‘Which came first, booze or boys?’: untangling a love affair with alcohol

For better and for worse, drinking has been a constant thread running through writer Megan Nolan’s relationships. She reflects on the dual thrills of alcohol and romance

From the very beginning, whenever there was a crush, there was also a drink in my hand. In his novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s narrator Rob, an unhappy vinyl obsessive, asks himself: “Which came first, the music or the misery?” Did he learn to be unhappy from the sad songs he loved, or did the songs comfort him after the unhappiness was already a fact? In my case, the question is something like this: which came first, the booze or the boys? Did I just happen to begin my romantic life at the same time as my drinking life? Or were my infatuations and love stories authored – or at least fuelled – by the alcohol that accompanied them?

This is not the story of a tragic, ruined woman who destroys all her relationships through drinking. In some, I drank very moderately; in most others, only to good-spirited excess, which caused no harm. There is no redemption arc here, no coming to the light. I still drink now. It is one of my personal bugbears that we seem as a culture flatly incapable of discussing many of life’s most complex issues without urgently needing to name and solve them, preferably with formal medical interventions. And so I can’t speak about a plodding, hopeless soul sickness that afflicts me at times without being cornered into describing it as depression or an anxiety disorder. This is not to say that these things don’t exist; of course they do, and over the years I’ve taken medication for both. But the terms and the drugs are too blunt as tools to address the infinite realm of human suffering and struggle that they sit within.

For the same reason I can’t discuss drinking, how I have loved it and been frightened by it, how it has joined me in my love affairs and adventures, and silently judged me from the other side of empty flats; I cannot say any of this without using the word alcoholic. But I will.


Aged 15, I betrayed the first boyfriend I ever had under the influence of the little alcohol it took to get me drunk. I had recently shed a lot of puppy fat, not through the whims of nature but smug, grim deprivation routines. I played a cruel trick on myself. The loss of weight happened to occur at the same time as I was leaving childhood and becoming a young adult, the time that boys were beginning to look at me, and I at them. But because my debut into horny society was taking place at the same time I had become a thin person, I conflated the two experiences. I wonder now if something similar didn’t happen with drinking, that it came to stand in for all manner of agreeable things it wasn’t actually responsible for.

The first boyfriend smelled like sandalwood and was a passionate and brilliant musician, and I adored him. We became a foursome with another couple; the guy was my boyfriend’s closest friend, the girl a newly acquired pal of mine. They were the kind of people I could only have dreamed about befriending before my transformation. They appeared adult and sexy to me and exchanged witty banter with no agony or indecision. I was served my first drink in a bar while in this glowing new formation, blissed out with the feeling of having finally stepped inside a TV show. I asked for a double Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke, the sort of thing a happy and wild and pretty girl like me would order in the kind of show I was casting myself in.

Megan Nolan with roses behind her
Megan Nolan: ‘Alcohol compelled me to be someone I was not, a person I was not even very good at imitating.’ Photograph: Lynn Rothwell

A few months into our relationship, we were all four at a party in someone’s parent’s suburban home. The tips of my ears were burning from the tepid white wine I was drinking and I stepped outside. In the darkness of the garden I could make out a body stretched on a trampoline. It was the boy in the other couple, my boyfriend’s friend. He was uncharacteristically sad, which made me feel tender and dramatic. I lay down beside him and he talked about what was troubling him, some issue with his girlfriend. He was also drunk, and I felt completely alive and open to his emotions. Before I could think about it, we were holding hands. Then a light came on in the doorway and it was my boyfriend, seeing us. I pulled down my dress from where it had ridden up, although we hadn’t done anything more explicit than touch hands, and shaded my eyes and stared over at him with my heart thudding, the wine beating in my pulse.

None of us would ever mention it, this meaningless and minor betrayal, but as it took place something changed in me. I wouldn’t have touched the boy’s hand if I hadn’t been drinking; the drinking allowed me to pretend it never had happened. Alcohol made me behave a certain way and it gave me the ability to disappear the same behaviour it had induced. It had created movement. This was what I wanted above all things: propulsion.


At 17, I was in a relationship with my first love. On weekend nights, we sat in the outhouse he slept in and kissed and watched films and put on disco lights and danced. We drew pictures together and made mix CDs and took photographs of each other, engorged on the gratuitous beauty of this new way to know another person. I skimmed from the bottles of spirits in my mother’s cupboard and brought it there, one night swallowing a ghastly blistering few inches of Cointreau that I can still taste now, then pressing my numb mouth to his.

On Fridays, I would occasionally go for a drink by myself. I got changed in the school toilets and stuffed the uniform into my backpack, headed to a party later that night, but first I would go to a bar. Not one of the pubs where all the staff knew my parents and that I was underage, but one of the anonymous modern ones where nobody showed up until later in the evening. I would slip in and have a whiskey and Diet Coke, and read my book or write in my diary and be so content, so cosy, nobody knowing where I was in that moment. I told my first love, whose father was a recovering alcoholic, how much I enjoyed the stolen, contained hour.

“Be careful,” he said, “That’s what my dad liked to do.”

But I wasn’t worried. There were two things I wanted from my life. I wanted to be with others, to have as much attention and affection and company as I was able to drain out of them – and I also wanted to be left completely alone whenever I wanted. Nobody could predict which of these two opposing and equally urgent needs might want satisfying at a given time, least of all me. Drinking was magical because it enabled you to be with others fully, free of self-examination. And then when you wanted it to, it enabled you to be by yourself with pleasure, too.

Then I lost it all. Away from home, dropped out of university, I was in an ugly spiral of denial and mania. I buckled beneath my self-disgust, the disappointment and panic about what I would do with my future. Thinking beyond the immediate seemed likely to lead to the abandonment of any will to go on living. Concerning myself with boys, men, sex, romance, whatever – this was one way to focus on individual hours and evenings. Drinking was the other, and for these lost years the two strategies bled into each other.

Because I had lost all the trappings of my identity – the idea that I was smart, had a good future, was an interesting person – the alcohol operated differently. It didn’t just ornament the person I was, allowing me to enjoy people I did sincerely like and love. It compelled me to be someone I was not, a person I was not even very good at imitating.

I exhausted my few reserves of energy angling towards men I had nothing to say to, nothing in common with – whom I did not so much as even like! – simply because they looked a certain way and stayed out as late as I did. Perhaps, I thought, if going out and drinking could be the purpose of life for these people, then I could give up worrying about what mine might be. And so I forgot about daytime and concentrated only on the pathetically shabby facsimile of hedonism I was aping, and the boys who propped it up. Mostly I shelved anyone who wanted to speak to me properly or treat me with kindness, because I couldn’t afford to slow down. The point was to always keep moving. Until one day a few years have passed and you notice, finally, the only direction you have moved in is further down.


In my early to mid-20s, I lived with a man who didn’t drink the way that I and most of my friends did. By now I was steadily, if meagrely, employed and partied with much less vehemence, but still we would be out and drunk at least once a week. He was a little older than me and I felt implicitly shamed by his comparative sedateness and curbed my habits. I was afraid he would come to his senses otherwise, go and find someone very different from who I was. I have never been able to fully shake the suspicion that when people tell me they love me, they are, in some sense, joking.

Drinking with the next one, the one who came after my cohabitation, was the most fun. So theatrical, such a performance. Fitting for a love that felt so dazzling and innovative and promising, and when examined turned out not really to be there at all.

With him, there were €14 cocktails I was only pretending to be able to afford, in a dimly lit Dublin smoking garden. There was murky rich beer with an astonishingly high alcohol percentage, sitting on a pavement in Denmark eating smoked-fish sandwiches. Two-for-one nasty little Old Fashioneds in a Peckham happy hour, tossed back with lustful abandon and one hand up my dress. Like the happiness that drinking creates, it was conjured, ephemeral. All of it was based on a false premise I was willing myself not to see through. It wasn’t real, it had to end – but, ah, what doesn’t. It’s hard to regret.

Unrequited love is a funny complaint, an embarrassing one when there are so many exciting and attractive and decent people in the world. It’s surprising how much it still hurts to think about it, this failure of mine. How amazing it was to realise that this person – with whom I felt intuitively and perfectly in tune, who understood things about me nobody else ever had, and was an inexhaustible reserve of fascinating thoughts – did not experience me in the same way. I wish he had received me with complete indifference, which would be easier to accept. Instead, he just liked me well enough until he met someone to really be with. A few times after we had been drinking a lot, as he was falling asleep, the words did leave his mouth: “I love you.” And although I knew they weren’t true, I leaned over him in the bed, my face close to his, mouth open, as though I could eat them.

This is another thing that drinking does, this thinning of veils, spirits and souls, consciousness and unconsciousness: I don’t love you, I love you. Some references to the pagan festival of Samhain, when the barrier between worlds is breachable, mention the role of excessive alcohol. In our world this happens, too, the scraping back to things hidden, the descent below normal surface. The problem is that what is revealed isn’t necessarily the truth. Being drunk sometimes leads to long-buried secrets emerging, catharsis, certainly. But it can also incite emotions and ideas that simply don’t exist in waking life.

There was a guy friend of mine who, during my late teens, I was close to but had no romantic desire for. One night when we were both pissed at a house party, I saw him kissing a girl and was inconsolable, crying for hours. The next day I could not understand my reaction. I didn’t want him; I felt nothing about him kissing this person. It was alarming to know that a feeling could be created like that. The alcohol had attached some arbitrary emotion that had risen to the top of my subconscious soup to my friend and his kiss.

I drink less now than I used to. I lack the concentrated fury of my youth. I don’t feel as bad, I don’t feel as good. These are the truces we make, and then at times wonder why we bothered, missing all the vivacity that made up life back then. Somehow this past year did the thing that years of self-recrimination failed to, and made me moderate. I have a single drink and find myself frustrated and bored by its inability to get me anywhere, to do anything. The main attraction of drinking is gone for now: the illusion of movement, the way it set off a course of events you couldn’t always predict. Now, whether I have one drink or 10, I know I’ll still be where I started, in the nook of my sofa with the TV on at half volume, anxiously biting hangnails.

Maybe when this is over, I’ll descend into bacchanalian retribution and drink to excess every night. But I think that my body has learned the lesson, whether I wanted it to or not, that there is no magic inherent in the bottle. That what I felt to be its magic was only ever other people.

• Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts Of Desperation will be published on 4 March by Vintage, priced at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Megan Nolan

The GuardianTramp

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