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 7-day Intermittent Fasting experiment

fasting-plate

I’ve been interested in Fasting ever since I saw the Michael Moseley Horizon programme in 2012, not just for weight loss reasons, but rather the claimed health benefits – lowering the risk of developing diabetes, dementia and cancer.

Fasting purportedly diverts energy and resources away from food digestion, focussing instead on doing useful housekeeping things like cell repair, reducing insulin levels and generally ridding the body of toxins and other debris. It also re-teaches the body the lost art of deriving energy from fat, as opposed to from the carbs in our belly – a process called Ketosis. Most of us carry enough fat to survive several weeks without food, which is why fasting is safe, and why many people have successfully conducted 21 or 28 day fasts without any harm.  It’s also popular in many religions and spiritual practices – Islam (Ramadan), Buddhism, Bahá’í, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism … the list goes on.

Even outside of religion and spirituality, fasting has been a natural part of human existence for as long as we have been around, primarily because food was scarce and so early man had to eat when he/she could, forced to fast in between hunts and catches. We are therefore designed to cope well with fasting, it’s in our genetic make-up, even if it does feel a little alien to the modern psyche which has been raised on the 3 square meals a day regime (3SMAD). The introduction of 3SMAD has its roots traced back to 19th Century America – it was a symbol of civilisation to sit down with friends and family at fixed times to eat, an attempt to differentiate the ‘civilised’ white man from the indigenous natives. It could therefore be argued that fasting is more natural to us than 3SMAD.

Nevertheless, many people will still argue that 3SMAD is best for us and that fasting is sheer madness. People will claim they feel ‘shaky’ if they miss lunch, and cite this as evidence they need to eat, but there is a counter-argument that your body has just become so dependent on deriving instant energy from food carbs that it’s forgotten the lost art of ketosis which fasting allows.

I therefore decided to give it a go for a week. Instead of the traditional 5:2 diet which I followed for a year or so but found rather difficult, I decided to try just eating one meal a day, every day, limiting my calorie intake to a couple of hours each evening. That means eating nothing whatsoever for 22 hours – no sugar or milk in tea, certainly no snacks or fruit, just water, tea and an occasional black coffee. You could call this the 7:0 diet – a little extreme maybe, but if the theory of ketosis is sound, I figured it wouldn’t be anything more than a psychological challenge. If you want more detail on this, I got the idea from the following video Eating Once a Day.

Important to note I placed no restrictions on what I ate (or drank) in these two hours. I didn’t cap calories or consciously cut out any food groups.  I even allowed alcohol because I know if I had banned it, I would have fallen at the first hurdle. What is interesting, is what happened:

My Diary

Day 1 – not surprisingly this was easy, after all I had a corpulent body full of yesterday’s 3SMAD excess calories to keep me going. I didn’t want any alcohol and just ate a moderate plate of veggie grub.

Day 2- felt good, loved waking up and not having to worry about food all day, a feeling that persisted throughout the week. Interestingly I only had (only wanted, only needed) a light meal, although it was accompanied by a glass of wine. Day 2 was a Friday, and had I banned alcohol in this experiment, I may have felt resentful and rebellious. However, without any alcohol ban I was free to enjoy a glass, and because I felt good about the fasting, I wasn’t tempted to drink any more, ending the evening feeling unusually virtuous and sated.

Day 3 – felt good, went for a long walk during the day (4 miles), had a veg stir-fry for dinner plus two glasses of wine (it was Saturday night). I didn’t really enjoy the second glass of wine – one would have been enough but in a perverse mindfcuked reasoning kind of way that only I could muster, I convinced myself I should have a second glass to prove to myself I wasn’t restricting alcohol.

Day 4 – hard, very hard. Perhaps it was the wine? Who knows, but I had a persistent headache all day, felt tired and sluggish despite sleeping well and craved food throughout, occasionally staring balefully at the cheddar cheese in the fridge. I only just made it through to tea-time, but interestingly didn’t have (or want) any alcohol. Veg Thai green curry (no noodles).

Day 5 – much better. I was busy which helps a lot and I just had a light veg dinner. No alcohol. I definitely felt lighter and I’m definitely sleeping better and eating much healthier food through choice/desire. No cravings whatsoever for junk food (odd for me) and most surprisingly of all, despite not restricting alcohol, I’ve only had 3 glasses of wine in the first 5 days, including a weekend, and anyone that knows me will know that’s quite uncharacteristic.

Day 6 – all went well, seems to get easier. Had a light veg based dinner, no alcohol. Sleep continues to improve. Once again my focus and concentration was immense, far better than usual and my work productivity has undoubtedly increased. Managed a 2.5 mile run.

Day 7 – felt harder. Perhaps knowing this was the last day made me psychologically weak, like I sensed the finish line. But that makes it sounds like it’s been a hard slog and it really hasn’t. I’m only stopping today because I set myself a 7-day target for this experiment and the more I look at it, the more I believe I could continue further. I survived and rounded off the 7-day fast with an oven baked jacket potato and cheese like mama used to make. Enjoyed a 3-mile walk.

In summary

I would say on average I have consumed well under 1,000 calories a day, probably closer to 600-700, and interestingly have eaten smaller portions and higher quality evening meals than I ever did on 3SMAD. I also rarely craved junk food and 3 glasses of wine was well under par for me for a weekly total. I also ate total vegetarian – due in part to a bountiful supply of garden produce, but certainly not a conscious action at the outset of the experiment, perhaps this was pure coincidence.

Of course 600-700 calories a day isn’t sustainable long term, but I guess that’s where ketosis comes in, at least in the short term. I have AMPLE fat stores to draw upon, as do most of us fortunate enough to live in the western world, and so such a challenge over a relatively short period of time is only ever a psychological one I think. This was never going to be, nor ever planned to be, sustainable, I just wanted to check if it was doable, and it was. It’s foolish to draw any firm conclusions, but it has proved to me you don’t have to eat at set meal-times, it’s OK to skip a meal (or two), and in fact it might even be good for you to listen to your body rather than the chimes of the clock.

I have no idea what it has done for (or to) my health, all I can say is I felt better afterwards than I did at the beginning. I felt like I had more energy and my brain was definitely sharper – I could concentrate for longer and didn’t feel sleepy during the day. For the record I lost 3.4kg (7.5lbs) in weight. No doubt much of that will go back on when I return to normal eating, although, and here’s the crux, I’m not entirely sure I will return to my normal 3SMAD eating, but perhaps somewhere in between.

I’m certain many of you will think this was a silly and dangerous thing to have done. All I can say is I survived and as described above I felt better than I did previously. Best of all I believe I now have a much better perspective and handle on my, admittedly rather quirky relationship with food (and maybe also drink).

 

 

The driest of Januarys …

Edit: I only just realised by re-reading some of my old blogs that I did dry January 3 years ago! I have no recollection of that, so apologies, this wasn’t in fact the driest of Januarys, but certainly one of them.

As I’ve blogged previously, the new year is always an important time for me, a time to start afresh and right the wrongs from the year just gone. And in recent years I have been following other people’s Dry January with interest – a challenge where folk try go the first month of the year without any alcohol.

Unfortunately for me, my birthday is on 2nd January which makes Dry January extremely challenging. Of course my wife who has a healthy outlook on such things, just suggests I start Dry January on the 3rd day of the month and continue through to 2nd February. As always she is being hyper logical, but to my OCD mind that’s a horrific nonsense and a complete non-starter. That would make Dry January not at all Dry January but Dry-for-most-of-January-and-a-little-bit-of-February which is just plain silliness.

For some reason this year I really wanted to do Dry January and through December it was all I could think about. I was bored and tired of boozing, having reached the point where I was drinking out of habit. I was drinking good stuff too, quality wines, not cheap plonk, yet I was still feeling indifferent, somewhat ‘meh’ about the whole thing, like what was the point?

And so, at midnight on New Years Eve, I toasted in 2016 and put down my Prosecco glass. It was actually 12:07am which made me feel slightly sick, but I managed to convince myself that’s OK, it was a drink that I began in 2015 and it was New Year’s Eve, so I cut myself some slack and started the clock, managing to navigate a dry birthday on day 2.

By way of background, let me add that my previous alcohol-free, all-time-since-I-have-been-an-adult record was 17 days achieved in January 2011. I know that because I record these things and have done since I was 22 when I started to jot ‘AFD’ on the corner of my pocket diary on each day I had no booze (alcohol free day). What happened in January 2011, after 17 consecutive AFDs, was that my wife and I were invited next door for dinner and I couldn’t say no to some wine. My journal entry for the following day was littered with self loathing to levels even extreme for me.

January 2016 felt different, and it was. I remained dedicated to the cause, I remained full of resolve and breezed through to Feb 1st with only the slightest wobble on a business trip to Athens on 25th Jan when I was offered a glass of Ouzo to toast a new business relationship. I surprised myself by politely declining it and toasted instead with my glass of Athenian sparkling water.

Apart from the challenge in and of itself, I found the 31 day journey quite enlightening. My sleep was definitely of a higher quality, and I noticed early on how my mental state of mind had improved. I felt less paranoid if that makes sense? Maybe it only makes sense to paranoid folk, but I definitely felt it, and I felt much calmer, more relaxed, less on edge. I was also eating better, resisting the urge to snack on crisps and other snacks which always went hand in hand with a pint or a crisp glass of wine.

I also lost weight, around 11lbs (~5Kg). I wanted to lose weight, I needed to lose weight and so that was a great bonus and incentive for me. I know the caloric reduction from no booze wasn’t the only factor, but not drinking made me eat better, exercise more and sleep better, all factors which contributed to the weight loss.

So what now? I panicked on February 1st, imagining my first drink undoing all the good from January. I actually dreamt waking up on Feb 2nd at 4am in a prison cell with no pants on, I was clearly 5kg fatter with popcorn stuck to my gob and curry sauce on my chin. As you may recall, dear bloggers, I don’t do moderation very well and so I knew it wouldn’t just be one drink, it would be a bottle and possibly more.

Drinking would of course also mean breaking my AFD run, I would be back at square 1, I would have ruined everything so what would be the point in doing anything after that other than drinking more? Awful scenario. My mind works in mysterious ways.

So here I am, Tuesday 2nd February 2016, still 2016 clean and very much enjoying it. I have decided however not to set any more targets, no more goals (for now), instead I will just take it one day at a time.

If I want a drink, I shall have one. The thought of never drinking again makes me feel sad, perversely the thought of having a drink also makes me feel sad, and so I am taking it one day at a time, each day on it’s own merit, and perhaps one day in the near future I will decide the time is right to have that drink.

And I sincerely hope that when I do, I don’t wake up naked in a prison cell.