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Health + WellbeingThe Balanced Brief

Wednesday Wellbeing: Alcohol, sobriety and me by Zoe

Putting a cork in it – sobriety and me

On the 4th December 2017 I made a decision that would turn out to be life changing. It was one of those decisions that came from listening to my intuition, not questioning it, even if it sounded crazy and going with it. I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol for 40 days. And to everyone that knew me, this sounded like the most, crazy totally leftfield decision I could possibly make! I still remember the looks on people’s faces.

I’ll keep the reason that triggered my decision for a future article perhaps but for the purposes of this piece I was noticing the impact of alcohol on my wellbeing. Having lived with an alcoholic in the distant past, I knew I was not a classically defined ‘alcoholic’ by any definition but I did drink alcohol as many do on a fairly regular basis, without giving it a second thought. It was an established part of my lifestyle. But whatever it was something had changed for me and I’d started becoming more conscious and aware of the subtle impact alcohol was having on me. So I started to listen more intently to the inner ‘post hangover’ voice I’d been ignoring when it popped up.

What had I started to pay particular attention to? Well after drinking alcohol, I knew I was not able to have the uninterrupted, restorative sleep my body craved. Depending on how much alcohol I’d drunk, I had broken, surface sleep while my mind over analysed the list of things I needed to do or I had irrational thoughts about things that were absolutely fine during day light hours or I felt angst about what I’d said or done during the evening.  And despite being what I considered to be super healthy and conscious about what I put in to my body and how I lived my life, meditating twice daily, yoga, mindfulness, following a plant-based lifestyle, swimming at the spa, journaling, avoiding the foods I knew didn’t agree with me, even though I loved them! I couldn’t put my finger on it I just felt my general wellbeing and capacity to focus my mind were not as optimum as they could be based on how I thought I was living my life.

My mind also experienced phases of feeling cloudy, or sticky like treacle and took time to ‘get in the zone.’ Classic brain fog! I also experienced lethargy and a lack of energy, although I was reluctant to admit this and still managed to continue living life at a pace.

I was also developing a greater awareness between when I consumed alcohol and the links to my general mood and hormones, for example experiencing anxiety or feeling sad or low and noticing other subtle changes in my body at certain times of the month. Looking back I can appreciate alcohol is after all ‘liquid sugar’ and so has the capacity to spike and disrupt blood sugar and throw our hormones out of balance.

The other observation was the impact of drinking when my body had perhaps been experiencing prolonged or ongoing low-level stress. The body tolerates alcohol less well in these situations and the impact is more significant. Research also demonstrates there can be a link between increased levels of estrogen in women and alcohol consumption and in particular the changes that can be experienced as part of a women’smonthly hormonal cycle.

As a health coach I understood the impact alcohol could have but I still felt drinking ‘moderately’ was acceptable and very much the norm as part of a ‘balanced life-style.’ Besides I enjoyed it. Social meet ups and gatherings revolved around a wine bar, a meal, a glass here or there, supper or lunch at friends. Trying out new places to eat etc. Kicking off with a glass of ice-cold bubbles, Ruinart was one of my favs! Or my husband making a delicious, ice laden gin (of some kind) and tonic while I prepared supper. There was something about the way these ‘sharpeners’ just elevated my mood or promoted instant relaxation. Or the way a glass of red slipped down with pasta or a plate of cheese, the associations are limitless I came to realise and the feelings and my bodies responses varied.

If I’m totally honest on the odd occasion I could throw caution to the wind and get swept up in what I suppose is considered binge drinking. This was never planned and it wasn’t regular enough that I could tie it in to particular occasions nor was it something I could see at the time as a real habit or the result of a particular set of circumstances. Itwould just happen and with the impact on sleep quality and working hard, it could take me a day or ‘few’ to get my mind and body back to feeling myself again and firing on all cylinders. Plus I’d spend time processing the feelings of’ why did I do that when I knew what the outcome would be’ and knowing I’d waste time recovering.

The way I drank had never raised any real questions but I’ve come to appreciate alcohol consumption is so normalised as part of everyday living. It’s also inherent in the culture of some professions so regular consumption is not alwaysquestioned. But since my training with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, I felt my body and mind had started to join up the dots about how I was feeling and it was calling out to me with an increased sense of awareness and urgency to experiment with some time off the booze. So, I began on that cold winter night on the 4th December, ironically driving back from Falmouth in Cornwall with a new bottle of unopened Tarquin’s gin in the boot of my car and the festive season and parties of 2017 looming.

It wasn’t easy but I’m determined, if I say I will do something, I hold myself out to it. I’m never sure if this is a good quality these days but it was how I was raised and it definitely helped hold me accountable to myself. I’m tenacious and determined and had set the intention and once I saw those days add up to a week and then a month. It started to feel possible that I’d hit the 40 days!

I equipped myself with knowledge, strategies and ways to support myself in a variety of situations. My husband, son and family were incredibly 110% behind me. Friends were a slightly different ‘kettle of fish’ as I’d always been seen as the ‘party girl’ with or without alcohol I’m pretty high on life but many were supportive and eventually came to accept my decision without trying to persuade me to indulge. There were moments, days, events, occasions and times associated with alcohol I needed to work my way through. I began to recognise these were all situations and circumstances where I’d developed an association with alcohol. And if I looked at it with brutal honesty this association had really become a habit that had begun over time to made subtle yet noticeable changes to my wellbeing.

I continued and the 40 days now totals 612 with no lapse or break although I must confess to having the odd ‘sniff’ of a wine glass here and there. That is sniff not sip!! And this was my saving grace on many occasions when I felt tempted, I sniffed the glass instead and reminded myself of why I had chosen to abstain. And here I am during the middle of my second summer without alcohol, reaping the benefits of a laser focused mind, what totally feels like more hours of productivity in my days, reduced levels of anxiety, younger looking skin (I’m told!), so much more energy, balanced hormones and stable mood – the list really is endless.

Yet one of the most significant benefits I appreciate most is knowing I’m truly present. This is something I hadn’t appreciated or acknowledged would result or that I’d love so much. I didn’t class myself as not present. I meditated,worked on being mindful but I came to realise alcohol took me out of the present moment. I wasn’t giving people my undivided attention when I was socialising and drinking. My son (21) who has been my number 1 supporter must take the credit for helping me to appreciate this. Alcohol interfered with being present and how I felt but I didn’t realise this until I experienced being in these situations without alcohol. And the joy that being so present gives is the real benefit, the true unplanned hack. This is the icing on the cake, the jam in the doughnut, the chutney on the cheese and it makes me smile just writing about it!

It has been easier this summer. Despite the summer holidays being a time when alcohol consumption increases, often unwittingly with offers of alcohol in the hot sunshine under dreamy blue skies. I used to find it easy to indulge, with aglass of Rose, Pimms, Aperol, ice cold beer(s) or chilled white wine, if you check back far enough through my social media you’ll see the posts about it! Alcohol slipped down that bit easier with the lighter evenings and the warmer temperatures. But this is now a memory and I’m determined to hold on to these benefits I appreciate and the empowermentI’ve gained is next level.

I have so much more I could say on this topic about my experiences, can you tell?! This decision has been life changing. It took some time for the benefits to accrue. My body needed well over three months, in fact closer to 6 months to process the years of indulging and to reap the full benefits. I supported this process with a fearsome urge to cleanse and detox – another story! But my decision has truly been the best gift I could have given myself and it really is the gift that has continued to keep on giving.

This has been a very personal journey. I’ve chosen to abstain from alcohol for the foreseeable future. I’m not missing it or the impact or effect. By coincidence this sits with my decision to train as a kundalini yoga teacher in September 2018, it’s part of the teacher’s oath to abstain from alcohol and drugs, caffeine and nicotine. Who knows what the future will bring, for now I’m high on life and feeling super charged and focused.

Not that it really matters or that I care what people thing, I’m keen to assure people I’ve not turned into a judgemental, alcohol free fascist! My husband, friends and family drink freely around me. My alcohol-free lifestyle choice has provided insightful conversations with many including my law students ad grads which have given me more opportunities to explore the role alcohol played in my life. You may not be surprised to know I’ve become a new type of advocate and that’s an advocate for alcohol free living!

I truly believe everyone should listen to their own inner guidance on this deeply personal topic. If this speaks to you in anyway shape or form, listen to it, reflect, review, engage with those thoughts and if you choose, begin to explore your relationship with alcohol. It took me 8 years to make my decision.

There are no tips this week but I’d love to share a couple of book recommendations you may enjoy and my favouritetipples;

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Catherine Gray, Sunday Times Best Seller.
Mindful Drinking:  How cutting down can change your life, Rosamund Dean.

My sober summer beverages of choice are currently:

‘Real Kombucha’ – served in over 50 Michelin star restaurants.
Ginger Beer – the hotter the better, pimped up with a squeeze of lime.
Seedlip Spice or Garden & tonic served over ice, with fresh mint or oranges slices.

Please feel free to message me or reach out. I’ve shared openly about this topic since I decided to stop drinking and as a result I receive messages from around the world!  I’d love to hear from you. Alternatively make good use of the services provided by Law Care https://www.lawcare.org.uk or Wellbeing at the Bar https://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/ap/if you feel you’d benefit from professional support to explore the topic further.

Zoe, Health & Wellness Coach

Twitter: @ZoeUniBrighton

Gram:  Zoe.Swan