I never used to drink.
When I was a teenager in Edmonton, I drank not at all. I lived in the far northern suburbs (well, far north at the time), and my high school was mid-town, my university south of the river. I was the designated driver a heck of a lot of the time. My friends drank copious amounts of beer and multi-hued liquids in which I had no interest. You could find me, at parties, by the crackers and cheese.
I went abroad in the summer after my third year of university; a friend and I moved to London, England to get jobs and discover life beyond the Canadian prairie. He worked for a lawyer who took him out each afternoon for pints; I worked for a lawyer who was an utter, abusive jackass and, I think, a recovering alcoholic. Anyway, no pints for me – and that was absolutely fine. I was too poor to keep up with the rounds, anyway.
Then, late in the summer, my friend and I took the hovercraft from Dover to Calais. (Before the Chunnel! I mean, I know, right? So last century.) We had lunch in a cheap and cheerful cafe. He said: you’ve got no excuse! You don’t have to drive. We are in France – the wine is good. And cheap.
So I had a glass. It was delicious!
And so I was no longer a teetotaller.
I drank a bit but not a lot as a graduate student. My friend Clarissa and I had a regular Saturday night date to watch Sex and the City while drinking girly martinis; that was always a weekly highlight, a chance to relax and destress. I had a drink or two on Friday nights while reading Toronto Life or other books and magazines for fun; that too was a regular pleasure.
I got drunk – and I mean totally fucked up –- for the first time in my life when I was 29 years old. It was the night of the day I defended my PhD. First, the committee took me out for celebratory drinks. Then, after drinking too much too quickly out of excitement, and running only on adrenalin, I made the mistake of drinking more, and eating nothing.
Around 9pm, I started throwing up; the next two days were awful.
I didn’t drink again for a while.
There are a lot of alcohol memes on the internet. Oh my, yes there are. Always better to post a picture of a cat. (In this image, a tabby bumps its head against the corner of a white and yellow wall. Almost like it’s hungover!)
But gradually, over time, my relationship with alcohol changed. It was no longer sporadic and moderate; it became increasingly regular, and increasingly I drank too much – though never so much that I couldn’t work the next day. (Typically, I only really overindulged on the weekend, anyway.)
I had a good job but a tonne of work to do, and no partner or child to look after; I discovered that alcohol was a good short-cut to relaxation, and a helpful way to forget that I was lonely, and kind of sad. I had enough money to buy good wine and better gin. The blend of all these factors meant that, by the time I became a tenured professor, I was probably drinking two, even three, bottles of wine a week.
In 2012 I moved to England with my dog, Emma, and my then-husband. The transition was hard, as all emigration is, but alcohol played a large role in it, because, well, to be honest, British culture is saturated with drink, and drinking to excess is not nearly as stigmatized there as it is in Puritan-rooted North America. In fact, it’s normal.
Not long after arriving in the UK, I broke my toe and had to have surgery to reset the bone; I ended up on heavy medication. I recall a work event I attended while still on the mend; our (wonderful) department secretary, Bev, met me at the door with two bottles in hand. “Red or white, love?” she asked me. I said, sorry, I can’t, heavy antibiotics. She was having none of it; I had a glass and a half.
White writing overlaid on a glass of red wine reads: “Keep calm and have a glass of wine.”
In England, there was typically at least a case of wine in our house, and at least a bottle of gin. There was usually a case or two of wine in the photocopy room at work. (Really.) Drinking each night, at home or at the pub with friends, was normal; I insisted on not drinking on “school nights”, but for me that was perhaps two or at most three days a week. Sometimes I broke that rule. I was probably drinking 10-15 glasses of wine a week at this point, plus gin martinis on the weekend.
I knew this was too much, and unhealthy; still, as I was typically not hungover in the morning, and not gaining weight, I ignored the problem. After all, most of my friends and peers drank at least two glasses of wine at parties or work events, if not more; there was literally no tangible incentive to make the change.
After I returned to Canada, the sheer force of the cultural shift meant I reduced my alcohol consumption a fair bit. Immediately I lost 5 pounds. (Alcohol is sugar, sugar, sugar.) But slowly, old habits crept back; by late last year, after a semester on sabbatical (no school nights), I was drinking 5 nights a week, and getting through at least three bottles of wine a week. It was getting expensive, I was feeling exhausted in the mornings, and I was up, well, about 5 pounds – 5 pounds I definitely did not need if I wanted to be properly ready for spring cycling season.
In early January, the man I’ve been seeing told me he wanted to cut alcohol out for the month and make some dietary changes; he was feeling as though he’d lost fitness over half a year of working too much, and he was eating too many fatty snacks mindlessly.
I decided this was an ideal opportunity for me to make some healthy changes, too.
This image shoes a heartbeat pattern with glasses of alcohol interspersed on a black background with blue graph lines. It is from an article in Everyday Health that talks about the benefits of moderate consumption, and the risks of excessive consumption.
I wanted, however, to make sustainable changes, to start doing things I knew I could keep doing for more than a month. So, instead of cutting alcohol out for 30 days and then celebrating the “milestone” on the 31st, I pledged to myself that I would cut back my drink consumption to reasonable, manageable levels, period. I would have a drink only on weekends, and I would aim to consume no more than a bottle of wine over the course of a week. I’d do this for January, and then keep doing it once it was habit.
I also pledged, along with my boyfriend, to nibble less mindlessly, and to get back on track with my weight training, which had fallen aside during my sabbatical, and during my adjustment to living in a new city. (I moved in August, to an amazing new town with outstanding open-air fitness options. Read my post on that here.)
I should emphasize here that I know I am not an alcoholic; I’ve investigated the symptoms of alcoholism, and I know that it is not necessary for me to give up alcohol completely in order to be, and to remain, healthy. I am very aware that I have, at times in my adult life, experienced a dependence on alcohol to relieve stress and dull emotional strain; but I also love nice wine and nice cocktails, and I’d like to be able to enjoy them in the future – while also feeling good, well rested, and strong the next day.
I’ll let you know how it goes.