Blog: Curbing my enthusiasm for alcohol

 

I have recently consciously cut down my alcohol consumption. It turns out alcohol really isn’t my friend, despite my perpetual love for it all these years. After three minor procedures on my heart to treat a (non-life threatening) arrhythmia, the doctors couldn’t figure out why, despite their best efforts, the abnormal heart beat kept returning.

Part of the problem was uncovered when, prior to my last procedure, the anaesthetist questioned me on my alcohol consumption to determine my tolerance level for the anaesthetic.

“So how many units do you have a week?” she asked. “About 30,” I answered, with what I thought to be complete honesty.  Now, all the other anaesthetists/doctors/ professors prior to this had left it at this, but this anaesthetist probed further: “Ok, so what have you drunk this week?” she asked. “Well, Saturday we were celebrating so we shared three bottles of wine, plus I had a couple of cocktails, Friday we shared another bottle of wine, I had a few glasses of wine Tuesday…”

She did not look happy. “That’s more like 50 units a week, which is far too much. Do you know what the recommended weekly allowance for a women is?” she asked, horrified.

“Fourteen?” I answered feeling like I’d just wet my pants at school when I should really of grown out of doing such a thing by now.

The doctors concluded that it must be my committed relationship with wine, cider and cocktails that was most likely causing my arrhythmia to reoccur by stressing my heart out with their sugary, gorgeous tasting alcohol laden contents.

Fuck; that’s what I thought. Not the ALCOHOL. The staple of modern London life, every family get together I’ve ever attended in my adult life, and most Friday, Saturday, Sunday and, more often than not, Thursday nights.  I really had no idea I was drinking so much. Perhaps if I’d taken the time to find out the alcohol unit of each drink and calculated them I’d of realised – but jeez, life is too bloody short! Maybe I’m just friends with, and related to, a bunch of pissheads, but everyone around me seemed to be doing the same.

Making adjustments

It has been five months since I was told to cut my consumption down to the recommended 14 units a week. This is not meant to be consumed in one sitting, mind, but, for example, one or two glasses of wine with dinner, with two days off every week, so I was told.

Fourteen units is the equivalent of one bottle of wine (9 units) and two pints of cider (2.6 units per pint). Yes, that is not much at all over an entire week.

It’s probably not surprising that I rarely manage to meet the 14 units a week goal, it’s more like 20 -25. I’ve not given up the wine, cider or cocktails and I don’t enjoy drinking any less. In many ways I enjoy drinking more now.

Instead of drinking with careless abandon, or consuming the contents of a free bar like there’s no tomorrow, or opting for the cheaper bottle of wine because, no doubt, I’ll be sharing another few of those, and, let’s face it, I’m a journalist and therefore not made of money. No! Now I THINK very carefully before I chose what to drink , I consider what social engagements I have in the week and how many drinks I can allow myself at each. I also don’t mind paying for the decent stuff. Opting for quality over quantity is something I wish I’d discovered sooner.

I sip and savour every glorious mouthful now, and feel smug in the knowledge that I may be a bit tipsy (my tolerance for alcohol has literally plummeted) but I won’t be waking up with an unmerciful hangover, or even the dull fatigue you feel when you’re not quite fully hungover but can tell you had a few last night. Yes, I rarely feel shit from alcohol these days.  It’s not an effort to get things done and my waist line and bank balance are all the better for it. Overall, it’s been a very positive adjustment for me. My husband is certainly impressed – after a night on the town I rarely fall over in my heels now.

But it hasn’t been easy. There are some aspects of drinking with spontaneity and disregard that I truly miss.  If you’re a drinker you can’t deny that it is fun getting pissed; doing tequila shots at 1am with some randoms at the bar, dancing like no one’s watching because you’re too pissed to care or having one of those nights where you and your best friend stay up drinking until four in morning just laughing and chatting. No one stayed up chatting till four in the morning sober, they’d quite rightly get tired and do the sensible thing and go to bed.

Plus, living and working in London and watching your alcohol intake is sometimes a tedious task.

When I was first told I had to cool down my love for liqueur I was in denial. I didn’t tell anyone except three people very close to me who I know wouldn’t make an issue of it or ever tell me I was drinking too much.  I was scared people would judge me on every glass and stop stocking the fridge with wine when they were expecting me over (turns out I got this completely wrong).

Instead I just sipped my drink REALLY slowly and avoided social drinking situations, which in London (or any part of the UK, I imagine) is bloody difficult. After work socialising involves drinking, going for dinner involves drinking, going to gigs involves drinking (from 2pm if you’re in my group of friends), lunch with friends often involves drinking, you can even drink at the cinema (and I did).  Weddings, and I had my own coming up, and christenings end in heavy celebratory drinking sessions.  More often than not, almost any social situation you can think of in the UK involves having a glass of something strong in-hand. Plus, it’s cold most of the year, so we’re in-doors, a lot, and most in-door places in London have some form of a bar.

And if you want to go out and have a few but then opt for something softer you’re stuck with sickly fizzy drinks – I won’t drink my alcohol with syrupy fizzy drinks let alone drink them solo – or acidic fruit juice concoctions. Try ordering a coffee at 11 pm in any London watering joint; the bar person will almost certainly give you a dirty look and send you on your way. Compare this to the Continent, for example, where it’s perfectly normal to order a coffee at a drinking establishment post-6pm – even 12am– and where wine is served in considerably smaller measurements; in Croatia, where I have been recently, for example, wine is served in 100ml measures, much smaller than our 175ml or 250ml (which is a third of a bottle) glasses.

I’m now very open about my medically induced drinking restraints because keeping quiet and cutting down isn’t an option. You see, I was the kind of drinker that could handle their booze. People expected me to finish the bottle and order another. Have a large glass of wine instead of a small, be happy to start drinking at 1pm and continue throughout the day, to down those tequila shots at 1am. Saying no always resulted in jibes and jeers to ‘go on’.

I learnt the hard way about not telling anyone about my drinking restrictions at my hen do. Yes, I probably should have scrapped the part of the evening where we met in a cocktail bar at 5:30pm for half price cocktails. Cocktails were flung at me every which way. So I started discretely giving them away but despite this I was pissed by the time we sat down for dinner at 7pm. As you probably know, your ability to be sensible and say no to even more alcohol goes right out the window when you’re trollied.  After hitting the sack three-in-a-bed (ladies only, I might add) at 5am and waking up at 10am, still three sheets to the wind, things didn’t seem that bad.

But, jeez, did I have HELL to pay later that day, and the next two days, for that matter. It was enough to make me NEVER want to drink that much again. Sometimes you’re so in denial that no matter what someone tells you, you just have to do it one more time to be reminded it’s not a good idea. I won’t be doing that again.

UK culture and happy endings

Being forced to think about my alcohol consumption has made me think about our alcohol culture in the UK.

I have no time for Daily Mail articles that invariably feature around Christmas time entitled something like ‘Booze Britain’ (there was a documentary of the same name) where the photographer has clearly made a bee-line for scantily clad teenage girls puking in the street. Yes, teenagers and young people, myself included, binge drink a disgusting amount, but most of the time we learnt to consume alcohol on an industrial scale from our parents and other adults in our lives, plus we were bored and seeking fun, escapism, if you like. It always seemed to me, but I think this is changing, that if you’re not much of a drinker in the UK you’re a minority not the majority.

Britain’s drinking culture is a very complex issue that is greatly affected by the weather – lack of good weather – and our in-door lifestyles and the price of booze. It seems to me that putting up the price of alcohol in pubs forced us all to drink more indoors, where we’re not being served controlled measures but pouring liberally, which has most-likely upped our alcohol tolerance over the years. I’m not just referring to teenager’s binge drinking before hitting a club, but also middle-class dinner parties where wine flows freely, 30-something house parties, many people just sitting in on a Saturday night watching X Factor. And, of course, amongst all of this, advertising and lobbying from the drinks industry has no doubt had a role to play.

However, this article in the Guardian suggests I’m not alone in cutting down on the booze and that alcohol consumption in the UK is actually falling. Since 2005 average consumption has fallen to levels close to those in 1992, a trend that seems most pronounced among the often vilified 16-24 age group, according to the article. This is thought to be something to do with the recession.

Whether our love for booze comes from escapism, our indoor lifestyle or wider culture, or secretly influenced by the underhand dealings of the alcohol industry, the article suggests that contrary to popular believe our attitudes are changeable and move with the fashions. For example, it seems to me, that the increasing prevalence of many ‘aged’ cocktail bars and gin houses, and so-on, in London, where one drink costs the price of a couple of bottles of wine from the supermarket, signals a move away from the Wetherspoons culture of quantity over quality, which I grew up in, to one of quality over quantity.  As I’ve discovered, that can be a good thing.

A part of me will always be slightly sad that I can no longer get pissed without counting units, but, as I said before, the positives – slimmer waist, fatter bank balance, less wasted hangover hours – really are great, plus, now, I actually feel like a proper, sophisticated grown-up (not like any of the adults I actually know, mind!), who drinks in a controlled, refined way (I like to imagine in the manner of Audrey Hepburn, perhaps) and not with the enthusiasm and greed of a big kid whose just found that house made of sweets in Hansel and Gretel.

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