100 not out … a journey into sobriety

I’ve been a moderate-to-heavy drinker for almost 40 years. Like most kids around my way, I started to explore drinking around the age of 15/16, but didn’t really turn pro until I was 18.

I’ve never been able to say I’m an expert at anything, I’ve always felt like a ‘jack of all trades’, except when it came to drinking. In fact if drinking had been an olympic sport in the early-80s I would have been a shoe-in for the GB team, just ask anyone at my university, especially my lecturers.

It’s not surprising therefore that I messed up at university, and that really should have been a warning sign. When I moved south for my first job, carrying my shoddy, just-scraped-through-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth degree with me, my northernness (the chip on my shoulder, my funny accent) it only served to compound my insecurities, but that was OK as I was good at drinking and I could always fall back on that. And so I did.

I could always hold my beer. I’ve never been a classic drunk, and I would never be ‘outdrunk’ by anyone. I had (and still have) this uncanny knack of knowing precisely how many drinks everyone else had had, and no matter how large the group or how busy the pub, I would be keeping an eye, not letting anyone move ahead of me in the ‘drinks consumed’ column. I was always the last man standing.

But I was always (to borrow a term from those alcoholics over there) ‘high functioning’. I was reliable and would always turn up for work, I never got into trouble with the law, never got into fights, never had blackouts. I was a good drinker and I was defined somewhat by my drinking.

I recently found an old pocket diary of mine from 1987, I was 22, and even back then I used to record Alcohol Free Days by marking the corner of the page with the abbreviation ‘AFD’. It’s interesting to note that I was obviously concerned about my drinking, even way back then, whilst still very young. For the record I recorded just 36 AFDs in the whole 12 months of 1987 and I think that was pretty much the norm.

As I grew older I continued to drink steadily, but with marriage and children came other responsibilities and that helped me to rein in my drinking although I continued to have a rather odd relationship with alcohol. I continued to track AFDs and still had concerns about my intake.

What normal person tracks AFDs over 40 years? What normal person lays awake worrying about how much they drink? Who schedules AFDs into their calendar? Who tracks units consumed and plots graphs over time? How many of us wake up with their first thought being whether or not this would be an AFD?

In short, alcohol was making me sad. I wasn’t depressed and certainly not suicidal, I just felt gloomy and I wanted to find out why. On New Years Eve 2018 I felt tired, I was overweight, I had indigestion, I was sleeping badly, eating badly and I was irritable. And so I stopped.

January felt quite easy, this was a new challenge and I was motivated. I’d done Dry January before, twice in fact, but in both cases, once February came around, I relapsed back into my old ways very quickly, like slipping into an old pair of jeans – drinking became very familiar again, like meeting an old friend.

This time I completed January with few problems. I hadn’t lost any weight, in fact I had gained a little as I think I was eating more to replace the void of alcohol on my evening agenda. My sleep wasn’t much different either, but I did feel mentally better – more alert and less anxious – and so I decided I would continue into February.

Initially, February was difficult. All the Dry January people and accompanying chatter had fallen away. Life returned to normal for normal people – Christmas was forgotten, everyone was back to work and sobriety in February felt quite a struggle. In mid-February however, I realised that for the first time in 40 years, I had managed to go more than 40 days without alcohol. Pathetic in absolute terms, but an achievement in relative terms and this spurred me on to complete my second month. 

During February I noticed my sleep started to improve. I would still wake during the night, but the intervening periods of sleep were deeper and I woke feeling more refreshed. I also felt a lot ‘happier’ – my mood had lifted, my positivity increased and I just felt somehow better equipped to handle life.

March arrived and I felt my habit start to loosen. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting it takes around 66 days to break entrenched habits, and it was around this time that I stopped craving a drink at 6pm and stopped checking off progress on my calendar.

And so here I am, I made it through March and into April. Today is day 100, I am 100 AFDs not out, just like Geoffrey Boycott (I don’t think Geoffrey was a heavy drinker by the way, I just made an awkward segway from booze to cricket for the sake of a lazy ‘100 not out’ analogy). And just like Geoffrey (here I go again), my innings wasn’t always pretty, I was nudging and nurdling singles mainly (taking it day by day) and I got there eventually.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, I still miss a drink occasionally, and every now then I seem to miss it an awful lot. The feeling comes upon me unexpectedly and in that instant I feel fleetingly sad – a realisation that I can’t just join in with normal people and raise a glass of champagne or down a couple with the lads. But the feeling goes as quickly as it comes and these feelings do get further apart. But these feelings are preventing me from saying I will never drink again. I’m not a born again soberista, I’m not a convert, I’m just a heavy drinker taking a break and trying to break a habit.

And at this point I can almost hear the screams of you normal people wondering why I don’t just moderate! Like a normal person!! Well, I’ve tried moderating many times and it has never worked, for me it has always been a sure fire, slippery slope back to my normal levels of heavy drinking.

But worst of all for me is the mental chatter. The incessant commentary in my head brought about through trying to moderate:
‘just have one drink … don’t have a second … oh no you’ve had a second drink and now you’ve ruined it’
‘today was going to be alcohol free but now I have that dinner party’
‘I feel fed up, perhaps one drink is OK, and maybe a second is OK too? I promise to be good for the rest of the week’
‘Oh God, I overdid it, now I must be alcohol free for the rest of the month’


Ugh … by far the best thing about being alcohol free for me has been the loss of the internal, infernal, incessant monologue going round and round in my head. I have so much free time now to think about other things, better things, bigger things. I have so much more time on my hands and I’m more mentally and physically capable of doing more things with that time too.

To summarise, the best things for me have been:

  1. Sleep – wow, way better. I undoubtedly sleep more deeply, and if I do wake during the night, I fall back to sleep more easily. I’ve lessened that infernal, internal chatter. Best of all I wake in the morning feeling ready instead of feeling half beaten.
  2. Mental health – I’m just so better equipped to deal with the shit life throws my way. With booze it’s easy to hide – to put those problems on hold for a while, but of course that’s all you ever do, put them on hold. The problems are still always there until you deal with them.
  3. Weight – I’ve lost about 6kg, so around a stone. I’ve saved over 40,000 calories through not drinking.
  4. Fitness – no hangovers means better and more regular running, further improved by the weight loss and better sleep.
  5. Diet – way less junk food, less cravings for sugar, more stable portion control, more mindfulness around what I eat and when I eat.

So what now? I honestly have no idea. I’m not a born again teetotaller and I will never preach to others to do the same. Most of you don’t need preaching to, because most of you have a perfectly healthy relationship with alcohol. Our house continues to be full of booze, same as it always was, and guests will always be welcomed with a drink whenever they visit. My wife drinks, my kids drink and my friends drink and that’s absolutely fine with me. For this to work it can’t affect others and that’s my water mark.

This has become an important personal journey for me and I’ve probably opened up here more than I initially planned, but I think I’m OK with that. To quote Gloria Gaynor, I am what I am. Alcohol removed the sharp edges from my life – it might have dulled the pain but it also dampened down the highs. Alcohol isn’t fun for me currently, and until I feel like it is, I’m going to carry on with my sobriety.

Perhaps one day I will drink again, moderately, yes, moderately, without any associated mental baggage and with no risk of sliding back into my old ways. Maybe one day, choosing to have a drink will be like choosing what clothes to wear – a decision I can make in an instant, based purely on instinct instead of flawed logic, an inconsequential decision that I don’t ever need to over-analyse or think about again.

I’m not quite there yet, but I am getting there and I hope that doesn’t come between us. After all I have a shitload of wine under the stairs that won’t drink itself.

Geoff Boycott of England celebrates on the balcony with a glass of champagne which links nicely to Andy’s analogy, see? He’s just completed his 100th Test Match Century on the first day of the 4th Test Match between England and Australia at Headingley in Leeds, 11th August 1977. (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

A concept piece in separating the self …

In truth, there’s only ever us, and then there’s life outside of us.

There’s me – my painful knee, my anxiety, my fear of spiders, my dreams, my guilt, my aspirations – and then there’s life out there – the dripping tap, the thunderstorm, Brexit, a spider under the sofa, a garden full of leaves.

These are two very distinct things. I am me, and those things over there are just, well, those things over there.

I control me – I determine my emotional state, my level of well-being, my industriousness, my laziness – and all that is within my control, but I don’t control all the things happening out there – the rain, the wars, the politics, the insects, the plumbing.

And yet, whilst I don’t control any of ‘that’, only ‘this’, I seem to be often held hostage by ‘that’.

Let me give an example …

I see a spider, I feel frightened. Before seeing the spider I might have been quite content with life, but the moment the spider does an 8-legged trot out from beneath the sofa into my line of vision, I become a pissing, gibbering wreck.

Yet I am still me, still the exact same person I was pre-spider – same body, same genes, same blood, same brain, same thought processes.

So what happened? I am now frightened and scared, whereas before I was happy, before that damned spider appeared. Except the spider didn’t appear, the spider was always there, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. What really happened was the spider had a thought, made a decision to walk left, out from beneath the sofa. Had it chosen to stay put, or turn right, I would have remained happy.

Think about that, a neuron fired randomly in a spider’s brain and it spoiled my day. Go figure.

I spill my tea, I cross the road and a car beeps its horn, it’s raining out, the news on the radio is all bad … and yet, in none of these cases could I have affected the outcome. Other people will always piss me off, whatever I do, rain will always fall when it’s ready, earthquakes will always happen, Brexit is Brexit.

Far better surely to live a life where a spider neuron firing doesn’t make or break your day? Far better to live a life where one feels good or bad because of ones own actions?

If, on my way to work, I call in on my elderly neighbour to check if they’re OK and perhaps make them a cup of tea, then surely I deserve to feel good, because there is a genuine cause and a genuine effect, instigated by me.

And more broadly speaking, through such actions can society not be incrementally improved? Whereas when the spider turns left, well, society doesn’t change one iota …

Nor does society change when the lorry driver angrily waves the wanker sign at me as I cross the road and I do the dickhead sign back. What happens is two people become angry, two people’s health suffers and that part of the world becomes a little bleaker, a little angrier.

Let the spider turn left, let the lorry driver wave his chubby, fat, porky, gammon fingers a certain way, let the rain fall. Throughout I can still be me, only ever me, exactly me, before and after.

I think happiness needs to be earned, dictated by the ‘self’, not commandeered by others (such as a spider). Happiness shouldn’t come from pride, but from action – by making a brew for the elderly lady next door, mending that fence, writing that poem, unblocking that drain. These actions make society better and are in turn worthy of happiness.

In a similar vein, nor should we be defined by our jobs or careers. We weren’t born as Accountants, Shopkeepers or Teachers, we became them. But we didn’t change into them, we didn’t switch from being a human being to suddenly being an angry lorry driver – the two things co-exist.  And whilst one is permanent, the other is only ever temporary.

I happen to be a Yorkshireman and I work in Sales. I will always be a Yorkshireman, but I won’t always be working in Sales. At least I fucking hope not.

Our occupations are simply cloaks we wear, uniforms if you like, but the mistake many of us make is that we rarely take them off. Many of us might have been working for so long that we feel like we’ve become someone else, like we’ve shed our original skin and grafted a new one, that of an Accountant, for example.

Think how we often greet strangers:

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”
Me: “Hi, I’m an Accountant”

Time to stop, perhaps. Time for a different tack …

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”

Me: “Hi, I do life”

Them: “Oh. You’re weird, a bit of a dickhead in fact.”

Me: “Look! A spider!”

Hmm, perhaps this ‘concept’ piece needs more work …

Monkey say, monkey do (parallel universes) …

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I find myself all alone, all on my own, by myself, and I get excited by the seemingly endless possibilities of what I can do to fill the glorious void of time and space stretched out before me. Not just content to fill that time and space, but to better myself, to correct past mistakes, to make personal advances – to learn, to grow spiritually, physically and mentally.

Imagine the scene – I wake up one morning, no one is due home until tomorrow. I have no work, it’s a Sunday, say. A just-me Sunday, 24hrs to myself, to do what I want, and my head is spinning and overflowing with thoughts and ideas:

{screen shimmer to a parallel universe where my chimp imagination lives}

I rise early and visit a local market, I’m on my bike, I wave to the postman and stop briefly to chat to a neighbour. At the organic market I buy some fresh, local produce before enjoying a coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in ages. Before leaving we make a date to catch-up properly over a beer. As I cycle home I plan the meal I’m going to cook for evening supper.

After I’ve unpacked I decide to go for a run – a long, uninterrupted run across the rolling hills within easy distance of my house. I return 72 minutes later (great time), exhausted but fulfilled. I take a long, lazy shower that refreshes. Shortly after I find myself sitting by the french window, mug of green tea in hand, reading my complex, dark and challenging novel, music is playing softly in the background, I think it’s Rachmaninov.

After finishing the novel, wow, I write a short review online. I then call my mum, we chat, we reminisce, we laugh. I do some laundry before I start prepping my evening meal whilst listening to a play on the radio. It’s hilarious, but, being partly educational too, I also learn a lot about the first world war, for it was a historical play. Smart. I catch sight of myself in the reflection from the window and I’m wearing a checked shirt, sporting round glasses with a rogueish haircut. I look ripped.

My meal is ready, I pour myself a solitary glass of wine. I feel relaxed, muscles nicely tired from exercise. I recall the conversation I had at the market with my friend and I smile, ruefully. One glass of wine is enough, so I clear away and once the kitchen is spotless, I sit at an antique desk and write a letter to another dear friend, for I have many. I seal the letter and place it by the door – I’ll post that first thing tomorrow, I tell myself.

I’m tired, I make myself a chamomile tea and repair to my bed where I read a little but soon fall asleep for eight peaceful, slumbering hours. I dream I’m on a European historical and gastronomic touring holiday with many of my close friends, we are having a blast.

{Screen shimmer}

We are back in the room where the real chimp me lives.

I wake with a jolt. I’m absolutely shattered, I slept like shit again. I reach for my phone, I read Twitter for an hour, feel very angry at the world so switch to Facebook. After a few minutes I feel angry at my friends too, so I switch to Instagram. That feels better, nice pictures, though some are a tad boring. I really should get up. I go for a pee but get back into bed, picking up my phone again. I play Candy Crush – level 1470 is a total, complete and utter bastard of a level, as though invented by the devil himself, to be played for eternity in Candy Crush Hell by Candy Crush Sinners. I run out of lives and feel very, very angry with all employees at King, makers and developers of Candy Crush. I check my friends’ Candy Crush progress – bastards, every one of them, they MUST be paying, they MUST be buying levels. What snakes.

Two hours have passed, it’s now mid morning, I really should get up and do something with my day otherwise I’ll feel like shit, so I get up and shower. That’s better, well done me, and so as a treat I check Candy Crush, I have earned back two lives, yay! But I fail to beat level 1470 again … twice. I head to the kitchen for breakfast in a rotten mood.

I should have oats and berries but I’m starving. I spot the leftover takeaway curry in the fridge and smile, moments later I’m tucking into microwave-warmed chicken dhansak, bombay aloo, rice and leftover naan. My plate overfloweth. I leave nothing. I’m feeling really tired now, so I switch on the TV and watch a recorded Match Of The Day that sees me through to lunch. At least I’m clearing space on the TV’s hard drive, I tell myself.

I should go for a run but feel too tired, my belly swollen with curry. There’s a knock on the door, so I hide out of view. I try to read but I’m not in the mood for that either, so I search out a new boxset on Netflix.  It’s shit, so I reach for my smartphone and check social media, burning through the rest of the afternoon as my internal levels of anger and resentment rise like sap within me. The phone rings, I can’t bring myself to answer it, I’m not feeling very sociable.

I suddenly feel inexplicably sad and unfulfilled, but as it starts to get dark I decide it’s OK to have a drink and I start feeling better, so I open a bottle of red wine which makes me peckish. I look in the fridge, nothing, just an empty space where the leftover curry once lived. But then I remember the pizza in the freezer and I’m sorted.  The wine complements the pizza so much that I open a second bottle. The extra large deep dish with cheesy crusts is challenging, but with extra wine for lubrication I manage to complete the circle of dough just as I finish the second bottle of wine. Synchronicity.

I’m wide awake now. It’s soon midnight (how time flies), and a great time to post on social media, I tell myself. I’m feeling very political and tweet ferociously, letting the world (or at least my 172 followers) know exactly how I feel. I’m both political and funny. What a guy, that’ll show my followers and I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up a few more after that tirade. I lose five followers, five idiot followers, so switch dolefully to Facebook where I post one of my funniest jokes ever which earns two likes – most of my friends must be sleeping.

It’s 2am and I’m peckish again. The 1.5 litres of red wine has left a funny taste in my mouth (was the wine ‘off’, I wonder?), so I open a bag of cheesy quavers (86 calories) and pour myself a generous malt whisky (way better than beer), which feels like a masterstroke. Perhaps I should have been a culinary chef/dietician with my own TV channel? My imagination runs wild.

I wake at 5am, I’m fully clothed, laying on my bed, all the lights are on. I’m impressed how my autopilot self manages to do that, to get me home every time, and think I must be special.

Very special indeed.

monkey

Thank you for your smile …

Nothing disarms me quite like a genuine smile.

When someone smiles a truly genuine smile you see into their soul, just for a brief moment. And whatever came before, whatever games are played after, in that instant, you see the spirit, stripped of any pretence.

I’m careful to talk here of genuine smiles, smiles from the heart. Smiles that are spontaneous, unplanned, unrehearsed and unpracticed. These are smiles that can’t be learned, smiles that are truly inimitable fingerprints of their owner. I believe everyone is born with a genuine smile that can never be masked. One can of course practice fake smiles, camera smiles, business smiles, polite smiles, flirtatious smiles, political smiles … but one can never fake, or hide, the genuine smile.

Genuine smiles happen when you are caught off guard. They’re triggered by something that provokes a primeval response, deep within. They catch you unaware, like when you trip or fall and your arms stretch out in front to protect you. You have no control of this reaction, no time to think, it’s purely instinctive, and a genuine smile is exactly the same.

The grown-up name for a genuine smile is a Duchenne smile, a term coined in 1862 by a neurologist called Guillaume Duchenne, who identified that the muscles used in a spontaneous smile are not merely the ones around the mouth – but also the ones around the eyes.

More formally, a Duchenne smile involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes).

duchenne-smile-secondary_275H_JR

Left: a nice man, right: a complete c***

Fortunately, we humans are quite good at spotting the difference, and we’re naturally attracted to Duchenne smiles because they’re unforced and genuine. I believe we are attracted to them because it signals a stronger virtue.

Two celebrities with particularly strong Duchenne smiles are Emma Willis and Robin Williams. When I see a Duchenne smile, I don’t need to think about it, or analyse it, I just react, usually by smiling myself. And I often wonder why I’m drawn to certain people, like Emma and Robin, and I’m sure its because they invoke a positive reaction in me, due in no small part to their generous Duchenne smiles:

And it isn’t entirely to do with beauty. Victoria Beckham has some very striking attributes, yet rarely displays her ‘Duchenne’, opting instead to hide behind a more formal, colder, practiced image – a fake smile with very little, if any, orbicularis oculi stimulation. This is sometimes coined the ‘Pan-Am’ smile, a familiar smile worn by many a tired air hostess. All very well intentioned perhaps, but … well … not for me.

Meh …

Last week I went to the cinema to watch The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, and came away from it feeling wonderfully warm, contented and happy. A truly joyous film, delightfully British – both warm and funny in equal measure, with a superb cast.

‘But didn’t you find the plot a little weak’? A friend asked.

‘No’, I replied ‘but I think I’ve just seen the finest exponent of the Duchenne smile that I have ever seen in my entire life’.

Lily ‘Duchenne’ James