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)

Stepping onto the pitch …

There’s total abstinence on one extreme of the axis, hedonistic indulgence on the other, and somewhere in between lies moderation. But exactly where moderation is on that axis is debatable, and that’s always been my problem with it.

Whereas abstinence is ‘0’, and indulgence is ‘1’, moderation is 0.x where ‘x’ is something that can never be defined. There’s no slippery slope with ‘0’ and ‘1’ extremism, no grey area, no line in the sand to keep to one side of, making decision-making very simple.

I stop drinking booze, ergo, I simply don’t drink alcohol. I quit eating meat and I open a vegetarian cookbook. But if I cut down, I still ‘do’, and I’m standing in no-mans land betwixt and between the end zones of abstinence and indulgence. To extremists, moderating your booze means you can still have a drink any-time. If you cut down your dairy intake you can still eat some cheese. Whatever the underlying reasons, be they ethical, moral, health related or financial, to the extremist every time you ‘do’, you fall short of that ‘reason’. You can also no longer measure success or failure in the middle, because in this analogue no-mans land everything is still possible and both failure and success continue to compete for attention, whereas in the digital end-zones of abstinence and excess everything is crystal clear, you either do or you don’t.

This is why I have always tended to operate in the end-zones.  If I choose to run I want to become a total runner. I buy books on running, I download running apps, I listen to running podcasts, I research running shoes to PhD level, I dream about running, I blog about running, I seek out running people, I bore other people with my running and I create pro-running echo chambers on social media. I run every day and I become a true running bore living wholly within the indulgent ‘1’ end-zone – a running legend in my own head and my own lifetime. And then I get injured and I can no longer run, but instead of cutting back I stop running altogether – apps are deleted, podcasts are unsubscribed, running gurus are unfollowed on Twitter – and I gather up my belongings and up sticks to decamp in the opposite ‘0’ running end-zone of total abstinence where I live as a complete non-runner, eschewing all running related facets in my life, mixing with like-minded sedentarists.

And that’s the problem with extremism. End-zone living might be very clear and very simple, but it does come at a cost. Most importantly, it’s extremely difficult to comply with. To never do anything ever again takes remarkable courage and commitment. But worst of all, when you fail, when your toe silently and subtly edges over the end-zone white line it’s over, gone, completely and forever.  You can’t ever be a little bit pregnant in the same way you can never be a vegetarian who eats the occasional chicken nugget, or a teetotaller who enjoys a sherry at Christmas. Extremism is a lifestyle not to be taken lightly, and it’s utterly exhausting.

Extremists eschew moderates, seeing them as weak and ill-disciplined, rudderless, with no rules or signposts for living. Extremists stand in both end zones, arms folded, tutting and sighing at the fickle-natured moderates who smile and giggle their way through life like it’s some kind of light-hearted and flippant game.

Take nutrition as an example. Not wishing to generalise too much but it’s fair to say that, generally speaking, Americans are extremists where the French are moderates. American food is covered in labels telling us they’re ‘sodium-free’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘zero-calorie’, ‘cholesterol lowering’ and so on. French food on the other hand, if it is labelled or packaged at all, is marked ‘cheese’, ‘beef’,  or ‘snail’.

And you don’t need me to tell you who are the healthiest and happiest nation. That’s right, it’s the one that sits out in the middle drinking wine, smoking Gitanes, eating fatty meat and indulging in sugary desserts. Meanwhile the extremists are drinking litre buckets of zero cal sodas through plastic straws and eating foods refined within an inch of their lives (but stripped of all devilish ingredients such as salt and sugar).

And the act of eating itself – a social construct to be enjoyed and shared with moderates, becomes a sin for extremists who hide behind their desk or the wheel of their car (whilst parked up in the end-zone). One is a meal that is also a social occasion lasting a couple of hours, not something sinful you endure for ten guilty minutes in isolation behind closed doors.

And the moderate who enjoyed steak and chips with red wine for lunch, may just have a small cheese dish for supper. He rarely if ever goes off the rails. He drinks most days but never more than a couple of glasses, although it’s perfectly fine to indulge too every now and then. After all life is for living. Everything goes when you’re in the moderate centre, nothing is banned or out of reach, and it is precisely for that reason that things are rarely abused out there in the middle.

The extremists future is by definition dystopian, a field of landmines to be delicately negotiated, whereas the true moderate’s presence is utopian, a busy road to be enjoyed and shared with others. Extremists fear the future, whereas moderates enjoy the present.

I’ve been a life long extremist but it’s time for me to move out of the end-zone and onto the pitch. I’m going to try and mingle, shake hands with some moderates and see what happens.

And I really, really hope I don’t end up in jail, hospital or rehab.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 17.07.03

 

 

 

Running to stand still …

Today was one of those special days when the sun came out and shone brightly all day long. Supermarkets were selling BBQ food by the skip load, lawnmowers were purring, the birds were singing and everyone appeared to be in a good mood.

And I had to go for a run. I just had to. There was no freewill involved, this was an executive order issued from upon high, and so I strapped on my lime green running shoes and I ran …

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 15.33.00

Within seconds of starting my run I felt real joy, which sounds a little stupid and Hollywoodesque, but its the most accurate word I can come up with. It was like I was in sync with the world (there I go again). I felt the cool breeze on my skin (stop it), marvelled at the blue sky and cotton white clouds (no really, stop it), smelled the flowers in the fields (oh ffs), heard the birds in the trees (tra-la-la) and felt like an integral part of this sunny day, like I was somehow a piece of the jigsaw, instead of the jigsaw builder (better).

And that’s what running does to me, it’s what running does for me. It makes me feel whole. Running for me is an inclusive experience because it connects the dots and joins up the pieces. Running is the thread that binds me to the world, and for a few moments I stop being the passenger who watches the world go by, instead I become part of the world’s fabric.

I often consider myself a spectator. In a meeting room full of business people, I’m continually scanning the room, trying to work out or second guess people’s back stories, trying to see what lies behind their corporate facade. I’m the same at a party, on the outside looking in, searching for clues, gauging the atmosphere, trying to read between the lines. I float around the edges of conversations, a few feet above my own right shoulder, looking down on and witnessing events, but never really being part of them.

A consequence of such behaviour is a feeling of disengagement. I berate myself for not participating more in meetings, or for not chatting more at parties where everyone else appears so much more involved. Instead my mind appears distracted, in absentia, rarely in the ‘now’, usually to be found trying to guess the future or poring over the past.

Except when I’m running.  When I run I flow within the world (don’t go there). There is no third person at these times and no shoulder to sit on. The world is running with me and I’m running with the world. The world is running within me, not without me (another U2 lyric?).

Running won’t make me rich or make me a better person, but it does give me a sense of connectedness and purpose. Running opens up a brief window into a place where I suspect many luckier people already inhabit – people in meetings, people at parties, many of my friends and family, I suspect they’re all there already.

I wonder if a life can ever be lived wholly in flow.

In the meantime I look out of the window, somewhat disengaged, looking forward to my next run.

IMG_0868 (1).jpg

This post was written on Sunday 9th April, hottest day of the year so far …

Nothing to blog about …

manatpc

Not me, I have more hair

I let my blog run dry. I tried often, but I couldn’t find anything to blog about that didn’t sound contrite or repetitive. I just kept staring at the blank page, stood up from my desk and walked away. And then I did that again and again, several times over.

I probably played a game on my iPhone, or I read Twitter. Or Facebook. Whatever it was, it was almost certainly time-stealing, counter productive and procrastinating in nature. To be fair, in fleetingly brief periods of positivity, maybe I also considered going for a run, but then remembered my sore back and tight hamstrings and thought better of it.

Arriving at the conclusion that I couldn’t run on account of my ‘tighter-than-a-tourniquet’ hamstrings probably made me feel even more fed up, compounding the already fed up feeling of Blogger’s Block that kicked off this maudlin’ malaise in the first place.

Things then got worse.  I scratched an itch on my head and I felt dry skin. I burned my head skiing. That’s not a sentence you see very often.  I have hair, I definitely have hair. If someone were to describe me they might say … ‘Andy is average height, has a big fat blotchy red round moon face, a beer belly and grey hair‘. ‘Hair‘ would definitely be in there.  Admittedly it’s thinning a little, but still, I undoubtedly have hair, and that’s definitely noticeable when you see me, and yet I didn’t see one other single person with a burned scalp on that skiing trip.  Not one. Even bald men had unburned scalps, I kid you not.

Which begs the question, why did my scalp burn? It can’t have just been strong sun, or there would have been other casualties. Ergo, I must have a scalp problem. It’s probably sensitive. In fact if you were to say anything vaguely hurtful to my scalp, it would probably cry, storm-off to its bedroom, sulk, not come down for tea and withdraw from society for days, only to emerge wearing all black clothing and a sullen smile. It wouldn’t have a pale complexion though, it would have a bright red one.

So I can’t blog any more, I can’t run on account of my bad back and ‘steel-guitar-stringed’ hamstrings, and I can’t go out in daylight in case my scalp catches fire.

I have something else to confess. On my last day of skiing, in fact on my last downhill run, I tried to break my speed record, as recorded on my skiing app. My current top speed was 68.7km/h, and due to having a bit of an OCD thing especially around numbers, I decided I needed to break 70km/h. And I tried, but at around 69.993km/h I lost control, my left ski flew off to the left towards a group of young French people and I somersaulted a couple of times, banging my head in the process.

skier-crash

Not me, but you get the idea … #wearahelmet

If you’re reading my blog for the first time you might be mistaken for thinking I’m aged 17, but I’m in fact 52 and I really should know better. 70km/h isn’t even very impressive. I’m an awful skier and 60km/h is probably 10km/h beyond my best capabilities, so why I thought trying to achieve 70km/h on my last run on my last day, without a helmet, is so pathetically idiotic to beggar any semblance of vague belief.

Anyway, I did that, and I returned home with a few injuries but kept them to myself as it was all a little embarrassing. Nevertheless, when I awoke the next morning and couldn’t lift my neck off my pillow, and then felt very dizzy when I eventually did, I decided to see my GP.

I was diagnosed with whiplash. Thankfully no obvious or sinister signs of head trauma (scalp aside), but just as I was leaving, the GP asked if she could take my blood pressure. I obliged. It was high. She was concerned. She tested it again. Same.

So, I have blogging constipation, a fused series of vertebrae, tighter-than-a-snare-drum hamstrings, ultraviolet-shy scalp and arterial-busting blood pressure.

I think I’ve put weight on too.

 

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).