Long live the hangover
In praise of the morning after the night before
ILLUSTRATIONS: Gus Scott
Sunday 14 February 2021
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“He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.”
So proclaimed Kingsley Amis in a posthumously published collection Everyday Drinking: the distilled Kingsley Amis. Anyone who has ever suffered the purgatory of a properly haunting hangover might disagree, but Amis knew a thing or two about hangovers. In a literary world not wanting for drunks, Amis was a legendary alcoholic, someone who, his literary and hedonistic acolyte Christopher Hitchens wrote in the introduction to Everyday Drinking, “the booze got to…in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm”.
Amis is not alone in writing about hangovers; the literature on getting drunk and suffering the consequences is long. It feeds into the mythology around great literary figures and the role that alcohol played in their writing prowess. Epigrammatic Dorothy Parker wrote “a hangover is the wrath of grapes.” Bridget Jones’ Diary author Helen Fielding described her cypher suffering in “a strange world of my own – nauseous, vile-headed, acidic.” And Amis himself claims the most famous literary hangover is suffered in Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis”, wherein the protagonist wakes up unexpectedly as a cockroach.
But just because writers love to drone on about the existential dread they have suffered at the hands of their misdeeds doesn’t mean it always makes for interesting reading. The retelling of baroque hangovers is of generally more interest to the teller than the listener, much like someone recalling their misadventures on hallucinogens on their holiday in Ibiza. I won’t, for example, bore you with the details of the morning I woke up in a rented flat on the Greek coast with a saucepan stuck to my face and scorch mark on my palm, frantically trying to piece together the puzzle of the night before. Instead I will defend - praise, even - the hangover as a positive experience, a necessary corrective that reminds us of our own mortality, encourages us however temporarily to commit to moderation, and an unlikely source of optimism in a sometimes fatalistic world. As Amis writes in his Everyday Drinking’s chapter on hangovers, they are “a shimmering metaphysical superstructure…a unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation.”
Hangovers physical and metaphysical
Now before I launch into a full-throated defence of the hangover, I have to admit to a certain bias. I am, like many, many people out there, a frequent victim of migraines. More regularly than I would like, I’m visited by occluded vision, nausea, immobilising headaches and an overwhelming sense of despair. And it is precisely because I have suffered migraines since puberty hit that I am now defending hangovers. Because if you think hangovers are the worst brain-led, full body torture your own body can inflict upon itself, then you’ve never had to suffer through the skull-splitting agony of a multi-day migraine. That’s not so say, however, that migraines and hangovers have nothing in common. They both wreak havoc on a person’s physical and metaphysical well-being. Just look at the symptoms: nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, sensitivity to smells, fatigue and irritability. Add in dehydration and a general feeling of existential dread and you could just as well be describing a shuddering hangover after a heavy night’s drinking.
Both migraines and hangovers have been around since the dawn of man, since the first hunter-gatherer in the Euphrates valley mixed grain and water and drank the bubbling result. 10th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who some think responsible for adding hops to beer, had visions of light in her eyes she attributed to God but which agnostic contemporary scientists think are more likely migraine-induced “auras”. And yet despite their longevity they are resistant to any kind of proper cure. Medieval doctors were not averse to boring a hole in the skull of a migraine sufferer - called trepanning - to alleviate their suffering (to little positive good). In the 1840s Italian Bernardino Branca created the eponymous Fernet Branca elixir, which remains a firm favourite with many regular hangover aficionados. Hemingway liked the ‘hair of the dog’. Amis himself had a recovery regimen to address hangovers physical and metaphysical. For the former he prescribed vigorous sex (but under no circumstances masturbation), drinking lots of water, sleep, shaving, showering (hot, not cold), and a bottle of Underburg, the bitter liquor that comes in minuscule brown bottles wrapped in paper.
Despite having been around since the dawn of man, migraines and hangovers are resistant to any kind of proper cure
His metaphysical hangover - something more likely to afflict drinkers as they age out of youthful durability - is best dealt with with literature (good but not great), and music (he recommends Tchaikovsky). When it comes to alleviating migraines, the remedies available are less cultured, and I’ve tried many of them. Beta blockers, neuro-inhibitors, serotonin enhancers, ibuprofen, and, if all else fails, crawling under a blanket in a dark room.
A uniquely personal purgatory - and one worth savouring
Hangovers and migraines are also united in their uniquely personal experience. What induces one in some one leaves another person bright eyed and ready to face the day. Some people can suffer hangovers for days, while a lucky few shake them off within hours. Migraines can be long or short, crippling or mercifully light. Some migraine sufferers, myself included, get advanced warning of their migraine from the arrival of an “aura” - a disturbance of vision that starts small in the corner of your vision and gradually expands in a vibrating, whirling pulse of electric light that waves and moves with the pointed shapes of a medieval fort. When it disappears, a crushing headache is on the way.
There is much overlap between the two conditions, and many times a clanging hangover has been known to trigger a migraine attack. But it’s that triggering where migraines and hangovers diverge, and which prompts me to eulogise the latter. Because, for all their cruelty, hangovers are at least predictable. In a chaotic world the randomness of which is dictated by the subatomic vibrations of invisible particles, the equation that explains a hangover is known and understood by every drinker: x number of input (alcohol) = x intensity (hours/days/weeks) of hangover.
A hangover is linear and Catholic, dripping with guilt and penance, underwritten by an acceptance that a sin must be punished before redemption is achieved. As journalist Matthew Neale writes in the Vice magazine article ‘Why We’re Obsessed with Hangovers’, “hangovers…provide a narrative opportunity for punishment, masochistic justice, and redemption, all rolled into one blurry scene. Life itself isn’t always so clean.” Artist Francis Bacon would carouse through 1960s swinging London into the small hours, only to rise early and paint for hours, saying his hangover gave him a “mind…crackling with energy.”
Migraines, on the other hand, hold out no such hope of catharsis or exuberant creative energy. They are neurological caprices, unpredictable in nature, unavoidable, and inescapable for the sufferer. There is no comforting causality on which to fall back on to blame your malaise. Migraine sufferers know well to watch out for potential triggers, but such is the manifest number of these that it’s impossible to be constantly vigilant. Migraines can be caused by the wrong food - for a time I thought mine were caused by salted peanuts so avoided them at all costs. Or a lack of sleep. Or too much sleep. Or sleep at the wrong time. They can be caused by the upset of routine - a missed meal, or eating too much. Hormones are another great trigger, which is why pre-menopausal women suffer fewer migraines than their younger selves. I was lucky enough, in the course of researching this article to fall victim to a migraine because I had gone for a cycle in the cold and had forgotten to eat enough, the one-two shock of frozen extremities and hypoglycaemia sending me faint and crumpled to bed for a day.
Writers don’t eulogise migraines like they do hangovers because there is no redemptive narrative, and for migraine sufferers it can be hard to explain to non-sufferers just what exactly it is that separates the head-splitting pain, the fatigue and general malaise of a migraine from a common-or-garden headache. Some sufferers - I’ve heard comedian Bill Hader talk about this - will tell you they feel a sense of elation when the migraine fog eventually clears, but I’ve never been lucky to experience this. Instead, as the mental blurriness finally fades, what I'm mostly left with is exhausted relief and several days of uncertainty as to whether or not I can continue to trust my cerebral cortex not to flame out again.
Where migraines are about individual dogged perseverance in the fate of cruel chance, hangovers on the other hand are, as Neale writes, an experience of “shared suffering that brings us together”. Hangovers are inherently optimistic; as bad as the last one was - and one Scottish man was once diagnosed with a four-week hangover - with time we manage to convince ourselves that it couldn’t have been that, and the next surely won’t be catastrophic either. Hangovers are a testament to the human spirit of blithe positivity; an acceptance by us that we are willing to pay a corporeal price so long as we can enjoy a bit of hedonism and debauchery, anything to extricate ourselves of the overwhelming, crushing reality of the modern world.
I don’t come here to praise hangovers, but to cherish them. We should clasp them tight to our chests and thank their existence as proof that there is a little gaiety left in the world, even if the result is we have to feel like an unexpected cockroach every once in a while.
As poet Dean Young wrote in his poem “Ode to Hangover” in 2006, the end of one hangover and the anticipation of the next is a moment to celebrate: “The war is over! Corks popping, people mashing people, knocking over melon stands, ripping millenniums of bodices. Hangover, rest now, you’ll have lots to do later inspiring abstemious philosophies and menial tasks that too contribute to the beauty of this world.”
Long live the hangover.
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