This is one of the times of year when I used to do a review of my life and look forward to the coming year, making aspirational plans. The other time when I might do this was my birthday, which is in June, conveniently just six months away.
However, since retirement two years ago I have begun to see my life differently. I no longer strive to achieve in the same way, though I do see myself continuing to grow and change. I just don’t put the same pressure on myself. I have no-one to impress, no-one to please other than myself and those people I love dearly.
So it might come as a surprise to know that at the start of 2017, I made a change in my life that turned out to be far bigger than I thought it would be. I decided to take a break from alcohol; not because I felt I had a problem, but because at the age of 65 and with various health problems associated with ageing I felt it no longer made sense to drink as much as I did. I didn’t drink mid-week, but I did tend to drink more than the recommended limit at week-ends.
I began, as I have more than once before, with Dry January. It wasn’t easy to take a break from alcohol so soon after the over-indulgence of Christmas, but I had done it before so at least I knew what to expect. Just one week in, I wrote in my Dry January Journal: ‘I keep finding that a smile creeps over my face, for no good reason.’ Already, I found to my surprise that my reflux had improved, and in the first week I lost two and a half pounds in weight. By three weeks in, I had made the decision never to go back to drinking every week-end, just because it is the week-end. I decided that I wanted to become a rare or occasional drinker; an aspiration that I still hold for some time in the future. I was in a different mind-set this time. And before the month was up I had found a Facebook group to help me carry on; One Year No Beer (OYNB).
At the end of the month, I gave this feedback to Dry January:
‘I have done DJ before, but I think I have always felt a bit deprived, and I could not wait for February 1st to come. This year is different. It seems a light bulb has gone on in my head, and instead of thinking about giving up something I have begun to see it as a freedom – alcohol free!’
Once I had achieved the month though, it felt hard to carry on. I had to find my motivation, so I listed my reasons for remaining Alcohol Free. My body continued to change, chucking out toxins around seven weeks into not drinking in the form of a spot on my chin. The weight fell off me, but my sleep was rubbish. It was anything but an easy ride. But I stuck at it.
One of the things that I have become aware of during this time is the way that alcohol is peddled as both a necessary part of having a good time, and an essential way to make a bad time seem better. The industry has done a very good job of brainwashing us all into thinking this is true, whereas in fact alcohol kills true connection with other people, takes us away from fully experiencing the joy and wonder of now, and magnifies our negative emotions.
One of the mantras I have developed for myself, which seems far more accurate than the dominant narrative is: Alcohol never made anything better. During this year, I have said a tearful farewell to my daughter and her little brood as they returned to the other side of the world, grieved the loss of my brother, celebrated my oldest stepson’s wedding, my own 65th birthday and our silver wedding anniversary, climbed Table Mountain in South Africa, and generally been far more present than I was the previous year for anything and everything, good and bad. I have not got caught up in the bad times, and I have been able to savour the good times. I decided to go pescatarian a few months into the year, and it feels so good to be eating a diet I feel is right for me. I have lost a bit of weight (not that much; I didn’t need to lose all that much), I have more energy, occasionally I still sleep badly but I don’t stress about it, and I generally feel better in myself. I no longer have night sweats, my digestion has improved no end, I don’t get breathless doing ordinary tasks, and I am calmer. I am told I am a nicer person to live with. Oh, and I completed the first draft of my debut novel.
As the founders of OYNB, Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns have noted, if there was a pill that could give you all of this, we would all be popping it! All I had to do, was stop pouring poison into my body. In retrospect, drinking alcohol was a ludicrous thing to do when I was doing so many other good things for my body and soul. And so, I stopped doing it. And I started moving forward –gently, and with compassion for self and others.
I don’t judge those who continue to drink. How could I? I did it for decades, and there were even times when I genuinely enjoyed it, though far less often than I told myself was the case. In this world of ours where the powerful can stand in judgement on others – and harm them – because of their sexuality, religion or any number of other characteristics, I strongly believe that we each should feel at liberty to make the choice that is right for us (provided we are not harming others), and to do so free from fear.
And so, I will be lifting a glass of bubbly alcohol-free wine at midnight on December 31st. And I will be moving forward into 2018 with hope and an open mind. Who knows what the next year might bring?