It is never a good idea to give your readers reason to hate you in the first line of a column, but it’s a risk I’ll have to take: I appear to be immune to hangovers. Friends, colleagues and family members are aghast when I mention this – “But you drink, don’t you? I’ve seen you down four double whiskies on an empty stomach!” I do indeed drink and get drunk (full disclosure: it was five, plus an Old Fashioned), yet somehow I have made it to my thirties still able to enjoy a night of inebriation free from guilt or dread at the crushing debt to be repaid the following day.
I have several theories for this, none of them scientifically backed up. The first is that I’ve won some kind of genetic lottery. Some people can beat Olympic records, some have perfect pitch, and I can go out on a week night without fearing I’ll wake up hating either the universe or myself. Perhaps there’s a gene for hangovers, as there is for tongue-rolling, and I don’t have it.
If that seems decidedly unconvincing, consider that I spent my teens and early twenties thoroughly missing out on all the intoxication associated with those years, and only started seriously drinking relatively recently, meaning I still have the liver of a teenager. Maybe the hangovers everyone told me would kick in at 25 will hit me ten years later, and I simply haven’t got there yet.
At this point, my husband will no doubt insist that I do get hangovers, I just refuse to admit it. And he’s right that the morning after the whisky debacle I had no desire to run a half-marathon or go on TV to answer complicated questions about politics. But the evidence found across both literature and social media suggests to me that feeling a bit fuzzy and wanting endless cups of tea isn’t the normal response to drinking the NHS weekly allowance of alcohol in a single night. Feeling as though a pig has defecated in your head is, to paraphrase Withnail, a more common reaction.
So for the most part I am counting my blessings – but also, strange as it may seem, wondering if I’m missing out on some core tenet of adulthood. For in addition to headaches and nausea, there is what Kingsley Amis called the “metaphysical hangover”, an “ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future”. In Everyday Drinking (what a title), he offers a detailed guide for countering it: the gloom of Milton and then Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, followed by some stirring battle verses to remind you there is a point to life after all. The idea is to inject into your hangover-induced despair a sense of perspective, then hope, then motivation.
Amis was writing in the 1970s, but what he describes as a metaphysical hangover reads a lot like a modern existential crisis – the kind I feel I spend my life trying to keep at bay, exacerbated by Twitter spats and endless social media doomscrolling. My anxiety has for years been off the charts; “self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future” are mere background emotions at this point. The idea that they could be attributed to a specific cause – too much alcohol – and then gradually eased by a few hours of appropriate cultural stimulation seems miraculous. So too does the potential for epiphany: Amis writes of “all that vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation”.
Anecdotally, I know of several major upheavals sparked by the brutal, skull-thumping clarity a hangover can bring: relationships ended, careers switched, life choices ruthlessly evaluated. Right now I don’t feel the need to do any of those – but maybe that’s the point. Maybe I need the psychological shock of hitting an artificial, whisky-fuelled rock bottom to see where I’ve been going wrong – and the relief when it passes to spur on the choices I’m too afraid to make. Maybe my immunity to hangovers is what’s been holding me back from fulfilling my true potential all this time.
Then again, maybe I’m just lucky. Let’s get another round – mine’s an Old Fashioned.
Pippa Bailey is away
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man