I recently had occasion to read Charles McCabe’s brilliant The Good Man’s Weakness, an authoritative treatment of the many aspects of a single topic: alcohol, which another noted authority, Homer J. Simpson, called “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” It concludes with a section on hangovers which inspired me to set down all I’ve learned on the subject in my years of study, in the hopes it may be of use to some of you young people out there in Cyberville.
Handled properly, a hangover need not be terribly unpleasant, and can even be somewhat enjoyable. Ideally, hangover management begins the night before. There are several things you can do when drinking heavily to minimize the next day’s suffering, though most of the time you’re not going to do them, because the whole point of boozing is to forget about things like being prudent and planning ahead. Still, I’m going to list them here, just so I can say I didn’t leave anything out:
1) Pick your spots. This may be obvious, but try to do your drinking when you know you’ll be able to sleep in the next morning. Sleep is your friend.
2) Don’t mix your drinks. Combining different forms of alcohol, especially different hard liquors, exponentially increases the severity of a hangover.
3) Hydrate. Whatever you’re drinking, drink water with it. The last thing you should do before succumbing to unconsciousness is drink as much water as you can tolerate.
One controversial aspect of night-before behavior that needs to be mentioned is that of, well, vomiting. Puking, heaving, worshiping the porcelain god, whatever you want to call it. There is no question that throwing up lessens a hangover somewhat by reducing the amount of alcohol in your system. On the other hand, it is messy and undignified and leaves a sour taste in your mouth that will make you feel that much worse in the morning (unless you have the fortitude to brush your teeth after, which if you do, bully for you). The only good answer to this quandary is: Be smart, know your limits, and don’t drink in a way that’s going to make you want to hurl. This is a learning process, part of growing up, and I’m glad to say that my puking days are many years in the past.
OK, so on to the morning. After sleeping as long as you can, your first order of business should be to rehydrate. Drink water, drink juice, drink whatever you can get down your throat. Coffee should be approached with caution, because it tends to dry you out; Coca-Cola is a good substitute, providing caffeine along with a nice little sugar boost. If you’re the type of person who simply can’t face waking without coffee, be sure you have water with it.
The next priority will be food, but there’s no need to be in a hurry about it. Take your time. Every passing minute brings you closer to that glorious hour when you will be restored to full health. Walk, if possible, to a conveniently located cafe or diner, preferably in the company of others who are in a similar condition. Don’t forget your sunglasses.
Different people have different tastes in hangover food. Some like it greasy, some like it spicy; some prefer simple pancakes and bacon, while others have developed elaborate concoctions that require long conversations with waitresses. The key thing, really, is to eat a lot. Fill up the hole that the booze has created. Your body will tell you what it wants, so listen to it, and don’t be afraid to go a little overboard.
Some people favor a Bloody Mary, mimosa, or other morning libation for the “hair of the dog” effect. I personally have never been able to stomach morning drinking of any kind, but I’m told that it can be helpful. This is a matter of personal constitution and inclination.
As you refuel, will begin to know what kind of hangover you’re dealing with. If the food and/or drink boosts your spirits, you will know that you are on your way to recovery. It will be possible to enjoy the day and maybe even be productive, should that be your wish. If not, you may be in for one of those days where all you can do is try to survive until evening. In any case, try to think about the good times of the previous night, if you can remember them. If not, make something up. Think of your hangover as a battle scar, the well-earned result of heroic deeds. This gives your suffering nobility, and that’s half the battle right there.
Discussion question: Is there such a thing as a good hangover? Let me quote at length the words of Mr. McCabe himself, from the aforementioned volume (now out of print):
I had a rather good hangover last week. By this I do not wish to convey that there is any virtue in a hangover, good or bad. I’m sure you’re better off if you do not use the drug called alcohol; but its after-effects can, sometimes, be useful, or thought of as useful.
I woke up late in a San Francisco hotel room, where I was staying over the holidays, and felt more than usually crapulent. I had to do my writing stint that day, and I did it; but I realized that the holidays had gotten to me.
I felt depressed. The thought of food repelled me. When this latter happens, I know I am in a poor way.
The phone rang. A woman friend said, “I’m bored to death with all this merriment and good will stuff. Will you feed me?” I never say no to this lady unless it is impossible to say yes.
I met her in the hotel bar. I was fighting the mirror and trying to get down a bottle of Carlsberg. Not much good. She ordered a martini, and I joined her. Not much good. I felt as though I was watching proceedings through a plate-glass window.
“You see before you,” I said, “a man who is not well.” I had been out with various attractive Italians, and another Irishman, the night before. The occasion was bibulous.
“It always gets better,” my friend said.
And she added, “You know, people don’t know anything about drinking. They don’t know the beauty of getting over it, when you progress from a zombie back to a person, and can notice each small change in you. It’s like being reborn.”
These words I knew to be true. The metamorphosis had happened to me many times before.
And we gossiped about friends, and talked about books, and soon toddled off to an old-fashioned place around the corner for lunch.
This was the toughest part of all. I knew I had to eat, but could not imagine anything resting on my insides. I chose the blandest thing on the menu, lasagna, and prayed, if I ate slowly, it would stick to my ribs.
We had another martini, and some rather rough red wine. Eating was slow and not easy, but the world was coming back into place. I looked around the room and saw several people I knew, and remembered I liked them.
Meanwhile, a sense that could almost be called well-being was welling up within me. I felt grateful for the person I was with, because she knew exactly how I felt, and handled me like a delicate bijou.
“The way I remember it best,” she said, “was with these dances I went to as a girl, and we all drank far too much, and spent the next day on our backs at the beach, drinking things like Planter’s Punches. The whole procedure was slightly like a resurrection.”
The lasagna got down, and the wine too. We each had some errands to do downtown, and joined in doing them. We looked at Gump’s, and the other stores on that street, and went into Tiffany’s and Newbegin’s to buy an article or two.
Things were now much better. At the lady’s invitation, we went to her flat, where I had some scotch and water, my usual tipple. The lady found some holiday Tanninger with the bubbles still in it.
Now, in the comfort of a big armchair, I knew the pleasure of revival. You were the more grateful for life, since you had been away from it.
I got on a slight talking jag, and began yakking about my childhood, a thing unusual in me. Everything had become beautiful, in a quite intense way—the sun on the carpet, the paintings on the wall, the young people who wandered in and out of the room. I was on some sort of good trip.
We had a couple more. The euphoria, for me, was complete. The lady’s husband arrived, and I had one for the road. I got to my feet, gave thanks all around, which were strongly felt, and left with a grateful feeling that still, for whatever ailed me, there seemed a cure. And that re-birth was a blessed thing.
I have always loved this essay of McCabe’s: I wish he had written the column about the next day’s hangover. I’m sure it was a beaut.
From a recent experience, a corollary to “don’t mix your drinks”: in the modern craft beer world, you need to be careful about mixing a variety of high ABV, barrel aged beers. But pork products, hydrating, hair of the dog and some medical grade cannabis will lessen the impact.