On Sober October

By the end of a week in Majorca I was day-drinking with abandon. Beer O’clock crept earlier and earlier. A Cruzcampo at 4pm. Then at 2.30pm. A cava or two with a tapas lunch. A cold beer in the pool under the midday sun.

It was lovely. I didn’t have a single hangover. It was the kind of low-level drinking, spread out over many hours, which did nothing more than leave me slightly zen.

I can’t quite pinpoint why I decided to do Sober October, although maybe drinking too much on holiday had something to do with it. Summer and all of its many Aperols ended for me when my return flight from Palma touched down at the end of September. Christmas with all of its (necessary, wonderful) excess loomed on the horizon. October seemed as good a time as any.

When someone asked me later in the month “Why Sober October?” I said, “I think it’s because it rhymes” and then I said, “Ohh I see. Because I wanted to know if I could do it. Because I wondered if I’d feel any better.” That was it, really. On a whim.

Everyone’s relationship with alcohol is deeply personal. I’m aware that it can be somewhat of a sensitive topic. Me clumsily blathering on about going a whole month without alcohol when there are people out there with real addiction problems might seem tone deaf. As a disclaimer, then, this is just my experience.

Before this October I was a moderate drinker. I’m saying that as if I’m in any position to objectively judge my own drinking habits. The thing is that, to you, my weekly intake might seem either positively ascetic or wildly extravagant. It’s all relative. Adrian Chiles’s recent ITV documentary Drinkers Like Me was an eye-opening examination of what we all consider acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to drinking.

He said he didn’t think he had a problem because he never drank alone or during the day, yet he was consuming over 100 units per week and scans of his liver showed he was at risk of developing cirrhosis. My ‘too much’, your ‘too much’ and the government’s recommendation about what constitutes ‘too much’ might all be very different.

Before this month I probably had a one or two alcohol-free days per week, although it ebbed and flowed in phases. I probably drank a bit too much on Fridays and Saturdays. I wasn’t counting but I probably broke the recommended allowance of 14 units per week because when a 175ml glass of 12% red wine is 2.1 units it’s extremely easy to do. That’s an allowance of six/seven glasses per week. I’ve been guilty of drinking as a means of stress relief. I’ve definitely used double gin and tonics as a coping mechanism to get through take-off during flights. And I haven’t gone a whole month without alcohol since I was, well, a child.

This would be a challenge for me. Not enough of one for me to ask people for sponsorship, though, which Macmillan encourages. It calls participants of its own Sober October initiative ‘sober heroes’ and assumes, perhaps correctly, that drinking is so ubiquitous in our culture that to give it up for 31 days straight requires superhuman effort. Good on those people who raised money for such a fantastic cause by not drinking this month. I just have a complex about asking people for sponsorship. I only felt comfortable doing so for a 27-mile walk this summer because it seemed like a suitably awful challenge. (It was.)

My Sober October would be purely to see what impact not drinking might have on my own health and well-being. I was intrigued to find out how much of a mental challenge it would be, too. Extensive blood tests and a liver scan both before and after would have satisfied my intense curiosity but, as I wasn’t being backed by a documentary crew, all I’d have to go on was how I felt. I started on the first of the month. A fresh start, a blank page. A Monday.

It was easy for the first couple of days. I was keen to dry out after over indulging in Spain. Then I made spaghetti Bolognese. Who knew a spag bol would almost be my breaking point? After opening a bottle of red to add to the sauce, it was pure torture not pouring a glass for myself. The following day it got to around 7pm and my fingers were itching for a glass of something. I cracked open the non-alcoholic gin and tonic I’d bought in preparation for such a moment of weak resolve. I can’t tell you how pathetically disappointed I was when it tasted, predictably, nothing like a gin and tonic.

The next day I poured myself a bitter lemon with lashings of ice. The day after that an elderflower cordial with soda water. These ‘treats’ made me feel like I was getting the ritual of an aperitif. A week in, I went to a birthday party in a pub. I had a non-alcoholic beer, no one was weird about it and it tasted fine.

In terms of alternative drinks options, my findings were thus: Non-alcoholic wine is godawful. Non-alcoholic g&ts are a waste of time. Most non-alcoholic beer is good. Seedlip is overpriced. And you should definitely drink non-alcoholic fizz from a flute when everyone else is caning the Prosecco. Fancy glassware really does help.

Around the day eight mark, I stopped craving a ‘faux’ drink at the end of the day. I’d forgotten about it altogether. It made me realise that my drinking is largely a habit. Spag bol = glass of red. Pub = pint. End of a bad day = glass of something. Fizzy Fridays. Half a cider after country walks. These were all just ingrained associations in my mind. Habits which were initially hard to kick but then surprisingly easy to ignore.

Admittedly, I wasn’t ever challenged in a huge way. I didn’t have any weddings, Big Nights Out or flights. If any of those things had fallen in week one I may well have caved. As the month went on, though, I just knew that I wasn’t going to drink. There was no question in my mind. I didn’t especially avoid places where alcohol would be thrust in my face because being around it didn’t bother me. Days 8 to 21, you could have made me sniff a pint of ice-cold Thatchers or hold a glass of champagne and I wouldn’t have touched it. I didn’t want it.

Mid-way through I went to a dinner party where a drunken disagreement broke out. The argument went around in a circle, getting louder and nastier with every refill. I calmly interjected to defend someone I thought was being treated unfairly. The following day I woke up without a hangover and without any of the usual ‘hangiexty’ about what I’d said the night before. If I’d been as hammered as everyone else I might have run my mouth, as I’m wont to do, but instead I felt I’d done the right thing without getting remotely riled. No regrets. This whole not drinking lark was actually kind of… Great?

As for the health benefits of not drinking, these are many, varied and much debated. The government’s latest set of guidelines state that no level of drinking is safe. There are those who say a small glass of red wine now and then is good for health and even increases life expectancy. In the remote Italian hill town of Acciaroli people who drink small amounts of wine regularly live past 100 so who bloody knows? It’s a minefield.

A recent episode of Trust Me I’m a Doctor explored the benefits of abstaining from alcohol for a month. A group of 26 participants were tested and it was found that, afterwards, “their cancer markers, liver fat and weight all fell, while their quality of sleep, concentration and liver health improved.” The effects were more pronounced for heavy drinkers but were still measured in the light drinkers. One particularly enthused guinea pig, Kathy, said: “After the four weeks, I felt like a different person. I don’t drink hardly anything anymore. I feel absolutely amazing.”

I didn’t feel quite as revitalised as Kathy after the experience. My sleep did improve initially. I had a couple of really great nights of sleep, the kind where your head hits the pillow, you blink and eight hours later you wake up feeling reborn. I started remembering my dreams. Just when I was beginning to think not drinking was a miracle cure for sleeplessness, my insomnia returned with a vengeance mid-month. Overall, I think my sleep was ever so slightly improved by not drinking but there were multiple other factors at play.

My mood stayed pretty level over the month. On the rare occasion I felt like punching a wall/crying/crying after punching a wall I went for a long run in lieu of mainlining red wine. I felt really quite sad I couldn’t have a drink during the first week (my God, spag bol day was hard), totally disinterested in drinking during the middle two weeks and thoroughly bored of the whole tedious endeavour in the final week. In terms of willpower, the first and last seven days were the hardest.

Average weight loss after a month of not drinking is four pounds. I lost one. I drank loads more water. I ate well and found that I didn’t get as ravenously hungry as I usually do. I avoided all of the beige, processed foods I tend to reach for when tipsy or hungover. My consumption of crisps dramatically decreased. My liver is almost certainly less fatty than it was.

I have a confession to make at this juncture. I’ve been referring to it as ‘a month’ but I should really be calling it 28 days. On day 28, three days early, I broke the ban. I feel pretty okay about that decision. I made it four weeks exactly without a drop of alcohol and then I drank the best part of a bottle of Pignoletto. The popping of the bottle, previously a non-event, became almost ceremonial. The first sip was MOMENTOUS. Delicious. I was almost immediately pissed. Drinking again was a lot of fun. Very strangely, and against all odds, I felt fine the following day.

I’m chuffed I made it through the (almost) month and I would do it again. It gave me an opportunity to notice what my drinking habits were. I do feel marginally better but I didn’t see any miraculous results. I am not a glowing picture of health. Perhaps one month isn’t long enough to feel transformed.

The Trust Me I’m A Doctor study found that heavy drinkers who abstain from drinking for a month tend to dramatically cut down their intake afterwards, by around 70%. For those people, a month off can really make a difference. Light drinkers, defined as those who consume the recommended 14 units per week or less, tend to return to their old ways. That may be what I’m destined for, although I do want to cut down a little. I’m going to aim for two or three alcohol-free days per week and try to keep my intake low the rest of the time. There’s no need to get so drunk I say things I don’t mean at dinner parties or feel like death the following day. Maybe I’ll try the three-drink maximum at social gatherings in future. She says.

I feel much more in tune with my drinking now that I’ve had time away from it. I can sense- as I think we all can- when my consumption is creeping up and becoming more self-sabotage than enjoyment.  Sometimes things happen that make you want to drink and drink and drink so that you don’t have to be present in the world while they’re happening to you. But alcohol is a depressant. It’s best avoided altogether when you feel like shit. Someone I know once said, perfectly earnestly, that alcohol was, ‘a great comfort’. I agree but I’ve also been reminded that a glass of wine shouldn’t be a coping mechanism. It should be a nice treat. Something to be savoured now and then. I don’t need or want to cut it out of my life altogether but I do hope to be a bit more mindful and moderate about it.

I know. I’m so smug and punchable right now. Mindful and moderate is the plan but we’ll see how that’s going come December, when my blood stream has historically been 90% Prosecco at all times.

And there’s no way I’m doing Dry January.

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