Alcohol has been LIZ JONES's social prop. Today she takes brave step

‘I’m facing my first sober Christmas in 20 years – because I don’t want to end up dead like my sister’: Alcohol has long been LIZ JONES’s social prop… today she takes a brave step

Normally, around this time of year, I’ll have placed my order at the local deli. Twelve bottles of Cremant de Loire. 

Not as dense and yellow (or expensive) as champagne, but more festive than prosecco which, to my very educated palette, tastes like dishwater.

Deli man always arrives in a Santa hat, skipping through snow (I live in North Yorkshire), before depositing two cases that chink merrily.

Ta da! That’s me sorted. One bottle for each of the 12 days of Christmas. If I can control myself, that is. 

I will have been to numerous parties — apart, of course, from last year. Before each one, I will have had a cool, crisp glass while trowelling on make-up.

I arrive, teetering on tall heels, and the moment I’ve checked my coat I will scan the room, frantic, for the young man or woman wielding a tray of fizz-filled flutes. 

Normally, around this time of year, I’ll have placed my order at the local deli. Twelve bottles of Cremant de Loire

I have to stop myself from sprinting towards them, then with a vice-like grip I remove my precious cargo.

I sip and breathe a sigh of relief. Only now am I brave enough to make small talk. I try not to drown the first flute too quickly — showing tonsils is never a good look — before snatching the next.

This has been my routine since Christmas 1999. Which is when I started to drink, at 41. I have been unable to stop for the next two decades.

I’d never touched a drop before then. I looked down on those weak people who drank. 

I’d grown up with a father who was posted to East Africa after the war and become inured to the expat lifestyle. Demobbed in the UK, he would go to the pub most nights.

As a child, I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep until I heard his car on the gravel, safe. Two of my sisters became alcoholics. As did my sister-in-law, Laura.

It’s telling I only became aware of how bad their drinking had become at my dad’s funeral. He died aged 82 of cancer, seemingly suffering no after-effects of a lifetime of drinking.

With the women in my family, though, it was different.

Ta da! That’s me sorted. One bottle for each of the 12 days of Christmas. If I can control myself, that is

I met my brother and his wife the day before the funeral for a meal, and I couldn’t understand why Laura kept missing her mouth with her fork. ‘She’s an alcoholic,’ he told me.

She was a teacher, very shy, and had the odd sip of wine to help her socialise. But when their home was blown up by the gas stove in the flat below, and they lost everything, her drinking changed.

Not too long after my dad’s funeral, Laura was found, still only in her mid-50s, dead in her flat, alone.

My oldest sister Clare was an extrovert, vivacious. When I was a teenager, I went to stay with her and was shocked to find an empty bottle of vodka in my bed. But there were no other clues. She always just seemed good company.

The first impossible to ignore drunken behaviour happened, again, at my dad’s funeral: she almost fell in the grave; it was like a tasteless sitcom.

Clare, like Laura, had children, a husband, a huge barn conversion and a Porsche. She died alone, far too young, in her 70s, in assisted housing.

My second oldest sister Lyn is alive, but only just. She started drinking in her 20s when working in intensive care at the National Heart Hospital. 

The hours were so long, the pressures so great — she was always telling me about having to ‘crack open a chest’— that she would go to the pub to ‘wind down’.

This has been my routine since Christmas 1999. Which is when I started to drink, at 41. I have been unable to stop for the next two decades

The trigger that turned social drinking into the pathological came when her son died from leukaemia aged 21. She came to stay at my flat in London a year or so later, and I stupidly left her alone, as I had to get back to Yorkshire. 

The next night, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognise. It was a doctor, who had come across my sister, wandering around Clerkenwell.

She had gone out, probably to buy booze, and forgotten the address of my flat. Luckily, my phone number was on a piece of paper in her pocket. 

She still doesn’t own a mobile as it’s ‘too complicated’. She’s barely able to cope with anything.

Consequently, I grew up with a fear of alcohol. It destroys families. I didn’t want to end up like the women in my family, plus I’ve always been nervous, so would always want to be in control, alert, en garde!

But, against my retiring wallflower judgement, I accepted the job as editor of Marie Claire. I’d turned it down at first. ‘Is it the package?’ the publisher asked. ‘No, I’m terrified!’ I replied. But the publisher was persuasive, so I took the job.

I was tipped into a world where not only did I have to hob nob with well-dressed, super-confident magazine mavens, designers and movie stars. 

I was also confronted at every event — even at breakfast — by a smartly dressed young person wielding a frisbee of flutes. 

I resisted, at first. I’d stand with my glass, finding it reassuring to have something cold to hold, as my palms would be sweating.

But then I was no longer new in the job, and as I pushed boundaries with cover choices — bigger women, black women, older women — I got into hot water with my bosses, which made me desperate for something to dull the fear.

I was also surrounded by women in the office who were all younger than me, but every single one had a partner. A life. They would spend all day on the phone to their other halves. 

I’m a workaholic and this annoyed me for two reasons: first, they were wasting time. Second, because I didn’t have anyone.

Consequently, I grew up with a fear of alcohol. It destroys families. I didn’t want to end up like the women in my family

Christmas 1999, and what I did have was a lovely house, a company BMW, a wardrobe stuffed with freebies, but I didn’t have a man lined up for Millennium Eve: the biggest dating night of the century.

I needed be more laid back. Have more faith in my ability and allure. And to have fun.

I opened a bottle of champagne. I was seduced by the ritual. The unwrapping of foil, as though it were a gift. The pop. The fizz on my tongue. The first hit to my brain: as someone who is thin, and barely eats, that thrill was instantaneous.

Alcohol became my armour. It made my life — which got worse, as I was sacked within the year — bearable. Then I was made bankrupt. 

It’s a long story, but let’s just say alcohol sometimes made me rash, such as taking part in Celebrity Big Brother.

I suddenly had no money for food, but what I did have, miraculously, was my M&S store card! Marks didn’t then deliver food, but what they did deliver was champagne. 

And so that is mostly all I had, box after heavy box, for the two years it took for officialdom to destroy me.

It continued. Date with a man? Glass of champagne because, why not? It breaks the ice; I’ve only ever had sex sober once, and it was a disappointment.

The day I’m discharged from bankruptcy? Crack open a bottle, yay! Difficult assignment at the Oscars? 

A line of dolly bottles on the plane. If you’d been sitting behind me, you’d have seen my head craning along the gangway to find out where in hell’s name is that trolley!

In 2018, I tried to stop. I was worried about a stroke and breast cancer. I wasn’t sleeping, and would wake, dry-mouthed, at 3am. 

Alcohol, a depressant, was only making my anxiety worse. I went to a retreat in Switzerland. It all went well, until I watched a French film.

It was all so beautiful: pergolas, sunshine and endless glasses of wine. Everyone looked happy. Not one resembled Edna the Inebriate Woman.

Drinking isn’t so bad, after all. We all deserve a treat, don’t we?

The years passed in a blur. A retreat in Mallorca where I learned of my high cholesterol? Nope, didn’t deter me because, who cares: I’d rather be dead than not drink. 

The bad news? I’m facing Christmas without alcohol. What on earth will I do with my hands at a party? How will I know what to say?

When once I’d have half a bottle, then a whole one, during lockdown I was perilously opening a second.

I must be easily swayed or, given what happened to my sisters, have a genetic predisposition, but I’d watch Love Island, or Selling Sunset, and every single situation would be celebrated by clinking glasses of champagne.

My brain says, well, it’s normal. I wanted to be like them: young, desired and celebrating. I’d wake the next day, and a glass would be at my side. Did I watch Succession, or didn’t I?

It took a crisis to stop me. At the beginning of 2020, I’d find myself walking my dogs and felt unsteady on my feet. Not drunk, surely — I’d only had two glasses. I returned one evening, took a sip of Cremant, and the room started to spin.

I could barely make it up the stairs. I had weeks of the room spinning and me vomiting. I had to call my assistant who lives nearby.

One night, my vomiting was so bad, she dialled 999. The paramedics came, saw I wasn’t dying, though I felt I was, and because of Covid, refused to admit me.

On my one good day, I made it to my GP, who prescribed medication that would melt in my mouth, as I couldn’t sip water.

This went on for weeks: the world would spin, and I’d be confined to bed. I had a brain scan, terrified that if I lay flat I’d throw up.

The GP didn’t ask about my drinking, and I didn’t volunteer. I was too ashamed. But I had a blood test, and there was no damage to my liver.

Yet. I remember, when I got that news, thinking how mad I was. I spent a fortune on skin cream and facials, but surely drinking is the worst thing you can do to your skin, not to mention, your body.

Eventually having gone private, given my NHS appointment was moved, again and again, I was diagnosed with vertigo, an imbalance in my left ear which is caused when crystals in the ear become loose.

Hearing loss, which I suffer from and renders me completely deaf when stressed, can apparently cause balance disorders. Even, it seems, while sober.

I was prescribed diuretics. I’m not allowed to drink while on medication, and the ear, nose and throat professor told me that alcohol can worsen the vertigo, and certainly not help my stress.

Like everyone I come into contact with, he noticed my shallow panting. ‘What are you afraid of?’ he asked. ‘Everything,’ I replied. ‘Goodness,’ he said. ‘No wonder you drank.’

The good news is that the weeks of vomiting forced me to go cold turkey: I no longer crave alcohol. The funny thing is, the man from the deli actually emailed, concerned, as he hadn’t had to make a delivery.

The bad news? I’m facing Christmas without alcohol. What on earth will I do with my hands at a party? How will I know what to say?

Endure all the Christmas adverts: Do Not ‘Ave A Dubonnet. How will I giggle inanely faced with the office bore?

Given I’m now so terrified of being dizzy, I’m not even tempted to fall off the wagon. If I’m with someone who’s drinking, the smell disgusts me. I remember how beautiful my sisters and my sister-in-law were. They had that loveliness wrestled from them, and I’m grateful I’ve been saved.

It’s amazing how quickly the body bounces back. I sleep like a kitten. I have so much energy and I’m more positive. 

I still get nervous, but I’ve found ways to cope: an oily bath, a walk with my dogs, but not, I have to say, non-alcoholic wine, which is disgusting.

When my sister-in-law was found, she was surrounded by piles of full pizza boxes, and endless empty bottles of wine. Because she would order a pizza and a bottle of wine.

She was either too ashamed to order booze without food, or incapable of going to the offy.

I don’t want to end up like that. It takes a jolt to force you to change. For me, it wasn’t too late.

I will be raising a glass of San Pellegrino on Christmas Eve, thanking the funny, misplaced crystals in my poor deaf ears for saving my life.

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