Elephant in the room? Yes, my drinking problem…

I remember going to a therapist in the late 80s to explore my relationship problems. I was going through lots of anxiety with my partner at the time, worrying about everything, feeling jumpy and insecure. I was fully prepared to be asked about my relationship with significant others, particularly my mother, who had always had and would continue to have a domineering presence in my life, full of drunken resentment toward me – a resentment she was unwilling to talk about when sober, and nothing whatever to with her drinking problem – which she didn’t have anyway, as far as she was concerned. 

in therapy

I let the therapist know how much alcohol influenced my mother’s aggression toward me, and he suggested I refuse to see her if she drank when I was with her. As that meant I wouldn’t be able to drink alcohol in her company, I didn’t think I would be able to go though with it.  I needed a drink when I saw my mother and there was no way I was going to remain sober, whether she was drinking or not, and besides I knew she wouldn’t accept such terms anyway.

As far as I was concerned no problem of mine was so great that I needed stop drinking for it. I got through life’s problems with the help of alcohol, and I wasn’t going to change for anyone or anything. 

I didn’t return to the therapist after that, because I didn’t want him to focus his attention on my possible drink problem, which, like my mother, I didn’t have anyway. 

My mother’s aggressive drinking lasted 25 years, but I always drank with her whenever I saw her. We always argued. In the midst of this 25 year term, my sister died from mental health issues, and still the drink went unchecked.

Alcohol was the proverbial elephant in the room. Neither of us thought we had a drinking problem ourselves although we probably both thought the other needed to cut down. Most importantly, neither of us wanted to lose our best crutch. So we kept drinking.

When I eventually quit at the end of 2013, 8 years after my mother’s abstention, I did so without any real turmoil. I was able to because I was ready. What a difference that makes.

More about my drinking problem, and my journey to freedom can be found in my drinking memoir

New discovery in sobriety!

Something clicked a couple of years ago. It was the realisation that nothing in my life (other than the people I love) is more important to me than my recovery from alcohol. Everything I now do in sobriety is far less important than this discovery, and I shouldn’t therefore let anything interfere with my appreciation of it.

Why is this so important? It is because alcohol, amongst many other things, has taken me down the wrong path all my life. And such a long path of wrong turns and discomfort that has been. I am not going to take any more wrong paths again. And if that means staying exactly where I am, in sobriety, then so be it!

For more about this journey to sobriety, have a look at my drinking memoir

Does quitting make you an alcoholic?

Five years ago I quit drinking.  It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and certainly the thing that’s given me the most amount of prolonged happiness. But it came about almost spontaneously, a spur of the moment action after very little preparation, leaving me at a loss to know what it said about my relationship with alcohol, specifically, why I had been so devoted to and dependent on it for decades and yet so sure that I wanted to stop when I finally did. It wasn’t as though I had done something terrible, like drive into a pedestrian while drunk, to make me see that I had to stop. It’s true, I was picking arguments with my partner, to my drunken shame, but nothing that made it imperative that I quit the drink. Most heavy drinkers one hears about who stop suddenly, turn out to be alcoholic. It’s a strange thing where alcohol is concerned, that the status of addict is so unremittingly rubber-stamped by the act of quitting.

am I an alcoholic?

I started to wonder if I might be an alcoholic, or was it that I was just a heavy drinker who had come to his senses? Increasingly I found this question really mattered to me for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I needed to be able to explain to people why I had quit altogether. But I really didn’t have an explanation. I was drawn towards the clarity of the label “functioning alcoholic” which seemed all-embracing and extremely clear, but the term alcoholic is pretty extreme and not to be used lightly, I figured. Besides, I hadn’t done any of the things that Alcoholics Anonymous insisted I must do to be considered one of them, like hitting rock bottom, or admitting that my life had become unmanageable, and being powerless over alcohol. It simply wasn’t true, and saying it to people or trying to convince myself of its veracity seemed like a terrible lie. What compounded this problem of identity was the fact I had quit drinking without any intervening help, a fact that surely undermined the possibility that I might be an alcoholic. Despite this, I started attending AA meetings as a way of trying to understand my condition, whatever that was, and seek comfort in others who had resolved to stop drinking, like me. It worked, but my existential dilemma wasn’t fixed as I continued to feel at best like a voyeur and at worst like an impostor. However I struggled on with my weekly AA meetings because of the shared joy in sobriety and because of its clearly stated policy that the only requirement for attending meetings was the desire to stop drinking. And I knew for sure I had that desire, even if I don’t know why.

The fact is I had drunk enough booze between the age of 14 and 49 to know I might potentially have a problem, but none of the health warnings about liver and heart disease or the possibility of sliding towards physical dependency on alcohol, had much effect on my drinking. When I quit, I did so in spite of these warnings, not because of them; I did so with little fuss and no outside intervention – very much on my own inspiration.

It made me wonder why it was that  over the years, the literature and advice were so ineffective in controlling my behaviour. None of it seemed to do anything at all to put me off drinking. I could even go as far as to say the advice was counter-productive, encouraging me to dismiss the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations as nanny England maternalism, gone mad.

The fact is that up until the moment I quit, I had always loved drinking. Alcohol had accompanied almost every significant teenage and adult event in my life. Occasionally it had made me do things I regretted, but that was never alcohol’s fault, only my own. I felt able to learn from my mistakes and to treat alcohol with respect. And like any human, I was more than capable of failure at times. All my friends drank, some as heavily as me, others not so much, but nobody ever said to my face that I drank too much.

Furthermore, there was never any question of choice where alcohol was concerned. I always wanted it, and at times, for instance when my mother’s heavy drinking became a problem, I could and should have supported her by not drinking, myself. Instead I drank even more than her and made life worse for us both. The fact is, I would have done anything for my mum, except not drink.

Giving up so easily made me question why drinking had been such an obsession all those years. What was it that had changed within me to make it possible to simply quit, to not want a drink anymore? It didn’t make sense. If I was addicted, then why was I able to quit so easily, and if I wasn’t addicted, why had I carried on drinking at times when I knew from experience how alcohol could mess with my life?

Having spent the last three years thinking about this problem, and writing a book about it: “Not Alcoholic, But…” I have concluded that for the majority of us, the most important thing to understand about drinking is our own personal relationship with alcohol. This means looking at wider things than merely how many units we might drink. We need to look at our levels of desire for alcohol when it’s unexpectedly not available, and our level or restraint needed to stay off the drink when it’s wise to do so. It’s not enough to congratulate ourselves for staying sober in order to look after the children, we need to measure how much restraint it took to stay away from the wine bottle. Desire and restraint are as important yardsticks as units consumed.

Alcoholism, we are told, is a progressive disease, and those who suffer it will eventually lose their grip altogether and will sink to the bottom, where if they are lucky, organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous may scoop them up – just so long as they are willing to admit to themselves that their lives have become unmanageable and that they are powerless over alcohol.

At the other end of the drinking spectrum are the really lucky ones who never face any anxiety around alcohol. They are just as happy going to the cinema on a Saturday night, drinking coke and eating pop corn as they are going to the pub for a few drinks and to watch the match. If they have to stay off the booze for any reason, that too is fine for them.

In-between these two extremes comes the rest of us – able to exert self-control most of the time, but always with a struggle. From time to time I would drink to black-out (the point when memory-loss kicks in) but I consoled myself with the fact that it wasn’t every time. I drank on my own and in secret, but usually only when I knew it was safe to do so. Before my drinking became more habitual, I would confine my drinking to set occasions, relishing each opportunity when it came around. In-between, I tolerated life. And that was fine, as long as I could let my hair down on the set occasions.

Unfortunately, the successful self-control of heavy drinkers disguises the underlying problems they may have in their relationship with alcohol.  What further disguises their problem is the apparent ease with which they get through sober occasions? They will profess to even quite like some of these.  In their hearts, however, they would swap the whole lot for a good drink-up down the pub, or at the match, or on the plane to a boozy holiday destination.

It wasn’t the realisation of all this that motivated me to quit. That realisation came later. What motivated me to stop drinking emerged from a peculiar set of circumstances that made me question what I was still getting from alcohol that I hadn’t experienced  thousands of times already. I was planning a much needed dry January and suddenly remembered that I was already committed to my own boozy 50th birthday celebration in the middle of it, and was trying to work out how I could work the whole thing. Eventually I mused at how weird but wonderful it would be to not have to worry about such things, such as if I was a non-drinker. And that’s where the idea was born.

After I quit I wondered if there were any lessons I could share with heavy drinkers, and so Not Alcoholic, But… emerged.

What I advise in my book is to more or less ignore the health warnings, the tips for cutting down, the dry Januaries and the sober Octobers and all the alcohol questionnaires. Explore your own unique relationship with alcohol is my advice; in particular, your feelings when it’s suddenly not available. My book offers a measurement tool to help readers analyse their feelings when alcohol isn’t around.

I urge readers to go on and challenge their desire without necessarily trying to change it. If you are ready, it is quite possible you can make the change in an instant. But in order to give yourself a chance to evaluate this you need to get away from the assumption that alcohol must be protected at all costs, that your sense of control will keep you within the safe limits . You need to ask yourself, as you drink your wine, whisky or beer, have I done all this many times before, do I know what to expect, am I ready to search for something new?

If you are able to analyse your desire for alcohol dispassionately, you will give yourself the chance to make a change. Of course you may decide that you are not ready to quit, that the positive effects of alcohol far outshine the negative, and if that’s the case then your desire for alcohol is not going to alter. On the other hand, you may decide that you have done drinking to the max, that there is nothing you haven’t tried and that you are ready for something different. You may find yourself able to re-examine your interests away from the distraction of alcohol and get excited at the prospect of life without hang-overs, memory loss, big bar bills, arguments, excuses, stress.

Many will decide that complete abstention is a step too far and settle for a compromise solution. This can only mean one thing –  cutting down, perhaps starting with a dry month. That’s fine, I say,  but depending on your relationship with alcohol, I maintain that it’s very hard to stick to. Even if you are able to enjoy drinking within your imposed limits, one day – and it will happen – you will relax the rule and with it, your desire for sobriety. Once that has happened, you are back to square one.

I don’t miss alcohol one bit nowadays. I still enjoy the company of drinkers, especially around a dinner table when everyone is letting their hair down. I do too. But I don’t scan the room for the next bottle of wine, or worry that my glass is only half full. My drug is sobriety, and it comes in a glass of sparking water, giving me sharpness of thought and a sense of real control. I drive home with my partner to our home in south London, to bed with a good book and a clear head, and more than a smidgeon of smugness the next day.

My life is far more enjoyable without alcohol. Period. I never thought that would be possible. Maybe I was an alcoholic, maybe not. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I am a happier, more confident and content person, sober.

Check out my drinking memoir, Not Alcoholic, But…

Pub crawl versus coffee-bar crawl!

Why don’t you hear people talking about meeting for coffee at Starbucks, then moving on to Costa for a quick frappe before congregating with a bigger group of friends at Nero for the evening? You would be written off as a nutter if you invited all your friends to a tea shop crawl, but pub crawls are standard fair.

pub crawl or coffee crawl?

Over the years I have had scores and scores of pub crawl invitations that involved meeting at a named pub before moving on to a bigger drinking venue, and ending up at a party via a pre-planned visit to an off-license or mini-mart. Everything centred around alcohol and nobody questioned it.

I’m not sure that our 18-24s still plan like this. Alcohol is too expense for a pub crawl. The big brewers have shot themselves in the foot in their greed, and now young people are turned off pubs (save Wetherspoons, perhaps). Back in the 90s, pubs thought they could lure young adults with alco-pops as teens shunned the traditional beer swilling boozers. It failed.

I really hope it’s true that young people are less interested in drinking than my generation growing up. It’s in youth that the damage is done. For me, alcohol was a rite of passage; a mark of adulthood. It also made me fearless. If I did stupid things, it didn’t matter. I could put it down to the booze – although I never wanted to blame the drink in case it was taken away from me – I always took responsibility for my own drunkenness and consequently tried too hard to protect it.

You can read more about my drinking experiences in my drinking memoir

Beware the perils of self-control around alcohol

Self-control is a good thing. It’s something we grow up learning to exert in a variety of life’s testing situations from our appetites, moods and relationships, to our spending urges, study-time, work hours, and the whole area of our temperament.

It can, and very often does apply to alcohol too.

For those who are able to exert it around alcohol, that’s generally seen as a good thing. Ideally, it shouldn’t have to be employed too often. If it does, then that might indicate a dependency.

Self-Control

I mean, I love drinking coffee, but I don’t really need to exert self-control around it. One cup is enough. I might have up to three  cups in the course of the whole day, two of them decaffeinated. The same would apply to chocolate and ice cream.

But for many people (my former self included), alcohol presents a stronger pull than that. Self-control is needed every time it is consumed, which can have a profound effect on that person’s choices, with all the knock-on effects that that entails. 1. The display of self-control convinces all stakeholders (wrongly, perhaps) that alcoholism isn’t at play. 2. the burden of self-control takes away the unbridled joy of things 3. Self-control allows the individual to engage in drinking activities within set parameters, which is really just another way of saying alcohol controls what you do and when. 4. If alcohol is setting the benchmark of enjoyment, this makes it hard for the individual to compare other activities that don’t involve it. It messes with the settings. e.g. I used to love a country walk – but I would get anxious if my reward, a drink or two in a country pub didn’t follow. I therefore didn’t enjoy the walk for its own sake. Now, in sobriety, I know that the walk is its own reward.

 

I used to spend my sober time in an emotionally dormant state, waiting for the next alcohol-fuelled occasion. I put controls around my drinking to make sure I didn’t start too early or drink too much. Even if had things under control, alcohol was still ruling my life, including when I wasn’t drinking it. All my decisions were made around its availability or otherwise – the choice of holiday, the type of hobby, the pick of restaurant, the development of friendships and so on.

 

But why does any of that matter, especially if your life is a dull one? It matters because if you’ve been doing this ever since you first discovered the joys of booze, it’s just possible you have used it as the fuel to get you through all manner of social occasions as well as all the other ups and downs of life. In the process you may well have stopped learning about the things that are true to you – your real, actual likes and dislikes. It’s possible that your emotional development has been stunted – how can you be expected to know what personality types you are best suited to if you only ever chat to new people when you’re half-drunk? How much do you really know about yourself if you take a “drug” around all the people places and things that are shaping your personality – a personality you are then expected to recognise as you? It should be no surprise that your life is dull, if the only thing you know to enjoy is with the help of a drug.

I imagine readers of this piece nodding sagely as they sip their chilled Chardonnay.

However, I can almost guarantee they won’t be swapping that Chardonnay for sparkling water any time soon, not on the strength of this article anyway. That’s because, the prospect of kicking away a life-long crutch, one that is perceived to give real support, is unthinkable to most drinkers.

The fear of attending social functions without alcohol is too frightful to even contemplate. I mean, weddings! Are you serious? Reunions? Parties? Work-socials?

Unfortunately, to escape the clutches of alcohol, what you need is something that can’t be conjured out of thin air – and that something is desire; desire for something new; desire for sobriety. It’s only with this you can have any real chance of success. Forget self-control and blind determination. If you want to make that kind of change you have to have a positive desire for something new, not just an end to something you have got a bit bored of.

That’s why the rock-bottom route is usually seen as the only true path to sobriety. This says you have to drink yourself into the ground before your desire can shift – something that most will never actually do. So, they are doomed to a life of thwarted self-knowledge, lack of ambition and one-track enjoyment.

But if they were ever to reach a less extreme cross-roads than a rock-bottom, say, after a particularly heavy night or a terrible booze-fueled row, they might be encouraged to know that a choice exists. And it’s a relatively easy one once they get their head around it. For while it’s true that desire can’t be conjured out of thin air, it’s also true that once you have it, and are prepared to nurture it, desire is all you need. No new special skills are required. It’s not like learning to play the piano or speak German. Just desire – desire for a new journey, a new adventure, something utterly extraordinary, a change you’ll never regret making, and one that just might, like me, be the best thing you’ve ever done in your whole life.

More of this sort of thing can be found in my drinking memoir, Not Alcoholic, But…

Taken off guard by Christmas Drinking

Christmas drinking is in its own league – and it’s a very difficult phenomenon for many people. If it’s your first alcohol-free Christmas this year, you can and should expect to be thoroughly challenged, no matter how willing you have been at getting and staying sober.

Christmas drinking

I know this because Christmas 2014, my first in sobriety, took me completely off guard, when I was expecting things to be not-all-that-different from the previous 11 months, alcohol-free. To be honest I went into that first festive period a little complacent, thinking I had done all the preparation needed to confront all kinds of Christmas drinking. It was just a question of dealing with the increased exposure to other people’s drinking. So I thought. I had already got through the booziest music festival (Glastonbury) sober and been on holiday twice that year. I had quickly learnt to adjust my expectations of these things without the alcohol. So, how difficult could Christmas be, by comparison?

What I hadn’t factored was that holidays and festivals are full of distractions, and you are in control of what and when you want to do, all day long. Christmas is a little different. You have much less freedom of choice about what to do and when to do it, especially during the principal festive days. Prescribed rituals, plus the wishes of other people get in the way of this, causing frustration, claustrophobia, irritation and boredom – all massive triggers for drinking. But even if you are not actually tempted by Christmas drinking, you are still left with the negativity of those emotions, and that’s the bit you don’t expect to feel – not at Christmas.

I hadn’t thought this through back in 2014. At 11 O’Clock on Christmas morning, I would normally have been cracking open a bottle of something, even if I was the only one doing the Christmas drinking. That first drink was one of the best in the whole year, because I knew I would be helping myself to red wine, baileys, brandy, ginger-wine, gin & tonic – all those fireside drinks (even if it’s only a bar-heater you’re sat next to!) all day!

I had a secret stash too for emergencies, which I relied upon mainly so that I didn’t have to reveal the full extent of my drinking to my parents. The challenge was to stay in control but maintain an intoxication level that kept me happy. And because the festive period was so quiet for me, being with my elderly parents, neither of whom bothered with Christmas drinking, or at any other time of year for that matter, I found it much easier to self-regulate. The first sign of boredom, and I would have another drink, eat another chocolate and watch another dvd. All the family stuff was actually enjoyable too after a few drinks – chats with mum, phone calls to relatives, going out for Christmas day lunch, just the 3 of us. Alcohol got me though all of this, and I could honestly say I enjoyed the time of year quite a lot.

So, having spent 11 months sober, I just walked into Christmas 2014 without a moment’s pause to reflect.

And it took me by surprise. Christmas morning, I was awake at 6.30 as usual, feeling wide eyed and ready to get on with the day. But I was in my parents’ tiny flat, of course, and it would be some time before they were up and about. I could read, and send texts, but then I thought about our plans for the day. There were hardly any plans, and I began to feel a welling up of desperation inside me. I felt trapped.

I found that with a little planning, however, everything was fine. I thought of an activity, suggested it to my parents and got on with it. The day went faster than expected and by the end I flopped into bed with a sense of real achievement, having spent quality time with people I loved, doing things we all wanted to do together. I also managed to get out for a run. It was the most amazing run of my life, across the park in the frosty cold of Christmas day, feeling fantastic.

But at 6pm, when the evening session got under way and the Christmas telly was in full swing, I had another moment of mild panic. Christmas wasn’t the exciting event I thought it was. Without all the rituals reverberating around traditional Christmas drinking, it all boiled down to nothing more that a bigger Radio Times, more chocolate (ok, that’s quite good!) more sleep, and no work (yup, that’s pretty excellent too) but no actual excitement.

I hadn’t realised that Christmas just isn’t exciting if you’re 50 years old. Why should it be? But it is good in other ways, and so you have to work out what the ways are that you enjoy about it – a bit like life itself. Smaller roller coasters, fewer highs and lows. What you enjoy is for you and only you to determine. It’s your new adventure.

So, if you’re feeling trigger (not) happy this Christmas, and a bit low, try saying to yourself 3 things – what I call my 3-pronged mantra:

  • I’ve done it all before; alcohol has given me everything in its armoury and I have tried all of it many, many times.
  • If I drink again, the same things will happen – because they always do, whatever I say to myself. And even when bad things don’t happen, it’s all predictable stuff – nothing new.
  • I’m going on a new journey now – a really new uncharted adventure. And there’s no turning back

That new journey very much includes Christmas. It’s an amazing feeling to be in complete control over the festive period. Even if all those around you are falling apart with Christmas drinking, you are staying strong, staying calm, on your new path of self-discovery in which everything around you feels different and invigorating.  You are growing taller and stronger as you approach the new year ahead. Here’s to an amazing 2019. Whatever happens in the next year, NO ONE can take away your sobriety from you. And with sobriety, you can face the world stronger and happier than ever before.

More of this sort of thing can be found in my drinking memoir, Not Alcoholic, But…

The sober version of you. Is she out there?

Alcohol is a paradox. It’s a poison, as well as being its own cure. It was my best friend and my worst enemy. It made me feel invincible when I was at my most vulnerable. Now that I’m sober, I see how it deceived me.

alcohol – its own poison

Most baffling of all is why, after so many years of struggle over alcohol, I wanted to stop drinking at the flick of a switch?

It’s a paradox that has caused me angst for a long time. It has led me to question what sort of a problem I really had, if any. I mean, how, was I able to quit so suddenly. Perhaps I had been suffering from a weakness of will, one that I had suddenly, miraculously found. And if that was the case then might I not have been able to moderate my drinking instead of quitting? But I knew from experience that moderation couldn’t be sustained, because my intake had either gradually or suddenly risen, permanently. And surely, if I couldn’t moderate, then I must have a serious problem with alcohol.

Whatever was going on underneath the surface, the fact is, I drank for 36 years, during which time I had no desire to become sober. Life without alcohol was unthinkable. Then one day – and it was one day; in fact, it was one moment, one flash, I realised I no longer wanted to be me. I wanted to be someone completely different. More specifically, I wanted to be the version of me that didn’t like drinking alcohol; I could see him at his own 50th birthday party, in a pub with all his friends, and he wasn’t drinking wine or beer or spirits. He was sober, and drinking sparkling water, and having a great time, talking to people, laughing and joking, asking questions, getting other people drinks. I wanted to be him. And in that moment, everything changed. I realised that if I could nurture my desire to be him, I might just be able to re-invent myself. It suddenly seemed like a new adventure.

If you can find a way of falling in love with the version of you – the one who can do anything she likes, whenever she likes, then you will be one step nearer to the flip-switch that turns on and off the desire for alcohol.

That’s because learning to live without alcohol is a different proposition to loving a sober life. Many quitters take years of learning to live without alcohol before they ever see site of the on-off desire switch.

But it’s possible, I believe, to fast-track that process if you are able to work up a desire for sobriety. Oddly, you still have to learn to live without alcohol, but this will be a consequence of your action to embrace sobriety, not the cause of it. It will be an exciting and challenging new process – an adventure that you will look back on with great affection.

Now, for someone who isn’t alcohol-dependent, the business of moderating their intake of alcohol is a relatively simple business.

But for someone with a real problem around alcohol, all talk about moderation is a threat. Even if that person can be persuaded to look at their behaviour and moderate it, it’s a struggle; one that teeters on the brink of collapse whenever stress arises – as indeed it has a habit of doing.

I know from experience that alcohol groups are encouraged to look at ways they can moderate their behaviour in order to make any decision to cut down a bit easier. Such groups look at ways of minimising the risk of relapsing, staying away from people places and things that tempt them into drinking.

What they don’t address very effectively is desire for sobriety.

Here is a way to get started.

ONE. Think about every sip of alcohol you are taking. Ask yourself, what is this doing for you? What is the state of mind you are aiming for with this drink, and once it is finished, ask yourself what why you want another one that the first hasn’t delivered. Try to remember to do this each time you drink

TWO. Imagine your sober life – the one you would have had if you had never picked up that first drink. How would the sober version of you have dealt with all the crises that the drunk you got into. Imagine the sober version of yourself in a variety of circumstances – at parties, in arguments, at Christmas, on holiday. Think of the hobbies you once had before you started drinking and then imagine the sober version of you doing those hobbies into adulthood – creative/sporting/musical/drama/academic/political

THREE. 3-pronged mantra. Say to yourself: a. There is nothing I don’t know about alcohol and what it does for me and to me. I have tried and had every experience that alcohol can offer – many times over. b. When I drink, I know exactly where it will lead, because it always does. c.  I am going on a new adventure with new experiences, ones in which I will find out new things about myself – what I enjoy doing and what I find boring. This is my new world in which my new drug of choice will be sparkling water (other soft drinks are available!), keeping me sharp and focused.

Good Luck!

More of this sort of thinking is to be found in my drinking memoir, Not Alcoholic, But…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01M67O736

Quit alcohol and you’ll solve all your problems?…

When I quit alcohol back in 2013, I believed that all my many character faults, in particular, mood swings, anger bursts and irrational irritations – character faults that I was quick to attribute to my newly lost alcohol dependency – would melt away to reveal a calm, content version of the old cantankerous me.

cross face

It was therefore with some disappointment that I discovered one morning on my way, ironically, to an AA meeting that my levels of irrational irritation were sky high. Fellow pedestrians seemed to have the audacity to walk straight into me without looking where they were going; narrow streets would suddenly fill with people all wanting to use my space at precisely the same time.

Looking all around me in a seething, barley disguised rage, I observed the clearness of the path everywhere else, except the immediate area around me, and found myself baffled at how sod’s law had once again contrived to put a pedestrian right in my way.

The same incendiary rage could, and still does, occasionally, blow up in some other predictable places. Losing objects, like keys, is guaranteed to bring it on, or putting them in the wrong pocket so that I have to check every other pocket to find them; dropping things on the floor; fetching items that I have mislaid, then instantly leaving them behind again.

When I am tired, hungry, or in a hurry, things only get worse.

Before I quit alcohol, I never felt the need to address my short fuse and irritation. Bad moods were corrected soon enough with a drink or two inside me. Life’s troubles usually faded (others appeared quickly enough with alcohol, but that’s a different matter!) and I was even able to laugh at myself once I had a glass in my hand.

It was all part of a general philosophy of: life is tricky, full of difficult people and awkward things, demon moods and occasional dark despair. But alcohol is there to help me along the way, make it feel better.

When I quit alcohol, I was dazed by the new world I found myself in. It felt as if I was inhabiting a new body, one that I really didn’t know very much about. The feeling was mostly very exciting. So, I was quite surprised to find this new person was just as irritable as the old one.

In a very small way this demonstrates the point that if you quit alcohol, it won’t take away all those personal flaws that make you draw solace from it in the first place.

Kicking away a crutch doesn’t help you to walk. For many people, the biggest problems are still very present even after you quit alcohol for good. That’s why AA is so wonderful. It will help you put your life back together, whatever your past, in addition to helping you quit alcohol.

What made the difference though, was that I was for the first time interested in finding out more about this person, rather than running away from him – to a bar.

Actually, the reality was, I had no choice but to find out more about myself, because booze was now no longer an option to hide behind.

And I have found out some good things too, like I don’t need a drink in social situations in order to talk to people and enjoy myself. I get off on the fact that I can do it all sober, leaving the function at a sensible time and driving home. I have had to learn all this since I quit alcohol, but the journey has been both challenging and exhilarating.

However, I have still not properly addressed my irritability.

I find that forcing myself to smile and laugh when I’m actually angry and cross, is a good way to break the bad mood, even if it doesn’t go all the way of making me happy.

forcing a happy face

Also, I find that slowing things down and concentrating on the now is helpful. Is that mindfulness? It seems to make me less cross.

But I’m lazy; sometimes too lazy to make the effort to stay calm instead of shouting (when I’m alone, that is!) which is what I really want to do. It’s much more instantly gratifying to have a good loud swear. I’d prefer to blame my glasses or pen or phone for hiding from me, rather than acknowledge my own mistake, force myself to smile and stay positive.

I’m thinking of exploring meditation classes for this. I wonder if that would help me relax in social circumstances, as well as make me less irritable with fellow pedestrians and with my loathsome keys when I mislay them!? I guess I need to give it a try.

There’s more of this sort of observation my my drinking memoir

 

 

can you survive social functions alcohol-free?

…This was one of my big worries when I went alcohol-free at the end of 2013. It plagued me throughout all my preparations for quitting. That’s because where big social functions were concerned, alcohol was much more of a necessity than a compulsion or indulgence before.

I wondered what on earth would replace it. What could possibly substitute for alcohol at wedding receptions, say, and networking conferences and college reunions? I literally couldn’t imagine what I would do at these sorts of occasions; how I would feel during 4 hours of sitting or standing around chatting.  I imagined myself in a sweat of self-consciousness, my mouth resisting all attempts at a proper smile, straining under the pressure to fix a look of sincerity at yet another painfully dull anecdote.

In the past, alcohol was my rock at all such functions, helping me feel normal, washing away the self-consciousness and boredom. And from the moment I arrived at these do’s I would assess its availability and start planning how I would keep it close to me all evening.

social functions and booze!

Don’t get me wrong, I would still make an arse of myself at most of these functions – with varying degrees of awfulness, thanks to alcohol. But that didn’t stop me wanting it.

When I opted for an alcohol-free life I didn’t fear that temptation would somehow get the better of me as soon as I had to mingle in a room of quaffers. It was that I had nothing to replace the reassuring sense of detachment from reality that booze offered on these occasions. What I feared was that I would hate every single long minute of the night. I feared that panic might set in mid-sentence, and I might have one of those out-of-body moments where you suddenly become conscious of your own voice, as an observer. I feared that I would have to stop going to social functions altogether. And it was this that made me wonder if I really was ready to quit.

The first time I attended such an occasion in sobriety was 3 weeks into my alcohol-free life – on my own 50th birthday – an event that was planned before my decision to become alcohol-free! I knew that having an alcoholic drink just simply wasn’t an option for me anymore, so my trepidation was nothing to do with combating temptation.  It was how to endure a night of sober chit chat.

Being alcohol-free that night did however have an unforeseen consequence, which was that I was able to concentrate on what people were saying and I could keep up with the conversation, without repeating myself embarrassingly. I could think of sensible questions to ask my guests, all about their lives. And as the people around me got more and more intoxicated, I realised I didn’t actually need my confidence boosted. It was just fine as it was. All I needed was to try and keep myself entertained, which I managed to do quite well up to 10.30pm simply by getting around as many guests as I could. OK, after 10.30, it got more difficult because I was tired and I wanted to go home. But overall, I succeeded and I got a great first glimpse of what to expect from functions of this sort.

I can’t say that I enjoyed it much – that would come later, once I had become more accustomed to these situations, and learnt when to arrive (later than most) and get away (earlier than most) and learnt how to get the most from them. But for now, I had done what I needed to do. I had got through it successfully. Driving home – yes, driving home (how amazing!) – I felt exhausted, but elated – a strange and very new combination of emotions.

The even stranger bit is that the next day I felt like I had a sort-of hang-over. My brain felt like toffee. I was slow and tired and just so dopey. But unlike a hang-over, there was no feeling of nausea or de-hydration or persistent lethargy. When I drank my first coffee I could feel the delicious restorative effects of the caffeine as it injected energy and life back into me.

Looking back on those early days of my alcohol-free life, I realise that what made it all possible was my determination not to sentimentalise the loss of my old comfort blanket, but instead move on. Sometimes I didn’t know where I was headed, but that didn’t matter. That was part of the new adventure. Everything is different when you try to rejoice at being alcohol-free rather than simply putting up with it for a week or a month. And that is the difference between a dry January and an alcohol-free life.

If you think you can’t go alcohol-free for life because your dry January was difficult – well they are different things.

I’ve just returned home from a college reunion weekend. It’s the second such gathering since I quit alcohol. My alcohol-free status still slightly irritates and unnerves the group. I fielded a number of questions at various moments about my ability to sit amongst 5 beer swilling mates for several hours at a stretch, and I was comfortable with telling them that it didn’t bother me at all. I’m not sure that they felt the same way towards me though.

What I didn’t tell them was how wasteful we were with our time together, how alcohol made everyone so ill-disciplined with that time, and as a result how unnecessarily long we spent sitting around chatting (and drinking).

If you don’t have a drink in your hand, then it all starts to feel a bit boring. And guess what? That’s because it is! Not many people have enough going on in their lives to sit around chatting about it for 6 hours at a stretch. And it’s not that I don’t like chatting. I love it. I’m very sociable, and I love to hear all about what people are up to.

But the fact is, we simply didn’t need to spend 2 nights away from our respective homes to have a good time. All we needed was a shorter bit of quality time together –  a sociable activity in the afternoon, some early evening drinks followed by a tasty meal, after which we’d say goodnight and goodbye. That’s plenty of time for any group of friends to re-connect and have fun.

Drinkers just don’t understand that. That’s because reunions are such a marvellous cover for extended drinking sessions. They take on a sort of legendary status of their own. There was a point on the first evening of our reunion when I realised that I am able to live my life in the moment –  making the most of the now, not hanging on to a “drug”-induced high, wishing for it not to end. Here we were, the conversation flowing and mixed with lots of laughter. And that was everything I wanted from the occasion. I didn’t need to seal it in some alcoholic fix, lest it slip away before my very eyes, holding on until dawn before conceding the night to history.

back at the hotel!

Instead I went back to my hotel, watched some telly, had a cup of tea and went to bed. They were good feelings too. Less intense than the alcoholic ones that my friends were indulging in, but far more plentiful and frequent. It’s a different way of doing pleasure (and much cheaper, by the way!)

 

It’s not just reunions, of course. It’s everywhere else as well. Like the golf club or watching live football/rugby/cricket, or historical re-enactments or theatre-going or book clubs… these pastimes are, for heavy drinkers, only a cover for their real pursuit. Life carries on in-between, but it’s patiently tolerated – born in the knowledge that “me time” will come around soon enough. Drinkers go through life never knowing what they really enjoy doing, because the desire for alcohol trumps all other activities so comprehensively.

It takes a while to reconnect with yourself when you go alcohol-free. But when you do, it’s the most empowering feeling imaginable. It’s a glorious reward for your efforts and makes it all worthwhile. It gives me the feeling that I have been given a second life. A life that I live in the present. In the now. It’s all we have, if you really think about it, and I have finally learnt to appreciate the full meaning of that truth. Read more in my drinking memoir

Letting children try alcohol at home won’t deter binge drinking, say UK experts

Guardian article on letting children try alcohol at home

Very interesting Guardian article. Throughout my childhood I was aware that adults drank alcohol and I wanted to at least try alcohol at every opportunity. I guess I wanted to be treated as an equal.

If you want to make alcohol less appealing to children, don’t make it look appealing to you!

More observations to be found in my drinking memoir