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

Weird new alcohol-free world – I can’t believe my luck…

on set happiness!

I was in a heightened state in February last year.

After 2 years on the books of a casting agency for film extras – or supporting artistes, as we apparently prefer to be known – I finally received an email asking if I was available for some filming work.

Day 2 of the “shoot” and wandering around in a bit of a daze, trying to look perturbed by the biting March wind and sheet rain, I actually wanted to run around with my pants on my head, skipping.

 

So many things were falling into place in my alcohol-free world. I had quit booze 3 years+ earlier and been gradually adjusting to everything, including the relaxation on my wallet. In my former existence, I had never been a big wig in the workplace but I did have a corporate sales job which I quit 6 months after I quit the booze. I did so when I twigged that I no longer wanted to endure the pressure and I didn’t need the money.

It’s taken a while to find an alcohol-free work/life balance that suits me. I do some tele-sales for a nice firm in central London, I write a little, volunteer for half a day each week and from time to time I’m a film and TV extra.

At first, I was punch drunk whenever I talked to any fellow extras on set. I had that gin & tonic feeling – giggly and slightly reckless, trying to hold back from being a little too excitable in my responses, a touch too flippant and skittish when told my costume looked lovely on me – the temptation to let out a random guffaw, almost too much! I was just so ridiculously happy.

Part of my joy was to do with finding a series of mini-highs that had nothing whatever to do with booze. For the first time, that gin and tonic surge, which I always instantly drowned, appeared to be attainable by natural means, and was sustainable for hours at a stretch. No hangovers either; no remorse; no self-loathing.

It’s heart-warming how my alcohol-free world is evolving..

I’ve had to be patient though. For two years, while living off my dwindling savings and overdraft, I had no idea where financial security might come from – without going back into a proper p.a.y.e. job – the very thing I wanted to avoid. I was writing my book, “Not Alcoholic, But…” during this period – a wonderful experience in the main – but never care-free, due to dodgy finances. 

I was able to keep going because being alcohol-free kept me on an emotional even-keel and empowered me with the inner belief that I could achieve complete self-determination though sobriety. 

In the past, alcohol was the boss. I had to have a certain kind of job, and a certain kind of salary that would satisfy the demands that alcohol put on me – which very much included financial demands – as well as time and life-style.

But being alcohol-free, no obstacle was going to push me off course. I have continued to plough on with what I know to be right for me. My book and my simple new way of life were from day one the most important things for me, and I knew that in time new opportunities would arise from these. Just because I couldn’t see yet what these opportunities were, wasn’t going to put me off. I was content. Sobriety saw to that. And sobriety gave me the patience to wait and see what might emerge.

Sitting around “on set” talking to fellow artistes and to all the amazing production team is just so thrilling and fun, and there is no obligation to “be” anyone but myself. The “work” is hardly difficult and is entirely in the background. But it manages to seem very important and special at the same time. And in-between it doesn’t require me to put on any persona – other than my own natural one.

In the bad old days, if I had landed some film extra work, I would have sought out a pub on the way home from the first day of filming, and basked in the glory of the day’s exploits, spending big chunks of the money I had just earned, and not yet even been paid. I’m completely free of all that now. I feel re-born and ready for a whole new life! More of this sort of thing is to be found in my drinking memoir

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