I’ve sat down to write this piece and I’m suffering a very mild hangover. It’s not a bad one in the scheme of things; I had a couple of beers at a restaurant last night and a glass of wine with my wife when we got home.
As a direct consequence of these few drinks I slept poorly, woke with a headache and I’ve felt sluggish and out-of-sorts since I woke up.
That’s just the way it seems to go now that I’m in my early to mid-forties. Gone are the days when I can expect to get away scot-free with an evening of boozing, particularly on a school night.
Alcohol is something that I’ve always felt conflicted over; I love many things about drinking it, how it makes me feel and the experiences I’ve had while enjoying a good beer-buzz. I also know it’s something that I could and should be managing better.
In the true spirit of seeking comparisons against which to feel better about myself, it’s comforting to realise that I may be bad, but I could certainly be a lot worse. I’ve also had close, first-hand experience of living around fully-fledged alcoholics (Including those who admitted it and others who couldn’t).
I feel blessed that alcohol hasn’t left a significant mark on my health or my relationships and hasn’t hindered my progress on life to-date.
And yet, I have a continuing inner-debate that occupies my mind regarding alcohol and its effects in my life.
I want to share my thoughts on alcohol as it relates to my life. It’s not intended as a series of guidelines for others to follow should they be thinking or experiencing the same as me. In many cases I don’t yet feel like I have the answers.
Instead I am sharing these thoughts in the hope that by getting them out of my head, it may help me to make better sense of them. Perhaps some of it will echo for the reader too, in which case, so much the better.
I’ll start out by saying that I consider myself a social-drinker. I generally only drink at weekends, and mostly beer or wine, seldom spirits. I never drink and drive, and I’ve never felt compelled to drink out of habit, fear, compulsion or anything other than choice.
That said, I’m conscious that I am likely to drink more than is recommended as being healthy and am certain that I’d be classed as a binge-drinker on the basis of a typical Friday or Saturday night out with friends and family.
As is somewhat typical in the UK at least, a sociable evening out would typically involve five or six hours drifting from pub to bar, drinking steadily for the duration.
With the scene set, here’s how I think about booze these days, and the concerns I have in my mind.
I’m uncomfortable that I default to social activities that usually involve alcohol
The typical British night out described above would account for two or more of my evenings per month. Many other weekend nights and the occasional mid-week evening with friends after work might follow a similar pattern but to a lesser degree (shorter evenings, fewer drinks).
It’s a little dispiriting to admit that such nights account for so much of my social time.
It feels like the easy option, like resorting a simple and reliable formula that allows me to relax, to enjoy myself, to catch up with friends (or co-workers) and it requires very little forethought or planning. It’s saddening that there’s usually little to show for evenings spent this way though other than the obligatory hangover and a fair amount of money spent in the process.
I’m not suggesting I’d personally find it preferable if I defaulted to nights at the theatre, the cinema, watching lectures or pursuing weird or wonderful hobbies. If I took the notion, I could easily do any of these things (and do some of these, occasionally). I haven’t made efforts to do more of these things though, and wonder if perhaps that’s because I’m caught in a rut where my default form of relaxation is to head for the pub?
I wonder if booze or my association of relaxation and good-times with such occasions is somehow preventing me from considering alternative ways to spend a typical Friday night?
The same goes for social-time spent with various members of my extended family which often centres upon drinking or involves alcohol by default. There are regular meals out and at family homes, the gatherings and visits that often involve meeting up at a pub, or to which we bring a bottle or two. Even those that don’t centre upon drinking, somehow seem to culminate in a drink after (e.g. a game of golf and then drinks in the bar afterwards).
There doesn’t seem to be away to break this pattern without seeming anti-social or unwilling to fit into group norms. I realise these are the worst-possible reasons for adopting a behaviour but that’s how it feels.
The reason this sits uneasily is that I don’t like feeling that my choices and behaviours are shaped by others (acknowledging that they aren’t trying to do this knowingly or intentionally). It also seems weak-willed on my part to feel like I have to join in, to do the same as them and to drink at social gatherings.
I’ve tried taking the route of drinking soft-drinks only and seem only to find it a struggle that robs me of enjoyment.
All this leads me to conclude that I’m unable to choose to act as I want to, or more likely, that the status quo actually suits me fine. The notion of socialising with friends and family offers me a reason to drink; others are doing it so why shouldn’t I?
I'm uncomfortable with feeling like I’m not actively choosing what I want to do, how and when
As an individual I can be extremely focused, determined and controlled in my behaviours and in how I discipline myself. It annoys me that my drinking of alcohol demands as much of my willpower as it seems to and flies in the face of other aspects of my character.
As mentioned above, I generally hold myself to a ‘booze at weekends, only’ rule. Yet I know that if I have decided to allow myself to drink at the weekend then when Friday night comes, I’ll be actively waiting for the first drink. It occupies way more of my mind than it should. I find myself lingering over the choice of a bottle of wine, or debating which beers to buy; surely it shouldn’t occupy quite so much of my mind?
I humour myself in thinking that this is just a case of ensuring my treat is not wasted on an inferior beverage. Maybe that’s accurate, and maybe not.
At root, I wish I were more ‘take it or leave it’ about alcohol in the same way as I enjoy seafood; I have it occasionally but I don’t feel the need to plan meticulously when I’ll eat it and when I won’t.
What makes alcohol any different?
I resent the extent to which alcohol now hinders or limits me in many aspects of life
In recent years I’ve noticed the adverse effects that booze has in the short term (i.e. the day after).
If I’ve drunk the night before I can’t workout as effectively at the gym. It limits my endurance and performance and I find myself struggling mentally as I chastise my poor-choices and the impacts they are having on my workout.
I sleep badly after drinking and while I initially fall soundly asleep (or rather, lose consciousness rather than actually enjoying deep, restful sleep), later in the night I am wide awake, fidgety and agitated.
My mind also races into random, dark and unhelpful trains of thought.
The after-effects of drinking on my digestive system and my mind, compounded by the tiredness also seem to impact upon my mental peace and overall sense of wellbeing.
I’m far more likely to feel anxious or overwhelm in the face of minor struggles and trivialities the day after drinking.
It annoys me that I can see others’ situations so clearly as regard alcohol and the effects it has for them and yet I can’t seem to reach or apply that clarity to my own life
A few years ago my father in law was going through chemotherapy for cancer. Unfortunately after a two year struggle he has now passed-away.
At the time, it seemed common-sense that he should be doing everything possible to maximise the effectiveness of his chemo by living cleanly and minimising his drinking. In spite of this, a near-daily drink seemed to be the most important and joyful part of his day.
I can't pretend to understand how he must have felt going through what he did, and perhaps the glass of wine was his way of relaxing and dealing with the process. I still find myself looking back on his situation and wondering why he couldn’t see that alcohol might have been limiting the effectiveness of his treatment and hence the length of his life.
I suffer similar frustrations with those I encounter who suffer from the anxiety and depression that seems so prevalent in society. Many such individuals that I know, also seem to drink heavily and frequently and yet can’t seem to connect the effects and after-effects of this with the mental challenges that they face daily.
Avoiding drinking might not solve their problems yet it would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. I can diagnose and rationalise the effects of alcohol upon the health of others and yet I seem blinkered and oblivious regarding its effects in my own life.
Why is that?
I feel conflicted about drinking with my wife, who is diabetic
As long as I’ve known her my wife and I have enjoyed a drink together.
Our first date is preserved in a haze of boozy-memories. She’s also been diabetic for as long as I’ve known her and this potentially life-limiting condition is constantly in the back of my mind, especially when opening a bottle of wine for us to share.
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t drink in moderation provided it’s managed in the same meticulous way she is required to manage her food-intake. However, I feel a great deal of guilt on the occasions where I’ve chosen to have a drink and this triggers her to have one too.
Of course, she’s an adult and able to make her own choices, but I still feel accountable for trying to encourage her in the right direction. The best example I could set would be to not drink whatsoever, as well as to reject carbs and to try and influence her in every other sensible behaviour too.
While this isn’t going to happen (and although I use this expression, I don’t know why I feel like I can or should say it) I feel occasionally despondent that I’m not able to set a better example or to lead her with better behaviours and healthier-habits than those that come naturally.
Alcohol fits into that category of things that I suspect we all struggle with from time -to-time; the unhealthy indulgences. Whether your vice is unhealthy foods, the occasional cigar, a weekend spent binge-watching a series on Netflix, endlessly scrolling through social-media or whatever flicks your switch, we all know of the things that we enjoy and yet which we need to ration for ourselves.
We know that their effects could be harmful to our lives or to our health if we let them get out of control. We suspect that we might be better off financially, socially or in our health if we gave them up completely, and yet we know that on a level we enjoy them to a degree that makes it hard to quit.
My vice in this context is alcohol.
I’ll continue to manage my drinking as I have until now, with the same begrudging love-hate relationship. I’ll also continue to debate the questions I’ve raised above until I find the answers that sit comfortably within me.
At that point, perhaps my relationship with alcohol will change for good and Friday nights will be enjoyed over a nice cup of tea rather than a frosted glass of IPA.