My relationship with alcohol: The 10th anniversary of taking breaks and learning lessons.
July 2020, I upload an Instagram poll on participation in dry July and the power of the crowd would decide my fate.
12 months earlier, I was on the phone to my father, telling him about my health check-up results, which showed worrying results for a bloke in his early 30’s. I had shown up hungover to the check-up, just a reflection of my care for my health and at the time speaking to dad. I recall proudly “wearing” the results as if had just won gold in the self-sabotage games.
In 2019, I had spent £4650 on alcohol at bars and pubs alone*. Assuming an average drink in London costs £5.19, that’s approximately 895 drinks in a year or 17 drinks a week. I think I found part of the reason I was in such bad shape.
The new year in 2020 brought in a much needed 12 weeks of abstinence from alcohol. I had done three similar stints in the last 10 years. In 2010, I announced on Facebook that I was having my first break from alcohol which was a controversial and courageous move for me, given my environment, friends and age group.
This “concept” was made available to me and thousands of others, thanks to my good friend (and first podcast guest) Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning. HSM focusses on addiction and aims to help people change their relationship with alcohol (and other addictions). Chris has been a wonderful friend and support and I owe a lot of my growth journey to his ideas and input on my life. After the initial three months of abstinence, the team created a mini-documentary with pre and post video’s produced to document my experience. After finishing this experience, it seemed like I had a new lease on life, but it was not to be that linear.
Growing up in Queensland, Australia, where alcohol is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture and from a very young age, I observed heavy drinking all around me. My parents and friends were no different to most, drink for this, drink for that, drink for everything! I recall my first personal “binge drinking” experience at the age of 12 when a friend brought “rocket fuel” to our primary school fete and there began a very early introduction. Through my adolescent adulthood, I worked in the food and beverage industry and in award-winning restaurants, sometimes drinking on the job was a standard practice, which was followed by the mandatory “knock-offs” to drink after the shift. On days off it was Sunday Sessions and long boozy lunches, and I haven’t even begun on my University days, but you get the idea.
After moving to the UK in 2014, I saw one of the likely “inspirations” of the Australian culture. I was particularly exposed to this when I moved to Nottingham to play Rugby, where for my initiation to the club, I underwent an obstacle course at which every station required imbibing heavily; this was just the beginning of the season. Regularly after training sessions, we would have a number of pints and it was then I heard the term for the first time “five and drive”. Saturday game days were the heaviest, where straight after the game you were to down a pint to begin the evening’s heavy proceedings. Often reaching in the early hours of the following day.
Heavy drinking is not a new problem, but at what cost? Documentaries like A Royal Hangover show the true cost of alcohol to society in the UK:
Alcohol is estimated to cost the NHS around £3.5bn per year, which amounts to £120 for every taxpayer, according to the latest available figures from the HSCIC. Overall, treating alcohol-related conditions costs the NHS about 3.6% of its annual budget.” [theguardian.com]
The official NHS advice on excessive drinking says, to keep your risk of alcohol-related harm low:
“Men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis.
If you drink as much as 14 units a week, it’s best to spread this evenly over 3 or more days”
How did I operate when consuming almost 3 times the recommended weekly intake? The first step is admitting you have a problem, right? I didn’t think I had a problem. I mean, it wasn’t like I was having a drink in the morning, nor did I drink every day. Did I have a drinking problem? Do I have a drinking problem?
Following my most recently successful 12 week sabbatical, I was speaking with Chris from HSM again. He was also on a run of interviews, trying to serve what he anticipated as a mental health and addiction concern during the lockdown. It is still too early to truly understand how lockdown has affected addiction and alcohol use, however, Chris had said that this was expected to be an issue that will span further than this current pandemic.
Alcoholchange.org.uk 2020 data suggests:
Around one in five drinkers (21%) told us that they have been drinking more frequently since the lockdown. This suggests that around 8.6 million UK adults are drinking more frequently under lockdown.
Even before lockdown, their 2019 study showed:
24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines and 27% of drinkers in Great Britain binge drink on their heaviest drinking days (over 8 units for men and over 6 units for women)
I watched the interview back with Chris and, I realised one thing; I wasn’t really sure if I was in control or if there had been a lasting change; that I still really didn’t know what drove all my underlying behaviours. Why did my habits seem no different 10 years later?
I have observed how alcohol has directly impaired my life. From my behaviours affecting relationships, run-ins with the law, arguments and fights, lost possessions, the lesser savoury task of involuntary purging said substance and all of the other the dumb things. I also recognise that there have been plenty of positive things that come from social drinking that have enhanced my life.
Alcohol aside, maybe your vice is different: it may be drugs (not always illicit), smoking, eating, biting nails, your mobile phone or Netflix, just to name a few. It all affects the same areas of the brain: The mesolimbic dopamine pathway gives you that hit, every time. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits talks about the Habit Loop: Often it is not the actual effects of the addiction, but it is the act of doing it that fires up the reward centres of the brain. A simple example of this is the language of wanting a drink and not always “a wanting” to get drunk.
Chris asks in our recent interview “what is your relationship with alcohol like now?”
“When lockdown happened, I found it really easy to slide back into old habits and I allowed my self to have a drink here and there, after my recent break. When faced with the prospect of a drink, I am able to catch myself and ask “what do I want?”, do I want to get more out of my day tomorrow? I think it’s a daily decision. I realise that I have a relationship with alcohol that is going to be a prickly path always. Managing that is important and it is up to me how I reason with my myself and manage myself.”
Reflecting on this, drinking is actually much less the demon, but the pursuit of self-governance and the seemingly elusive and nebulous idea of balance and making quality decisions.
So, where to from here?
I had built up this larger than life persona through drinking sessions since my mid-teens. Leading into my 20’s and to now, this had overall served me with a sense of social equity (in my own mind, anyway). I was able to be confident in any situation and I was able to be someone my sober-self thought he couldn’t be, it was even given a name: Puggles (see the above video for that story).
Now, I did realise that over the years I had been able to build similar confidence level when sober as I had when drinking, with much more control, grace and authenticity. Let’s also call that maturing as an adult who is taking responsibility for his life. I have to ability to do anything that I put my mind to, I don’t need to drink for that every time!
To correlate with the last 10 years, I have also delved deeply into personal development, undertaking exercises such as discovering my values. These help to guide me to my “true north” when faced with difficulty and temptation. As you can see, I am by no means perfect as a person, however, the aim is to find my greatness in the moments where I win over my shadow, where I choose what is right for me for others and the greater good of all. Values undoubtedly guide me to less of the bad things and more of the good things, which is something I know that we all want.
To be clear, I don’t drink every day. I know plenty of people that drink every evening and maybe they can be functionally sound that way. That is not me, at all. As I historically have proven, I typically have saved the daily drinks into a weekend, where I “borrow all the happiness from tomorrow”, rendering me a sub-standard human for at least Monday and Tuesday. These are days that are traditionally loathed for a “weekend warrior” and it makes me think, why would you want to make them worse? The choice is daily and it’s not always to drink or not, it’s the difference between one and five drinks or the choice to drive or find alternative transport.
For your choices to be ongruent with your values. Micro-choices, every day.
Goals & responsibilities
I started The Feel Good Blueprint to give myself a better level of accountability, to be someone that could show others that even a seemingly entropic individual could find order in the chaos. I recently spent seven days re-writing my grand plan for being my best self, am I going to put all of this to waste? I could, but my goals, my values, my responsibility to myself, my partner, friends and family will always outweigh this. I choose to order the chaos as best I can.
There are plenty of budgeting tools out there to use. I used an app that helps me manage my outgoings and particularly for spend on drinks. I chose to cut my monthly spend by 80%, a drastic decrease but a necessary one that I am sticking to (for the most part).
I am in a much better state of health than 12 months ago and my physician was very congratulatory. As for dry July, I took the power of the crowd’s advice. For this moment, I will have a drink or two when it is appropriate, however, I have learned to not give my power away to alcohol or anyone else in the process.
As I write this, I sip my tea, raising it to another 10 years of taking breaks and learning lessons.
*(Give or take I am known for being generous for shouting others and there is also suspected food in this too, however for argument sake. Let’s just take this whole number).