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 reduced alcohol consumption. I had really got into the whole vibe of cutting back – 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.

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.

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.

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 abstemious 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 be sober again.

And God it was awful.

I never got back to the abstemious version of me; the one who enjoyed 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? 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.

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!

 

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Adolescent drinking is a dangerous thing. It’s taken me 36 years to realise.

[First Published on the  soberistas website]

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the dramatic increase in hospitalisations amongst baby boomers, due to their disastrous drinking habits – a trend that is counter to all other 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.

 

I think I (just) qualify as a baby boomer, being born in 1964. I can certainly identify with the point made in a recent article by a lady baby boomer who said that when she went to University in the 70s her family warned her about the perils of “pot”, not alcohol. She was told to stick to cider, presumably on the basis that cider would bring her no harm, while marijuana would very likely lead to heroin addiction. There was clearly a lot of naivety around in the 70s. My parents, who were not generally unworldly, truly believed that drugs would have you “hooked” (their favoured term) in an instant. They also believed that alcoholics were very different sorts of people to anyone else. Alcoholics in their view would drink white spirit or mouth wash if they couldn’t get hold of alcohol. I remember dad saying that an alcoholic would drink boot polish if alcohol weren’t available. It had a lasting impression on me.

 

For us, as a family, alcohol was always seen as a special treat. When it appeared, it was in hushed excitement – usually at a birthday. I think this was because it was expensive and sophisticated, not dangerous or deviant. We children were allowed sips to start with, and later small quantities of our own. It was part of growing up, and I for one, waited patiently for the day when I could drink unrestricted, like an adult.

 

In wider society, alcohol was associated with ceremonies of all kinds, including religious ones (the “blood” of Christ), and its place in 1970s culture went absolutely unchallenged. If anyone drank too much, that was no doubt 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 sparked riots.

 

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 (though oddly I remember there being a station-bar on the platform at Sloane Square Underground, and at Baker Street!).

It’s just that alcohol was no worse than many other things that were taken for granted as part of life’s rich tapestry – obesity, unsaturated fat, sugar, tobacco, lack of exercise, food-additives, pollution, amongst others.

 

I am sure that my own eventual psychological dependence on alcohol emerged from a desire to get hold of it as soon as I was old enough to do so. My subsequent problems of over-reliance have in part been down to this. Once it was established as my principle source of relaxation and entertainment, I couldn’t see a way of enjoying life without it. I was terrified of alcohol being denied me, especially at social occasions.

 

On and on it went like this for 36 years until 3 and a half years ago I realised I had had enough of it and wanted something new and different. How long that desire for change would last, I had no idea, but here I am, 3.5 years later, feeling as confident in sobriety as ever. More so in fact. I feel as excited as a child most days, at some point. 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, usually because it was more important to me than anything else, even if I wasn’t prepared to admit it at the time.

 

Today I am empowered, in control and overjoyed. Alcohol never allowed me to feel any of those things for longer than a few hours, after which their opposites took over. Round and round I went on the same cycle. It was a waste of time and money, and it took me 36 years to realise it. But as soon as the penny dropped, everything clicked into place and I haven’t looked back.

 

I think what my journey conveys is the ease with which a determined drinker, like me, can change. My story is not one of crash and burn. Far from it. I believe I could have carried on drinking for another 20 years at least. My message is: if a “successful” and committed drinker like me can change his mind, so can other big drinkers.

 

You just need to reach a point when you say “I don’t want this anymore”. You might have gone to hell and back in order to be able to say those words, or you might have sat on the bus to work one day, and it just pop into your head. There are many circumstances – all of them different – in which the desire for change emerges. But desire is the essential thing. And it can happen to anyone, at anytime! If it happens to you, I urge you to go with it; nurture it. You may never look back!

How is it possible to get through social functions, alcohol-free?

…This was one of my big worries when I gave up alcohol 3 and a half years ago. It plagued me throughout all my preparations for quitting. That’s because where big social functions were concerned, alcohol was much more of a necessity than a compulsion or indulgence.

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

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

Don’t get me wrong, I would make an arse of myself at most of these functions – with varying degrees of awfulness, thanks to alcohol. I’m just saying that of all the situations where I felt alcohol was needed, social functions were in the top 10%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you think you can’t go A/F for life because your dry January was difficult – well they are different things.

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

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

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

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

Drinkers just don’t understand that. That’s because reunions are such a marvellous cover for extended drinking sessions. They take on a sort of legendary status of their own. There was a point on the first evening of our reunion when I realised that I am able to live my life in the moment –  making the most of the now, not hanging on to a “drug”-induced high, wishing for it not to end. Here we were, the conversation flowing and mixed with lots of laughter. And that was everything I wanted from the occasion. I didn’t need to seal it in some alcoholic fix, lest it slip away before my very eyes, holding on until dawn before conceding the night to history. Instead I went back to my hotel, watched some telly, had a cup of tea and went to bed. They were good feelings too. Less intense than the alcoholic ones that my friends were indulging in, but far more plentiful and frequent. It’s a different way of doing pleasure (and much cheaper, by the way!)

 

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

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

Alcohol and Pubs Versus Coffee and Coffee-bars

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? Coffee doesn’t form the centre of people’s activity in the way that alcohol does. You would be written off as a nutter if you sent out an invitation along the above lines.

But over the years I have had scores and scores of invitations that included 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. 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 kids with sweet alco-pops, as young people started to turn their backs on traditional beer swilling boozers. It failed.

I really hope it’s true that young people are less interested in drinking than we were growing up. It’s in youth that the damage is done. I saw alcohol as a rite of passage. It was a mark of adulthood. It also made me fearless. If I did stupid things, it didn’t matter. It was the drink’s fault – although I never wanted to blame the drink in case it was taken away from me – I always took responsibility for my own drunkenness. That was my biggest problem in the end. I tried too hard to protect it at all costs.

Here are the 5 films that encouraged and inspired my excessive drinking in some unusual ways

Films have played a major role in my drinking career. Here are the 5 films that encouraged and inspired my excessive drinking in some unusual ways… (It starts with Schindler’s List)

  1. Schindler’s List. I was in my early 30s when this profoundly disturbing film came out. But setting all that aside, what Schindler’s List really did for me was suggest that drinking at work is fine. In fact, far from getting in the way of work – it positively helped one to get on with it.  I dreamed of having a hip flask and a little set of shot glasses, just like Schindler’s. It was no ordinary set. Schindler was the inspiration behind my venture into drinking vodka at my workstation. I decanted it into a 500ml bottles of Strawberry Volvic water from miniatures bought at the newsagent close to work. It wasn’t as glamorous as Schindler’s exquisite hipflask and shot glasses, nor as openly consumed – heaven forbid – but for me, it was rebellious, fun and it cheered up a boring day in the office immeasurably. In my mind I felt exonerated by Schindler, who after all, was a saint.
  2. Porridge (1979) starring Ronnie Barker. The denouement of this feature-length film, based on the iconic 70s series, sees Fletch and Godber having to sneak back into prison, following their earlier escape as unwilling hostages of fellow prisoner Oakes. Fletch is desperate not to let his prison parole be jeopardised by what will look like his compliance in Oakes’s bolt for freedom and so he persuades Godber to re-enter the prison with him by whatever means they can, undetected. So, he and Godber (Richard Beckinsale) break back into the prison and end up in the Officer’s club storeroom where they get drunk for 2 days before being discovered and eventually exonerated. For many years, I contemplated myself in Fletch and Godber’s shoes and envied them. They had nothing else to do but drink their way through as much of the stock-pile of booze available to them. On the outside of prison, they had no money to go to a pub or shop, where they would have been turned in by the public anway. A terrible dilemma for them. Their self-inflicted incarceration in the alcohol store of the prison was their best available option and I day-dreamed about such a thing happening to me. I often thought of this episode whenever news stories appeared about people in captivity. I imagined the day of release from such ordeals, and what I would do to celebrate my own freedom. I remember being very worried about poor John McCarthy at the time of the Beirut hostage crisis. My sympathies kept focussing on how he coped in captivity without a drink. And then one day they announced his imminent release, and I speculated when he might be allowed to have some alcohol. I thought about his flight home in a military plane and whether such a flight would have a drinks trolley and if it did, would he have to be careful not to get too drunk before being interviewed in England. It was the same with things like land or space explorations in the news. I would wonder if the explorers had any alcohol on their voyage and how they coped without it. My mind usually came round to Fletch and Godber in Porridge.
  1. Borat. The film has nothing at all to do with drinking, but in my memory, the night I saw this politically incorrect farce was a microcosm of my drinking world. The occasion of its first viewing was mid-week, when I went to see it with a group of close friends. I was excited and excitable. I had one or two drinks at home before heading out to the cinema. I bought two bottles of white wine in quick succession in the Odeon bar and acted as host to the group as they arrived, refilling their glasses repeatedly in an effort to get everyone into the same state of excited intoxication as me. My over-enthusiasm for the occasion was a cover for my over indulgence with the wine. One was an excuse for the other, and everyone went willingly along with it. And why wouldn’t they? Enthusiasm is infectious. Most of my friends would drink a bit more than usual when I was around! I brought as much booze into Screen One as I could carry. We whooped and gaffawed through the film (well I did) and afterwards I pleaded with everyone to stay for a last drink before heading off home. They stayed and I laughed and drank some more. Several years later I saw Borat again. It wasn’t quite the same as I remembered it. It had a layer of irony which had gone over my head the first time, and in so doing I had missed the central point of the film. But the night had gone down in my mind as a classic.
  2. Arthur. Starring Dudley Moore. If you had to make a case for alcoholism at its extreme – Arthur would be the principle witness for the defence. I wanted to be Arthur. I dreamed not only of his fabulous wealth, without responsibilities of any kind, but I envied his light-hearted outlook, harmless sense of fun, and affectionate delivery. His was the perfect life. I envied his every drink in every location. I couldn’t think of anyone who was having more fun than him. He was a role-model!
  3. Sideways. This film is unashamedly about alcohol and very funny. There’s some great acting and plenty of hilarious drunken scenes. It’s probably on many drinker’s lists of favourite films about drinking. It was the last drinking film I watched before quitting. I liked it so much because my partner loved it too. Her love of the film was a sort of exoneration of the things I loved about drinking, which by association had her approval. And as my drinking had become more and more of a problem in our relationship, this film helped me to feel accepted by her, and that was very reassuring to me. I loved hearing my partner’s admiration of the film, as it felt like a second-hand admiration of me.

I haven’t seen any of these films again in sobriety, but I don’t think they would stir the slightest temptation to drink again.

So much of the drinking that appears in TV and in film is sexed up that I would have to stop watching all entertainment if it held any temptation for me. Thankfully, it brushes over me. But if ever I feel a twinge, I just remind myself of how many times I have tried the drinking thing in the past, and how much I don’t need to do it again. Ever! And I’m very happy about that!

What type of drinker are you?

(article by Will Piper)

  1. Boozy Binge drinker

It’s Sunday – Day 3 –  terrible 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 rehydrating 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.

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 soft 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 nowand 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 call my hipflask my TSB (think: Lloyds TSB advertising slogan – “For The Journey”) and this, or a couple of miniature vodkas would usually be stashed away on my person at most times.

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 squash, 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 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!

Chocolate Fondant versus Vodka

article by Will Piper

In the 3 years and 4 months since I quit alcohol, I am 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 – alcohol.  I also have a bit of a thing about sparkling water too. And chewing gum.

But when I quit the booze, I don’t think I actively sought substitutes for alcohol. 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 alcohol –  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 caramelised descriptions.

From the moment I quit alcohol, I would eye up these descriptions 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 alcohol 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!

Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality

article by Will Piper

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 AA 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 AA.

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 AA. 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, AA 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.

And there was even a problem I found with Step One of AA’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 AA’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 AA 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 AA 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?!

AA 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. AA reminds me that drinking would take me back to dependency on alcohol. It reminds me of how destructive alcohol can be. AA is a warm blanket of support, and it’s there whenever I might need it. And I’m far from ambivalent about that.

New discovery in sobriety!

Something has finally clicked after 3 years and 3 months in sobriety. I had thought for a while that my recent cause for celebration was my newfound source of income as a film extra! (ha ha, I know!) –  one that doesn’t require working long hours in an office doing a job that is soul-stripping.

In fact, as exciting as this development is, my unbridled joy is down to something much more grounded than that. It is the realisation that nothing in my life (other than the people I love) is more important to me than my recovery from alcohol. And further, that 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 career-path all my life. And such a long path of wrong turns and discomfort that has been. Now that I am found, I am not going to take any more wrong paths again. And if that means staying put, then so be it.

Now I know that someone once said something about how we all choose our own back-story. And of course I am aware in the artifice of my choosing the above one. But if I have stolen this suit, it actually fits very well and I’m keeping it!

weird new world – in a good way (2)

OK – so I had a little knock-back. I got “released” from a “pencilled” filming date. Reason?  A scene re-write.  It felt like someone had stuck a pin in my balloon though, just when I was showing it off to my friends.

It’s fine though, cos I had a nice email saying they’ll pick me for other dates. And guess what! True to their word, I have just had another pencil date for next week. On the strength of this I have registered with two other casting agencies and been accepted onto the register of one of these – the other is still pending.

My balloon has re-inflated!

It all suddenly feels good again and I am able to work on marketing my book, Not Alcoholic, But…  and writing more content for my sales training course. At home! The luxury of it feels like a hot bath in winter. Except of course, it’s Spring – the season of hope.

None of this would be possible without the financial freedom that quitting alcohol has given me in the last 3 years. That’s the bedrock of everything. It’s a bedrock that has allowed me to build some modest blocks to work on and earn a little money doing things I enjoy. Now, after some considerable time of trying to get these projects off the ground, in sobriety, I can sence the possibilities and I feel excited. Things are at at last starting to happen, and I may never have to go back to conventional 9-5 work for some hideous corporate outfit, ever again.

But I realise that in the last 3 years I have been working on the psychological building blocks too. I would never have had the patience in my drinking days to stick to a simple plan for very long. As soon as I saw some potential I would get carried away and start drinking the profits in wild celebration before I had earned a penny. Then I’d have given up on the idea and sulked. I’d have borrowed some more money from somewhere at the same time. Life was always a roller-coaster of soaring highs and desperate lows.

I have learned to live  sober on a calm, even level. I appreciate simple things like 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.

So this new excitement in my life , the background artiste work – feels like a high of the old kind, but this time round I feel able to cope with it. It’s also an intensely sociable activity involving hours of sitting around with strangers, and I’m giddy in my enjoyment of it all. In the past that wouldn’t have been possible because the intensity would have sent me straight to the bottle for a confidence boost and to hide behind an alcoholic mask – not drunk necessarily – but anesthetised. But now I just feel fine being me. And I’m able to really enjoy the emotional surge too.

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