Jill Stark is a health writer for the Sunday Age. She was also a self-confessed binge drinker until a particularly brutal two-day hangover caused her to question her own unhealthy habits. On New Year’s Day in 2011, Stark awoke the same way most of us do on the first day of the year; with a skull-crushing headache and inescapable nausea. She realised something had to change. Despite fearing her seemingly impossible goal, she took inspiration from the popular Hello Sunday Morning website and pledged to take a break from drinking. Her experience was so life-changing she chronicled the journey in her debut book, Australian bestseller, High Sobriety: My year without booze.
Stark grew up in Scotland, a country known for its heavy drinking. She moved to Australia in her early twenties and felt immediately at home in yet another culture that worships the drink. Stark’s tone is honest, funny, and blunt. Despite her profile in the media she doesn’t shy away from recounting her own history with bingeing, starting when she was 13 in Scotland. She similarly holds a mirror up to our nation’s problematic drinking culture. “Australia’s default bonding ritual is drinking. We use it to celebrate, commiserate, and commemorate.”
Even with the support of her friends and family, she encounters negative reactions. As she says, “Nobody trusts a non-drinker.” Some people automatically assume she’s pregnant, others set out to test her sobriety by pouring her a drink, and after hearing about her goal, one friend suggests the title of her book should be “My year without mates.” All of these incidents are harmless in comparison to a cringe-worthy scene where Australian daytime television matron Kerri-Anne Kennerley publicly humiliates Stark by portraying her as an alcoholic “booze-hag” who drank over 15 drinks a day. All while filming live on the Kerri-Anne Show.
It’s a no-brainer to report that Stark experienced countless benefits from her year off grog. She had more time for exercise and found that she can have just as much fun at a music gig sober. But the biggest boon was time. No longer plagued by hangovers and no longer whiling the night away in a dark bar, she found the time for hobbies she had been putting off for years. She completed a 10km fun run. She took singing lessons. And she achieved her lifelong goal of writing a book.
Each chapter of High Sobriety details one month in Stark’s alcohol free journey and she explores a different issue relating to drinking. June is a particularly scary month. With the help of Professor Jon Currie, the head of addiction medicine at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, Stark explores brain toxicity and the damage she may have inflicted on her own brain through years of weekend binge drinking. Other months tackle drier topics like the strong links between sport and drinking or the insidious world of advertising and marketing in the alcohol industry.
No doubt owing to the importance of the subject matter and Stark’s journalist background, facts and figures relating to the dangers of alcohol abuse take up a large chunk of the book. At times they can make the story feel endless and boring, causing the reader to feel trapped inside an oversized newspaper article. The most interesting parts by far are Stark’s own personal revelations and achievements.
If you’re toying with the idea of Dry July or OcSober, reading High Sobriety will convince you to take the plunge into an alcohol free life, at least for a little while…