A break from my significant other – 10 weeks alcohol free: Week 7

Day 43: Monday

After my minor breakdown last week, I decided it was time to take stock and think about the way I used to think about alcohol, the excuses I was making and the way I think now.

I wrote a post back in November that I called “The Wine Paradox“. In it, I bemoaned conflicting reports of the damage wine does, versus some evidence that says that moderate consumption may be beneficial.

Note use of the word “may”…

For the moment I’m going to leave aside the health benefits part, because from what I can see, the amount you should be drinking is really bugger all.

This is how the post opens:

“During the weekend I read a story in my local paper about how bad alcohol is for you. The author equated the carcinogenic impact of drinking with smoking cigarettes or asbestos. She said that “if we treated alcohol as we do other carcinogens, in terms of lowering our exposure to risk, we’d have no more than two drinks a year”.”

So far, so standard. Then I go on to say:

“The NZ Herald story basically said that the media were in denial about alcohol consumption and the issues it causes.”

I’m not one to bag the media, especially in our post-Trumpian times. But one of the ongoing frustrations I’ve had with my journey has been the judgement attached to any reporting of alcohol consumption. It’s incredibly difficult to find any information that doesn’t come pre-loaded with the opinion that alcohol is the devil. So I’m not sure the media are in denial about this at all.

The good news is that even in 7 months ago, I was thinking about the effect alcohol had on my past behaviour:

“Many of the most foolish things I’ve ever done have been a result of drinking too much.”

Then I throw all that out the window, and hurl myself into my cloud of complete and utter self delusion:

“…I know that I have my limits. Ideally, I try to have 2-3 alcohol free days per week (I try, I don’t always succeed).”

I almost NEVER succeed.

“I then aim to only drink 1-2 glasses of wine per night, outside of social occasions.”

You complete and utter liar! That is certainly the aim, but rarely is that the reality. God, woman, you’re a fantasist!

“Even at social occasions now I draw the line at about 4 glasses, generally consumed over many hours with food.”

Oh. My. God. There’s nothing truthful about this statement. A bottle of wine is 5 glasses. I know that I would rarely leave a dinner without the bottle being finished. And after the third glass, I stopped keeping track! So how the hell would I know whether I’ve had 4 glasses or 14?

Actually, if I’d had 14 I’d be pretty ill, so that seems unlikely.

And then I get sensible for once in this post:

Although I like a drink, I like to be in control of my behaviour and what comes out of my mouth. I also value my weekends, so don’t want to spend days in bed with a hangover. Being on the far side of 40 means I don’t bounce back the way I used to, so I need to be careful.”

Good Lord. How things have changed.

Day 44: Tuesday

I was thinking back to the weekend and how good it was to have dinner with other adults without wine.

I’ve realised that my abstinence doesn’t need to be limiting to other people or myself. That socialising with others can still be enjoyable without wine, and that I can be around other people who are drinking without that being problematic for me.

I’d always thought the wine gave me energy when I went out with other people, I now understand the people are the ones who energise me. The wine is just a pleasant side effect (or unpleasant, depending on who you’re with).

Day 45: Wednesday

Once again, I’m thinking about what my life might look like when this experiment is over.

You probably think I do this a lot.

You’d be right.

Actually, it hasn’t been too bad. Most of the time I don’t think about it at all. Only really when people ask me about it, or if I’m really tired, or in the weekends. Or if I’m writing this.

Weekdays I pretty much don’t think about it, during the day or at night. Aside from planning the blog posts. I guess I’m far enough into it now that it’s becoming second nature.

But back to the future planning. My friend Margaret sent me this piece of inspirational brilliance:

“I’m all about letting the low grade nonsense fall away to allow yourself to enjoy more of the good stuff, and about balancing all your money, time, and experiences for the net happiest life. So it may be that your best choice today is to drink 2 bottles of horrendous quality wine with friends and wake up with a terrible headache because the experience will be priceless… Or it may be the better choice to flag it because you don’t like them *that* much, and spend the evening at home with a movie, a glass of whisky and some great dark chocolate.  Or spend the evening with the kids introducing them to the best movies of the 1980s because they need to know this stuff, and a bowl of popcorn. Conscious choices not mindless habits…!”

The key outtake (spot the ex-ad girl) is well considered quality over quantity. Quality food, wine, matched with quality experiences.

In the interests of not re-destroying my already compromised liver, I’m not going to take her advice on the “2 bottles of horrendous wine”, and instead take the less is more approach.

So, rather that buying three $20 bottles of wine a week, I’ll aim for one $50-60 bottle. Something amazing that I’d want to linger over. Something that I’m ok with just having a glass of. A bit like choosing one square of super dark, rich, hand crafted chocolate, over a family sized block of palm oil infused milk chocolate rubbish from the supermarket.

My husband’s says I’m just trying to hang onto the budget. He may be right.

Day 47: Friday

So once again we hit Friday and the wall. Tired, grumpy, needing wine.

Day 48: Saturday

It’s Richie’s birthday so we went out for dinner with the kids. No wine, of course, just virgin cocktails, juices and water all around.

Halfway through dinner I confessed that I’m getting bored with not drinking. I can honestly say that if I wasn’t writing about it, I would have chucked it in by now. Guess I knew I needed something to keep me honest. Damn it.

Rich said he felt the same way. He’s only got three weeks to go, while I’ve given myself another two. What was I thinking?! That decision is really feeling like salt in the wound.

Having said that Rich doesn’t get a release from the pressures of his work day, I can now see the same thing is happening to me. Although it’s not really a release valve that I need it’s a treat. Wine was always my reward for a good day’s work.

So where do I get that now? Kombucha and sparkling water, while both acting as perfectly decent placebos on most days, just aren’t up to the job on the days where I really need it.

Because there’s nothing like a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the garden. Or toasting achievement with a glass of champagne. Or just sitting quietly with a beautiful glass of red and a book in your most comfortable chair. It feels like a treat.

I really miss it. I feel like I’m missing out. I feel like my work is not being rewarded any more.

Day 49: Sunday

I call this week birthday week. My husband and my son’s birthdays are three days apart. Then mine and my daughter’s are two days apart. But that’s another story.

Normally I’d have the extended family from both sides for dinner, drink loads of wine, cook and basically exhaust myself. Be left facing loads of dirty dishes, feeling like I hadn’t had a chance to speak to anyone and more than a little intoxicated.

Today we had everyone over for brunch. I made sweet and savoury brioche, and loads of coffee. I spoke to everyone, didn’t feel overly stressed and hardly had any dishes to do afterwards.

And I didn’t get drunk. Or have a hangover the next day.

The only sad part was realising I don’t see my sister much any more. Her husband said the same thing, to which she pointed out “well, they’re not drinking at the moment”.

Although I could be grumpy with her and say that doesn’t make a difference, it really does. That’s a big part of the reason for brunch instead of dinner. We could have gone out for dinner and avoided any real effort at all. But we didn’t want to because we’re not drinking.

I’ve been meaning to organise a catch up with my friends for weeks. But I haven’t because I’m not drinking.

We’re not really arranging to do anything at night because we’re not drinking. Seeing people during the day is fine, but although we are quite capable of seeing people without wine, we don’t really want to. Seeing people with wine is just far more fun.

What I’ve learned this week: Socialising

I recently read a story by   discussing the challenges faced by non-drinking Muslims in the UK, in trying to build relationships and integrate into what is a drinking culture. She talks of Muslims struggling to gain promotions, being held back in their careers and their personal lives because they do not drink:

“When socialising is done over a glass of wine, those who don’t drink may miss out on nurturing friendships.”

Socialising without alcohol is probably the most daunting part of giving up/having a break from drinking. I have friends who are drifting away because I am merely having some time out! I can see that if this change were permanent, there may need to be an acceptance that some people may no longer be part of my social circle at all.

From personal experience, I can tell you that it takes time before you’re ready to spend time with people who are drinking when you can’t. Eventually though, you become accustomed enough to going without that you can still be a scintillating conversationalist without needing an alcoholic pick me up.

The Robert Street Clinic has a fantastic list of 13 ways to socialise without alcohol. My favourite is:

“Break the inhibition cycle: It’s important to remember that you don’t need alcohol to go out and meet new people – and once you’ve got used to being the life and soul of a party without having a few drinks, it’ll become second nature.”

These are my tips:

 

  • Find different times of the day to socialise. Go for a walk with friends or catch up for lunch, brunch or coffee. Times when alcohol does not feature in the equation.
  • BYO. Decide what you’d like to drink instead, and take it with you. I always take a bottle of kombucha and some fizzy water. This avoids tap water bring the only non-alcoholic thing on offer
  • Choose venues with great cocktails. Chances are, if they’re known for their alcoholic cocktails, their non-alcoholic cocktails will be pretty banging also.
  • Fool a few people. My friend Mel, when she was in the early stages of pregnancy (not being able to drink, but not ready to tell people she was pregnant), always had what she called “pretendy drinks”. Looked like wine, served in a wine glass, actually apple juice. Zero alcohol beer would work the same way. Having a glass takes the pressure off having to discuss your drinking status with others, but keeps you on track.
  • Know when it’s time to leave. Invariably, in a party situation, once the booze flow becomes a torrent, you’ll suddenly start experiencing deja vue. “Didn’t I just have this exact conversation a few minutes ago?” Because drunk people repeat themselves. Repeatedly. And think they’re really funny, when they’re just really drunk. And tell you how much they love you. It’s best to go home before this stage of the evening. Trust me, they’ll be too drunk to notice you’ve gone.
  • Enjoy a hangover free morning. This is the best part of not drinking. Waking feeling rested and clear of head. Able to exercise without feeling like you might be sick. And realising how little you miss drinking.
  • Enjoying the clear memories of a fun night out. When you haven’t been drinking you’ll remember the conversations. You’ll remember who was there and who you talked to.
  • Treat yourself. Give yourself a reward for not drinking with all the money you’ve saved on booze and taxis. Then you’ll have a lovely physical reminder of why what you’re doing is important, rather than a hazy recollection of alcohol fueled craziness, tinged with the creeping suspicion you may have offended someone.

 

 

Advertisements

A break from my significant other – 10 weeks alcohol free: Week 6

Day 36: Monday

We’re at the end of a long weekend, and another spent at Waiheke. It has been a stunning couple of days. Very warm and sunny, especially for early June. Lots of walks had, the kids had a great time with their little cousins, all very relaxing.

Our times at Waiheke, as I may have mentioned previously, are invariably punctuated by drinking. A rose or bloody mary at lunch (or 2 or 3), then wine from 6pm. Richard’s parents have enough self discipline to set rules around when drinks start and finish, so it is rare that we start drinking at lunch time and carry on into the evening.

But it has been known to happen.

This time, of course, there was none of that. At least, none from our side. The rest of the family (excluding kids, we’re not complete animals) continued as usual, which to be honest was welcomed. And from what I could see, it didn’t affect our dynamic at all.

Everyone was accepting of what we are trying to do, and supported us in our endeavours. To be honest, I didn’t really miss it at all.

Day 37: Tuesday

So, this is supposed to be the halfway mark. Except it isn’t, as I explained last week. I was going to do a full check in, with photos, looking at weight, size, skin, liver count and so on, but it probably is more sensible to push that out until my new halfway mark, at the end of week 7.

For what it’s worth:

  • I’ve lost just under 2kg
  • The bags under my eyes are less pronounced (photos later
  • I’ll talk to the doctor about another liver test tomorrow

I’d like to tell you I’m saving a fortune, but after roughly a month, I’m not seeing a demonstrable difference, so I think I need to analyse the numbers a bit more closely. I don’t feel like I’m spending more on food, but who knows.

Day 38: Wednesday

Haha! After writing yesterday that my weight had dropped by just under two kilogrames, I woke this morning to find another 500g had disappeared JUST LIKE THAT!

Friends keep commenting about how much weight I must be losing, but I hadn’t really been seeing it so far. I mentioned early on that I’d rejoined Weight Watchers, so I am watching what I eat, and exercising daily, but not obsessively so. The main change has been removing alcohol from my diet.

I feel like my clothes are fitting me a bit better, but that could be wishful thinking. It’s probably time to take some more photos (I took some at the beginning of this, but haven’t posted yet) and see what’s really happening. Once again, I think I’ll wait until my new halfway mark.

Day 39: Thursday

Rich and I had another conversation about what our drinking habits might look like when we finally start again.

I’m a bit worried that I’ll do what I did post-pregnancy. I distinctly remember a phone conversation I had with my sister when I was about 38 weeks pregnant:

Me: ” You know, I think I could easily never drink again”

Bec: “Me too”

Fast forward 6 weeks or so….. actually, I was breast feeding then, so it wasn’t that bad, but it’s fair to say I certainly wasn’t abstaining for very long after giving birth. The volume kept heading upwards too, as the years have passed.

Rich doesn’t seem to be very worried about new habits at all, but I am. I feel like what is the point of having done this if I’m just going to slide back into old patterns?

Current thinking is:

  • Try to follow the Ministry of Health guidelines (no more than 10 drinks per week)
  • Don’t drink on school nights (Sunday to Thursday)

The not drinking school nights is because I’m really loving the amount of energy I have during the day. I’m charging through more, I feel more motivated, I don’t get to the end of the day and feel like I’ve been wasting time. It’s a pleasantly unexpected side effect.

Day 40: Friday

I am so bored with myself.

I came home tonight after a day sampling sausages for some good friends. I’d been on my feet all day, it hadn’t been as busy as I would have hoped, and I was tired. I just wanted to pour myself a glass of wine, put my feet up and relax in front of the TV for the evening.

But no. No drinking for me. No drinking for me for another 6 weeks!

Seriously, this really sucks. I feel like the fun has been sucked out of my life. We hardly ever go out at night any more, I never feel silly, or super relaxed. Or just drunk. Because being drunk is fun! Not being really drunk, but a little bit drunk is fun.

And this isn’t fun.

I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs, I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, surely I’m allowed one vice! I know that the wheels had fallen off lately, and the discipline has gone sideways, but for GOD’S SAKE, I can’t do this forever!

Sorry. I don’t mean to shout. I’m just annoyed.

Day 41: Saturday

I didn’t cave. I was very controlled and didn’t drink last night. It helps that there is no wine in the house, and hitting the liquor cabinet felt more than a little extreme.

I also felt considerably more rational about what I’m doing. I needed to remind myself that my doctor had an overt expression of relief on her face when I said I wasn’t going to drink for three months. Which means my liver is not as healthy as I have been deluding myself that it is.

We went out to a friend’s house for dinner tonight, which was great. It made me realise that I can be around people who are drinking without drinking myself, and still have a good time. My enjoyment of the company of others is not dependent on booze. Even better, my recollection of the night is sharp, and I won’t wake with a hangover in the morning.

Plus we could drive both ways, no Uber required.

I need to keep reminding myself of the little things.

What I’ve learned this week: Why we drink.

I was interested in why we, as humans, feel the need to drink. To be intoxicated. I know it feels good, but then it feels bad, so wouldn’t we just not? After all, alcohol is poison, we are highly evolved, mostly clever beings, wouldn’t we just stay away from it?

Is there something at an evolutionary level that makes us like alcohol, despite it’s inherent dangers?

Robert Dudley, who is a professor of biology at UC Berkley and author of the book Drunken Monkey, says our love of alcohol can be traced back to our evolutionary ancestors need to find food. More specifically, the need for monkeys to find fruit which is ripe. Ripe fruit gives off a distinctive alcohol smell, especially in tropical climates, which is a strong identifier for when fruit is ready to eat. Given the short window that fruit is ripe for before becoming rotten, it’s best to eat as much as you can before it gets eaten by others or before it runs out. Luckily, alcohol stimulates appetite, another evolutionary advantage.

To quote Dudley’s opinion piece in the Huffington Post:

“..the psychoactive effects of alcohol, as contained within sugar-rich fruit pulp, may have evolved to let hungry primates more efficiently find and consume scarce calories in the forest. This is part of our ancestral sensory and behavioral baggage that is retained into modern times. We even obtain health benefits from low-level alcohol consumption relative to either abstention or high levels of drinking.”

Anthropologically, alcohol has been part of human culture for millenia, playing an important role in communal life, socially, spiritually and emotionally.

Although it is very difficult to find non-judgemental information about how alcohol affects our brain and what part that plays in our liking for it, I eventually found out that alcohol stimulates cortex, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens, which are responsible for thinking and pleasure seeking.

According to howstuffworks.com,

“Alcohol affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters…Alcohol increases the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. GABA causes the sluggish movements and slurred speech…At the same time, alcohol inhibits the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Suppressing this stimulant results in a similar type of physiological slowdown. In addition to increasing the GABA and decreasing the glutamate in the brain, alcohol increases the amount of the chemical dopamine in the brain’s reward center, which creates the feeling of pleasure that occurs when someone takes a drink.”

So dopamine appears to be pretty key for making us want to drink. We drink, dopamine is released, we feel good. Until we feel bad in the morning.

A break from my significant other – 10 weeks alcohol free: Week 5

Day 29: Monday

Blimey, it’s been almost a month since I stopped. Except for Sydney.

It seems to keep coming back to that – except for Sydney.

I feel like a bit of a fraud, because I’d only been off drinking for 10 days before I went, then had 4 days of wine. Not a great deal admittedly, but enough. And being where I am now, it feels like I actually drank quite a lot, comparatively.

I think I need to add two weeks to this process, so I can honestly say I stopped for ten weeks. It does make things a bit challenging at the end, when I have two weeks skiing, which generally includes wine, but I think I just have to suck it up. Otherwise, it will always be 10 weeks minus 4 days.

So there we have it. I won’t start drinking again until 31st July. Which is a Monday, so realistically, it’ll be later that week.

Day 30: Tuesday

I was thinking some more about how I’m dealing with time out versus how Rich is dealing with it. I wrote last week about our fraught history with alcohol, but I think I was really skimming over the top.

Rich is coping very well with not drinking and doesn’t seem to miss it very much at all. He’s up early, sleeping well, charging through work during the day, no headaches, no insomnia, none of the things that have plagued me.

Except it is affecting him. Although he doesn’t think it is. Stopping drinking has taken away his relaxation mechanic. He isn’t noticing it, but I am.

This is a familiar story – he’d come home from work, tired and stressed, open a beer and the stress and anxiety from the day would go. The beer would give him energy, so his mood would lift. I’m sure I was doing the same thing, but my days are no longer as stressful, so I no longer have the same need for release at the end of them.

Rich still does. And from what I can see, he hasn’t really found an alternative that works as well. He’s taken to playing a world domination style computer game that allows him to at least switch off, then watching TV for a few hours does more of the same. But he doesn’t have the same spark in the evenings, post beer drinking.

I am worried that it’s affecting his desire to socialise with other people. Rich is one of those rare people who bridge the divide between extrovert and introvert, while I fall firmly in the extrovert camp. He can go either way – he loves the company of friends, but can easily retreat into his own space for weeks on end, and not find that problematic. I, on the other hand, need to see people daily. While we have organised a few social events, he seems less inclined to see people.

I’m not sure that he’s really aware of it. Given that I’m keeping this diary, I’m becoming accustomed to micro-analysing every aspect of my personality and my responses to people, situations and stimuli. I’m my own petri-dish. But Rich is a man very much on the lower end of the EQ scale, and is therefore not prone to self examination. The opposite could be said of me, I guess.

Self obsessed much?

Day 31: Wednesday

So while we’re talking about the socialising thing, I had an enlightening conversation with a friend today. We discussed catching up one night, and she asked if I was still off the booze.

Me: Yes

Her: Well, we might need to catch up for a walk then

Me: ?????

Apparently I have friends who are not interested in seeing me at night unless there’s wine involved. WTAF? I’m not really sure what to think about that. I have no desire to stop other people from drinking, and I really don’t see how my abstinence should be impacting anyone else’s ability to have a good time. My intention is not to highlight anyone else’s self-perceived short comings.

If people want to drink, so be it. I’m not here to judge. I’m just doing this because I need to do this for me. Not anyone else.

Another friend (one who doesn’t mind that I’m not drinking), sent me a link to this great piece about “Bad Questions to Ask Someone Sober”. Anne T Donahue is an alcoholic, now four years sober (yay her!). I especially liked her response to the statement “I could never quite drinking”:

“..if I am making you uncomfortable by not ordering a beer or whatever, that really isn’t my fucking problem. It’s truly not. I don’t care. I think it’s weird that you need me to drink so that you can have fun, because I don’t remember ever asking anyone not to drink to help me have more fun. It’s not my job to make someone feel comfortable about their choices when their choices have nothing to do with me. And I’ll say that while 95% of everybody I know truly don’t care what I do or do not partake in, the 5% who’ve been bothered are people I have absolutely no desire to be around. It’s not my job to make them feel okay about who they are or what they’re doing. It’s up to them to figure out what their issues are.”

What she said.

Day 32: Thursday

I keep thinking that all the literature I’m reading doesn’t quite apply to me.

The majority of the commentary available online targets alcoholics, addicts, problem drinkers. I was never a problem drinker.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Every day that fable is being broken down. I’m starting to recognise that I do not have a normal relationship with alcohol. That the volume I was drinking was moderate to heavy at best.

That I may not have fallen into the category of “alcoholic” but I more than likely fall into “problem drinker”. There was nothing mindful about the way I’ve been drinking.

I’d justified my drinking by looking at everyone around me. Surely all my friends couldn’t have issues with alcohol. But I think that’s the thing. I’d normalised the amount I was drinking, and using my social circle to justify what I was doing to myself.

I don’t want to sounds like I’m judging my friends either. After all, they will continue to be my friends. I have no intention of abandoning the people I hold most dear because I’m choosing to rebalance my decisions.

On top of that, this realisation is making me understand how much of the literature does apply to me.

It’s a little frightening being this honest with myself. It makes me feel more than a little sick. Still. A least I’m moving forward and making change.

Day 33: Friday

I caught up with a former employer this week. Within minutes he was telling me a story about a big night out he’d had that culminated in his drinking shots on his own.

So. Gross.

Feeling quite wholesome now.

What I’ve learned this week: Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a lot less than you’d think. Or at least a lot less than I’d ever thought.

In New Zealand the Ministry of Health defines a binge drinking episode as being more than:

  • 4 standard drinks for women on any single occasion
  • 5 standard drinks for men on any single occasion.

Bearing in mind that a standard drink is 100ml of wine or 330ml of beer (at 4% alcohol. Most premium beers are 5%+). Five beers in an evening seems like a not insignificant amount, but given the average wine pour is 150ml, a binge night is less than three glasses of wine for women.

Which is a lot less than you’d think.

It’s also worth reading this piece taken from the synopsis of the BBC’s science show, Horizon. They followed identical twin doctors, using the UK NHS’s daily limit alcohol guidelines:

  • Men should not regularly (every day, or most days per week) drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day (in NZ 3 units, with two days alcohol free)
  • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day (in NZ 2 units, with two days alcohol free)

One twin drank to the above guidelines – 3 standard drinks per day for a month. The other saved his weekly allowance to drink in one sitting. 21 standard drinks.

The assumption was that drinking moderately on a daily basis would be less harmful than saving it all up for the weekend. And to be fair, the immediate damage was significant:

“But when we looked at all the readings we’d taken, he’d clearly been in a dangerous state the night before. He was actually at his worst a few hours after we’d gone to sleep, when the level of alcohol in his blood was, according to the text books, enough to put him at danger of death.”

They also found that despite not drinking all week, the damage being done in the weekend was not being repaired during the 6 days off.

However, more surprisingly, at the end of the month, tests found that both twins had similar levels of damage done to their bodies. And the results have lead to the NHS reviewing their guidelines:

  • Both twins had significant inflammation to their livers to almost the same extent (around 25%).
  •  Blood tests showed they both had increased systemic inflammation which is commonly elevated in patients that are extremely unwell
  • Both of their bodies were reacting to the increased alcohol levels as if they were fighting injury or infection
  • Endotoxin levels were higher in Xand (the weekly binge drinker) At binge drinking levels acetaldehyde damages the gut lining which leads to bacteria leaking into the blood and being circulated around the body. This is cause for concern as it has the potential to permanently alter your body’s immune response. The prolonged presence of endotoxins in your bloodstream can also eventually lead to alcohol hepatitis (liver inflammation).
  • While bingeing is significantly worse, moderate drinking of 21 units a week was not safe either as the twins’ liver tests showed inflammation levels similar to those seen in cirrhosis patients. 

(Source: NZ Herald)