The Million Dollar Question

By December 31, 2020 Latest, The Longest Goodbye

Author’s note to my devoted following: the unhelpful combination of procrastination, perfectionism and piss-poor prioritising means that I have several blog posts that I have started, but not yet published. Although my AF-journey is technically almost finished, I still have more blogging on this topic I’d like to finish. Stay tuned!

So, here I am: officially at Day 365. A whole trip around the sun without alcohol. It shouldn’t really be seen as a big deal. (I mean, toddlers do this all the time and still manage to have a lot of fun, right?) But given how ingrained alcohol is in our culture, and given how much I LOVED having a drink, this is definitely something I am putting into the ‘achievement’ category. I somehow made it through an Australia Day, Easter, my birthday, a red-wine-free winter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the various festivities that happened along the way without my old sidekick. Not to mention a freakin’ camping holiday (where drinking was my chief coping mechanism/reward) and St Patrick’s Day, a holiday that’s kind of built its reputation around drinking.

While I still have technically a day to go – this being a leap year – one (million-dollar) question has been asked of me over and over again, especially in the last month or so, as my year-long experiment draws to a close: Will you go back to drinking? And the short answer (much like my relationship with alcohol itself) is that it’s complicated. I just don’t know. I haven’t truly decided the way forward. What will be the best, right path through this? Is this an ending or a beginning? While the thought of *never* having a drink again seems daunting (heelllo Baileys!), the the AA aphorism of ‘one day at a time’ takes on a certain ponderous significance.

Upon reflection, I would say this experiment has been, for me, successful. First, there’s the fact that I made it. YEEEOOOOW! Last new year’s eve when I made a promise to myself to take the year off the booze, I wasn’t entirely confident that I would last. Like a lot of New Year’s resolutions, how many of us start strong – January: ‘I went to the gym 26 out of 31 days!’ March: ‘I only got to the gym twice this whole month!’ Another case in point – my blogging…but never mind!

Life gets in the way of our best intentions, even when those intentions make us feel better, and we fall off of our chosen wagons. Then, y’know, Covid hit hard, and all everyone seemed to be talking about between March and July was how much booze they were home-drinking. Miraculously, I didn’t cave. Which I suppose gave me stamina.

Second, this AF-year has been a success because (in addition to all the alcohol I didn’t drink) the abstaining has most definitely caused me to hit the ‘reset’ button when it comes to my own drinking habit(s).  This was possibly the strongest motivation for me to undertake this experiment. Just because nothing ‘bad’ had happened to me doesn’t mean that I didn’t need to re-examine my own relationship with alcohol.

Being somewhere on this spectrum – between a few too many glasses of after-work wine and a phone call from jail because you’ve lost your phone and totalled your car – is often referred to as grey area drinking in many alcohol-free communities and chat groups. You’re not a classic day-drinking, brown paper bag in an alley alcoholic, but you still feel…not right about the amount you drink. Or the way you drink. Or the ‘why’ you drink. Whether it’s because of the frequency or the amount (or both) doesn’t matter. I was continuously plagued by the question of when does habit cross over the invisible line of addiction? Worse, does anyone really know when or where that line is? Which drink is the one where you cross the point of no return, the one where you break another of those little unwritten rules in your head, the ones that manage your drinking? The ones that can too easily change from ‘I never drink on weeknights’ to ‘I never drink at work’ as a way of justifying uncomfortable behaviour.

The most sensible way for me to answer these questions was to break the habit, without a short-term end date in mind of 30, 60 or 90 days. Hence, the year seemed to be the next step, having done that many FebFasts, Dry Julys and Ocsobers over the years. Taking the full year has meant that (I think) I’ve managed to do that – reset or replace some of those bad habits. For example: I don’t experience the Pavlovian response to having that after-work glass of wine any more. I don’t look forward to going to social events so I can ‘relax and have a few drinks’. That probably sounds pathetic, but I know that on many occasions, this was true for me. I had to retrain my socialising self to look forward to the event itself, the people, the food, the good conversations. (Side note: I still forget about 90% of what I talk to people about on nights out socialising, so it’s reassuring to know it wasn’t the booze there.)

Given that a kind of reset has taken root – then why not go back to drinking? But differently, right? If I am steeled by my newly-formed alcohol-free habits, an occasional drink should be fine. In theory anyway – just like Brangelina should have worked in theory, but we all know how that ended. So again, I don’t know.  I do know that there’s a mounting list of reasons and evidence not to go back – a list that has grown exponentially over the year. Here’s the highight reel:

First, let’s start with the least consequential: resetting the alcohol-free days counter (on my phone) back to Zero doesn’t thrill me. Like the ‘2319’ scene in Monsters Inc, where Sully and company must end their streak of accident-free days, after a Scare-er monster becomes contaminated by a Scare-ee child’s sock that’s stuck to his shoulder blade. Eeeek! It’s the psychological disappointment of seeing that little counter revert to a big ole goose egg. Pffft. Morale wavers as everyone starts again. I don’t want to start again! Even taking the pandemic out of the equation, the first three months were not fun, and were peppered with self-pity and enough Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut to double the Type 2 diabetes rate of Liechtenstein.

Next, there’s my previous experience as a grey area smoker. Remember the 90s? Tommy Lee Jones headlined every third movie, JT was unashamed of his curly (and frosted) hair, pashminas were the thing, and you could still smoke everywhere. I had mostly considered myself a social smoker. Until I wanted to quit. And it was hard. So then (like with alcohol) I’d go long periods without smoking at all, just to prove a point. Then, eventually thinking I had broken the habit, I’d have one. Just when I’d be having a drink. Then that would, eventually, over days or weeks, turn to two, then three, and more. Then to having a few with coffee. Then to buying a pack ‘just for emergencies’ which seemed to occur almost daily when I was in my 20s. When I lived in London and just before I finally quit for good, I would find myself going to the pub after work for a drink just so I could justify having a smoke (or eleventy-seven). So will history repeat itself here with this habit? I don’t know if I really want to find out.

Last, there’s the real reason – a set of reasons, actually – and that relates to my overall health. Physical health, yes. That’s perhaps the obvious. Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (along with leather dust – who knew?) so removing it must help, right? But I also sleep like a baby most nights, something that had been much more elusive prior to going AF. I have not had a sinus infection all year. People have commented that my skin looks better (it’s probably just the Benefit PORE-fessional crack filler/spackle I use liberally, but whatevs, I’ll add it to the list). I feel like I have more energy. Not so much that I managed to finish my novel this year, but I’m getting there.

But the particular health benefit I have noticed has been in my mental health. Ironic, really, as alcohol was something I often used because I thought it was improving my mental health, helping me to unwind and de-stress. Au contraire! Let me explain, because this was not a benefit that I necessarily saw coming (the way we see the Melania-Trump divorce barrelling towards us).

In the run up to my decision to take a break, I was asking some of those above questions about the grey area drinking. What I didn’t realise is that these questions – How much is too much? Is it the amount or the frequency that’s a bigger concern? Am I a borderline functioning alcoholic? Why did I say that [insert comment]? Why can’t I just consistently moderate? Why did I have to finish what was left in the bottle of wine? – are EXHAUSTING. This tapestry of questions formed a kind of incessant chatter in my head all too often. The takeaway from it? All negative (unsurprising, really). There would sometimes be a shame spiral/vortex of negative thinking I found hard to escape.

And the hangovers! Ugh. I don’t mean the kind of cute hangovers you have in your 20s, where you can pop a few painkillers, drink a litre of Coke, eat six cheeseburgers and be fine by noon. I mean mentally dark hangovers, where I would feel yuck and ashamed (again, even though nothing *bad* happened – most of my drinking was always done at home) and just…not right. I would become really negative. I would question my life decisions. I would be short-tempered or angry. I allowed negative self-talk, and catastrophsing to take hold. A sense of failure about all I ‘hadn’t achieved’ seemed normal. Oh, and this sense of doom? Ping! Light bulb moment! This is why alcohol is a depressant. It wasn’t until the alcohol was gone from my life that I realised that this hanxiety was playing far too big a role. Now that it’s gone, I just feel lighter. It’s the only way to describe it. Not to say I’m all freakin’ (obnoxiously) Pollyanna everyday. Puke. We all have our bad days. But now, they are far less frequent, and I seem better equipped to recognise this for what it is – negative thinking – and move on.

So, while another (non-AA) cliche comes to mind as I begin the next part of this journey – never say never – for now, I think I’ll keep the day-counter going. At least until day 366. One day at a time, right? Perhaps that is my new million dollar question.

And lastly – this has been a year that many of us are all too happy to see the arse-end of, for reasons too many to list. But to all of you who have read, commented, supported my journey, and in some cases, shared some very personal experiences – both in person and via social media – THANK YOU. A special shout out to my fellow Untoxicated Facebook group members, who were a constant source of support. May 2021 be the new start that so many need. Here’s to health, happiness, healing and renewal.