Subscriber OnlyYour Wellness

Four thousand days and counting: ‘If you drink, your life expectancy is between one day and six months’

I am still amazed by the imbecility of people who know about my condition but nevertheless say: ‘Surely one little drink wouldn’t hurt you?’

Eleven years of alcohol-free life. Free of alcohol in the sense that, for 4,000 days, not a drop of alcohol has been taken, but unfree in the sense that the desire for a glass of wine or a pint of Uncle Arthur persists. The desire, but not the need.

I have eliminated the actual need for a drink, even though the craving remains. Why?

In my case, I didn’t drink in order to get drunk. To relax, yes; to celebrate, yes; to commiserate, yes. But it was, and is, the taste of wine or Guinness that excites. And, like love and work, the more one experiences, the more one wants.

I have never been able to live a moderate life. I drank heavily, I worked all the hours there were, and I loved incontinently. If I had wanted to be moderate, I would have become an actuary, joined a golf club, married the girl next door, lived in a des-res in Foxrock and collected stamps.


Every aspect of my life has been immoderate. Writing a book is immoderate: from inception to publication, it’s no holds barred, leaving almost no room for other commitments. So is love. To enter into a challenging and stimulating relationship is an intoxication. You don’t hold back.

For immoderate me, “www” meant work, wine and women. Now, it means just work. The massive haemorrhage that brought liver failure meant that, along with the wine intake, my sperm count plummeted to zero. The upside of this is that I can enjoy deep friendships with beautiful women in which lust has no place. If bed is not a destination, there’s no point buying a ticket.

The downside is boredom: the sheer terror of empty days means that the only way to stave off boredom is work. So at the age of 74 (and counting), I work a 12-14 hour day, because the alternative would be drink.

I was drinking myself to death, and nearly got there. Eleven years ago, undetected cirrhosis of the liver precipitated a haemorrhage, with the result that today, if I took a drink, death would be the result. My immoderate drinking had brought me to this condition.

I was told by a Greek doctor: “If you drink, your life expectancy is between one day and six months – you choose.” It was the best advice I ever got, because it was a gun to the head. He meant that another haemorrhage could be instantly fatal; or my cirrhosis would turn to cancer and I would be dead in six months.

I am still amazed by the imbecility of people who know about my condition but nevertheless say – no doubt with the best will in the world – “Surely one little drink wouldn’t hurt you?”

In this paper, the anonymous author of the series I am Not an Alcoholic said in January 2023: “Not to take a drink requires a discipline I would compare to the training of Olympian athletes.” She also said recently (January 2024) that she was able to hide her dependency on alcohol. To adapt the current cliche, for 45 years I was “openly drunk”. In fact, very few people ever saw me sober.

‘Alcoholic’ is a label, and it’s offensive. I don’t accept it any more than I accept the label ‘workaholic’. Like other forms of addiction, it deserves a more inclusive term

There are so many times when a drink seems to be not merely necessary, but the only answer. The day my granddaughter was stillborn, or the day my closest friend told me his cancer was terminal, were times when the urge to drink was almost inescapable.

But not quite.

There’s the often illogical will to live, but mostly the obstinacy and determination not to give in. Sheer bloody willpower.

The “one day at a time” trick doesn’t work for me.

It’s “never again”.

The first doctor I spoke to in Ireland looked at my file and said: “You’re an alcoholic!” If she had added, “and you also have leprosy” her disgust and distaste couldn’t have been more obvious. She advised me to attend AA meetings or some other form of counselling. What a laugh. Like Groucho Marx, I refuse to join any AA group that would have me as a member. An AA meeting would probably drive me to drink. I would rather play golf. Or listen to Ryan Tubridy. Well, perhaps not.

“Alcoholic” is a label, and it’s offensive. I don’t accept it any more than I accept the label “workaholic”. Like other forms of addiction, it deserves a more inclusive term. Dipsomaniac, perhaps. Two good Greek words. To which we could add “dipsofilia” (someone who loves drink), which is where I would place myself on the spectrum. At the immoderate end.

My daughter Emilie wrote a best-seller (Notes to Self) which began with an essay featuring yours truly, supposedly on my deathbed in a Greek hospital. The publishers chose the following as a blurb for the book: “The person who loves the addict exhausts and renews their love on a daily basis.” That book brought home to me what I had not, in drunkenness, ever realised: the pain, discomfort, embarrassment and disappointment one causes to family and friends, and the love that nevertheless endures.

Many years ago an elderly friend said: “I’m not an alcoholic – I’m an old soak.” That’s the way I saw myself, too. After I stopped drinking, it was two whole years before I started craving substitutes. A doctor explained that, while my bloodstream was technically “sober”, the tissues of my body were still soaked in alcohol, and it had taken this time for the fabric to demand a refit.

I am often asked if my ability to work has changed as a result of being sober. The answer is quite definitely: no. There is no discernible difference between “before” and “after”. Since 2013, I have written seven books, and none of them seems any better, or worse, than their 13 predecessors.

I’m fortunate in living in Greece, where we have a “cafe culture” rather than a “pub culture”. It’s quite normal for a group at a cafe to enjoy ouzo, beer, wine, coffee and soft drinks. No one comments. When I go into an Irish pub and order a coffee or a Coca-Cola, the barman will look at me askance, with pitying eyes, as if I am denying what a pub is for.

Apart from the appalling cost of existence in Ireland, it’s a reason for living where I do.

  • Richard Pine lives in Corfu, Greece, where he is director of the Durrell Library and writes Letter from Greece for The Irish Times