Can you go without? Photo: Arsineh Houspian
I WAS morning-after roadkill. My head felt as heavy as a waterlogged sandbag. Being conscious hurt. When I woke up on New Year's Day 2011, the hangover was so horrendous that I worried I might not survive it. Something had to change. So I vowed to give up drinking for three months.
In a culture that exalts drinking as the cornerstone of all social interaction, abstainers are the modern-day lepers.
My tilt at sobriety came after 20 years of partying that had left me physically and emotionally spent.
It was ironic, given my job. Sunday Age readers may remember an article I wrote at the time, in which I outed myself as the binge-drinking health reporter. During the week I wrote about Australia's booze-soaked culture. At the weekends I wrote myself off.
I thought swearing off the grog would be an interesting personal challenge. But it turned out to be so much more. Three months without alcohol became a year, and led to a book charting the challenges of staying sober in a nation obsessed with booze.
In High Sobriety, I documented the most confronting, emotionally revealing and ultimately rewarding year of my life.
I danced on bar-tops sober, tackled the footy season without beer, learnt how to manage stress without hitting the bottle, and even navigated the dating scene on soda water.
The learning curve was shocking. Without alcohol I was stripped bare - forced to acknowledge that alcohol had become more than an emotional crutch. It was my medication, my aphrodisiac and my liquid confidence. It helped obscure my shortcomings, and provided a convenient excuse for my inertia.
When I removed booze from my life, I realised the emperor was wearing no clothes. Alcohol was not what gave me self-assurance or helped me deal with tough times. There was nothing I couldn't do sober that I used to do drunk.
But swimming against the tide wasn't easy. I was told that not drinking was ''un-Australian'' and that a year without booze would be a ''year without mates''.
I discovered that in a culture that exalts drinking as the cornerstone of all social interaction, abstainers are the modern-day lepers. It made me realise that tackling Australia's binge-drinking problem is a far more complex proposition than the finger-pointing politicians and media commentators would have us believe.
We can blame young people for the escalating rates of alcohol-related violence and under-age drinking, but as long as they live in an environment that places more value on getting pissed than it does on moderation or sobriety, they'll have little incentive to change.
In exploring our love affair with grog, I met teenagers who said that going sober would be social suicide. But I also found that their boozing doesn't occur in a vacuum.
Their parents and workmates love a drink, teaching them that reaching for the wine bottle is the way to unwind after a tough day. Campus life involves university-sanctioned drink-a-thons where getting plastered is the expected way to bond with new friends. The sports they love are backed by beer companies, and their music idols belt out songs about getting wasted.
Alcohol is so heavily embedded in our national psyche that opting out of that culture, as I discovered, is a tough ask. I lost count of the number of times I had to justify my abstinence, as if I'd upset the group dynamic by breaking some unspoken social contract.
Saying no to be a beer shouldn't be a declaration of war. It shouldn't even be noteworthy. But it is. Before I took a year off drinking I didn't trust teetotallers. Sobriety was the domain of social bores, religious nuts and fitness freaks. I often pressured friends and colleagues into drinking when they didn't want to.
Now, a year after my alcohol-free challenge came to an end, I cringe to think beer goggles had skewed my perspective so much I'd lost sight of what was important.
If we are serious about changing a culture that has turned Australia Day into an orgy of drunken violence and ambulance call-outs, we all have to own our part in how we got here.
It's not about making booze the enemy or forcing people to go completely dry - alcohol is a legal substance and if consumed in moderation is not harmful - but perhaps we need to reflect more on how much drinking is worth.
Alcohol has a place in my life again, but my relationship with it has changed immeasurably. I don't live like a nun - I still indulge in the occasional big night - but my reasons for drinking are different now.
When I have a few beers it's something I enjoy, not something I need. I don't use alcohol to alleviate stress or block out difficult emotions, and there are far more occasions where I choose not to drink. Knowing that sobriety won't render me socially incompetent makes it a lot easier to turn down a drink when I'm not really in the mood for one. But if I hadn't taken a break from it, I would never have known that was possible.
The challenge for me, and for anyone trying to change the way they drink, will be maintaining that moderation in a world awash with grog.
■High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze, by Jill Stark, is published by Scribe.