN the bathroom mirror this morning and saw Edward Kennedy. A face
like a paintball fight. An aurora borealis of poor health. And the face that
scowled back at me from the mirror in the bedroom, with its blazing natural
light, was no more encouraging. That face looked like a satellite shot. I could
actually see the little tire tracks leading to and from the missile silos. I
zoomed in. Was that -- no, couldn't be -- movement?
Through no fault of my own, I find myself on the wrong end of a five-day
bender. A wedding, a going away, a coming back, a barbecue, more wedding. It's
not so much that I drank too much -- though I did. It's what I drank. I
mixed drinks that shouldn't even be allowed in the same room: Blackcurrant Ale,
meet Kahlúa; champagne, here's my good friend gin; Miller Lite, I don't
believe you've been introduced to the Australian cabernet. Yerp.
To make matters worse, when I'm drinking I smoke like a Texas wildfire. Tiny
helicopters hover above me dumping little swashes of water, to no avail. And so
now, as well as looking and feeling terrible, I sound like a walking
squeezebox. Or would if I could walk.
At some point, I'm not sure exactly when, hangovers stopped being fun.
IN MY early 20s, hangovers were an adventure. I loved the illicitness of them
-- the sense of having done something bad. I'd be proud of the Sid
Vicious aura I thought I projected. "Drank four six-packs of Rolling Rock last
night," I'd wheeze to anyone who would listen. "Threw up in the back of a
moving van." And I'd smell like a seagull's breakfast to prove it. Or was that
My favorite hangover eatery at the time was a little greasy spoon. I'd sit
there noshing on corned-beef hash, staring senselessly at the morning paper,
wondering whether I should go see the latest Chuck Norris flick or stay home
and watch Family Ties. Not that it mattered -- I'd cry at TV ads and
laugh at parking meters anyway. What really mattered was the fact that it
didn't matter. The inability to make the simplest of decisions can be a
wonderfully liberating thing.
Hangovers used to be a drug. The day after a binge would leave me relaxed and
jittery, oblivious and alert, ecstatic and lugubrious. It was that
no-man's-land moment between sleep and wakefulness stretched out over an entire
day. The world moved into soft-focus, suffused with a kind of melancholy
significance. As I strolled the streets, weird and unexpected thoughts would
surface in my mind. "George Washington redefined imperialism." Stuff like
I used to do this a lot -- stroll and muse. I'd muse like it was going out of
fashion. I'd muse in coffee shops and in video arcades. I'd muse on buses and
in restrooms. Sometimes I'd gaze at the beautiful women around town and just
pretend to muse. And when I was done musing, I'd reflect. I'd watch the sun set
while I reflected on this solemn, momentous thing that was my life. Then I'd go
home and watch Family Ties.
Back then, I had happy hangovers. Booze was as enjoyable in its retreat as it
was when it first washed over me. But that was before the scorched-earth
hangovers, the slash-and-burn mornings after, the internal carpet bombing that
now follows a night on the town. That was then.
NOW, AS I sit whimpering into a mug of echinacea tea, it occurs to me that I'm
not only paying the price of five straight nights of drinking, I'm paying for
the time I accompanied my hangover to the movies, when I took my hangover
shopping, when my hangover and I cavorted on the giant flume at the water park.
In those days, I could drink an entire gallon of deplorable red wine and get
You play, you pay. I used to laugh at the idea. You play, you pay. Tee
hee. But that was when I was still on the Play Now, Pay Later plan. What I
failed to fathom at the time was that I was racking up an unmanageable deficit,
that I would wake up one day and find myself a thousand sick days in arrears.
Today, I don't just get hangovers, I get hangovers with compound interest. I
get hangover hangovers.
Of course, the hangover hangover is largely a matter of physiology. I'm older
now. My natural resources are depleted. My constitution, undermined by years of
abuse, simply cannot take it any more. But there's something else to all this.
I'm older now. And along with age comes responsibility. A hangover these days
is amplified and intensified by guilt. Maybe even a little mortal dread.
In my 20s, I believed I was a work in progress. If I wasn't capable of infinite
perfectability, at least I was capable of improvement. Moral and physical
dissolution alike could be chalked up to the process of character building. So
what if I woke up feeling like death? So what if I didn't make it
in to work? I knew tomorrow I'd feel better. I knew there would be other jobs.
It didn't matter how bad things got, because I could rest assured that they
could always get better.
What I didn't realize then was that, although we are all indeed works in
progress, this does not mean that life is one big training session. Human
development doesn't end when we reach our personal best. Today, the truth
presents itself to me with awful clarity: progress and decline go hand in hand.
As pimples recede, gray hairs emerge. Naïveté becomes cynicism.
Lack of experience gives way to lack of vigor. In life, death. And Christ --
Christ! -- you really can't afford to lose that job. These are the kinds
of thoughts a hangover hangover brings.
And so these days, the brain will preface a night out with a perfunctory
admonition: "Careful, you'll feel like shit in the morning." But then it will
soften: "Oh, go on then, have one little one." And the next thing I know, it's
the morning and I'm prying my mouth open with a spatula, wondering what's going
to become of me.
Right now, the answer to that question is relatively straightforward. Staring
into the mirror at this motley, mustard-faced stranger, there's one thing I
know for sure: tonight I'll relive the good old days. A friend of mine is
having a keg party. I'm staying in and watching reruns of Family Ties.