One year no beer wasn’t really my mantra when I set off on this journey. Partway through I discovered a community which does sport this title. More to come later on that. If you’ve read any of this blog, you will know I’m always experimenting with something new. Whether that be at work, in sport, in my diet, in finding new interests, in getting to know myself better.
This time I thought I would change the habit of 44 years. I had my first serious alcoholic drink when I was seventeen and started earning money. For complicated reasons, not only did I not go to university, I didn’t do A levels. By 16 I was working. With money came other friends also earning money. With money came the desire to go out and spend it. Badly in most cases, true rites of passage.
That was that. I was a regular drinker throughout the rest of my adult life. I occasionally did dry January as a challenge. Followed by extremely wet February. Work occasions led to drinking. Friends occasions led to drinking. Sports occasions led to drinking. Can I say I was a heavier or lighter drinker than my peers as a young man? Not sure. It was such a cultural given, we just seemed to drink. A group of mates took up running regularly and we parlayed that into a reason to have a couple of extra nights in the pub as part of the cool-down routine.
Shaping The Early Drinker
I wasn’t blindly drinking, I knew there were downsides. My father was a major drinker, an alcoholic in the truest sense. The sense that his behaviouraffected his family badly. Made him treat my mother badly. Made the shadow of his behaviour hang over us. Yet even though I saw what it did, I carried on anyway, because that’s just what you did back then.
I wasn’t the most social person and nothing has changed in the intervening years. A high introvert, with a decent slug of social anxiety. I’ve never really conquered that. So drinking was a great force field around me, to help me deal with the social world, deal with other people and having to relate to them. Let’s be clear, the buzz was good. I enjoyed it, no-one and nothing was forcing me to tip the glass. The after-effects were sometimes not so good. Overall the deal for me was this was a slightly euphoric feel that took the edge off the world and even if I wasn’t 100% the next morning, I still felt ahead of the game.
I’ve been open in other posts about my struggle with depression through my life. It’s well known that alcohol is a depressant. I didn’t know when I was younger. When I did find out, I was willing to ignore the fact for a long time. The feeling of escapism with a few drinks under my belt was worth it. To get away from what I might be feeling about my life and myself. Only in recent years have I understood there was a level of self-medication going on, to deal with my depressive side.
Getting Into My Stride
I’ve never been down the road of saying I drunk too much because my father was an alcoholic and it’s therefore genetic. I drunk because I wanted to and enjoyed several aspects of it. Other than a couple of young man’s indiscretions, I wasn’t a throwing up drinker, an unconscious drinker, a missing work drinker, a wife-beater drinker. None of those. I came up in a culture where it was the done thing and I gave it 44 years. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I made my choice willingly.
My characterisationwould be that I had an extended period of being alcohol dependent. The regular tick-tock of the drinking routine: with dinner; extra one on Friday when work was done; Saturday pub lunch. I did notice that stress could make me add another drink to an occasion. When the pressure was on at work, I would read myself the subconscious script that went “another one will help you relax”. Of course, it didn’t help me relax at 3 am when I was wide awake and worried. But it did present the illusion of helping in the waking hours.
I have never had the symptoms associated with full-blown alcoholism. Not my father’s house wrecking, vindictive rages. No sneaking in the extra drink when no-one was looking. No waking up wanting a drink. A lack of hidden bottles in the garage. I kept it between the lines, as a lot of us do. While we kid ourselves it’s social drinking, or we can stop any time we want, or it’s doing us no harm.
I’m not sure I could do the functioning alcoholic bit either. It’s not a given that alcoholics are like my father. One of the men I respected most in my life was a functioning alcoholic. He could be funny, affectionate, endlessly supportive and dispense immense wisdom while carrying a full load of good claret. I couldn’t do that, I want to go into a slightly otherworldly place after a couple of drinks, I have no capacity to be intellectually sharp.
Strangely it was a comment by a Hollywood star that made me think more deeply. That makes me sound like a malleable, social media watching, reality television consuming victim. As far away from my reality as it’s possible to be, I’m the anti-celebrity type. My professional life gives me endless opportunity to rub shoulders with sports stars but I very seldom say as much as hello to people who are household names.
I read an article in which Denzel Washington said he decided at the age of 60 that he just didn’t need it anymore –
“I just had enough. Some things you can have enough of. Not peanut butter yet, but all alcohol. I gave it up with the idea of putting my best foot forward. I tried everything else, let’s try this.”
It resonated with me. I had worked with the thought that I had just had enough. This guy said what I had been thinking and I was just past my 61st birthday. I still eat peanut butter.
Day One No Beer
One day I just stopped. I had a glass of fairly mediocre red wine in Olbia airport in Sardinia and thought to myself “that’s it” with great clarity. I felt good as I closed the thought. A couple of days later I mentioned to my wife I had given up drinking. The decision must have been made subconsciously a while ago, as I slipped into my alcohol-free life quite easily.
In fact, I felt a great sense of being in control, making a positive decision. I saw it as an adventure, something to explore. Despite all the historic struggles through dry January and the endless broken commitments to myself over the years, there was no looking back. No regret. No temptation. Since then I haven’t tasted any alcohol. I’ve sniffed a couple of drinks when someone has said “this is great”, but it never occurred to me to taste the drink.
I thought a Christmas in New York might result in temptation. The same for New Year’s Eve in the party town of New Orleans. But no, not even a thought. A feeling of being in control, a feeling of calm. I enjoyed a raucous night in New Orleans and walked home through human debris at 3 am and had a coffee and watched people around me, joyous in their incoherent conversations with each other. Good for them, seeing in the New Year in the Crescent City, in style.
One of the oddest aspects of stopping drinking is the effect it has on other people. My very closest friends really got it, it wasn’t even much of a discussion, just the odd encouraging comment. Some people in professional or broader circles found it more challenging. I think that for some people, deep down, seeing someone who isn’t drinking makes them ask questions of themselves. Whereas if everyone is drinking, no questions are needed.
You do sense at times that people are thinking “this guy must have had a drink problem, he’s had to stop”. I can imagine there’s quite a bit of projection going on in some of those thoughts. There’s also that ingrained human tendency to compare and declare oneself superior. “I drink sensibly, this person clearly couldn’t control himself”.
It was not even a conversation point for me. I simply said “I got very busy at work and I knew sleep would be at a premium and that alcohol could disturb my sleep. So I stopped.” The same explanation to all, pretty much word for word. A quick sentence to close the subject off. Because to be honest, it’s my business and my business only. It was also true, I dealt with one of the most intense professional periods of my life over those months. But another dimension was emerging as well. It was true I was grabbing a few minutes extra sleep each night and it was less disturbed sleep too. Several months of hard work came and went. Productive hard work. Emerging from it feeling well.
Getting Comfortable With Me
Sliding into view was me feeling a lot more comfortable in myself. About myself. Less up and down. More clear on what my mood and feelings were at any one time. Why I was feeling what I was feeling and examining what might be contributing to the good, the middling and the bad. A sense of calm. It was during this period that I understood that alcohol had self-medicated my depression. Dealt with some of my social anxieties. Helped me with my introversion. Now here I am, facing up to me, the real me.
Months were rolling by. I listen to a lot of podcasts and discovered Rich Roll, recovering alcoholic and unbelievably hardcore ultra-endurance athlete. A truly fascinating and inspirational man in his own right. One day he had a guest called Andy Ramage, a London-based former finance guy who now runs an organisationcalled One Year No Beer. Andy described a lot of the emotions I had dealt with in my life and how he had dealt with his “couple of beers too many” syndrome. I contacted him on LinkedIn and congratulated him on the business he had set up around his experience and challenge. There are now 25,000 members of Andy’s organisationin 90 countries. All aiming to manage a year of one year no beer. A very positive self-help community.
I didn’t join. I hadn’t ever set out to do one year no beer. One day I just stopped, with no target in mind. Just stopped. Maybe that was part of it being so easy, it wasn’t about getting to a number of days or weeks or months. I just stopped. I did get to one year no beer recently and dropped Andy a message and he gave me an enthusiastic “well done!”
The Benefits Of No Beer
I expected I would lose a lot of weight, all those calories from beer and wine. Didn’t lose an ounce. In factI put weight on as my cycling fell away during the aforementioned full-on work project. But everything else was measurably better. I had the lowest blood pressure of my life at my recent medical, for example.
But more than any physical benefit is the mental benefit. The windows of my mind have been cleaned to a gleaming sparkle. I see myself and my emotions clearly and have the fascination of understanding them more and understanding myself more clearly. What I’m about and what I value and what I don’t like. And not with a Disney-like filter on things. I see the weaknesses in me, the parts of me I don’t like and I can start to work on areas, or bring closure on certain matters. Even better than that, I’m excited about the possibilities of life, the new aspects of myself and my life I can explore.
It’s not that alcohol caused my emotional tribulations. I used alcohol to numb my mental wellness frailties, or as a medication so I didn’t have to face up to what I was feeling and why I was feeling it. Alcohol as hiding place. Ironically, a man with a tendency to depression using a depressive substance to deal his emotions.
Thank You Denzel
I’m happy I’m here. I don’t regret the last 44 years either. Life isn’t supposed to be easy and you aren’t supposed to have all the answers. All you can hope for is that at some stage you develop the wisdom and self-knowledge to live the rest of your life as your best version of yourself. It’s said life is short, but life is long. It’s important to me at my very core to remain curious and open to new things and to keep developing as a human being. So I’m very excited about what’s next. I can say one year no beer and I should thank Denzel Washington, I suppose.