Thinking of giving something up in January in pursuit of a better, slimmer or more whatever you? In my work, I have given up everything at one time or another – from drinking to sugar, worrying to spending – though thankfully not at once and kept pretty detailed accounts of what happened. If you like that kind of thing, during January, as a treat (of sorts) I’ll post up some of my diaries under the series, Health Holy Grail
If you have an honest account of giving something up – successful or not, send it over and I will post it.
Eight Weeks without booze.
Yes. Eight. Whole. Weeks.
Problem drinker? Moi? I have a glass of red every other night, and every couple of weeks or so I go out and get a little tipsy – well okay, shattered – with my girlfriends. Most women I know drink the same way. Anyone of them will tell you that’s absolutely normal, for any professional, 30 or 40 something with a social life, family and stressful job. Besides, we could give it all up tomorrow, no problem. Honest.
Trouble is, getting older hasn’t mellowed my taste for merlot. It’s transformed it from something I could take or leave – a glass of champagne at a work do or cool lager on a Sunday afternoon – in my 20s into something I absolutely had to have in my 30s. Like Pavlov’s Dog, come 6pm at the end of a bad day, I could actually taste the luscious, ashy liquid on my tongue, feel the first few sips calming my nerves. Before a big night out, I’d get so excited at the thought of giving in as my ‘fun tonic’ cancelled out my inhibitions one by one and I became smarter, prettier, more hilarious and had another, and another.
Who knows how anyone reaches the turning point that leads them to something as momentous as giving up drinking. I’d read the statistics: 44 per cent of women drink four or more units while socialising. What the papers coined ‘Binge Britain’ was just another a night out for almost half the female population, myself included. I’d heard the scare stories such as the case of Emily Pycroft, the high-flying publicist who died suddenly last summer at only 33, her body racked with a liver disease she didn’t know she had. I’d seen the dire health statements that alcohol related deaths in women aged 35-54 doubled between 1991 and 2006 and the apocalyptic medical prediction that within ten years, alcohol related liver disease would kill more women than breast cancer. I’m ashamed to say most of it washed over me in a ‘Well, it’s not like I’ve ever ended up in A&E,’ kind of way.
There were the increasingly bad hangovers too. In my 20s I could drink, smoke, stay out all night and still bash out 1000 words before midday. In my late thirties, the horror lasted two, sometimes three days, my sore head eating into valuable work time, while my face ate into about 10,000 calories of chips, bacon and other sources or pure grease (another thing anyone I know will tell you – hangover calories don’t count). But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we wore our hangovers like a throbbing badge of honour, bonding over morning after emails pinged between offenders of the ‘I feel so awful, but wasn’t it fun,’ variety.
But after a Friday night dinner at a food editor friend’s where the incredible cuisine, conversation, champagne, wine, port and more wine flowed I found myself asking the cabbie the time on the way home. ‘It’s 4.30 madam,’ he replied. There I was a supposedly smart, successful woman with a mortgage and a husband, getting home at dawn – drunk. The next morning, literally paralysed in bed as my liver cried out for mercy, unable lift my head, let alone speak.
‘After spotting me clutching my wine glass while watering the garden last summer, my husband began to call me ‘Joanie’ followed by a little hiccup, after a boozing Joan Crawford’
I lay there, staring at the ceiling thinking about my drinking past and it hit me. When drunk I behave like an uncontrollable teen, which isn’t pretty when you’ve just hit 40. I get so happy go lucky I end up taking unregistered mini-cabs home, shouting in clubs about the state of the economy, flirting with strange men so that post night out, my handbag was often full of cards from pimply insurance salesmen. It would prompt my husband to eye-roll on cue, as if to ask ‘Oh what’s she done now?’ After spotting me clutching my wine glass while watering the garden last summer, he began to call me ‘Joanie’ followed by a little hiccup, after a boozing Joan Crawford.
So I decided to stop drinking for two months. But that’s different to actually stopping. Here’s what happened.
Week One : ON THE WAGON
In hangover agony. Last night was my ‘farewell to drinking’ night out with girlfriends. But it’s not just the hangover, it’s the bottomless pit that is my morning-after stomach. I love healthy eating normally, but today nothing is going to stand in the way of me and rubbish food. I have had plastic cheetos, milky bars, a houmous wheaty wrap and a large bowl of sugary cereal with milk. As a result I feel bloated, windy and about 100 years old. Not to mention my fuzzy brain. I am so ready to stop drinking.
Still, what I can’t deny is the fantastically hilarious night I had last night with old work girlfriends. As usual we laughed so much that I actually woke up still giggling, two strange men’s cards in my handbag. I think one of them was an MP.
I know I need to do something – I have recurring eye infections and my skin is dry but pimply. This is not the picture of myself I wanted to face a month after my 40th birthday! I started this glass of red a night regime about nine months ago, after being stuck overnight at JFK airport on route home from Australia. It was the first time I had actually sat somewhere – in this case the airline lounge – and drank alone.
Week Two: OFF THE WAGON
It’s midday on a Friday, less than a week after I committed to not drinking. I am sitting here with a bleary head after falling off the wagon and having a large glass of Rioja last night. It was just enough to calm me down and help me relax, which is probably a bit worrying. I was fine with the idea of not drinking all week and feeling great, doing yoga every morning. Then last night I had a stressful day and found myself thinking ‘I could murder a drink tonight.’ It was like Pavlov’s dog, I could practically taste that red wine and feel it calming me down. Double worrying.
I got to the pub to see friends I hadn’t seen all summer and they had my birthday gift there – super-posh champagne – that I now can’t drink for three months. I had so much to talk to my Caroline, my favourite girlfriend ever, about it seemed sacrilegious not to be clutching a glass of fancy red and gesticulating like an idiot. So I thought, ‘Oh F*&^ it.’
I was never a drinker until about ten years ago, when at 30 I moved to this side of the world from Australia. It’s strange but the more successful I become, the older I get, the more compulsory it seems to power-drink with colleagues and friends. Working in media, drinking is almost competitive and like Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin’s character says in 30 Rock ‘this is ‘business drunk’ it doesn’t count’.
Needless to say, after that one large glass last night I woke up with a fuzzy head, bad tummy, sneezing, with streamy eyes and a puffy face and a grumpy, tired mood. Didn’t do yoga and ate a rubbishy cheesy roll for breakfast. Maybe it doesn’t exactly agree with me. So why does it feel like such a good idea at the time? It pains me to admit I can’t do this alone.
Week Three: CRAVING
It’s funny that I am writing a piece today about an alcoholic who wouldn’t admit she was one until she ended up almost dead and forcefully admitted to the Priory by her doctor. It’s ironic that I too am feeling an incredible need to drink. Last night I literally could have murdered a glass of wine, just one glass was all I craved. I’d had a busy, tiring week and a bad day, particularly clashing with someone who winds me up at work. I felt like grumpiness was literally infusing the blood in my veins and a large wine glass cum soup bowl of Chateneuf du Pape would be just the ticket.
Yesterday, David Smallwood, an addictions specialist at The Priory (for the non-Brits, this is like the Betty Ford of the UK) ran an ‘Alcohol Disorder Audit’ on me and gave me a score of 11 (and we’re not talking Spinal Tap here). ‘Some people score over 40 but at Priory, anything over an eight, is classed as the beginning of problem drinking,’ he said. According to Smallwood, alcoholics are made, not born and nobody starts off with the DTs and drinking two bottles of Scotch before lunch. It was enough to scare the bejaysus out of me.
‘Many addicts will start with a pint a day, but tolerance increases over time and they may find themselves using more and more to get the same high,’ he explained. The key warning sign is craving. ‘If you feel you need something to alter how you are feeling, then you may need help.’ The litmus test for most people is a fortnight’s not drinking. ‘If you think you have a problem with drinking, stop for two weeks. ‘If you can’t do it, you probably do.’ Ouch.
Week Four: HANGING ON
I am doing yoga classes most nights now to try and help this strange crankiness I feel at the end of the day when I can’t have my wine. It helps the grumpiness evaporate, giving me the same sense of wellbeing and relaxation and completeness that that the glass of red brings me.
I spoke to GP Dr David Smart, at London’s Westover Clinic, who said most of his patients would be at pains to tell you what safe drinking limits were or how much in a unit of alcohol. For the record, anything over 14 units a week or 2-3 units a day is too much according to the government and anymore than four drinks a night is officially a binge. It doesn’t help that a unit equates to about a thimbleful of wine (see drinkaware.com). In fact, when it comes to the 12 per cent alcohol I used to drink, one small glass is equal to one and a half units. That means my soup-bowl-sized Bordeaux glass was clocking about three units a night.
There are benefits to my new regime. I have more energy, people keep saying how well I look and my eye infections have disappeared. What I put down to hay fever could be an allergy to my favourite tipple. According the Allergy UK, red wine is full ‘histamines’, a common allergen and many people react to it with streamy eyes, nasal congestion and even asthma after having as little as one glass. This is not good news.
Week Five: HELP AT LAST
Last night I went to see Georgia Foster, the legendary hypnotherapist who specialises in problem social drinking. Finally, feel like I have turned a corner.
‘Whether or not you realise it, you’re probably quite socially shy and this is why you drink the way you do,’ says Georgia. ‘The alcohol helps you relax and feel more confident, you likes that feeling – who doesn’t? – and so it becomes easier to relax and drink too much’.
So, will not drinking will turn me into a socially anxious mess? ‘Many people assume it’s the alcohol alone that calms them down, but that is learned behaviour,’ she explains. ‘Just like you have learned that a glass of wine can calm you down and help you feel more socially confident, so too over time you can learn new techniques for feeling socially confident in situations such as parties.
Georgia hypnotised me, which was pretty innocuous, like a long rest, and sent me off with a 25-minute self-hypnosis MP3 recording that I was to listen to each night. I left her feeling positive for the first time. It struck me that maybe, rather than losing the fun and laughter of drinking, I was gaining something, like more energy and no hangovers….
Week Six: FEELING FANTASTIC
Since I started doing Georgia’s hypnotherapy CD, it’s actually become easy to ask for water – just pure, still water – instead of wine. I have stopped whining about not drinking and have begun to focus on how clear my skin looks and how I can go out night after night as I have zero hangovers! Last night at an awards do with my dad, I was calm and funny and all the things I expect alcohol makes me, but I was on water.
‘Okay, it wasn’t the hilarity, the sheer abandon of The Drunken Night Out, but in the morning there was no Horror Head either. Not a bad trade off’
But the best thing is my sleep. I used to wake in the wee hours – usually around 4am – with a start, unable to get back to sleep. Apparently, that’s the wine, says nutritionist Charlotte Watts. ‘If you’re drinking wine before bed, it could be relaxing you initially, but it will stimulate you later,’ says Watts. ‘Alcohol spikes blood sugar, causing it to drop dramatically a few hours later. When blood sugar drops, the adrenal glands quickly release a shot of adrenalin to raise blood sugar and provide energy, thus waking you with a jolt.’
I must admit I am steering clear of big nights out drinking with girlfriends, happier to go out in small groups for early dinners. You might call that cowardly, but I call it realistic. I don’t want to be in a position that would make me fall off the wagon – yet again!
Last night we went to Claridges for a belated birthday celebration and everyone was saying ‘Oh come on, it’s your birthday, have some Champagne.’ In hindsight, I can’t believe it, but I was just not interested. But I had a nice time and still felt my usual excitement at being somewhere so fancy. Okay, it wasn’t the hilarity, the sheer abandon of The Drunken Night Out, but in the morning there was no Horror Head either. Not a bad trade off.
Week Seven: HEALTHIER, OFFICIALLY
Has any of this made a difference to my bottom line health? I decided to ask my liver, literally with the Fibroscan, a new painless, non-invasive test that uses ultrasound technology to examine the functioning of the liver. ‘The only thing bad about having liver disease is not knowing you have it,’ says Professor Rajiv Jalan, consultant hepatologist at the London Clinic. ‘The Fibroscan can determine any evidence of early liver injury in a similar way that mammograms can with breast cancer or an ECG does for the heart. It can show us whether we need to do further investigations.’ According to Professor Jalan anyone who has been drinking 14 units or more a week regularly for over six months should be tested. Here’s the great news: the liver is the one organ in the body capable of regenerating itself quickly. My results proved this. I scored 3.9 in my Fibroscan and according to Professor Jalan, ‘That’s a very, very healthy liver.’ Anything over seven is cause for further testing.
Week Eight: THE VERDICT
Tonight is the last day of my eight week detox. I have a girlfriend coming over for a curry and I am stil in two minds as to whether I want to have a drink. I don’t know if it’s the hypnotherapy or just breaking the habit, but the thought of having a drink is kind of ‘take it or leave it’ for me. I am dying to see my friend Zeena and scream and laugh but I’m just not interested in getting drunk. If I am honest, I will probably offer her a glass of wine and have one if she does, but if she doesn’t I’ll have my usual water. I have learned that my drinking isn’t exactly healthy so I’ll be thinking twice before having more than a glass in future. I still don’t know what will happen on November 12th and 19th, both nights out I have planned with my girlfriends. All I know is that my need to drink has gone and been replaced with a boost in confidence that I can live life – and really enjoy it – without alcohol. That’s the best feeling in the world.
WHAT WORKED FOR ME
Hypnotherapy - Seeing Georgia Foster, a hypnotherapist specialising in problem social drinking was my turning point. I listened to her self-hypnosis MP3 every night and suddenly saying no to a drink without feeling deprived finally got easier. (georgiafoster.com).
White lies – You need little excuse for a drink these days, but say no to a tipple and everyone expects a good reason. So I made them up – ‘I’m on antibiotics’ and ‘I’m driving,’ were pretty hard to argue with.
Swapsies - I replaced my nightly wine ritual with a yoga class at London’s Triyoga in Soho. It gave me the same sense of wellbeing without the disturbed sleep or sore head.
Scare stories – However many scare stories or apocalyptic medical reports I read, I couldn’t help thinking ‘That’s not me, I drink Chateneuf Du Pape.’ How deluded.
Cold turkey – What scared me was that the minute I was faced with the option to have a drink, I took it. Just stopping takes a better woman than me and I knew I needed professional help if I was to succeed.
Not drinking announcements – Telling people I had stopped drinking for two months didn’t seem like a valid enough excuse and it was constantly met with ‘Oh go on, you can have one, we won’t tell.’
A Fibroscan liver function test plus specialist consultation costs £305. Call The London Clinic Liver Centre on 0207 616 7719 or log on to thelondonclinic.co.uk