Baby Boomers: prone to alcohol dependency?

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the dramatic increase in hospitalisations amongst baby boomers, due to alcohol dependency – a trend that is counter to all other age-groups in society, we’re told. The cause of this spike is something to do with the boomers’ adolescent experiences of alcohol back in the 60s and 70s.

a drink for every occasion

Back then, drinking alcohol was an adult pastime that was universally participated in and accompanied almost all social as well as many formal occasions. Drinking alcohol was for a large proportion of the population the only social activity they ever did. Drinking alcohol was therefore a right of passage in many adolescents’ lives and for these baby-boomers, me included, the anticipation of that first proper drink was momentous. There certainly wasn’t any fear or warning about the dangers of alcohol dependency.

I came across an article recently by a baby boomer who said that when she went to University in the 1970s her family warned her about the perils of “pot”, not alcohol. She was told to stay away from dope and stick to cider; the presumption being that cider would bring no harm, while marijuana would lead to heroin addiction.

Stick to cider and you’ll be fine! Really?

Cider was “of course” harmless; unless you drunk too much of it, in which case you had a problem. But to acquire alcohol dependency takes a long time, and if you start with the premise that cider and beer are harmless, then you have a lot of time to play with before anyone, including yourself, notices that there is a problem. It’s not surprising then that 40 years ago, problem drinking went unchecked, that dangerous habits were forged in broad daylight.

Alcohol was associated with ceremonies of all kinds (it still is to an extent) including religious ones – the “blood” of Christ – and its place in 1970s culture went absolutely unchallenged. If anyone drank too much, that was due to their own weakness, not society’s – and very much their own business.

In the 70s people were less inclined to point the finger at other people’s habits anyway. I remember the big fuss made about the infringement to personal liberty brought about by motorcyclists’ compulsory wearing of safety helmets. The Liberal Party was dead against it. So, you can imagine what people would have made of interfering with other people’s drinking habits.  It was no one else’s business but yours when you had a drink. The idea of printing the Government Health Inspector’s recommended number of weekly units on the side of a bottle of beer, wine, or spirits would have caused outrage.

I don’t think the 70s attitude was particularly laissez-faire or bohemian either. Pubs were closed for most of the day and alcohol wasn’t available in anything like the number of places it is now – like petrol stations and cafes

1970s pub

But that’s not in any way to diminish alcohol’s central role in adult life. Pubs were literally everywhere, and when they were open, they were full. Alcohol was consumed at every occasion of  any note. Alcohol was one of those facts of life that were too interwoven into the fabric of society to be isolated and challenged – like obesity, unsaturated fat, sugar, tobacco, lack of exercise, food-additives, pollution, amongst others. Where would you start, even if you wanted to?

I’m not suggesting that everyone suffered from alcohol dependency back in the 60s and 70s, but everyone was exposed to alcohol at all occasions back then, and participation on at least some level was expected. To be t total back then was as “suspicious” as being vegetarian, Muslim, black, homosexual. If it wasn’t exactly wrong, it certainly wasn’t “normal”.

Excluded from the club

I think my life was on hold up until the time I was allowed to drink. That’s how it feels. I longed for the day when I could go to the pub, or pour myself a glass of whisky, or open a bottle of wine. I vividly remember all those alcohol adverts, the cocktails and champagne in films, the smell of stale beer on train carriages where football and rugby fans had been.

At 15, alcohol, at last, was allowed to become my primary interest in life. And it remained that way for 36 years, until 5 years ago I realised I had had enough of it and wanted something new and different. 5 years on, I am happy to say, there is still a novelty in being free from the burden of worry about alcohol (drinking too much of it; not having enough of it, spending too much money on it, hiding it…) There is also the joy of discovering new things about myself; the things I like doing and not doing; where my priorities lie in relation to family, work-life-balance, free time, holidays. Alcohol clouded my judgement of these things, because it was more important to me than anything else, even if I wasn’t prepared to admit it at the time.

And the world seems to have moved on a bit now too; not that I noticed it while I was drinking. People aren’t so bothered about alcohol as they were. Pubs are shutting in their droves. Young people seem to be far more interested in food than alcohol these days. Sure, they binge drink (which is a problem, I know) but alcohol doesn’t have the mystique it once had. There are so many more activities to occupy kids in 21st century Britain – like mobile phones, social media, computer games, limitless TV.

Alcohol dependency is still alive and kicking, but it’s no surprise to me that the biggest group of dependents are the baby boomers.

You can read more about this sort of thing in my drinking memoir

Alcoholic blog compares Sri Lanka with Goa – 11 years on…

On holiday in Sri Lanka very recently, I was reminded of a Goa trip 11 years previously when I was drinking heavily. Despite the low cost of everything in Goa, I still had to organise my rupees into daily piles in order to make sure I didn’t go over budget. We had cocktails and beers and brandy every day, and I bought some dope too which made me sleepy and nauseous and yet I was continually debating in my head whether to roll one up “now” or leave it until later in the day. Once I had that dope in my possession, I became obsessional about it. My holiday was ruled by those piles of daily rupees and that bag of grass and all those drinks. I wish I had been writing an alcoholic blog back then, because it would have made interesting reading.

Palolem Cocktails

Rupees, Euros or pounds – it doesn’t make much difference!

Sri Lanka shares the same climate, more or less, as South India, and a broadly similar culture, at least to us holidaying Brits abroad, so it’s not surprising I was reminded of my former trip to Goa. What came as a great relief however was my ability to enjoy the culture of Sri Lanka without the burden of those wretched daily piles of rupees. I didn’t really need money to enjoy the sights sounds and smells of the jungle and beach and that wonderful country’s amazing towns and cities. Whether cheap or expensive, my decisions on what to do were not determined by my budget and certainly not by an overwhelming desire to have a beer or get stuck into the cocktails, or roll a joint and stare nauseously into the middle distance, like I did 11 years ago in my hut on Palolem beach.

Thank God for my continued desire for sobriety. It fuels everything I do, including, of course, this alcoholic blog. And now that I am starting to get a handle on the concept of mindfulness, I feel even more empowered to enjoy my own existence, without worrying about the past or the future.

For more of this sort of thing, have a look at my alcohol journal at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01M67O736

Cutting down is a risky business!

I got the call about Glastonbury Festival while on holiday. My friend had managed to buy  re-sale tickets for us both and then phoned me with the joyful news; except that it didn’t feel very joyful; more like something very bad had just happened. That’s because I was in Portugal at the time, with my partner and had been enjoying an extended spell of cutting down alcohol. I had really got into the whole vibe of cutting down – you know, drinking wine with meals – and only with meals –  and only half a bottle (max). I swilled the wine around my mouth to draw out the full flavour and I savoured the combinations of various spicy and sweet foods with the taste explosion that the wine added. It wasn’t about getting drunk. It was different now. I had turned a corner. I cherished my new-found control over booze. And I wasn’t turning back. I really felt elated with my new lifestyle.

Moderation?…at Glastonbury Festival?

But the Glastonbury news threw me. What was I going to do? It wasn’t as though I could swill wine and cheese in a field in Somerset. I mean, you’re out there all day and all evening at music festivals like that, battling the elements, immersing yourself in sensory overload for hours and hours at a time. Everything is full-on there, maxed-up, super-sized. It’s big, bold, bad and it’s all day and all night. Pints, litres, barrels; almost medieval in its earthiness – the open-air life –  bonfires, camping, latrines, stand pipes. Cider flows all day and it feels both natural and electrifying at the same time. Cutting down is as far from your mind as it could possibly be.

The place is designed to take you out of yourself, mentally and spiritually with music, booze, crazy people and the whole back-to-nature essence of it all. I mean, how is ANY of that going to happen unless through a haze of alcohol. Lots of it, all day.

drinking at festivals

At first, when the news about the tickets came in, I didn’t think about the hedonism element. I deliberately shut it from my mind and carried on with my cutting down regime. But far back in the recesses of my mind I was anxious. Trouble was brewing. And as the countdown to Glastonbury continued, I slowly came around to the view that I should regard the festival as a one-off treat.

After all, how was I going to impose a drink limit on myself when I was with friends who were expecting me to do all the old festival rituals?

I don’t think I could say the F** it button was pressed yet. But I was whimpering like a whippet in its race trap, waiting for the gate to open.

And when finally the gates were open, I was in a frenzy of joy, and I smoked and I drank and I blanked out and got separated from friends and made new ones at bars, got lost and was found, and became boisterous and tearful and loud and shouty and I sang and I wept and I fell in the mud and I was immersed in the timeless mystery of Avalon Vale. And on it went for a week, and all my settings were messed with, so much so that on the train home to big old grown-up London Town, I was inconsolable. I bought 2 expensive cans of Strongbow cider from the drinks trolley just to take the edge off the terrible reality that was looming into view. I couldn’t bear the thought that the party was coming to an end and I would have to go back to cutting down again.

And God it was awful.

The flood gates now open …again!

I never got back to the abstemious version of me; the one who enjoyed cutting down and keeping to strict limits. I drank secretly and excessively for another 6 months and then I quit completely.

Once the desire for sobriety is lost – it’s lost. Cutting down is such a dangerous game, because it keeps the pleasure of alcohol fresh in your mind all the time. You still think about it at every turn, planning when and where you will consume your quotient, how you’ll pace yourself over the course of a social event, how you feel when you know others will be drinking heavily around you. It’s still ruling you. Even if you enjoy your new relationship with alcohol, it’s still filtering all your senses through an alcohol lens and so it’s just a matter of time before you get the calculations wrong. And when the bubble is burst, what next?

Indeed, what of Glastonbury now? I have been alcohol-free for some years now. Am I to avoid it at all costs? – “People-places and things” and all that! In fact, I have been back to Glastonbury Festival twice, sober. They were amazing, both times. I was reminded how little of it I actually enjoyed when drunk all day. The pissed me spent most of the time fearful, emotionally unstable, anxious and lost. Sure, the alcohol takes you out of yourself. But when it drops you back in, it leaves you defenceless, and vulnerable. You need the booze to get back to feeling good about yourself – and round and round you go.

Enjoyment in things – for what they truly are

Alcohol-free, Glastonbury has real magic. I am able to indulge in sensory delights of so many different kinds all day and all evening long, from the moment of waking fresh in my cosy tent to buying puddings and chocolate and coffee late at night.

These things would be no temptation to heavy drinkers. It’s impossible to get excited about sober treats if you are a drinker. That’s because you are forever chasing a myth with alcohol. Nothing is ever good enough in its own right, for its own sake; it has to be experienced through an alcoholic lens. Without that lens, everything is dull and lifeless; or so you believe.

It’s only when you finally put the booze down forever that you can get back in touch with your true feelings. Cutting down isn’t enough and nor is taking months off. That’s because you know you’ll be going back to it at some point, so you don’t make the full adjustment to sobriety – there’s no need if you’ll be drinking again soon.

You have to give it time to adjust. Things will be different. I remember my first holiday in sobriety, just before getting ready to go out for dinner – about 4.30pm; less than 2 hours from aperitif-time. Except there would be no aperitifs. I was longing for something, not exactly for alcohol, but for a buzz, a lift, and I didn’t know how to get it without alcohol. Of course, when we finally went out into the back-streets of Rome and found a restaurant, me and my lovely partner, I was happy. It was the start of a journey towards understanding and cherishing the things I love doing and all the new highs and lows of sobriety (there actually aren’t any lows, I’ve discovered!).

The adjustment period may be lengthy. At aperitif-time I continually reminded myself of how bored I had got of drinking – how predictable the consequences, how I had done it all so many times in the past that I couldn’t possibly expect anything new from it, and how exciting my genuinely new adventure in sobriety actually is now.

Once I had gone through this mantra, I felt ready to move forward again, and I repeated the mantra as many times as was necessary to get me over any wobbles. Sobriety is an adventure and at first there is a temptation to back to the comfort of the familiar. But keep going, I say, because the rewards are always just around the corner. And in the long-term they are beyond your wildest dreams! Read more of this in my book

Dry January is nearly over – What’s the point of it anyway?

I always hated dry January; its air of Sunday night gloom hanging over the whole month, poisoning every waking moment with a back-to-school practicality.  It made me want to crack open the left-over Christmas bubbly, and start the party up again.

back-to-school-feeling

Why did I ever go in for it? Was it really to detoxify? That’s probably just what I told friends and colleagues, but I don’t think that self-purification was the real reason.

Control

I went in for Dry January to demonstrate to myself that I was in control. Usually a much-needed process after the month of December, the month that includes the office Christmas party and the 5 days holed up with family, not to mention all the spontaneous festive socials.  Sure, I told everyone I was de-toxing, but that’s because I didn’t want to appear worried about my drinking. I didn’t want the stakes to be that high. If I failed, what would it say about my drinking? I wasn’t going to be hoisted by my own petard, as the saying goes. Instead I signed up to the detox fad and afterwards, went back to drinking when I was good and ready, quite often after only a few days.

Some Januaries I even managed to go 2-3 weeks without a drink. I felt exonerated at the end, full of resolutions for a more moderate year ahead.

But here’s the thing. As self-deceiving as I’ve made all of that sound, it does nonetheless demonstrate some genuine self-control. And self-control is the one thing that separates the heavy drinker from the problem drinker. You won’t hear people in AA meetings recount stories of how they managed, on repeated occasions, to stop drinking at the crucial moment.

I mean, if you can stay sober all evening in the pub and drive everyone home, or at a party when all the guests are fueling up with Dutch Courage, or stay off the booze the night before an important presentation, or a job interview, or for a whole month so that your internal organs can have a so-called rest, then you clearly have significant control over your relationship with alcohol. But does that mean you are having a great time? Are you substituting alcohol with some other way you’ve found of enjoying yourself – not another form of substance abuse – but another way of seeing the world? In reality you are probably brazening it out, clocking up the brownie points, ready to be cashed in as reward for your efforts – in the bar!

Common denominator

The thing is, we disguise our dependence on alcohol by making it appear to be just one pleasure on a long list of others. But for many of us, it’s the common denominator in all of them – the choice of holiday, the social planning, the club memberships. If you took alcohol away from one of these activities, our interest would quickly wane. We don’t lack self-control, but we do lack self-knowledge. I don’t think I knew how to have a great time without alcohol. And even when I did, I usually opined how much better it would have been with wine.

I look back and realise what a self- deceiving con all that self-control was – and high up there with it was dry January.

Instead of trying to blot alcohol out for a month, I should have been challenging my love of it, analysing its continued contribution and considering what life might be like without it.

I should have spent a few weeks working through my relationship with alcohol, analysing what each gulp-full was doing for my well-being, working out how exactly it relieved my shyness at a party, for instance, and made me able to enjoy talking to strangers, and at what cost; working out why it made me anxious the morning after the night before.

Running away from alcohol in dry January just seems like running away from the problem, like running away from a partner for a month as a form of relationship management – then going back to exactly the same arrangement as before, without analysing the pros and cons of any of the relationship.

It’s only when you see what things are like on the other side that you realise how you’ve been missing out on so many other pleasures, many of them simple enough, but all of them without the roller coaster highs and lows that come with alcohol. It’s truly eye-opening.

Alcoholic?

For most of my life I figured that alcohol was the best way to enjoy myself. Then over time it gradually became the only way. Was I an alcoholic? I don’t see how I could have been if I was exercising control; knowing when to stop; knowing when not to start. These are not signs of alcoholism, as AA will make you realise if you attend one of their meetings. The thing is, my life had not become unmanageable – that would be a complete exaggeration of the facts. Nor had I become powerless over alcohol. Yes, I was relying far too much on it, and allowing it to influence all my choices. But I hadn’t lost a job or a relationship through alcohol. I hadn’t killed anyone, or been told to go into re-hab or been arrested. I had fallen asleep at the dinner table or on the sofa at parties. I had got a bit emotional when talking about my dead sister after too many drinks. I had got angry and defensive and horribly sarcastic with my partner when drunk and then full of remorse the next day. But could this be called powerlessness over alcohol? Was it unequivocally alcoholic? Did I do it every time I had a drink. Absolutely not.

So how many people bow to the pressures of alcohol, like I did, by including it in everything they choose to do? And how long can they go on for without hitting rock bottom? Probably forever.

So, the sad thing is, these heavy drinkers may never give sobriety a real chance. Why would they want to? If they’re not powerless over alcohol, if their lives haven’t become unmanageable through alcohol, if they’re not alcoholic, why would they bother with sobriety – except perhaps during dry January, which will guarantee they keep drinking for the rest of their lives.

More of this in my drinking memoir: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01M67O736

What type of alcoholic are you?

  1. Boozy Binge drinking alcoholic

It’s Sunday – Day 3 –  terrible alcoholic anxiety; a cold beer fails to lift body and soul after a Sunday afternoon’s drunken slumber. Reality beckons. A reality you’d love to blot out, if you could, but your capacity for alcohol is spent. You know that your body won’t let you carry on drinking, so you try to face the working week ahead. It’s a horrible sight stretching in front of you, but you drag your frame into the battle field of Monday morning, gradually re-hydrating yourself into the recognisable shape of a respectable human being.

Until Friday that is…when once again you can be the bon viveur of the saloon bar, the Champagne party hound, the fun-loving partner and the bleary-eyed Bloody-Mary wag of the Sunday Brunch gang. And so the cycle goes on.

  1. Controlled regular alcoholic

It’s Monday morning and the week stretches before you like a prison sentence. Dullsville. Then at 10am you get a message from a friend asking if you will join him/her for a soiree of some kind – alcohol involved. You leap at the invitation and suddenly the week seems a bit more bearable. There will be wine at this do and you are reminded of the words of the late, great John Smith, a whisky fan and Labour Party leader in the early 90s before his untimely death, “Chardonnay is just like almost all those other non-alcoholic drinks served at political functions” (brilliant!). It’s always good to know of other more serious drinkers than yourself!

Tuesday is OK because the week is properly under way by now and a bottle of wine or two at dinner will seem like acceptable behaviour to your partner/family – especially if you’ve told everyone it’s your first drink of the week. Wednesday is often a social occasion, to mark the mid-point and Thursday is the start of the weekend.

In addition to evening drinking, you’re not averse to a lunchtime beverage or two, and you are comfortable with popping into a local boozer for a Vodka and tonic now and again. I used to carry a couple of miniature vodkas with me in case a tube journey seemed too dull to endure.

The thing is, your drinking is relatively steady and controlled. You don’t like getting roaring drunk, but the thought of an evening without alcohol is not a happy one. Your social life revolves around the bar – drinks before the cinema, wine with a meal, a few pints after exercise, the bar at Gatwick enroute to a drink-centred holiday, the pub to meet friends.

You are mindful of drinking too much, but you’re not an alcoholic – no way!

  1. Controlled irregular.

You’re someone I have always admired, it so happens, but have least in common with (re the grape and grain). Depending on the occasion, and who you are with, you can be either of the two types of alcoholic drinker mentioned above – for short periods.  So if you were with boozy friends for a weekend, you would be happy to drink with them. Or if you were on holiday and your friends were drinking every night for a week, this would be fine too. But left to your own devices, you don’t really think about alcohol much. After a while, you might like a glass of wine with a meal, as a treat, but you wouldn’t want any more than that. If this is you, I have no idea how you do it. Well done!

Read more in my drinking memoir

Desire for sobriety! How to find it…

The dilemma:

Problem-drinkers often claim they want to quit alcohol. It’s a good starting point, I guess, but only a very small number seem able to do anything about it. This is generally taken as a sign of how difficult the whole thing is. But if you think about it, the desire for quitting is a somewhat gloomy goal. By contrast, you rarely hear problem-drinkers talk in a positive way about the much more positive desire for sobriety.

And why is that?

It’s maybe because problem-drinkers are not encouraged to do so. It’s all quite woolly this desire thing. I mean, professionals in the recovery field don’t draw much of a distinction between a desire to quit and a desire for sobriety. These things are seen as 2 sides of the same coin. But everyone seems agreed on how important “desire” is to the therapeutic process. “You have to want it” is a phrase you hear a lot from professionals, whatever their therapeutic method. But it needs clarification.

Cart before the horse...

Part of the problem, I believe, is that sobriety isn’t seen as a desire, so much as a state that is achievable once alcohol has been successfully removed.

But maybe there’s some work that could be done around this desire for sobriety at an earlier stage. I’m keen to explore.

From my own experience:

In my own case, it was my newly found desire for sobriety that fuelled a change in my behaviour, not the other way round, and I’m intrigued to find out if this might hold for others.

It was mid-December, 2013 and I had just hired out a small pub in Kings Cross to celebrate my 50th birthday the following month (which tells you something about my relationship with alcohol at the time!) The Christmas party season was in full-swing but I wasn’t having such a good time of it.

2 incidents:

That’s because I had got drunk at a works-dinner – a bad place to get drunk at the best of times. I had pre-loaded in the day-time and become argumentative with the boss during the celebratory meal; although I didn’t think I had been particularly drunk; nor had the argument been much more than boisterous banter in my view, but it was enough to get me into trouble the next day. I knew I had fucked up, so the unraveling of this faux-pas was excruciating. I wanted to get it over in one go, but unfortunately, I was subjected to the drip-drip torture of silent disapproval for hours and hours before finally being confronted with the accusation of drunkenness.

2nd incident:

I had also had a big row with my girlfriend a couple of nights previously at which I had got extremely defensive and sarcastic. I was very drunk of course, but not too drunk to whip up a bitter and malevolent line of defense at what I saw as her general disapproval of me.

Both incidents had left me reeling with anxiety. They both left me with an impending duty to offer extensive, grovelling apologies. I just about managed to pull it off. But it wasn’t pretty, and I wasn’t out of the woods completely, either. But I had bought a little time, during which I intended to get things back on track.

possible solution:

I decided upon a dry January as the best way to demonstrate the sincerity of my intentions. This had the very strong advantage of being sufficiently draconian to give me some very real credit both at home and work, but it also gave me a 2-week drinking window before needing to start the self-punishment. I could get myself back into the good books of all those I depended on, whilst also enjoying the festive period. I even quite liked the idea of a sober January, as a way of re-setting my levels.

hitch:

But there was a problem. My 50th birthday celebration was scheduled for mid-January, and there was no way I could be sober for that. Furthermore, if I gave myself even one night of birthday drinking, I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to sobriety for the rest of the month. And it had to be a proper dry January to have credibility; so I was stuck.

drunk at work dinner

Complete miracle:

Now this is where the miracle happened. This is the bit that I wonder if others might draw inspiration from. That’s because it was at this point the idea of sobriety appeared before me in a very different way. The birthday dilemma made me think how wonderful it would be if I didn’t have to worry about drinking. I thought about all those people who don’t drink alcohol and I suddenly felt envious of them. Within moments I found myself imagining the sober version of me at my own birthday party pouring drinks for friends, chatting and even dancing, and having a good time, but without touching a drop of alcohol. I imagined giving people a lift home at the end of the night and waking the next day feeling great about myself and about the night before.

These things were actually desirable outcomes – I liked the idea of drinking sparkling water while those around me became gradually intoxicated and bloated with booze. Sobriety became a desirable state in its own right, rather than merely the consequence of staying off the more undesirable state of intoxication.

New desire:

It was this moment of clarity, the birth of my desire for sobriety that snowballed into a plan to quit 3 weeks later during which time I did a number of mental exercises to keep that desire for sobriety focused.

Mental plan
First up

I thought about every sip of alcohol I was consuming in the run-up to my quit-date and analysed what it was doing for me – or rather to me. I asked myself what the 2nd/3rd/4th drink offered that the first one hadn’t delivered. I questioned my need for alcohol on every occasion over the next few weeks. It made me feel increasingly disillusioned by what alcohol was actually doing for me anymore.

Secondly,

I developed a quitting mantra every time I thought about alcohol. The mantra had 3 prongs:

  • 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 from it after the start of the journey.
Thirdly,

I nurtured the positive feelings that were developing within me until gradually I fell in love with the idea of sobriety.

sparkling water – my new drug

I didn’t look for substitutes for alcohol when I quit; sobriety became the drug that replaced booze – my new drug of choice – making me sharp and focussed, able to hold a conversation, remember things, get home safely, enjoy the remainder of the evening and wake up in the morning feeling amazing, with my wallet and phone where they should be!

Quitting isn’t enough

I really believe that if you can find a way of developing a desire for sobriety, you will speed up your recovery process immensely. When you desire sobriety, you no longer feel deprived of alcohol. That’s a powerful feeling. By contrast, there are many people who are able to quit, but feel deprived of alcohol – if not all the time, then certainly at key moments. These quitters are able to go long bouts without alcohol – way beyond a dry January – but they stay out of its way, using all the will power they have. Any desire they may have is for staying quit; not for sobriety. When they fail in the end, they do so in a moment of weakness. Their resolve gives way – maybe a bad thing happens, or they press the fuck-it button in wrong company. It’s very hard to come back from that.

Desire FOR…

I also really believe that to switch to a desire for sobriety is a necessary step in all cases in the end. In other words, however you get there, whatever the journey, that final switch in your brain will have to be activated, no matter what – if you’re going to be truly successful. This is the desire thing that all professionals are referring to when they say you have to “want it”. But it can potentially happen at any point along the journey – whether that’s after 12 bouts in re-hab, or on the top deck of a 73 bus one afternoon, after 36 years of drinking.

My key message is: we mustn’t be woolly about our definition of: “want it”. “Want sobriety” is key. It’s not enough to simply want to quit.

More about desire for alcohol, desire for quitting and desire for sobriety can be found in my drinking biog:

Chocolate Fondant versus Vodka

In the intervening years since I quit vodka at the end of 2013, I have become super-aware of the attachment I continue to hold for sweet foodstuffs, as well as coffee, and wonder whether my emotional relationship with these things is a form of yearning for the forbidden fruit I no longer allow myself – vodka.  I also have a bit of a thing about sparkling water too. And chewing gum.

vodka v chocolate pud

But when I quit the booze, I don’t think I actively sought substitutes for vodka. The above list of cravings just sprung up from nowhere.

A sweet tooth, I am told, is a well-known consequence of quitting, amongst recovering alcoholics –  something to do with the reduction in sugar consumption once the alcohol is removed. I have no reason to dispute this, but I also found that chocolate and puddings (especially chocolate puddings!) were powerful rewards (think: childhood treats) such that in the absence of any other vices, they acted as substitutes for vodka –  fondant treacle sponges tempting me from the supermarket aisles; slabs of chocolate luring me to the newsagent’s shelves, and restaurant menus tempting me with their caramel descriptions.

From the moment I quit alcohol, I would eye these up on the menu in much the way I used to ogle the wine list, but without the same anxiety. This is my area now; my playground, and I’ll take my pudding with coffee too – to maximise the hit. Yes, “hit”. I think I’ve been seeking hits – as a substitute to the high that vodka once promised. It really is addictive-like behaviour, based on the idea that if a pudding is absolutely lovely – then a pudding with coffee will be even lovelier – and must therefore be had! But there’s no getting away from the fact that when dining out, I’m giddy with the excitement of having my own well-deserved treat-area, impervious to cost, in this new-found paradise.

And in the ordinary course of daily life I get great comfort from chewing gum. It’s that always-available mini-hit in my pocket.

I worry a little that my addictive behaviour is being played out in these (less harmful) rituals. It’s the same with the little bit of excitement every time I pour sparkling water into my extra-large wine glass at home. The effervescent tumbler of celebration helps me rejoice at my own sobriety and self-control – time and time again. And I feel empowered by it.

I wonder what would happen if these treats were taken away from me – would I crumble? Or would I quickly adapt to their absence if they were taken away?

Deep down, I believe I’m stronger than I fear. I heard a powerful report on Radio 4 the other day about the health benefits of reducing salt-intake, and despite loving salt on my food, I have acted on the advice instantly by wiping it from my diet.

I think I’ll continue to indulge myself on these other relatively harmless excesses though, making sure that they don’t get out of hand. I may even go in for a dry January – or rather, a sour January. But I fear that might be a step too far. Sticky toffee Pudding is just too nice to shun for more than a fortnight!

More of this talk of vodka can be found in my drinking memoir

Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality

I still feel a lot of warmth towards Alcoholics Anonymous. I think it’s because for the first 2 years of my 3-year sobriety I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every Saturday, and on the whole, greatly enjoyed every meeting.

I still have a lot of affection for the people in that group, even though I don’t attend it anymore. Plus, I am hugely grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for the sense of achievement that stopping drinking gave me, and for the new identity it bestowed upon me as a non-drinker, with my new AA family.

All of which is why I recoiled a bit when a close friend of mine (also in recovery) suggested the other day that I was ambivalent towards Alcoholics Anonymous.

He had good reason, as I’ll explain, but his words still stung a bit.

The thing is, I was never comfortable enough at meetings to launch into a stream-of-consciousness “confessional” the way everyone else seemed at ease to do. I felt nervous that I would forget what I wanted to say half way through and look ridiculous; especially as everyone else was so witty. Hilarious anecdotes and phrases fell out of their mouths with complete spontaneity. It was no wonder I felt intimidated. And so, after a year of almost complete silence on my part I started to feel a bit of an intruder at meetings; a taker. I felt resented for not giving anything of myself to the group.

It was probably vanity on my part. After all, who cared? Why did it matter if people thought I was clever or funny, or not? But I couldn’t risk it, so I stayed quiet.

But I also didn’t feel the same way as others seemed to in the room, apart from their drinking anecdotes of course, which were a joy to listen to. I might have been able to join in with some of them over time. But too often the drinking anecdotes segued into spiritual anecdotes that left me scratching my head. If I’m honest, I just didn’t like this element of Alcoholics Anonymous. It permeated most of the 12-step programme. All but three of the steps made some reference to God or spirituality and I couldn’t bring myself to indulge them. I felt they were dragging me in completely the wrong direction – one of dependence again, rather than self-determination.  I had done this thing on my own, and I was proud of myself for it.

But I quite accept that not everyone’s experience is the same as mine; not by any means. Many drinkers can’t operate without alcohol – whether that’s physically or psychologically. When they finally hit rock bottom, Alcoholics Anonymous is there to scrape them off the floor. That’s where the concept of a higher power is so strong. The medicine of alcohol having been taken away, there’s nothing to replace it except the all-forgiving, all-supporting higher power. But in my case, when I came off the medicine, the problem was solved.

higher power?

And there was even a problem I found with Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12 steps to recovery; and Step One doesn’t even mention God! It’s all about the unmanageability of our lives, and our powerlessness over alcohol: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.” The problem for me was that life was too manageable with alcohol, not unmanageable. That’s why I kept drinking it for 36 years. It’s such a thin line between self-delusion and self-control, I know, but I was able to set rules around my drinking for years. And I probably could have carried on for years too. When I stopped, it wasn’t because I had hit rock bottom. It was because I realised I wanted a new life, free of alcohol. I realised I didn’t want to worry about alcohol any more. I was bored of trying to appease it; include it at every occasion. I wanted a new life, and I planned exactly how I was going to go about doing that – by stopping drinking.

Far from feeling powerless over alcohol, I felt I had risen up and biffed it in the face. I was a winner.

And then there’s that beloved mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous’s “Just for Today”. I didn’t have much time for that either. If I had quit alcohol reluctantly, I might have had some comfort from the idea that I only needed to worry about not drinking for the next 12 hours. But I hadn’t quit reluctantly. I had quit deliberately and in a controlled and highly planned way. I wanted to stop forever, not just for today. I knew it would take time to get used to this concept, and I therefore didn’t focus too hard on the “forever” element. But nor did I take comfort from the somewhat delusional idea of “Just for Today” cos I absolutely knew it wasn’t that.

And what of sponsors? I can’t say that I ever had much need for one of those either. I wanted to understand what I had done, so I talked about it with friends and family, sure –  and I wrote a lot about it; I listened to podcasts, searched the web, read articles and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But I didn’t seek a sponsor for any sort of prescriptive direction or counselling.

So I’m left wondering what it was about Alcoholics Anonymous that I liked so much. Well, it’s the people of course. People’s relationship with alcohol is endlessly fascinating to me. AA meetings are full of people who have plenty of things to say about that. And about life generally. I was able to pick out the bits that interested me most and ignore the bits that left me a bit cold. And as they say, What’s not to like about that?!

Alcoholics Anonymous is a reminder of what I have achieved. It’s an important reminder, because I wouldn’t want to think it was merely incidental. There’s always a very real danger that I might think it was OK to drink again. I know what a mistake that would be. But I might not know it if my mind was changed. Alcoholics Anonymous reminds me that drinking would take me back to dependency on alcohol. It reminds me of how destructive alcohol can be. Alcoholics Anonymous is a warm blanket of support, and it’s there whenever I might need it. And I’m far from ambivalent about that.

More of this sort of thing is to be found in my drinking memoir

connecting with moods naturally – without alcohol!

 

Since the start of my alcohol-free birth, December 2013, I have undergone some big psychological changes, without realising it. One of the deep-rooted changes, without alcohol, is in being able to stick to a long-term plan. I never had the patience for plans in my drinking days, particularly ones that involved any sort of financial reward. At the first sign of progress I would get carried away and start celebrating success before it had even happened. Then I’d  realise my mistake, give up on the idea and sulk, which meant drink. I’d then borrow money from somewhere and get into further debt. Life was always a roller-coaster of soaring highs and desperate lows.

I have learned how to enjoy life at a less intense level without alcohol. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy things any less. I have learnt to appreciate them in a new way, in mini-surges; lots  of them. I appreciate simple things like a night in watching telly with my partner,  good food, exercise, sleep, coffee, chocolate, hot baths, reading – and the appreciation is almost on a spiritual level. It’s not a replacement for alcohol – it’s completely different and far more fulfilling.

When my mother died, I was 16 months into my new sober life. I wasn’t tempted by alcohol, because I couldn’t bear the idea of alcohol making a tragic situation worse. There was no way I was going to make the recovery from my loss any slower than it need be by drinking!

But what I did notice through the awfulness of my mum’s death was that without alcohol, I wasn’t able to indulge my emotions at times when I wanted to – such as in the evening, listening to music, for instance. I was seeking the roller-coaster effect of booze because I felt I owed it to mum to weep tragically and swoon into a coma of grief!

unable to grieve

There’s nothing like a good cry and a bit of wallowing in the sadness of things at times, and alcohol is great for creating the right mood for that sort of thing, even if things go wrong on many occasions. 

In sobriety, I found it difficult to cry.

But now, with the experience that comes with time, I am able to appreciate the sadness of mum not being with me anymore, and I don’t need alcohol to conjure this up. I go with the feeling naturally when it arises and appreciate the mood for what it it. It keeps me connected and it’s all real. Nothing artificial.

Oddly enough, I appreciate low moods in a completely new way without alcohol, because they keep me connected to my inner me, and make me realise and appreciate the many highs I go through in an ordinary day. I used to think that only alcohol could make my moods interesting.

Thank God for my sobriety! It’s such a gift.

More of this kind of thing can be found in my drinking memoir