Guyon Espiner stopped drinking after one too many hangovers. Now he’s on a mission: to find out why he drank so much, for so long, and why others do too.
He’s grown a lockdown ponytail. That’s the first noticeable difference about Guyon Espiner, the usually clean-cut broadcaster, when he logs on for our Zoom chat. “People will barely recognise me,” he laughs, leaning forward to show off his greying top knot. “It’s been a long time,” he says, about being stuck in his Mt Eden home in Tāmaki Makaurau. “What are we, day 84?”
A mini man bun isn’t the only change Espiner’s made lately. Two years ago, the veteran journalist — his face familiar from various stints on TV news shows, his voice recognisable from RNZ airtime — quit drinking after one too many hangovers.
He was, he says, a normal Kiwi drinker. By that, Espiner means he drank heavily, and often.
“I never drank in the morning. I never showed up to work drunk. I never did any of that cliched stuff,” he says. Like most, he drank, mostly, socially. “I was a fairly typical, heavy, binge-drinking dude … if you wrote down how much alcohol [I] drank it wouldn’t be that impressive.”
The signs, though, were there. Espiner estimates he would, every four to six weeks, drink to the point he couldn’t remember anything. “That ‘off’ switch, I couldn’t find it,” he says. He tried everything, including sticking to low-alcohol beer, and downloading an app that told him how much he was drinking.
Still, the blackouts happened. “None of it worked.”
Looking back, he wonders why no one said anything to him. Espiner believes it’s an issue with Aotearoa’s drinking culture. “It’s still a bit of a taboo subject,” he says. “One of the rudest things you can ask someone in New Zealand is: ‘How much do you drink?’ or say, ‘Hey you drank a bit too much last night — what’s going on?”
Across 35 years of heavy drinking, no one ever asked Espiner those questions. “And they had plenty of opportunities to.”
So, in mid-2019, he asked it himself. Espiner decided he’d had enough. Nearing 50, recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he woke up with yet another hangover and chose to quit, on the spot. “I knew that morning I wouldn’t drink again,” he says. He’s stuck to that promise for two years, and won’t even touch alcohol-free imitation drinks.
Now, he gets asked something else: “Why aren’t you drinking?”
It’s that question that inspired Espiner to dig a little deeper. In Proof, his new documentary made as part of his role as an investigative journalist at Radio NZ, he tries to find out why he drank so much, for so long, without questioning any of his problematic habits.
To do that, he uses his own personal journey — including swapping embarrassing blackout incidents with fellow teetotaller, the comedian Rhys Mathewson — in an attempt to find out why alcohol plays such a big part in our lives.
What he finds is shocking. In South Auckland, Espiner discovers six bottle stores all within walking distance of each other. He finds others open near schools, often operating from 9am to 11pm, with kids walking past every day. He talks to those who’ve had issues, those who’ve suffered because of others who’ve had issues, and, all the while, opens up about his own battle with the bottle.
It’s fair to say Espiner has replaced booze with his new obsession: the alcohol industry. His documentary, made with camera operator and editor Claire Eastham-Farrelly, spends plenty of time with Robert Brewer, an industry lobbyist. Across a tense interview, the pair exchange stern words, backwards glances and debate just how normalised alcohol has become in this country.
Advertising is everywhere you look. “The branding, the marketing, the sports teams, the availability: The cumulative effect of all that is you utterly normalise it in any situation,” Espiner says. For proof, Espiner only had to glance out of his RNZ office to see a giant billboard promoting Jack Daniels. “It is everywhere around you,” he says. “It’s a part of every occasion. That’s why it makes it really hard when you stop drinking.”
Quitting, Espiner admits, is hard. He should know. For most of his life, his social life revolved around alcohol. Suddenly, that crutch wasn’t there, and he had to find another way to relate to people. It led to some awkward moments with friends and family. “People get really aggressive if you’re not drinking,” he says. “Some people get really upset about it, like it’s an affront to what they’re doing.” He found people took it personally. “That’s frightening to me. You think, ‘Shit, was this all based on booze? Is that it?'”
But he’s been buoyed by the release of the documentary’s trailer, ahead of its launch on RNZ and TVNZ 1 on Monday night. Espiner’s been flooded with messages ever since, from people just like him, who’ve given up alcohol, and found a new lease on life. It’s a start, something he hopes sparks a conversation, and perhaps leads to a revolution.
“What I want is for us to have a culture where it’s super OK not to drink and … no one blinks if someone orders a Diet Coke,” he says. “That’s a cool option and it’s not going to affect your worth as a person. It would be nice to see a sea change like that.”
Proof screens on Monday at 9.30pm on TVNZ 1 and on RNZ’s website.