Booze-free Lent comes to an end

I was asked to write this piece for Newstalk.ie on my experience of giving up alcohol for Lent.

The piece was published on the Newstalk site on Thursday 28th March 2013.

As an average thirtysomething woman, I’d classify my relationship with alcohol as relatively healthy.Like most, I enjoy partaking of a glass of wine or three of a Friday, or sinking a pint of the black stuff over a chat with friends. I may have suffered an occasional hangover, yes. The end of an odd night out may have been a little hazy. I might have missed a few Sunday mornings, buried in the Horrors under my pillow. But “big nights” nowadays are few and far between, and the idea of bypassing the booze for Lent wasn’t high on my agenda.

So what prompted the decision? I bit the bullet for a number of reasons (none of them religious).I was unemployed, having left my job to embark on the uncertainty of a career change. I’d beenfeeling the effects of an unhealthy holiday season. And crucially, I was stony broke. The stage was set.

Around the same time, I’d written a piece on my blog about attitudes to alcohol in Ireland called“The Elephant in the Room”, questioning why, with suicide levels so high, no-one really questions the effect our relationship with alcohol has on mental wellbeing. The piece was published on a national news site and the reaction on social media was astonishing. I was inundated with replies relating the pressure people felt to drink. Some reported concealing non-drinking, or avoiding social occasions altogether to avoid the hassle of justifying their choice. Non-drinkers disliked the messiness of drunken nights out, and being met with suspicion and mistrust. It appears that “peer pressure” is not solely the preserve of children or adolescents.

On the back of this, I saw the Lenten endeavour as a timely personal experiment. I’d never gone “ off the booze” for a deliberate, sustained period since I came of drinking age, and wanted to see how I’d cope with cold sobriety in social situations, and the reactions I would encounter. I also wanted to do my own bit to challenge attitudes.

I embarked with a sense of trepidation. I didn’t want to avoid social occasions, but neither did I relish the thought of feeling socially stunted without a drink or two. The first couple of weeks were difficult, and I often, rather worryingly, found myself craving a glass of wine, particularly at weekends. However, with the exception of the odd “Why are you doing this to yourself?”, and“Jesus, I could never do that – in March, are you mad?!”, friends were largely encouraging.

How did I cope? Ultimately – and this may appear obvious – I found company was key. I enjoyed some great nights with friends as the sole non-drinker, without it being an issue for either party. In contrast, I attended a wedding at which I knew barely anyone, and struggled. I felt my personality had fled, hand-in-hand with my alcohol crutch, leaving my confidence legless and my dancing even more uncoordinated than usual. I settled into sobriety, though and while I missed being able to have“just the one”, not drinking began to feel normal.

So, six weeks on, was it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, it’s a relatively short period of time, but what they say is true – I feel healthier, happier and clearer of mind. The convenience of hopping into the car after a night out, and waking hangover-free were definite positives. I certainly didn’t miss the Monday beer blues. The time out has helped me to recalibrate my attitude towards alcohol, and I have a feeling I’m likely in future to indulge a little less, and enjoy it a little more.

Ultimately, however, I don’t see myself as a non-drinker, and rather than moving towards the divisiveness of non-drinkers having their own social spaces and activities, what I’d like is a happy medium where drinkers and non-drinkers can feel more comfortable socialising together. I’d also like to see social occasions focusing less on alcohol consumption, and I’d love to see less pressure placed on those drink moderately to consume more.

Would I do it again? Probably.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just looking forward to some chocolate this Easter.

 

Hello Sunday Morning … or good afternoon, sobriety

So, as a follow-on from my last post, a quick update on my alcohol abstinence resolution. I deliberately haven’t started another blog with Hello Sunday Morning as I find it difficult enough to update this one regularly. Three weeks in, how’s it going?

Well, it’s like this. It’s bloody HARD.

Firstly, I had no idea I was quite so fond of red wine. But for the last three weeks, I find it occupying more of my thoughts than is probably healthy. It doesn’t help that we are major fans of it here and the wine rack is consequently a constant reminder.. As I predicted, what I really miss the most is that lovely single glass of wine of an odd evening, but I suppose that’s just shown me how much it’s become a habit, unbeknownst to myself.

What’s come as more of a surprise however, having never abstained from alcohol for any meaningful period before, is the realisation of how much I have come to rely on it over the past 15-odd years as a social lubricant. On certain occasions, at least. Take the following example. I attended a wedding last week, at which I knew barely anyone. From start to finish, I tried hard to get stuck in and enjoy it, but wow, despite the happiness in the air, the beauty of the bride, the deliciousness of the food, it was a  struggle. To the extent that it actually felt like an ordeal. The company was decent, but I felt like I’d become socially stunted overnight – like I’d lost my personality. I stood at the bar ordering soft drinks a few times, and on each occasion had to stop myself from ordering a (very strong) alcoholic beverage. There were other factors at play, admittedly, including feeling lethargic and unwell, but it was downright painful, and ultimately a bit pointless. I felt bad about myself and my apparent inability to relax without alcohol. It was undoubtedly the single biggest test I’m likely to face during this period, but it served a purpose as part of this “reflective” journey, so not entirely in vain.

On the other hand, I’ve spent a few evenings in the company of good friends lately, surrounded by food and alcohol. On one occasion, dinner with a group of girlfriends I wasn’t alone in abstaining, but others had the usual reasons like pregnancy and cars. That was grand – no hardship involved. The second, an evening gathering in a friend’s house where I was the only one abstaining. I expected that to be difficult, particularly as I arrived a little late to the party. On the contrary, I had one of the best evenings I’ve had in months. Laughed til there were tears in my eyes, didn’t feel in any way out of place and I even managed to stay out til 5am. No difficulty at all (apart from the lemonade-induced sugar high).  It felt really refreshing to be part of a group who didn’t question me or force the issue when I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t feel in any way that my not partaking set me apart from the conversation and neither did I feel that my being sober made them feel ill at ease. (At least I hope not!)

The drawback to staying out til 5am on a Saturday night is that Sunday morning slips away from you. I woke up at 8.30am with the beginnings of a migraine I’d staved off the day before, so I put my head under the pillow and the day didn’t see me until noon had passed. Then there was GAA on d’telly.  So I kinda failed at being wonderfully active and reclaiming my Sunday morning (armchair sports don’t count, apparently). Still, you can’t win ’em all.

So. Do I feel any better for not drinking? Em, honestly, no. Not in the slightest.

I’m a bit disappointed – I thought I’d feel happier, healthier, clearer of mind, but to be fair, I have to look hard at myself and admit that other aspects of my lifestyle at the moment are probably counter-productive. I’m still not working, so my routine has started to slip recently, my sleep pattern is all over the place, my motivation levels are low, and not having had an income since Christmas has imposed its own restrictions and pressures. This year so far has been full of emotional upheaval and uncertainty, but to my great excitement, I’m starting a new role this week with an organisation I’m thrilled to be working with. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to feeling a little less at sea once I bed in. Not to mention, feeling a bit more useful to society.
 
So, three weeks in, what have I learned? Well, I’ve discovered that I really like red wine, that you think about things like red wine a lot more when you know you can’t have them, and that being at ease in social situations probably depends a lot more on the people you’re with than the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. All in all, not exactly groundbreaking revelations, but part of a personal journey that so far I’m ultimately glad I’ve undertaken.

 Also, having the willpower of an amnesiac squirrel on a regular basis, I’ve surprised myself by discovering some reserves of stubbornness, and I know I will see this through. In what is probably the more surprising of progress updates, I have also managed to stay away from crisps. (Even when no-one can see me.) And there is also the bonus of feeling infinitely superior to an undisclosed number of our elected political representatives, in that I managed to stay sober on Prom Night.

 (Image by Sethness on DeviantArt)

So here’s to the next month. I’d love to know how feel HSMers are getting on, or how anyone who’s been through this process before deals with those difficult social situations – so feel free to leave a comment below with some wise words. I’ll repay you in 2007 Marquis de Rascale (my housemate’s).

Til next time!

The Great Lenten Challenge, or How I Will Cope With Six Weeks Of No Alcohol

On the back of my last blog post, I’ve been doing some thinking.(A little thinking time is a dangerous thing, and I happen to have a lot of that on my hands recently).

I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of giving up alcohol. Not permanently, just for a spell.  Not a big deal, I’m sure. Lots of people go ‘on the dry’ for January, or while they are training for an event, or while they’re pregnant. But while I’ve thought about it before, I’ve never managed to cut out alcohol completely, while carrying on with life and social engagements in the normal way. I think that’s the most difficult part – not shying away from social engagements on the basis of not drinking.

I met up for a chat last week with the lovely John Buckley of SpunOut, and among other things we talked about alcohol, and our attitudes towards it. John has given up alcohol for six months, and is blogging about it over here.

John also told me about the Irish launch of Hello Sunday Morning, which is being timed to coincide with the last episode of Des Bishop’s TV show, “Under the Influence”. HSM is an initiative originating in Australia, which involves giving up alcohol for a while, in order to reflect on your drinking behaviour, and see what impact it has on your life. You share your story, in order to contribute to a better drinking culture. In particular, it encourages you to reclaim Sunday mornings, which are often written off due to heavy Saturday nights. So for the month of March, I’ll be blogging about that either here or elsewhere.

I’m starting a little early though. I’m not sure sure what it is about Lent that encourages me to attempt something new every year (with varying degrees of success). But it seems to me to be a nice round period of time to try and do something new – not long enough to be excessively difficult and not short enough to be too little a challenge. So as well as the booze, I’ll be giving up crisps. Those of you who know me will know that this will not come easily….

With regards to my previous blog post, I know excessive alcohol consumption is not good for me. I know that when I drink to excess, I feel rubbish for about three days afterwards. My motivation disappears, I feel tired, I don’t want to leave my bed and the ‘beer blues’ hit me like a ton of bricks. Add to this days of self-beration and it all gets a bit much. I doubt this is unusual, either. So I for one and looking forward to eliminating those feelings for a while.

The difficult part will be the numerous social occasions that are cropping up in March. Be that football/rugby matches, St. Patrick’s Day, the couple of birthday celebrations, the hen night… the list goes on. So it’ll be a challenge. But hey, no point in doing something easy. I already know that more than anything I’ll miss that first glorious glass of red on a Friday night, or the creaminess of a single, leisurely pint of Guinness more than I’ll miss the big sessions. But they all count!

Anyone else with me? I’ll be posting occasional updates over on Twitter using the hashtag #boozefreelent – if you’re embarking on something similar do give me a shout.

In the meantime, I’ll be bidding a fond farewell to these and looking forward to a healthier happier me!