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…