abstinence makes the heart grow stronger


So, I have successfully abstained from poisoning myself with alcohol for 31 days, as part of the great January Dryathalon. And, as one friend rather sardonically questioned “what was all the fuss about?” For her, a life-long teetotaller, it was a fair question. I was equally unimpressed by her abstinence from harming furry animals, starting small fires and playing knock-a-door runaway.

Another friend of mine has given up over a stone in weight since Christmas. Now that is a real achievement. She is fastidious in what she eats and drinks and has refused the temptation of cakes, biscuits and a whole range of “syns” in the pursuit of health and beauty. She looks and feels fantastic – and she isn’t stopping just because the calendar flipped over. A well-deserved “Slimmer of the Month”.

For myself, it wasn’t half that difficult. My daughter’s boyfriend and I had a final binge on New Year’s Eve. To be honest it was New Year’s Day by the clock. It would have been churlish to toast in the New Year with Grapetise (yes, there are more insipid soft drinks out there than the public has been told about). So between midnight and 2am, we took it upon ourselves to drain the dregs of the open bottles of wine, port, beer and champagne, on the pretext that it would be wasteful not to. None of it would survive the month. And for the pedantic – I didn’t consume another drop until well after 2am on February 1st.

After I had slept this cocktail off, I awoke triumphantly to a new dawn of J2Os, diet-cokes, cranberry juice and relentless sobriety. I felt smug ordering orange juice in a bar; superior whilst drinking flavoured water when out for dinner. We, the abstainers, love to parade our virtues in front of those pathetic weaker beings around us. I even wetted my great-niece’s head with a soft-drink at her christening. The hardest part was refusing the tiramisu. So, yes, what was all the fuss about?

Well, between you and me, I had developed something of a habit of a glass or two of Shiraz, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, of an evening. Tuesday and Wednesday – because I was away from home and often in a bar or a restaurant. Thursday – after a long journey home – a reuniting glass with my wife. On a weekend it was – well – the weekend. And so a habit is formed. And I quite liked – too much I guess – that relaxed slightly fuzzy-feeling and detachment from reality before bedtime. A self-soothing reward after the day’s battles. Almost medicinal.

And once a habit is formed it only spreads and expands like melting ice-cream on a plate. It takes root, like knot-weed. Before you know it, you are beginning to question whether or not you can control it. Like cruise-controlling along the motorway in the rain and wondering whether the brakes will work. It was certainly worth a quick test.

And so it was that, inspired by my sister’s announcement of the same, I decided to abstain. The official pretext was that I was doing it aid of cancer relief. It seemed an inconsequential sacrifice for me, in the context of millions of people who can do nothing against a virulent and destructive disease which creates such untold pain. If I could raise a little money for “cancer’s worst enemy” then I would, and we have.

The other pretext was my health. I had grimaced at those public health announcements about recommended weekly alcohol consumption. I had refused to check whether my wine glasses in my various locations were officially large or small. The only number that mattered to me on a bottle was the price – not the %volume of alcohol. And so I was in classic denial. And in denial that I was, in denial. Which I denied.

A couple of years ago, after I had heard that a good friend of mine had died horribly of lung cancer, I went for a drink on my own. It was dark and cold, but I sat outside, crying into my beer. There was an empty cigarette packet on the table. I picked it up. SMOKING KILLS it announced in no uncertain terms. And it just had. I caught the whiff of tobacco and it transported me instantly to another time, as only smells can do. I was back in my childhood – when my gran, my mother and my aunt all smoked in the house. They died well before their time. My friend was in her forties. And yet still cigarettes are on open sale. And people still buy them.

What perversity persuades us to do things which are so clearly harmful to us? £2.7bn of NHS expenditure is on alcohol-related illnesses. And yet the nation – including me – drinks on, defiantly. Not to mention that the average Merlot contains 147 calories in a 6 oz. serving. Two of those and it`s an eighth of our daily intake.

So from a pure health perspective, abstinence definitely makes the heart – and liver – grow stronger. I think I felt this benefit – although its hard to tell in January, when the best you can do is mooch around and try to keep warm.

But the real reason for the abstinence was to demonstrate that I could. My name is David and I am not an alcoholic. And let me prove it to you, and more importantly, to myself. Prevention is better than cure. Better to manage your weight before you get obese. Better to limit your alcohol intake before it becomes “a problem”. Better to control the knot-weed before it takes over the garden. And having experienced the effects of alcoholism at close quarters, it was not an experience I wanted to even contemplate dipping my toe into.

So, it’s all about good old-fashioned self-control. We all want and need to be in control. We often deflect that by trying to controlling others. But our real challenge is to control ourselves. The hardest person to live with is . . . me!

The media promotes risk-taking, liberation, rebellion, living dangerously. Which is all well and good. But in our daily lives we crave control – over what we eat, how we look, how we feel, what we drink, what we say, how we react. Habits creep up on us slowly when we are not looking. Wrestling them down can absorb our energy and drive us to despair. There is no freedom in that.

So its good to tame them if we can, show them who is boss. And to have more sympathy than judgement for those who seem to have left this too late – who are already controlled or addicted, with a huge mountain to climb, even if they can. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

So no, no great fuss. A bit of money raised, a few less calories added to the waist-line. And a tick in the box of “I can give it up whenever I want to”. Even the tiramisu. That was the hardest part.

Dryathalon for cancer research

  2 comments for “abstinence makes the heart grow stronger

  1. February 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    so what happens now?

  2. February 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Well done, I did it too for all the same reasons!

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