It was seven years ago when I first stopped drinking alcohol as background for a book, a project which significantly changed my life and my ideas.
I never intended to make my own experiences central to my work on the topic and this has not changed. I will only ever be a single data point in a story involving millions.
But I do think having first-hand experience from both “sides” is crucial to the journalistic task. They allow us to understand and describe things better.
Like many my alcohol habits have had phases at the riskier end of the spectrum. It was mostly the classic British weekly session, or two, and the odd drink dotted through the week.
I had started drinking in what I considered a “mature” way in my 30s, as many do, pouring a loosener at the end of a day at work. It might be two or three if it was a hard one.
But having an unexceptional drinking pattern does not mean change comes easily. I used alcohol as both a stressbuster and mood booster. Life was going to be rougher without it.
Each situation and hangup had to be dealt with head on as it arose, rather than being conveniently smoothed over with the silky-smooth plaster of a pint or three.
A great number of things had been summarily dealt with using alcohol. Going alcohol-free meant dealing with this backlog on top of the flow of new challenges.
Luckily for me I saw this as a work assignment, so I was okay with it not being a barrel of laughs. And my research was, thankfully, showing it should get easier in time.
In the short term I found it best to simply avoid challenging situations. Alcohol-free drinks are good cover for mingling without an interrogation from evangelistic drinkers.
But also crucial to the exercise was exploring activities beyond alcohol drinking situations. After a certain point they are, sadly, often less entertaining when experienced sober.
This resulted in no end of experiments, including cold showers, improv, leaf tea, swimming, psychogeography, VR and simulators. Alcohol was replaced by chronic dilettantism.
I noticed that my long distance running and cycling actually contributed to stress and pain I might seek alcohol to relieve. So I turned down the intensity of my sessions.
So over years my counterproductive stress-drinking has been replaced by an eclectic mix. Negative stress is now gone quicker and the buzz of occasional success is felt longer.
A few of life’s trials have come along in the interim. None of them have led me to drink alcohol again. And giving up tobacco was not a big deal without alcohol there to derail me.
The book was finished in summer 2016 after just under two years. I no longer felt obliged to continue with not drinking, but I wanted to.
I had made so much effort learning to live free of alcohol, which I’d also learned was counterproductive. It would be a massive waste to return to drinking, so I didn’t.
Another three years or so passed and I did not touch a drop. I simply did not want to. But then I got interested in the taste, so had the odd tiny alcoholic drink.
And that’s more or less where I am. Once or twice I have had a strong craft beer and felt a mild psychoactive effect. To my surprise I found I disliked it.
Something I once saw as a universal balm for my worries now makes me feel like I am coming down with a cold and aware I am talking too much. And I feel annoyingly agitated.
So there is no epic struggle needed to resist drinking more. I drink a tiny measure to taste it and leave it at that. I stay well away from the unwanted effects.
No doubt I am shaped by years of covering the subject. So, I would not recommend this very low-level dabbling as an objective for anyone.
And it helps to rethink freedom too. It now does not involve disabling my brain, harming myself in obedience to social convention, or relying on a sedative to quash stress.
If there is a health objective which might be more universal, it is to look after our brains as best we can. It is our biggest asset. This, for me, means no alcohol bingeing at all.
If I feel like I might go against this objective, I will simply go back to drinking nothing at all. It would, in comparison, be no big loss.
There have been challenges, of course, but my choices were the ones that were easiest and most enjoyable on aggregate for me. The only real difficulty was ensuring they were not overlooked. ■