Adventures in abstinence: Is it time to stop drinking?

“The thing about the Irish,” said my colleague from Amsterdam as we carried our beers from the bar to our seats in the alleyway, “is that they always have to have a drink in their hand.” The three Belfast-based members of the team appraised each other for a minute…then nodded in agreement.

It’s true. When we’re out for the night, our glasses are rarely empty. You’re either drinking to keep up, or someone is pressing a fresh glass into your hand.

Now, whether that’s a distinctly Irish or Northern Irish thing is up to you. The reader. Wherever you hail from.

Weeks later, this statement was still playing on my mind. If it was true, we were slave to some compulsion to drink and keep drinking whenever we’re socialising. Was it social pressure from our friends and people around us? Or was it internal, something we did subconsciously? Have we been conditioned to binge drink when we’re around other people (especially if work is picking up the tab)? I hated the notion that I was slave to habit or compulsion.

This conversation happened in the mid-Autumn. The social calendar was filling up as Christmas approached, meaning more and more visits to restaurants and bars. And as the colder evenings were drawing in, a regular glass or two of red wine at home for warmth and comfort. Week by week, the volume I was drinking was gradually creeping higher.

My Dutch colleague’s comment was ringing in my ears though. January was around the corner. Maybe it was time for a break.

An Intermission

Before we go any further, a promise: this is not going to be a preachy “I Stopped Drinking So You Should Too” article. Nothing could be more boring.

And also, this isn’t a backdoor admission of a drinking problem! I enjoy hazy IPAs and a good red wine. I also routinely take a one-month break from drinking once a year - as a health and fitness reset. Stopping usually makes me more mindful about my nutrition and weirdly more focused on other goals.

Dry January…and beyond?

I mentioned my “Reset Month” above. So this year the Reset Month and Dry January coincided.

The goal was to do the usual health reset. More than that, I kept meeting people who didn’t drink or barely drank at all. People who were re-evaluating their relationship with alcohol. Beginning to question why they drank. And whether they should continue to drink.

Researching the topic, I came across a scientifically thorough podcast episode by Andrew Huberman that opened my eyes to the damaging effects of alcohol on your body and brain. It’s definitely worth a listen. One of the most startling points that he made was that in order to undo some of the effects of long-term drinking, a break of 2-6 months would be necessary.

That was eye-opening. My one-month “reset” was having very little impact.

In my adult life, one month is the absolute longest I’ve gone without drinking. Most people are probably the same. So I resolved that Dry January would extend into February. And it might extend further, I don’t know. It’s an experiment. January is over, and February is a short month.

Do I struggle with not drinking? Not really. My willpower is rock solid when I decide to do something. Initially, there’s discomfort when I would sometimes take a drink - typically habit-based things like browsing M&S on a Saturday night, I’d usually buy a bottle of wine. Or city centre shopping, I’d usually pop in for a pint somewhere. But once the impulse passes, it’s gone.

As I’m writing this, roughly mid-February, I’ve done six weeks and it’s been relatively…simple. The predicted focus on nutrition and exercise has kicked in. I’ve lost about 4kg since Christmas. I’ve improved my running distance. And I don’t really miss it.

It’s worth mentioning that for about three weeks after stopping, my sleep was completely disrupted. Poor quality, waking up in the middle of the night. It eventually passed, but I needed to power through that phase. It eventually passed and my sleep is back to normal.

The big question is - whether to continue the abstinence or allow some alcohol back into my life. The idea of at least six months is appealing. But so is the idea of a Hazy IPA. I’m headed to Athens in March, and having a holiday without a cold beer is almost unfathomable. So, some interesting decision points on the horizon. (There may be a follow-up to this post with some more thoughts and findings!)

Having the right mindset

A final note if you’re considering cutting out alcohol (calling it “alcohol” somehow sounds horribly formal and official, doesn’t it?).

The language around stopping drinking is restrictive - we talk about stopping, abstinence, giving up drinking, cutting out the booze. This immediately puts you in a deprivation mindset. We don’t want that. That way temptation lies and you’ll feel like you’re missing out.

My perspective is that it’s more important to focus on what you’re gaining. If you go into a period of abstinence with a deprivation mindset, you will struggle. Try to shift your perspective. You’re gaining clarity of thought, reclaiming time at the weekends (Sunday morning hangovers), improved energy and more conscious health choices. You will thrive with that mindset - however long you decide to break from drinking.

Photo by Lacey Williams on Unsplash

Gerard McGarry Written by:

Liberal, humanist type. Optimist. Lover of life. Tryer of new things.