alcohol · fitness

Recalibrating my relationship with alcohol

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.

hangover-lead

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.

Screen-Shot-2017-11-17-at-1.09.13-PM-189x300.png

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-Is-Your-Heart-On-Alcohol-722x406.jpg

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.

13 thoughts on “Recalibrating my relationship with alcohol

  1. Thanks for writing so openly and honestly, Kim. You know I have a conflicted relationship with alcohol for a number of reasons and I appreciate all dialogue that makes me think about it :-). Hope this continues to go well for you.

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  2. You can read my blog if you want to read how removing alcohol complete,y has opened the door to an amazing life for me.
    I don’t feel like anything is missing without it. Instead, I have gained a worldwide support group of other people in recovery.

    The word alcoholic is irrelevant. If you think you drink too much and have to make rules/plans etc to reduce your intake then it might be a problem. I would never have said I was an alcoholic, but my life is so much better sober.

    As an aside, there is no sugar in alcohol. That is an urban myth.

    I look forward to reading your posts. If you ever want to chat about life alcohol free send me an email!

    Anne

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That link (and other similar ones) have an interesting explanation about why booze makes you fat — a) empty calories and b ) the process to metabolize it by your liver makes your blood sugar drop and makes you hungry,

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  4. Empty calories are foods or beverages that add to your caloric intake but not your nutritional needs; that’s the number one reason alcohol is a problem in weight gain. Apologies for any confusion in my sugar reference. However, it’s also common for sugar to be added to, for example, wine; this is particularly the case if you “make your own” or buy a cheaper, blended product. The higher quality the alcohol, the more likely no sugar is added. But again: empty calories don’t help you with the next morning’s ride, no matter how many carbs or how high the price!

    Thanks for the clarifications, all.

    Kim

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  5. Wow, your frankness is appreciated.
    My best wishes in this latest journey.

    I don’t think this problem would happen to me: I believe I’m abit allergic to alcohol. After only 5 small sips, my ears are red. I’ve given up trying to imbibe alcohol without a trace of red in face.

    And it seems this is hereditary..or maybe not. Some siblings have same “problem”.

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  6. Thanks for this post Kim. I can tell you as someone who quit drinking that I found it incredibly liberating, relaxing. I used to have mental schemes to moderate my drinking and rules around how much and when I drank. That took up a lot of mental energy. As we age I don’t know very many successful moderates about alcohol. Anyway, that’s my pitch for not drinking at all. But YMMV.

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    1. I should say that what I mean is there are very few natural moderates. People for whom moderation is where their desires land. What would we call them, intuitive drinkers? Most moderates are moderates like I was. Moderates with rules and will power. It’s exhausting and hence, for me, easier not to have the choice to make. Our society makes moderation difficult. It’s a lot of work.

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      1. Thanks for this post, Kim. It’s very exposing to put yourself out there as someone who is trying to strategize their alcohol consumption and no doubt many people can relate. I agree with Sam that it’s hard to be moderate but there are some people who are naturally able to moderate. More power to them. That’s not me. In the circles in which I move, it’s thought that the first sign that someone has a problem with alcohol (call it what you will) is that they start trying to think up different strategies for controlling their use of it so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on their life. The thinking is that people who don’t have a problem don’t need to think about their consumption and engage in hand-wringing over when, where, how much, what time etc., it’s acceptable for them to have a drink. Far be it for me to say who does and doesn’t have a problem, but that makes a lot of sense to me (And it didn’t always — certainly not before, when I was trying to find my own strategies to moderate my consumption — at that time I vehemently objected to the suggestion that control drinking was a sign of problem drinking because, hey, I like my wine with dinner thanks and I enjoy those martinis with my peeps!). But I’m an addict in recovery and deeply committed to this way of life, so my take on the use of any substances, including alcohol, is clearly inflected with that narrative. I will be interested to hear how your experiment goes.

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  7. I’m gonna go ahead and disagree with a lot of the commenters… of course, if abstaining from alcohol works for you, then by all means, do that. But if someone wrote a post about trying to eat less cake, I’ll bet there would be far fewer comments urging them to abstain from sugar altogether. But it’s all the same thing. There’s problem drinking and problem eating, and we all get to choose whether we need to completely abstain from sugar, alcohol, insert other vice, or try to regulate ourselves a little more.

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