Hello January :-))

At risk of sounding like a right old misery guts, I’m writing today to say that I am very happy to be properly back at work and saying farewell to Christmas for another year. As I launched a half-eaten box of mince pies into the bin this morning, it did cross my mind that maybe nobody likes Christmas all that much after all…

To put this into some context, I should point out that the main event of exchanging gifts, which for me entails watching my lovely girls rip open their presents with glee, is very nice, and something that I am more than happy to do. I also love the enforced downtime that the festive season brings with it, as I generally don’t get much time to relax and it definitely does me good to do so.

But what I hate is the fact that so many people feel extreme emotional pain at this time of year, for a number of reasons ranging from bereavement to broken relationships to things just not being where they hoped they would be. And neither do I like the pressure to be all Nigella-like in the kitchen (which in reality means you miss out on all the fun as you slog it out over a hot stove and a sink full of dirty pots). As a non-drinker, neither do I like the intense commercial push stemming from the alcohol industry, which results in millions downing more booze than anyone should ever do for their mental and physical health.

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When all around us we see signs advertising Prosecco and craft gins, money off multiple bottles of wine at the supermarkets, great big cases of beer at knockdown prices…when magazines are filled with images of glamorous people daintily holding glasses of fizz at elegant Christmas parties, and ideas for disguising hangovers with luxury beauty treatments…when mainstream newspapers are publishing light-hearted articles about the best foods to eat on New Year’s Day when you are nursing a crippling hangover…when we consider all of these things, on top of the various reasons why December can be a cruel and painful month for so many people, is it any wonder that Christmas brings vast numbers to their knees, desperate for it all to be over and for January to get underway with its routine and normality? The temptation to join in and drink excessively can be overwhelming, especially for anyone living with an alcohol dependency.

Personally, I used to hate Christmas, as a drinker and then as a new non-drinker, but as the sober years have passed by it has become a time that I can enjoy for a few small benefits (as mentioned above). But it still strikes me every year that for many, many people, it is unwelcome, difficult and downright awful, and virtually impossible to escape for those who may secretly wish to do so. It isn’t OK to ditch Christmas – in the eyes of many it’s akin to turning down a wedding invitation. You just have to partake – stick a smile on your face and get on with it. And make sure you have fun…or else!

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Midway through cooking Christmas dinner (I’m not a bad cook but it didn’t turn out all that great and I would have preferred to just eat a salad!), I began to daydream about lying on a hot beach somewhere, with a couple of Christmas presents to open followed by a nice swim and a read of a good book in the sunshine. Following on from the theme of my last blog about being true to yourself, I’m starting to think that next December, I may very well pursue this daydream…

Happy January 🙂

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End of January – Is It Time to Get Back on the Booze Bus?

There is a degree of bravado and openness demonstrated by many of those taking part in Alcohol Concern’s Dry January and Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon, the latter promoting their particular take on a sober start to 2014 with a cast of desperate mock athletes straining to reach a pint of the forbidden fruit (lager) on their Facebook page (in a jokey way, of course).

I suspect, however, that there are many people who feel terribly (and secretly) worried about their relationship with alcohol, and who sign up to these charity dry months because they provide a way of addressing a stigmatised problem without drawing unwanted attention to it. At any other time of the year, should you be so bold as to admit to the world that you have quit drinking alcohol, the reaction would probably be less than congratulatory.

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“Why? Are you pregnant?” or “What – forever? Are you an alcoholic then?” being common reactions, although not as common as the response which is mere silence followed by an awkward change of subject.

In the UK and much of the Western world, we do not hold in high regard the notion of teetotalism. And yet with alcohol being the direct cause of 12,500 cancers in the UK each year (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/alcohol/), 290 people being killed in drink-driving incidents in 2012, 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in England in 2011-12 and estimates indicating that alcohol-related harm overall costs the NHS in England £3.5bn a year (http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/alcohol2012-13.pdf), a non-drinking lifestyle may not be such a bad idea.

Of course, drinking moderately by sticking within government guidelines is how many people approach the business of drinking. For those people there is no real issue with booze, and certainly charity fundraising events such as Dry January would pose no major challenge.

However, there is a (substantial and largely hidden) proportion of the UK population who are unable to drink moderately but who struggle to come to terms with the notion of living alcohol-free. I was, for twenty years, one of those people. Deeply in love with Chablis, Pinot Grigio and a good, oaky Chardonnay, I was caught in an endless cycle where I believed I was treating myself each evening when I popped yet another cork, but in reality I was only deepening my ongoing depression, anxiety issues, lack of self-esteem and self-confidence, and the feelings of shame and guilt associated with the amount I drank.

Yet the thought of living alcohol-free as a lifestyle choice never entered my consciousness, from the age when I very first became aware of alcohol (probably about five or six), to when I began to experience the more detrimental effects of alcohol consumption in my early thirties. And then I toyed with the idea; a six-week dry period here, a health-giving detox there, but never fully wrapped my head around the concept of sobriety.

There were many reasons behind this, the two most obvious being that a) I was frightened of living without the crutch I had relied on for all of my teenage years and adult life, and b) I thought people who didn’t drink were boring.

When I eventually arrived (aged 35) at the conclusion that my lack of ability to recognise when I’d had enough was such that I would most likely die prematurely should I choose to continue to drink, I actually discovered that life without booze is rather fantastic. I love waking up full of energy and with a glowing complexion every morning. I love the fact that I never have to scroll through my phone to establish just who I contacted in the early hours and exactly what embarrassing sentiment I texted or emailed to them. I love the fact that I am now a patient and tolerant person, who always sees the bright side of life and rarely feels down. And I love the fact that I am no longer hiding behind a façade, but am the real me without pretence. I love the freedom that being a non-drinker brings.

I also enjoy how my creativity and productivity have exploded during the last three years I have spent sober, and during that time I have achieved more that I am proud of than I did in all my drinking years put together.

But I notice within our society that teetotallers are frequently regarded with suspicion, and their motives for wishing to exist minus the falsity of alcohol are questioned. I am the founder of a website which offers peer support to those with alcohol dependency problems (Soberistas.com) and therefore I spend an awful lot of time reading about the experiences of those who struggle with the same issues that I did for many years. With 22,000 members, it is clear there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy with living in the booze trap but who have not easily been able to extricate themselves from it – partly because we live in such a booze-obsessed world.

As Dry January and the Dryathlon draw to a close and those who have so candidly taken part return to join the rest of the drinking population, I can’t help thinking about how many people there are who have enjoyed a society-approved respite from an endless cycle of heavy drinking followed by depression and regrets the morning after, but who now feel obliged to climb back on board the booze bus in order to not feel left out; for many, it’s a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.

If we, as a society, ceased to perceive those who opt out of the madness of heavy drinking as oddities, and instead viewed their decision as a sensible choice for anyone who is not in control of their alcohol consumption, perhaps more people would feel motivated to live alcohol-free. For people who have managed to beat their smoking addiction, we give a collective pat on the back. Why not afford the same respect to those for whom alcohol causes only misery, and who therefore choose to live without it?

Maybe we should think in reverse when it comes to the old saying, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” I, for one, am a hundred per cent more trustworthy (and more fun, pleasant to be around, a better parent, and less selfish) as a non-drinker than I ever was as a boozer.

End of Dry January – Get the Beers In?

As today is the 1st of February, there will be a fair few people looking forward to a good old piss up following a month of abstinence for Dry January (or something similar).

As you will know if you have been following my blog, I am an ex-drinker of fairly epic proportions. For many years I would never have considered for a minute that I would give up alcohol, never mind start up a website to help others who are in need of some support in that area. But where do I stand now, after 22 months of sobriety? What does alcohol mean to me today? Drinking woman 2

When I gave up the booze, I unwittingly sparked off the beginnings of a virtuous circle. Fairly soon after pouring away my last bottles of Pinot, I also gave up smoking – and without much ado I have to say. Without a glass of wine in the other hand, I soon lost my enthusiasm for sitting outside pubs in all weathers puffing away on £7’s worth of fags, teeth chattering and fingers slowly turning blue. As a non-smoker and non-drinker, I then stepped up my exercise, signing up for a boot camp (losing many inches) and increasing my running.

I stopped being quite such a moody sod too, once the alcohol had rid itself from my now temple-like body, and my anxiety attacks disappeared overnight. I saw the good in everything and felt overwhelmed with an urge to do wholesome things like go fruit-picking at farms and baking cookies. I started to write about my new-found sobriety on this blog. My vision of the future gradually began to unfurl, hitting me with all manner of suggestions as to how I could shape it with all this clarity I was now experiencing.

In short, giving up alcohol made me love life and learn to like myself. I discovered through abstinence that there is so much more to the world we live in than sinking your soul into a bottle of wine each night, and muddling through the daylight hours with a sore head and a bad attitude.

There have been critics of Dry January who purport that those who take part are fooling themselves into believing they are helping their livers recover for a few weeks, before jumping back into old boozy habits as soon as the calendar has been turned to February, but I disagree. I think there are so many positive effects of abstinence, that even if the Dry January-ers go back to drinking after their month is up, I believe many of them will do so with a view to moderating, purely because they have proved to themselves how much better they look and feel as a result of laying off the sauce for a while. Some may even decide to give up for good.

Personally, 22 months of sobriety is nowhere near long enough for me – I’m in it for the long haul!