March 1, 2020, Etihad flight Abu Dhabi – Zurich
The plan had been to be sitting on this flight with a glass of champagne in hand. However, I am sitting here with a cup of peppermint tea. The plan has changed.
But let me start from the beginning.
48 days ago I was diagnosed with fatty liver stage 1. It had been randomly discovered by an ultrasound that was done because of my intestinal problems. The doctors were surprised and so was I. After all, I am of normal weight, very fit and my blood work came back as really good. So I was sitting there in my doctor’s office quite shocked not knowing how I this had occurred.
There are two main reasons why people end up with a fatty liver. They either eat too many carbohydrates or they drink too much. I knew that the carbs were not the problem. The doctor asked if I drink a lot. I said, well, on the weekends I do enjoy my wine. Not mentioning of course that we were talking bottles here, not glasses. He advised me to not have more than one drink per week. I couldn’t believe it. One drink? I could never do that. One always leads to two, to three, and to be honest, I would never stop under one bottle. More likely two, or even more.
The truth is, it’s easier for me not to drink at all than to restrict myself. Somehow I had turned into a binge drinker. And when I think about it, if I am really honest, I probably have been a binge drinker for two decades. Scary stuff. So, with this diagnosis in hand, I promised myself to stay off the booze for 6 weeks. This would give my liver a long nice break to recover from my excess drinking I believed. In 6 weeks time I would be on a plane going on a skiing holiday and I would, as it is my custom, drink champagne on the plane.
The first week not drinking was easy. I don’t drink on weekdays anyway. I am not the problem drinker that has a lot of wine daily. I am the kind of problem drinker who drinks socially, mostly on weekends and doesn’t stop until she is drunk, close to passing out or feeling sick (or a combination thereof). I actually have had longer periods of not drinking previously. When I wanted to lose weight after my pregnancies I didn’t drink for six months. The not drinking was a means to an end and I didn’t like it. But since the children were very small and we had just moved to a new country, it was easy to restrict socializing and spending more time at home, away from temptation. I am also used to not drinking alcohol for a few weeks at a time, mostly after having indulged over the summer or holidays, to detox and lose the bloat.
While weekdays are easy for me to stay away from drinking, weekends are a different story. On weekends we usually go out with friends to brunches. Which involve lavish buffets of marvelous food and – most importantly – all you can drink, including alcohol. We didn’t go to any brunches for a couple of weeks. But 3 weeks into my non-drinking commitment I was invited to a birthday party – with people who drink a lot. We always have a great time together, we dance, sing, joke around – and drink a lot. That party made me realise something. I hated not being able to drink. I felt left out, I was sober and felt so sensible, while everyone was being silly and obviously having a great time. I couldn’t wait until the 6 weeks were over and I could join in the fun again.
However, the days following that party I started to shift my thinking. I suddenly realised that I didn’t want to be dependent on alcohol anymore in order to have fun. This time I want to do it differently. I don’t want to avoid situations where alcohol is involved. I don’t want to stay at home and away from people and parties. I want to do the same things as usual, consciously, and see what happens. I don’t want to go to a party and feel miserable because I can’t have a drink. I want to learn to have a good time without a glass of sparkling wine.
To belong. To enjoy a party. I realised that it was a crutch, and that it was a damaging one at that. The thing is, I am great at committing myself fully – I guess I am what people call an addictive personality, although apparently scientifically it does not exist. This works great for things that are good for me, like starting running or learning a new language. Whatever I set my mind to I usually achieve with flying colours. And my motto for a long time has been “life’s for living”, which I interpreted as working hard and partying hard. So of course I excelled at both. But I have started thinking now that there must be a way to change my mindset. I am still all for life’s for living. But how much living am I doing if I need an addictive substance to have fun? Am I such a good example for my children of living life to the fullest by drinking glass after glass of wine and smelling of alcohol? Am I having a lot of fun waking up hungover, having no patience or energy for my kids on a Saturday morning, suffering from bad sleep? How much am I living my life if I need several pints of beer to be able to wind down?
So I started reading books about getting sober, changing your mindset and dealing with addiction.
The more I read, the more I became convinced that 6 weeks wasn’t enough. If I really wanted to “free” myself from this addiction (you don’t have to be an alcoholic to be addicted as I learnt), more time was needed. That’s when I decided to extend this experiment to 12 months. 52 weeks. 366 days (it’s a leap year after all!).
So since I am sitting on this plane now, with tea instead of champagne, let me tell you what changes I have noticed over the past 6 weeks.
First, I have so much more energy! I am a very fit person as you know, I work out every weekday. But I hadn’t noticed really how much the boozy weekends were draining me. I am smashing all my workouts now as I am rested all the time now.
Second – great sleep. When I drink my sleep is bad. I fall asleep quickly since I am so out of it, but I wake up after a few hours, mostly hot and with a racing heart and can’t fall back to sleep. Until it’s time to get up of course. Then I feel tired and grumpy for the rest of the day, which is not good for me nor my children.
Third, I finally seem to lose some weight. Not massive amounts. I guess I have replaced some of those cravings for a drink with some dessert or other nibbles. But still. I feel like my workouts don’t just make up for a big weekend, but actually allow me now to cut some fat (and bloat).
Fourth. Going out to the same places but not ordering drinks anymore is difficult. Everybody kind of expects you to drink. The environment triggers the desire. It’s hard to resist because it’s like a habit. To go brunching for example but not having the usual sparkling wine. I also have certain restaurants where I would usually have a drink. It feels awkward to tell the waiters that I am not drinking (I am using the “I am driving” excuse at the moment). It feels strange to go out with friends with whom I would usually drink. There are also occasions, such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries where it seems almost rude not to have a drink. But I am sure this will go away once the brain has been rewired and formed new habits.
Fifth. Thriving in sobriety takes work if you are used to drinking. Once you stop you notice just how much drinking is part of our culture. And I live in a Muslim country!! I am reading books, blogs and work with different techniques to shift my mindset. It takes effort and determination. It comes down to “if you think you can’t or you can, you’re probably right”. It’s interesting to observe how much alcohol is the standard – to abstain makes you the odd one out. When you stop smoking, everyone is super supportive, congratulates you, the smokers admire your willpower. If you stop drinking, people look at you in disbelief and tell you that it’s ok to “just have one”.
Sixth. You suddenly notice how much everyone else around you is into drinking. You kind of become sensitive to how often people refer to alcohol. For example, the wine o’clock memes on facebook. The photos of cocktails on instagram. It’s strange how that seemed so normal, but now I wonder if this is such a good thing.
I will keep you posted on my alcohol free year. I am sure I can do it. Will it be hard? Probably. Worth it? I will let you know!
If you have experience with abstaining from alcohol, please let me know, I would be interested to hear about your story!