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.

 

Money Talks…

It’s that time of year again. The Great Cake Experiment has kicked off for a second round.

As usual,  I have, at the very last minute, managed to submit this week’s entry.

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Money talks, but, as the words of a famous song attest, it can’t sing or dance, and it don’t walk. (Note: “Famous”, naturally, does not equate to  “decent”, or “credible” or even “listenable”.  But I’ll try not to digress, before I even get past the first paragraph. And Neil did have a point, before the chorus descended into farce).

Residing in Ireland these days is no great picnic, at least not according to the media. As a country, we are flat broke, and have sold our sovereignty/souls to the Germans/Devil, (delete as appropriate). Our houses are worth negative money – the bricks and mortar equivalent of celery (yes, if you eat nothing but celery, all the time, you’ll have a negative calorie intake. Crash dieters, take note.)

And oh, how we love talking about this. In outraged tones, we condemn the FF-‘led government of the time for mismanaging us into this pit of destitution. We blame the banks for lending us the cash to buy what we did not need. We scorn the broadsheets for force-feeding us swollen property magazine supplements we did not want (but feasted on). We decry the economists who gleefully discussed  the best and safest ways of investing in property abroad. How we revile the car dealers who persuaded us that a five year payment plan for the BMW X5 – for on-road activity, natch -was a no-brainer. Lacking, however in this blame game, is the more uncomfortable notion of personal responsibility.

Today, in Ireland, to be blunt we have a society that, to its shame, has collectively failed itself. Our most vulnerable are now at risk. There is every indication that tomorrow’s Budget will signal bad news for children in disadvantaged families as child benefit allowances are cut. Class sizes will, in all probability be increased. Already, the number of Special Needs Assistants for children with learning difficulties has been slashed. Nursing homes are closing, resulting in traumatic moves for elderly patients who, for many years have known no other home. Proposed funding for mental health facilities is now no longer guaranteed. Note that those most affected here are the ones with very little power to defend themselves.

Take a bow, Ireland. To say “we all partied” is wrong and unfair, but frankly, there is no denying that many of us did. Plenty of us sit in debt, because we lived beyond our means when times were good. Nobody ever told us we had to buy that car, or take out that mortgage, but we went ahead and did it anyway because everyone else was doing it and we didn’t want to be left behind. Now, in our grim fiscal situation, all we can do is talk about it, and continue to place money at the centre of our lives, and forgetting that the loveliest things we own cost nothing. (The irony is, that despite the fact that €120 billion is held in this country’s banks in hard currency and cash deposits, we collectively cry poverty, but of course, I’m digressing again.)

Times are hard. For many, they’re immeasurably shit, and they have my sympathy, they really do. But for many of us, they’re not as bad as we’d like to pretend.

I can’t understand why we continue to talk ourselves into this negative, defeatist frame of mind. Think of the happiest memory you have. The person you love the most. The things you treasure most dearly. What you would cry hardest over losing. I’m willing to bet that the things that matter most to you don’t didn’t originate in your wallet. Why not place them at the centre of your world, and while you’re at it, make a difference to the people around you by doing something small, something almost immeasurably tiny, in fact, like sharing a smile, holding a door, or just telling someone how much they mean to you? Why not devote your time and energy to what feeds the heart and soul, and worry a little less about what you can’t bring with you where you’re going?

Money talks, but no-one ever said we had to listen.