The eyes in the bathroom mirror were laced with red, and he wasn't quite sure whether there were three of them or four -- but he had a sinking feeling that they were all his. He touched a hand to his brow, and it felt like someone else's hand touching someone else's head. But it must be his. Certainly the throbbing was his.
"Ouza," he muttered thickly. "I should not drink ouzo." He turned slowly to the door. With a little bit of luck, he might make it back to bed.
The night before, he had participated in the ancient ritual of rinsing the old year away with a flood of alcohol. In the morning it was time for a ritual only a few hours less ancient: the Great American Hangover.
Like millions of other Americans on the first day of the year, he made a solemn pledge: "Never again."
All the good resolutions in the world may do something for one'e future, but they cannot erase the effect of misdeeds that hang over the head. Only the liver can do that -- with a little help from the kidneys, skin and lungs (which get rid of alcohol by putting it on the breath).
But 98 percent of the job is done by the liver, breaking down about seven grams of pure alcohol per hour (roughly one-fourth of an ounce.) Keep track of the intake and you can tell roughly how long the headache, nausea, extreme fatigue and/or feeling of dehydration will last. Of course, some livers are more efficient than others -- or they've had more practice.
Hangovers have a folklore almost as rich and varied as the other basic human processes -- birth, marriage and death. The most drastic of all prevention systems was suggested by a Washington bartender: "The cause of hangovers is not having enough to drink. If you drank enough, you'd still be drunk enough the next morning so you wouldn't feel it."
A similar system is used by a reporter: "Don't let it catch up with you -- start the morning off with a drink." Needless to say, these solutions are frowned upon by experts on alcohol abuse, who point out that drinking your way out of a hangover is the beginning of alcoholism.
Along with the folklore, personal theories persist in the face of medical fact:
"I can drink as much scotch as I want and have no problems," confides a secretary, "but just a little bit of gin will do me in." Others warn about the purported special dangers of wine or mixed drinks, or pouring hard liquor on top of beer or wine. But according to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information, alcohol is alcohol, and what matters is how much you drink how fast -- not how it's packaged.
"In most states," says an information officer at the National Clearinghouse, "you are legally drunk if you have an alcohol concentration of one-tenth of 1 percent in your blood.
"For a 160-lb. person that means that if you have three drinks per hour you will be drunk in about two hours. Limiting yourself to one drink per hour will keep you sober. That's within two hours of having a good meal. If it's been longer than that since you've eaten, you should drink less."
Aside from alcohol, most hangover victims desperately rely on a variety of fluids -- milk, cola, fruit juices and plain water among them -- to relieve the torture of dehydration. But others claim that fluid simply stirs up the dormant alcohol and starts you off on another spiral. A few hardy souls think that almost any liquid is helpful if it is liberally laced with Tabasco sauce or lemon juice, and some odd folks swear by raw oysters. There is no scientific support for any of this -- but if something makes you feel better, it makes you feel better.
One remedy that seems to work rather well is to take two aspirins (some say with a glass of tomato juice) before going to bed. But if you are able to administer this kind of medication, it may simply be that you weren't all that drunk to begin with.
Medically, a hangover can be considered as a case of low-grade poisoning -- or the withdrawal symptoms from a relatively short-range kind of addiction. Ask the experts about the dynamics of the hangover and there is a remarkable degree of unanimity between medical men and bartenders, though neither is very helpful.
"A hangover is the body's reaction to excessive drinking and the symptoms include nausea, gastritis, anxiety and headache," says a doctor. "Symptoms vary from case to case, but there is always extreme fatigue."
"Well, it's caused by drinking, specifically," says a bartenter. "The symptoms are very bad dehydration, red eyes, broken capillaaries, nausea and a general irritation with the world." In either case, the prescription is the same: Take a couple of aspirin and go back to bed to sleep it off.