Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

'I thought quitting drink would kill my social life, but the truth is I've never had more fun'

Tired of all the hangovers, Suzanne Harrington gave up alcohol seven years ago and immediately boosted her confidence, self-esteem and sex life

Sobering thought: Suzanne Harrington

Everyone stumbles into January holding their heads, stricken, moaning. This is because we have been willing receptacles to all sorts of delicious poisons over the holidays.

Drinkies, drinkies and more drinkies – brandy, Baileys, champagne, egg nog, lager, posh wine, cheap wine – you name it, we've drunk it. All in the name of good cheer. And now we are all desperate to stop, as we cram into the gym and make resolutions involving our livers and waistlines.

The health benefits of stopping drinking short-term were explored by 14 members of staff at the New Scientist, 10 of whom stopped going to the pub for over a month, and four of whom carried on drinking normally (that is, non-excessively).

They all had their livers and overall health checked out before and after the five-week long research, which was overseen by liver specialist, Rajiv Jalan, at University College London, and was conducted before Christmas.

Although none of the New Scientist staff was a heavy or problem drinker, and they came in a variety of shapes and ages, the results were uniform for the abstainers – everyone's health improved quite dramatically.

The most significant change was that liver fat, the prelude to liver damage, fell on average by 15% (and by 20% in some individuals).

Blood glucose levels of the abstainers fell by an average of 23%, which the researchers at University College London said was "staggering".

This drop indicated improved blood-sugar control (that is a move away from over-production of insulin, which can result in type 2 diabetes), and the 10 non-drinkers lost an average of 1.5kg each without changing their eating or exercise habits.

Not drinking resulted in the body showing better overall cholesterol and glucose management.

That was just the physical. The 10 abstinence guinea pigs also reported better sleep quality, which Rajiv Jalan said meant better "life and work performance".

And the downside of not drinking reported by the New Scientist abstainers? Reduced social contact. Much of their socialising involved the pub, but without alcohol, they socialised less. They felt isolated.

Eight Januarys ago, in 2006, I stopped drinking. I'd had enough of waking up hungover – I'd been drinking since I was 14, and wanted a change.

What had kept me drinking was the fear of social isolation – teetotallers, I told myself, did not have lives. But the strange thing was that instead of shrinking, my social life got far bigger and much better.

It didn't happen overnight, and it involved some initial changes, but the result was more of a varied and interesting social life than I'd ever had when I was drinking. The irony was that I thought my life would be over if I ever stopped – but it turned out to be completely the opposite. It widened, broadened, expanded.

I got into new things, met new people, did lots of things I'd never had the confidence or consciousness to do before – such as taking up yoga, travelling with my kids, and generally being more creative. Stuff I'd been too hungover to do before.

In our culture, every social occasion is drink-related – birth, marriage, death, sadness, happiness, the marking of time, new starts, closures and leavings; you name it, we have a drink for it.

This is for a good reason – drinking, for normal social drinkers, is indeed pleasurable and fun, whether it's a beer after work or a good dinner with lovely wine, or champagne at a wedding.

It's what we do. It's what we have always done. But will it be what we will always do in the future? Or is there an alternative?

What about the pleasures of not drinking? What do you do if you don't drink? Frank Sinatra once said that he felt sorry for people who don't drink: "When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day." Well, yes, but what if you wake up feeling fantastic?

Having dragged a toxic hangover behind me for not just years, but decades, I can vouch for waking up feeling good. And by good, I mean normal. Not starting the day with Nurofen, Alka Seltzer, Diet Coke, triple espresso, existential dread and the urge to duvet-dive.

The other pleasures range from the obvious and practical to the more esoteric.

Independence, control, personal safety, and never again trying to find a taxi at 3am. Never waking up and realising in horror that those are not your curtains, and that is not your ceiling. Or just never having to apologise for being indiscreet, over-opinionated, annoying, maudlin, aggressive, or any of those other things alcohol brings out.

You can trust yourself entirely, all of the time, which in turn leads to better friendships, better relationships, and better self-esteem. You never let yourself down.

People who stop drinking all tend to say the same thing – I have so much time now! What do I do with all this time? How do I fill my time? Drinking, as we all know, is really time-consuming. Even moderate social drinking requires hours spent in the pub, or sitting around at home with wine – and that's before you ever factor in recovery time, which, unless you keep an oxygen tank in the house, gets longer and harder as you get older.

What you do with all of this time is entirely dependent on what sort of person you are – running half-marathons, studying Russian literature, learning motorbike maintenance, baking cakes, rescuing owls, whatever.

What is pretty sure is that if you don't do something, you will probably want to drink again – nature abhors a vacuum. I wrote a novel (unfinished, unreadable) when I first stopped, in a gush of creative energy; it poured out of me the way I used to pour the drink into me.

The idea that drinking sparks creativity is rubbish – unless you stop after one or two drinks at most, your creativity drowns in a soggy boozy mush.

There have of course been many great creative alcoholics, but the booze always wins in the end; history is littered with dead writers, dead painters, dead musicians, dead poets and dead playwrights whose brilliance was extinguished prematurely by the same liquid they mistook for their muse.

So you wake up feeling good, you get more done, and people like you more because you are unlikely to sleep with their husband, throw up in their coat pocket, or pass out in their airing cupboard.

The self-esteem thing of quitting drinking cannot be over emphasised – you build upon yourself, incrementally, the bricks of self-worth never again to be demolished by the wrecking ball of a night's over-indulgence and resultant behaviour. This is not to sound either like Miley Cyrus or some grisly old puritan – the thing with not drinking is that the stuff associated with traditional immorality just gets better. I'm talking sex.

Sober sex is like how food tastes when you've given up smoking, but better, because it is sex. You'll never want drunk sex again. Trust me.

Unsurprisingly, for those of us who are not normal social drinkers, this time of year sees problem drinkers stampeding to the rooms of 12-step alcohol recovery programmes.

It's the peak period for those with alcohol addiction to try to stop; for those of us who may not (yet) need to check into a treatment centre for a detox, but whose lives and livers are being ruled and overruled by three-for-a-tenner from the supermarket, and who are fed up with it but can't stop on our own.

Being an alcoholic is very different from being a social drinker, because it's a condition that begins and ends in the mind – we are obsessive, and we obsess about drinking, and we drink to shut the obsession up.

However, whether you are a moderate wine drinker or something heavier, your liver will not discriminate should you decide to stop boozing. Your liver will crack open its own metaphorical champagne, then slump back in relief that it is finally getting a long-deserved break.

It will make all kinds of nice things happen to your body – you'll have sparkly eyes, clearer skin, and a spring in your step. You'll be lighter, cleaner, bouncier. This is your liver celebrating.

Once your initial period of bewilderment passes – and for heavier drinkers, a sudden and inexplicable urge to consume loads of sugary snacks as your body readjusts to the sudden disappearance of its liquid fermented sugar supply – you will feel the pleasures of not drinking astonishingly quickly.

I say this as a drinker who could not imagine dinner without wine, a night out without the pub, a party without getting plastered.

The pleasures of not drinking are physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, intellectual – you know why? Because you are awake to yourself.

You are conscious of yourself and the world around you, and that is what being alive is all about.

And sorry if that sounds evangelical, but it's the truth. Cheers!

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