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When I gave up drink, I couldn't have foreseen the abuse that followed or how it made some very uncomfortable

AT the start of both 2006 and 2008 I decided to give up drinking alcohol for six months, and I intend to repeat the experiment this year, with one get-out clause which I will get to later.

It will be hard, not because of my own desire for alcohol, which is relatively limited and occasional, but because other people are likely to make it difficult for me.

It's nearly two weeks now and, of course, at this time of the year and this weather, it hasn't been that difficult. But it is early days.

If my previous experience is anything to by, both friends and strangers will try to force a glass into my hand even if I don't want it.

If I decline to drink alcohol with them, some will be upset and insulted and make an issue of this in front of other people.

"Go on" will be followed by "why won't you?", delivered at times with an element of ferocity. The reaction to my decisions not to drink in previous years has astonished me -- and led to a few rows.

It seems that a non-drinker makes some drinkers uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them more conscious about their own drinking. That is not my intention. It's just my personal choice that I don't want to drink for a period of time.

I don't see why I should have to drink to make somebody else more comfortable about their own drinking, or why my choice should be interpreted as being some sort of snub to the hosts or other attendees.

When I took my drinking sabbatical for the first time four years ago, one of my producers at The Last Word on Today FM was not just horrified at what I was doing but demanded that under no circumstances would I reveal this decision on air or in print.

"Why not?" I asked. "Are you afraid people might think I'm an alcoholic?"

"No," he replied. "I don't want people thinking you are no craic."

This led to the logical question as to whether I was only 'craic' when I was drinking and if the answer was in the affirmative, I needed to drink before going on air or even when I was presenting a programme. And another question arose: would he have been as worried had people thought I was an alcoholic?

Whispered

Only one person has confronted me openly with that possibility. At a party in January 2008, when I was on the dry again, one inebriated man, whom I'd never met before but who had heard I wasn't driving and therefore couldn't give anyone a lift home, whispered to me: "How long have you known that you have a problem?"

When I asked what he meant, he replied: "Clearly you're an alcoholic if you're standing here sober at two in the morning and you don't drink and you're not driving."

I laughed, but he seemed utterly unconvinced by my declaration that my non-drinking was a choice rather than a necessity. That simply doesn't seem to happen at social gatherings in Ireland. I can imagine that more than a few readers are now nodding in agreement with my former producer that I probably do need a few drinks to lighten up.

My own drinking is limited. For example, I almost never drink the night before I'm working on radio or television. On the rare occasions I have done so, my voice has suffered and my concentration might not have been as sharp as it should have been. Other people may be able to do it, but I've decided that I can't. I can often go a couple of weeks without even wanting a drink.

For example, I rarely open a bottle of wine at home unless it is during my holidays. If I go to the pub, which I still enjoy, I like my pints of stout but find that I cannot stomach nearly as many as I did during my youth. I don't go to the pub nearly as much as I used to, when it was the centre of almost all of my social activities and I probably drank much more than the doctors say is sensible, but I'm not alone in that. I simply don't enjoy drinking as much as I used to, or to be more accurate, I can't abide hangovers, especially as they sometimes now tend to last into a second day.

The late nights/early mornings of the past were manageable when I didn't have to get up until lunchtime. As every parent knows, the early rising of children and the variety of weekend activities to which they are committed ensures no sleeping off of the night before.

If this doesn't stop other people that's their own business, and I'm not going to judge them for it, but I'll be damned if I'm going to suffer on a Saturday or Sunday morning just because somebody insisted on my having a glass in my hand the night before.

Research suggested that as many as 250,000 people in this country have serious and consistent problems with excessive alcohol intake. The problem is rising, particularly with women, who are drinking in far larger quantities than was previously the case.

However, I was thankful for one woman who, in January 2006, came to my assistance at a table full of people whom I didn't know and who decided to make an issue of my not drinking.

"What age were you when you started drinking alcohol regularly?" she asked. "Sixteen," I replied. "Well, if you have been drinking regularly for over 20 years you are entitled to take six months off."

That shut everybody else up.

You might wonder what the benefits of going off drink for that long are?

Well, I found myself having a lot more energy and just feeling better generally. That's already noticeable less than a fortnight into 2010. Exercise became easier, too.

So will I stick at it this year? I have to admit that I didn't get to the six-month marker on either of the previous occasions I've tried. I have given myself a let-out clause this time again, as in previous years.

Hypocrisy

In both 2006 and 2008 I said I would break my drought prematurely to celebrate if Munster won the Heineken Cup. So my first pints of each year were consumed in Cardiff. I realise that conforms to the Irish stereotype of having to celebrate big occasions with drink and shows a lack of willpower on my part.

The manner of Munster's recent victory in Perpignan gives me some hope that maybe I'll be able to break out in Paris next May. I imagine some readers will regard this as counterproductive behaviour or even brazen hypocrisy but, heck, if I get that far it's better than nothing.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM


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