Friday 20 January 2017

I called myself a social drinker -- but I was only fooling myself...

'I'd announced that I was going dry for a whole year'

Helen Tirbutt

Published 10/08/2011 | 05:00

The white stuff:
Bridget Jones (played
by Renee Zellweger)
loves her Chardonnay
The white stuff: Bridget Jones (played by Renee Zellweger) loves her Chardonnay

I was something of a late starter when it came to drinking, not having had my first taste of wine until the age of 18. Ironically, I didn't even enjoy that initial glass, but peer pressure put paid to any reluctance and by my early twenties my brain had become programmed to associate having a good time with alcohol.

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By my thirties, I was your typical middle-class female wine drinker for whom it was the norm to wind down with a couple of glasses of pinot grigio at home in the evening, and then upping the quantity considerably at the weekend. My job in the financial industry as a communications consultant was highly sociable, and a working day would often end in a bar or restaurant with colleagues.

Even if government safe-drinking guidelines had been around back then, I'm not sure the realisation that I was drinking at several times the recommended limit would have proved any great deterrent.

The idea that I could be causing myself harm didn't cross my mind, and none of those close to me even hinted at the possibility.

Not even my husband-to-be Edmund, who had been teetotal for decades, raised so much as an eyebrow at my drinking habits when we first started going out.

He had no problem being in the company of drinkers: he said that not wanting to join in reminded him of what he'd achieved. However, by that time I was in my late thirties I'd begun to notice that my drinking was affecting me more.

Mild hangovers were becoming harder to shrug off; my skin wasn't always so great and my hitherto boundless stores of energy at times felt rather depleted.

The fact that the New World wines I'd started drinking during the Nineties had a higher alcohol content than their European counterparts wasn't helping.

And then my drinking did start to affect our relationship: Edmund always seemed so much sharper than me after I'd had that second glass of wine.

In truth, I was embarrassed that alcohol was affecting our conversations, when my mouth would start to become a bit numb and tingly and I'd start enunciating words in an exaggerated fashion. When you're with another drinker, you simply don't notice this.

Although Edmund never uttered a word on the subject, I began to resent how difficult it was to be with him, and chose to spend more time with drinking friends.

In 2004 we decided to swap city life for the countryside to run our own copywriting company. It was a fresh start in a place not exactly overflowing with wine bars.

However, my drinking habit started to become even more evident. My reward at the end of the day was to read a book over a bottle of wine on my own before joining my husband to watch some television.

Now, of course, I am only too aware that this habit of drinking at the same time every day, especially on your own, is one of the classic signs of developing a psychological addiction.

And when that happens, whatever level you are drinking at, your body eventually requires more to create the same effect and, unless the problem is addressed, it can easily lead to a physical addiction or alcoholism.

I count myself very lucky that I didn't get to that stage. It was the tragic alcohol-related death of my husband's oldest friend that acted as the trigger for me to look at my drinking.

I started to read more about alcohol dependency and asked myself some searching questions. I decided to challenge myself and have three alcohol-free days a week, which I found far more difficult than I could have imagined.

I resented finding that I couldn't reward myself with a drink each evening and I hated being around people who could.

If I ever managed a single alcohol-free day in a week I felt as though I had swum the Channel. Even Edmund acknowledged that this was probably telling me something, and there were a number of temper tantrums during this short period.

Anyone reading this who recognises themselves, or someone else, in what I have described, may also want to take stock.

Eventually, by chance, a month-long period of sobriety was necessitated by a course of antibiotics.

Because severe bronchitis made me barely want to eat, let alone drink, it seemed so easy.

By the time I'd recovered, I'd announced that I was going dry for a whole year. I have never regretted a decision so instantly.

With the familiar feelings of resentment and irritability dominating my every waking hour, I'm certain I'd have relapsed if I hadn't discovered some of the newer more realistic de-alcoholised wines.

A glass of one of these with a pizza delivered the feeling of reward I was constantly yearning for.

I fully expected to go back to drinking the real stuff at the end of the year, but by the time the watershed had come around my brain had separated having a good time from drinking alcohol.

My skin was clearer and, because de-alcoholised wines have fewer calories, I'd lost a lot of weight.

I had no desire to revert to battling headaches constantly and feeling tired and I have not touched a drop in five and a half years, despite returning to the rigours of a job in the financial industry.

The decision to enjoy the benefits of not consuming what might be dubbed a socially acceptable Class A drug seems such a simple one, but I am in no doubt that it is the biggest -- and most beneficial -- of my life.

It helped inspire my husband and I to write Help Them Beat the Booze, the first book to target the family, friends and colleagues of problem drinkers and offer advice on how to help.

We have seen three friends, who started with psychological addictions, progress to physical addiction and eventually death.

If we'd had the knowledge we have now, we feel sure we could have helped them.

Irish Independent

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