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Swimming against the Kiwi binge-drinking tide

New Zealand society places huge importance on drinking. Helen O’Connor explains why she’s trying to drink less – and why that’s good for you, girls, and your boyfriend.

The first time I went to a wedding, I was fireman-carried out of the men’s bathroom by my dad. He’d found me in there, furiously pashing one of the groomsmen, while the rest of the party raged on the dancefloor. I was 23 and so full of champagne it was practically coming out of my nose. Having already burned a hole in my sister’s dress with a cigarette, it was fair to say I’d well and truly pushed the boat out. I was wrestled into a taxi where I yelled for a while before gracefully passing out.

My night was over. But for others, the party was just getting started. The wedding moved to an after-party for fun young people whose parents weren’t there. It became a frantic, messy blur – resulting in one broken wrist, two broken noses, and a hotel room set on fire.

I woke up the day after the wedding, feeling sick and embarrassed. Mildly embarrassed. After four years at university in Dunedin, it was safe to say I’d experienced all possible forms of post-party humiliation – an interrupted bathroom embrace was nothing serious. Now, what gets to me the most is how easily we were all able to laugh the whole night off. The fire in the hotel was something slightly out of the ordinary, sure, but even that was treated as something to laugh about later, and was soon swallowed up with the croissants and coffee.

While this may sound a bit extreme, in my experience it’s not. It’s really just another version of an average night out in New Zealand. As a society, we place a huge amount of importance on drinking. We drink to have a good time, to relax, to celebrate, to lubricate, and to fit in. We drink when we’re happy, we drink when we’re angry, we drink when we’re bored. We start young and we end sloppy.

Drinking is a choice. Most of the time – save for the occasional hen’s night – no one is holding us down and pouring it into our mouths. But while it’s a choice, for many people drinking is also encouraged and expected. For years, my life was being unknowingly compromised by alcohol. I found it impossible to know how and when to stop, how to say no, and how to deal with the repercussions of my often-terrible drunken actions. I began to hate who I was when I was drunk, but couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol.

Plus, drinking is fun. When it’s good, it’s really good. There’s nothing I love more than the early shimmerings of a big night out – arms draped around shoulders, wild laughter erupting into the air. But this stage only lasts for so long. It soon becomes messy, unpredictable and, on many occasions, dangerous.

Weddings are exciting ... Everyone you love is there. The speeches are long. You can’t dance when you’re sober. It’s an alcoholic obstacle-course.

In the last two years, I’ve made a real effort to drink less. I drink low-alcohol beer, I try to keep track of my drinks per hour, and 98 percent of the time I say no to shots. I’ve come to realise that drinking myself into oblivion isn’t the best or the only way to celebrate – there’s a lot to be said for being able to stand unaided and remember where my house is.

As someone who will soon be toppling into her 30s, weddings are beginning to fill up the calendar. I am working hard at drinking less, but it’s not an easy ride. Weddings are fun, and it’s an honour and a privilege to be invited, but for me they are also a strength test. Bubbly beforehand, beer on arrival, bottles of wine on the tables, toast after toast after toast, drinks topped up and replaced mid-conversation.

Also, weddings are exciting. Small talk is hard. It’s hot. You wish you were getting married. Everything is free. A guy you went home with on Valentine’s Day in 2014 is sitting opposite you. Everyone you love is there. The speeches are long. You can’t dance when you’re sober. It’s an alcoholic obstacle-course.

The line between having fun and being disrespectful is a blurred one, and often the night spirals out of control. So, I practise precision. I choose one drink an hour, and avoid wine at all costs. I fill my beer bottle with water when no one is looking and mentally check in with myself throughout the night. Wild and carefree? No. Successful? Sometimes.

For those out there who feel the need to question me, laugh at me, or pressure me to drink faster – I’m not doing this to make you feel bad about yourselves. I’m doing it to avoid crying on the bus home and trying to pash your boyfriend. You should be happy for me. And for you – much less drama for all involved.

And I’m not saying I’m perfect. Far from it. Sometimes, when I can’t be bothered counting my beers or I cave to peer-pressure, you’ll find me on the dancefloor drinking warm sparkling wine from the bottle with the mother of the bride. Sips melt into full swigs, until inevitably one or both of us will be spotted crying on the bus home, trying to pash your boyfriend. But the main thing is, I’m trying.

I think it’s important to try and remember the occasion. Everyone wants to have a good time, but it is possibly also the biggest day of someone’s life or an incredibly important milestone. Slow down, have the occasional water, and for God’s sake – if you’re going to pounce on a groomsman, do it in the ladies'. Your dad will never find you there.

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