I am a big drinker. I enjoy it. I’m good at it. I drink far more than is good for my health, my finances or my relationships, but that’s never stopped me having one more pint, on the grounds that there’s no point worrying about one more after the first twelve. That’s been the way of it since I was 14. Since then, the longest I’ve ever been without a drink was in 1998, when I was laid up following knee reconstruction surgery. After 3 dry weeks, I went out on crutches to watch a World Cup game, got drunk, fell over and tore the knee apart again. That might have taught me a lesson, but I blamed myself, not the drink, and rightly so.
During 6 years in political PR, I’ll admit that - even by my stretched standards - the drinking got ‘out of hand’, as my normal evening consumption got combined almost every day with long lunches, quick pints and after-work receptions, not to mention the annual 18-30 holiday in suits that was party conference. I’d guess my consumption now is half what it was then, but that’s still half of a big number, and I’d be lying if I said I’d cleaned up my act: when I was offered a six figure salary last year to work in an Islamic country, my first question wasn’t: ‘Are they despots?’, it was: ‘What’s the drinking situation?’
So when I told friends that I was going to give up booze this Lent, they were suitably sceptical. But working for CAFOD, where Lent is the focal point of the year for campaigning and fundraising, I was surrounded by people taking on extreme challenges – some walking the length of the Grand Union Canal or the Thames, several living for a week on 70 litres of water – and giving up booze hardly seemed a big deal in comparison.
So, after getting hammered for a week in mid-February like some dipsomaniac camel, I began my abstinence on Ash Wednesday. 46 days later, and for the benefit of any big drinkers thinking of embarking on similar challenges, this is what I’ve learned:
1. Multiple motivations help. Much research has been done on the psychology of giving something up and sticking to it. I covered every angle: I read inspiring articles about the meaning of Lent; I made commitments to God and other divine beings; I got my friends to tell me I’d never manage it; and, as a good disciple of Adam Smith, I said I’d pay £1,000 to anyone who spotted me with a drink. On reflection, the one thing I should also have done was build towards some event or reward so I’d have felt excited in the last fortnight, rather than just limping to the line.
2. Home is a haven. My Lent commitment was made possible, or at least infinitely easier, by the fact that I’d already made and kept a New Year’s Resolution not to drink at home. So weekends or weekday evenings spent indoors were effectively temptation-free, something I exploited by getting myself addicted to new computer games and DVD box sets so I had a positive reason to stay in. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been able to give up external and domestic drinking all in one go, but staggering the two certainly worked.
3. Cravings pass quickly. Long ago, after my first hot summer day working (under-age) on a building site, the foreman took me to the estate pub and I ordered a pint of lager. Since that day, I’ve always associated thirst and a hard day’s work with beer, and it feels un-natural to deny myself that option on a weekday, let alone on the weekend. It took about 10 days for that craving to pass, and while I continued to fancy a pint in various situations throughout the 46 days, it stopped being my Pavlovian reaction to just being inside a pub.
4. Neil Tennant lied. There is no soft option. Now I understand why pregnant women look unhappy standing in crowded pubs: there are NO good soft drinks. The Fentiman range is great but sugary; ditto Coke and Lemonade; pure fruit juice is too breakfasty; juice & soda too bland; and an evening on Diet Coke means a night spent awake. If I was Diageo, I’d market 600ml bottles of one part blackberry smoothie, three parts diet lemonade, and corner the huge ‘no-alcohol, no-caffeine, low-cal, anti-oxidant, don’t mind aspartame’ pub market.
5. The Belly abhors a vacuum. Danny Baker used to describe the Lager Diet thus: “Drink 12 pints a night for 30 years then stop, the weight falls off you.” He has a point. There’s a pronounced de-bloating effect, but in weight loss terms, I found the removal of booze was almost entirely counter-acted by a craving for high calorie substitutes. Suddenly, I was discovering whole new aisles in Tesco: cream cakes, jam tarts, chocolate in all forms, anything for a sugar rush and the satisfied, stomach-slapping sense of having had a skinful. Not good.
6. Empty of beer; Full of beans. I might not have lost weight, but the other physical benefits were indisputable. I slept deeply every night, and when I needed to, I could get by on very little. My energy levels were way up, and I felt generally buzzy all day. And for someone who is used to always having aches and pains, I had the rare experience of going several weeks without taking a Nurofen. I’m not sure where the cause and effect is with all that. Maybe the improved sleep produced all the other benefits, but they were there all the same.
7. Mentally, strange things happened. I’ve been more efficient and methodical at work, and though usually a very nervous speaker, I’ve delivered presentations without the usual wobbles. On the flip side, my memory has been terrible: forgetting names, losing things, repeating myself. At pub quizzes, I’ve solved anagrams and worked out logical answers easily, but then been unable to dredge up basic facts. Why has being boozeless done that? It reminds me of when I forget my PIN number because I think about it instead of typing it instinctively.
8. Who needs a PIN number? I’ve saved a small fortune that would have been spent on booze. I’ve been putting that money aside and will donate it to CAFOD’s Lent appeal. Indeed, thanks to DfID and that nice Mr Mitchell match-funding all donations made during Lent, it will mean over £1,000 going to support CAFOD’s water and sanitation projects. So lots of money which would have disappeared down my toilet will instead help build clean toilets for communities in Africa. Yes, sobriety hasn’t made me any less trite.
9. Booze isn’t everything. Obviously, it’s nice to know that I can quit drinking for 6 weeks if I need to, but would I have been able to stop indefinitely? This was almost put to the test when I realised Arsenal had won every match during Lent. Clearly as long as that run continued, I couldn’t jinx it by drinking, so I had to contemplate staying dry until May and possibly until the following season. Fortunately, QPR nipped that in the bud last weekend, but it’s nice to know I was prepared to do it for the greater good. Next Lent, I’ll try giving up Arsenal.
10. I love booze. Given some of the benefits of the past 46 days, it might be tempting to swear off the drink for good and become one of those dreary converted sinners. Well, sod that. I love booze and I always will. But that’s precisely why I’m going to take it easier from now on. This Lent, I’ve experienced celebrating Arsenal beating Spurs 5-2 with a lime & soda and being cooped up at home watching Dexter on St Patrick’s Day. Neither was a great experience but at least they were by choice. I don’t want to ever be told by a doctor or a loved one that I no longer have that choice.
So I’ll have a few drinks this week but not too many, and then maybe another fortnight off. This time without the cream cakes.