You can’t beat a good wake

I like a good wake if I’m honest. Not least because unless I am driving it’s a rare excuse for a couple of drinks in the middle of the day which often happens to be in the middle of the week. Its got that slightly naughty feel about it and the alcohol helps with all those awkward moments when we find ourselves talking to somebody whose name you can’t remember, let alone whether or not we are actually related to them. All that changed today because our health conscious government has decided that we are all drinking too much and they have issued us with new lower limit guidelines. A couple of pints or a large glass of wine to oil the social wheels at such a gathering now has serious implications for how much of our allotted entitlement we have left for the remaining week.

We have been told, like so many irresponsible children, that we must cut down on our drinking in order to reduce the risk of life threatening conditions such as liver disease or cancer. Now, so long as we do as we are told, we can look forward to living on to a ripe old dementia riddled age instead.

As it happened I was driving to and from today’s funeral so my quota is safe for now. Aside from the alcohol issue I stand by my opinion that you can’t beat a good wake. For a start everybody is in a good mood. I know that might sound a bit odd having just buried a loved one but the whole point of the funeral tea to me is to finally let go and release all that pent up grief and emotion that the death has created. There is a kind of collective sigh of relief as you enter the pub or restaurant and I am always slightly taken aback by the sound of laughter so soon after the tears but it’s always there. The rest of the afternoon is usually divided between remembering funny anecdotes involving the deceased and catching up with seldom seen members of the family. At some point somebody will always say, “lovely to see you but isn’t it a shame that it always has to be at one of these occasions” and that is generally followed by promises to get together more often which rarely come to anything. Nothing changes.

I find at a wake that there is a sense of letting go of the one that has passed on accompanied by a gentle reminder to cherish those that remain. It’s a nice warm feeling that reminds us of our own mortality but also of how important it is to make the most of whatever time we have left. I said to somebody today that we should live every day as if it was our last one and she corrected me immediately by saying, “no, we should live every minute as if it was out last one”. I’ll drink to that. Or maybe I won’t. Or maybe I shouldn’t. But hang on, this might be my last minute. Pass me that bottle opener.

 

Risk and uncertainty

Well that’s the dry January challenge out of the way. Giving up alcohol for a month definitely felt like it had two sides to it. It was a challenge, no doubt about that and I am enjoying the sense of achievement, but alcohol and its potential for addiction and damage lent a certain gravitas to that particular trial and now I am looking forward to something a little less serious. And maybe easier.

I came across the concept of a thirty day challenge about a year ago when I listened to this TED talk and it has intrigued me ever since. Having set about doing the dry January thing I listened to the talk again and I am fascinated by the potential change it can bring about.  It feels like it might be a voyage of discovery and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will know I like that kind of journey.

Amongst outdoor types there is a lot of talk and excitement right now about ‘micro adventures’. It was started by adventurer and blogger Alastair Humphreys and seems to have taken on a life of its own. There are Micro Adventure Facebook groups springing up all over the place. People will typically climb a hill and bivouac out under the stars for just one night.

Just the place for a cosy night's sleep

Just the place for a cosy night’s sleep

They try to capture some of the excitement and sense of risk that adventures bring without having to commit to weeks or months away from home. I love the idea but I really don’t think it has to stop at ruffty tuffty outdoor stuff. If you look up ‘adventure’ in the dictionary you get various different definitions but I particularly like this one; “the participation or willingness to participate in things that involve uncertainty and risk”. There is no mention of mountains, freezing temperatures or frostbite. Nothing about physical endurance or working through pain barriers. Which brings me back to this thirty day thing.

The idea is simply to do something different for thirty days and see what the outcome is. When I say different, it might involve giving something up or it might involve doing something you don’t normally do. Either way it will certainly involve uncertainty and it may involve some kind of risk. (Such as discovering that you are an alcoholic after all.) This suggests that by definition it must be an adventure. Or at the very least a micro adventure.

My own thirty day challenge this month is to write something every day. I’ve set a lower limit of three hundred words per day and depending on the outcome I may publish some of them here or I may store them in my overflowing digital waste bin. It isn’t necessarily about writing a blog every day, just the discipline of practising the writing process and honing a skill that gives me a lot of pleasure. There is an element of testing myself which I like. It’s also an adventure.

Writing something every day definitely fits the definition. Goodness knows what kind of drivel might ensue (uncertainty) and publishing could expose me to any amount of ridicule (risk). I’m quite excited by this February challenge. I love a good adventure. Now where do I buy an expedition grade armchair to work from?

Oh, and thanks to my friend Sue for the wonderful hashtag of #writesaidfeb.

Four weeks of #Dryjanuary

Final thoughts after four weeks of #Dryjanuary

Wine carrier

Wine carrier

Nearly there now, only three days to go from tomorrow so it’s probably a good time to look back and try to understand what I have got out of a month without alcohol.

Amongst participants of #Dryjanuary there has been an outpouring on social media along the lines of “never felt better” and “full of energy” etc. etc. Personally, I have enjoyed the uninterrupted sleep each night, the fact that I have read a lot more (and remembered it in the morning) and of course, the financial benefits but that’s about it really. I think my concentration might be better but then again I may just be kidding myself on this one. Medical science assures me that there are all kinds of health benefits to be found in the abstainers they have tested and I have to go along with that and assume I am healthier myself. What really interests me though is not about health. It’s about whether or not a month of drinking excessive amounts of tea, milk and tonic water has brought me any closer to understanding why I drink alcohol as often as I do.

It may be that if I never drank again, or if I abstained for maybe a year, things might change but the overwhelming sensation I have looking back at the last four weeks is one of boredom. Well, not so much boredom as just sameness. There is a similarity about every day, every evening, every week and every weekend. I understand that this is my fault. I know I could go country dancing on a Monday and take up train spotting at the weekends to introduce variety and reduce the monotony. But I’m interested in how going without wine and beer affects me without substituting dodgy hobbies in their place. This is the conclusion I have come to.

I drink, a lot of the time, because alcohol is a simple, readily available instant solution to the need for differential. A glass or two of wine with a meal transforms the meal and makes it special. Makes it stand out from other routine meals. An evening with friends in the pub is very different when accompanied by beer than when not. It’s the drink that makes the experience different and it’s the difference that matters to me. I am a great believer that variety is the spice of life and putting three bottles of wine and half a dozen bottles of different ales in the supermarket trolley is like picking up pre-packaged, fun and entertainment. It’s the easily added spice for the often bland recipe of life.

Before anyone takes the opportunity to shoot me down by pointing out that there are a million other ways of adding variety to life other than drinking, I know. I realise that. That’s my point. It’s just so easy to pop that cork and take the easy option. For instant and easy variety just add alcohol. This would be fine if livers came with a spare like kidneys do. The irony is that the variety that drink can add to life very quickly becomes a habit and once it’s a habit there is no variety any longer.

What has really surprised me this month is that without intending to, I have found myself adding substitutes for drinking anyway. I have read more, written more and walked more than I would do during a normal month. I have also finally got round to doing something scary and challenging that I have been avoiding for a long time. That’s a subject for another blog though. The last four weeks have made me realise how convenient a drink can be as a substitute for something more interesting and often more rewarding. That understanding is what I have really got out of this month. The challenge now is not to slip back into the old habit of always taking the easy option when the evening comes, or the weekend. There’s that habit word again. Isn’t that what #Dryjanuary is really about? About breaking habits and seeing alcohol from a fresh perspective. Seeing it as something that enhances but in the way that an exotic spice does rather than everyday salt and pepper. Something to be cherished simply because it isn’t the norm. There is no doubt that alcohol had become a habit for me. I drank because it was nine in the evening, or Friday night, or Sunday dinner time, rather than because the occasion might be enhanced by a drink or two. It’s the reason for having a drink that I most want to change as a result of doing #Dryjanuary. I want that variety back.

I will come back and read this again at the end of February, and March, and April. Let’s see how hard old habits really die.

 

Count down to what?

Somebody asked me yesterday if I was now counting down since I am more than half way through giving up alcohol for the month of January. (#Dryjanuary as it has become known.) I think I said that I was, in a way. I have since had time to reflect on the question and I realise that it’s a little ambiguous. The real question should be; “are you counting down to the moment that you can have an alcoholic drink?” and my answer to that question would actually be, “no I’m not”.

As this month has gone on I have begun to understand that what is driving me is not going without a drink each day but the bigger picture of the challenge. The goal is to go for a whole month without a drink and to be able to reflect on that and say that I did it. It really doesn’t matter whether I have a drink on the 1st of February or not. Whether I get plastered on that day or have a civilized couple of glasses of wine with my Sunday roast. Nor does it matter whether I go on to drink every day or just occasionally after the challenge is over. Well yes it does matter, but it’s not part of this challenge.

Dryjanuary for me is like climbing a set of thirty-one steps. At the top of the landing is a whole heap of prizes. There is the right to brag that I did it. A month of sleeping like a baby. A bundle of money that can be spent on other things. A general feeling of well-being and alertness. And the biggest one of all, the satisfaction of knowing that I am more of an habitual drinker than an alcoholic. The steps themselves aren’t important. I don’t see gallons of beer or wine waiting for me at the top. I see a goal. A finishing line at the end of a gruelling race. The peak of a mountain that has taken a massive effort to ascend. It’s all about achievement for me. (For anybody reading this that has had a relapse during this challenge just see it as staying on the same step for a day or two. You are climbing those stairs again the very next day you go without a drink.)

So yes I am counting down, but not to a drink. I’m counting down to a victory. The successful accomplishment of a challenge. A challenge that I have shied away from many times in the past and this will make the victory all the sweeter. As sweet, shall we say, as a glass of red wine with a roast beef dinner.

Victory!

Victory!

Addict or habit: #Dryjanuary

#Dryjanuary

There is surprisingly little difference between habit and addict according to the dictionary definitions. They both involve repetitive behavior and they can both be hard to break. Addict tends only to be used in connection with substances that are regarded by society as harmful. Hard drugs, alcohol, sugar etc. Habits on the other hand can be as innocent as reading on the toilet or always watching the news at 6pm. So, addict bad, habit not so bad in short. I think this partly explains why I have always been worried that I might be addicted to alcohol rather than being an habitual drinker. Not the same at all is it? Also, addicts really only have two options; drink yourself to death or never drink again. Maybe a bit simplistic I know but I have known quite a few people who have been addicted to drink and they are all either dead or permanently dry so the evidence suggests to me that maybe it is quite simple. That is why I have always been terrified of the idea of being an addict. Being an addict surely means choosing between total abstinence or a battle that never ends, a living hell.

I have always told myself that my drinking was a habit and not an addiction but that hasn’t meant that there hasn’t been an element of doubt in my mind. What if I’m wrong? What if it turns out that I am addicted and it’s only a matter of time before I lose control and am forced to succumb to a slow and miserable alcohol related death or give up drink completely for the rest of my days. I’ve never sought out a cork screw or a bottle opener before the kettle in the morning but who says that will always be the case. It’s easy to see why having a habit is more appealing than being an addict.

Today is day eleven of the thirty one day Dry January challenge so I am approximately a third of the way through the experiment. I don’t want to tempt fate at this juncture but I am quietly confident that what I have uncovered is a habit rather than an addiction. I am starting to get some distance and perspective on my old habits and to understand why I drink more than I possibly should do. It turns out to be largely down to boredom. I haven’t really craved a drink at all over the past week and a half but I have realised that half the time when I open a bottle of wine or beer it’s because it’s easier than finding something more interesting to do. Alcohol seems to possess the amazing ability to turn the prospect of an evening of mediocre television into a perfectly acceptable way of relaxing for example. Which is fine now and again, just maybe not five or six nights a week. That’s where the habit comes in. It’s just so easy to slip into habitual behavior and that’s what dry January has revealed to me. It’s made me realise that alcohol is great as an accompaniment to a roast beef dinner or a social night in the pub but when you use it to turn something rubbish into something acceptable it’s a bad habit that is in danger of one day becoming an addiction. If ever there was an argument for keeping life interesting this may be one of the best.

If you have five minutes to spare listen to this TED talk on 30 day challenges, it’s interesting.

Sans ale, sans wine, some Christmas cake

Well I promised an update now and again on this driest of dry adventures so here are my findings after the first week of DryJanuary.

Actually, I’m not sure if I can tell you what it feels like to go without a drink for a week due to being full of a cold. It feels a bit like being asked to describe what bread tastes like having only ever eaten Marmite sandwiches. The cold may be masking the true experience, I don’t know. What is clear, but difficult to understand, is that I have found it remarkably easy to refrain from drinking for seven days.  All previous attempts at cutting back or abstaining have met with limited success or even abject failure. A typical scenario would run like this:

1. Pour the last of the bottle of red that was started with the Sunday roast and resolve to make it the last drink for the next four days. Well three at least. OK let’s not get ambitious, we’ll see how it goes.

2. Wake up Monday morning full of resolve and confidence.

3. 9pm Monday and an argument breaks out in my head. “One glass wouldn’t hurt.” “But it won’t be one glass will it?” “Well even if it was two it’s not unhealthy.” “But you’re supposed to be taking a break.” “You’re right, I’ll leave it alone.”

4. 9:30pm, “Oh sod it I’ll have a dry night tomorrow.”

5. Go to bed feeling like a failure.

It wasn’t always like that I should add. There have been successes. Even periods of months when two or three nights would be restricted to nothing stronger than tea with one or two milk chasers. The point I am making here is that it has always been a challenge to refrain. Yes I have done it but it has never been easy. This time, for some reason it has been easy. Very easy.

I can put my hand on my heart and say that in the last seven days I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol and I haven’t missed it either. I’m really hoping that the very boozy Christmas cake that our friend kindly made for us doesn’t count. So what is going on? What is different about this time?

Setting the cold aside, because I really do think that is a red herring, I believe that the reason I haven’t been in the least tempted to have a drink is because I went public with my intentions. You see all the debates and fights I have had previously have been with myself. Let’s face it, you are hardly likely to deal a knockout punch in a fight with yourself are you? It’s just too easy to cheat when there is no one but yourself to point the finger. I think that from the moment that I hit ‘publish’ on that blog post last week I cracked the problem. The idea of not completing the challenge is just too embarrassing to contemplate and my whole mind set has been dictated by that public declaration. No demons have come to argue with me in my head because they know it is futile.

I’ll never know for sure but maybe cycling 4,500 miles around the coast of Britain might be a factor in all this. Perhaps that public declaration of intent has taught me something.

I once read on Al Humphries’ web site that the best way to overcome the obstacles to an adventure is to decide what it is you want to do and then make it public. Shout out your intentions from the highest mountain, or blog about it, and it will happen. It has to. You are committed. That’s how I feel about this challenge, committed. That’s how I felt about the bike ride.

I’m not so naive to think I have cracked it with three and a half weeks to go but I am pretty confident. Hopefully, next week when my cold has cleared up, I should be in a position to let you know what bread tastes like without Marmite. I’m sure it’s delightful.

The odds may be high but I am confident of the winner.

The odds may be high but I am confident of the winner.

New year, new adventure

The merry go round that was 2014 is finally slowing down and I feel like it might now be going slowly enough for me to step off. The only problem with that is, I just know that within five minutes of being back on solid ground I will be looking for excitement and change. That’s why I have decided to go on another adventure starting tomorrow, 1st of January 2015.

Options for this particular trip are severely limited by a lack of money, the need to find a job and the desire not to actually travel anywhere far from home. I’m quite surprised by how much I have enjoyed making a home again after so much constant movement and I have no desire to spend January on the road. So, to sum up; I need something challenging to do that will take me somewhere I haven’t been before, or at least not since my early twenties, something that will stretch me and something that might teach me something about myself. It needs to be compatible with job hunting and enjoying our new home and I think I have got it.

You see I can’t remember the last time that I went more than a few days without a glass of wine, a pint of beer or some form of alcoholic drink so I thought it might be interesting to see what a month of abstinence feels like. That’s right I am going tea-total for the whole month just to see if I can.

I’m trying desperately hard to avoid phrase like that actually. “just to see if I can”, I mean. I’ve spent the last few days muttering, “give it a go”, “see if I can” and “I’m going to try….”. Now it’s time to stick my neck out with the much more committed; “I’m going tea-total in January just because I can”. Phew, sounds a bit scary put like that but having decided to go public with this there is little point in it unless I’m 100% determined to go through with it.

I am now well and truly set up to fall flat on my face. So be it, bring it on. It’s only pride.

If anything interesting comes out of the experiment I’ll write about it here. I’ll try to see the funny side and resist boring you with endless self pity (from the bottom of a pint glass) or patronising self-righteousness. If nothing else it will be an interesting personal record to look back on over a glass or two of red in February.

So, seven hours to go. Time to make a dent on what is left of the Christmas booze and put what ever is left at midnight somewhere out of temptations way. Mind you, with a great pub just fifty yards from our new home it’s going to take more than kidding myself to succeed in this little venture. I’ve tried hard to come up with a catchy little phrase for a dry January but with “Cranberry in January” being the best I have managed I’m open to wittier and more poetic suggestions.

If anybody fancies coming along for the ride you will be most welcome to join in via the comments sections at the end of each post. No cheating though.

Cheers

Cheers

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