Drunk on life

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First appeared in Psychologies magazine.

Booze and Britain. For a long while, us Brits have been known for our love of alcohol as much as our love of sarcasm. When we celebrate a success, we head to the nearest bar. When we feel upset (with work, our families, the weather) we hit the pub. For centuries it seemed our way of handling life was to have a drink. Until recently, that is, when our attitudes to and behaviour around alcohol have noticeably begun to change.

Have you noticed how cutting down, or even quitting, has become something of a trend? Two million people entered Alcohol Concern’s Dry January campaign this year and a report report from the Office of National Statistics suggesting the average person consumes around 40% less alcohol than in 2004 (and one in five of us don’t drink at all). It’s not just binge drinking that’s under the spotlight either – more of us are also questioning the need for our nightly glass, as our definition of moderate drinking continues to shift. And yes, that now applies even to the one remaining alcoholic bastion of health – red wine – since new guidelines released by The Department of Health declared the benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply to women aged 55 and over (and at just five units, or two 175ml glasses, a week). Instead they issued more stringent guidelines, bringing the recommended male limit in line with women’s due to new links between alcohol, cancer and heart disease, alongside advice that we include at least 2-3 non alcohol days each week. It begs the question: how will we view alcohol in ten or twenty years? Will it be shunned like tobacco, saved for extreme stress or stolen treats?

Like me, many of my friends are more interested in the healing properties of kale (green juice, anyone?) than in the latest knockout cocktail. Even the celebs these days are more likely to be photographed falling out of a yoga pose than a nightclub, with the likes of Tyra Banks, Kim Catrall and Jennifer Lopez all speaking up about their decision to avoid alcohol.

When I stopped drinking almost five years ago, I remember cowering in the pub, pretending my lime and soda was a Gin n’ Tonic for fear of being teased, goaded or even shamed by boozer friends into ordering a ‘real’ drink. Yet nowadays there are at least a couple of non drinkers at every group occasion I attend. People seem happy to meet after work for a brew rather than a beer, keen to avoid hangovers so they can perform better the following day at work. Then there’s our fitness regimes to consider. Like me, many of my friends are more interested in the healing properties of kale (green juice, anyone?) than in the latest knockout cocktail. Even the celebs these days are more likely to be photographed falling out of a yoga pose than a nightclub, with the likes of Tyra Banks, Kim Catrall and Jennifer Lopez all speaking up about their decision to avoid alcohol.

For me making the decision to live a sober life wasn’t a matter of trend or aesthetics. Nor was it an urgent physical health issue – despite drinking a bottle of wine a night, my liver test came back clear, my fitness levels remained high and I was still a healthy weight. To many of my friends and family too my boozing seemed fairly normal; I was in my late 20s and drinking had been an integral part of my upbringing and the world I worked and socialised in. Yes I got drunk at every wedding, party and on most Friday or Saturday nights, but since I gravitated towards those with similar habits, this seemed nothing untoward – often a laughing matter in fact.

Though I didn’t always realise it at the time, I used alcohol to dull difficult feelings – to shut out my anxiety and self consciousness in a crowd – and help me to quieten negative thought loops in my head.

Yet late, hedonistic nights out wiped out the entire next day; I regularly cancelled work and social engagements because of monumental, unexpected hangovers, not to mention the accompanying depression. Things continued to escalate, until it wasn’t one nightly glass but two, and then an entire bottle every night – more if I went out to meet heavy drinking friends. My body felt ragged and my mood became increasingly erratic. What seemed sustainable to the outside world was becoming unbearable for me. Though I didn’t always realise it at the time, I used alcohol to dull difficult feelings – to shut out my anxiety and self consciousness in a crowd – and help me to quieten negative thought loops in my head. Every morning I’d wake up feeling drained and groggy and promise myself that tonight I wouldn’t drink, and yet by 7pm after a hard day’s work and a trip to the gym I’d reward myself with a visit to the wine shop, promising that tomorrow… Tomorrow was the day I’d stop.

And stop I did – once for a whole five weeks. But for me these periods of enforced teetotalism only seemed to enhance the issue; they became part and parcel of a mental obsession around alcohol; I counted the days that I abstained, and when I restarted, I always binged, ending up locked in a demoralising cycle of determination and defeat that rendered my relationship with alcohol evermore unhealthy. My partner on the other hand could take or leave booze, would often leave a half glass unfinished and couldn’t tell you how many days it was since her last drink because she genuinely hadn’t noticed. Should it really be this hard, I wondered? Are there other people out there who are struggling in the same way?

By twenty eight I began to wonder if I had a problem and by twenty nine I was sure I did. Every month, it seemed, my standards slipped. I had already done things (like drink and drive, or drink alone in secret) that I promised myself I’d never do. Ironically, the drinking habit that had begun socially as a teenager was now causing me to isolate. It began to affect other areas of my life – finances, friendships, work, my relationship, and of course my mental health.

Eventually, two months off thirty, I gave up drinking for good. It wasn’t easy but I sought professional help and began the process of getting sober. The first step was to admit I had no power whatsoever over alcohol, and that my life (if I drank) had become unmanageable. After that, I had to connect with others who were going through similar experiences and develop a support network of non drinkers whom I could share feelings with an call on when cravings hit.

The initial benefits were incredible. After 2-3 weeks my energy increased and after 2-3 months I felt my mind more focussed and my metabolism more efficient, chewing through food far quicker than before. After the first year of sobriety, the cravings reduced and by the end of the second year were very uncommon. But in some ways that was just the beginning: now, without the actual alcohol to worry about, I began to tackle the emotional symptoms – sadness, frustration, lack of self acceptance and a desire to just let go – that had caused me to first seek refuge at the bottom of a bottle.

It was here that I really began to grow, as I started to be curious about these feelings and look for coping strategies that didn’t involve alcohol. Some days were tumultuous, and I had to sit tight and trust that it would pass, but slowly I began to feel a freedom I never had – the liberation of not needing a substance to determine my moods. Interestingly, it’s not just those who take on more than the recommended weekly intake that can experience these kind of benefits. Six months ago my 40-year-old sister, who drank just one glass of wine most nights, also kicked the habit. I’ll confess I was surprised – to me she seemed abstemious, never out-of-control drunk and usually content with just one glass. Yet she insisted that she still felt bound to the bottle, willing the children to go to bed each night so that she could relax with a warming glass of red. Having stopped, she said, her health and sense of wellbeing have improved more dramatically – more than she’d expected given how little she actually drank. These days she’s sleeping better, wakes up with a clear head and has more sustained energy levels. She’s able to be more present with her children and feels more emotionally in tune with herself. She’s pretty sure, she says, that she won’t ever go back, just as I’m hopeful I won’t either.

– By Lucy Fry

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