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'Giving up drink was one of my best decisions - I feel much healthier now'

Two alcohol-fuelled social nights in a row are the recipe for a bad hangover. Going sober revealed a new world, as Belfast Telegraph Deputy Editor Jonathan McCambridge found out.

I could probably blame alcohol for many of the more dubious decisions I have made in my adult life. Pointless arguments, cruel comments, boastful claims, tall tales - all sins much more likely to be committed while "under the influence".

The health risks of drinking are well known and underlined by the government advice issued last week that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

But what is perhaps just as chastening is the terror of waking up in the morning with a sore head and your first thoughts being "What the hell did I say last night ... and who did I say it to?"

I stopped drinking about a year ago, definitely one of the best decisions of my adult life.

I was never much of a drinker anyway and had little tolerance for it. My visits to pubs were infrequent, just the occasional night out with my mates.

At the time in the evening when the proficient drinkers were speeding up, I was usually slowing down. Add in the odd dinner party, wedding or going away do and I would estimate that, in an average year, I would be truly drunk on no more than half a dozen occasions.

The problem was home drinking. Opening a bottle of wine in the evening a few nights every week.

The steady, slow consumption of small amounts. Saturday was a wine night. You had to have a few glasses on a Friday after a long, hard week. Thursday; well, it's almost the weekend.

If you have had a particularly tough day at work, then crack open a bottle. It seeps into your culture and habit until it becomes automatic.

Last week's government advice was that you should not exceed 14 units in a week.

A single bottle of wine is 10 units. I was virtually never drunk, but by this measurement I was abusing alcohol every single week; and presumably damaging my body as I did it.

I never made a specific decision to stop drinking, just as you never consciously decide to drink more.

It started last year, when coincidence led to me attending social events on two consecutive nights.

This resulted in two evenings of heavy drinking without respite. Truly enjoyable occasions, but the comedown was massive.

Once you pass the age of 40, the hangovers seem to go on that bit longer. This was the mother of them all. The headache seemed to last for days. My stomach churned endlessly. My concentration and energy were shot, so my performance at work suffered.

Losing a whole day to a hangover seems a waste. Losing two or three is criminal.

I decided to give it a rest. Nothing particularly dramatic as I had no more nights out planned, but I thought I would go a few days without any wine in the house, just to purge my system.

At around the same time I was attempting to improve my diet and taking more exercise, so it seemed to fit.

I went through a weekend without opening a bottle. The sky didn't fall in.

It became a week, then a month and so on. What I realised very quickly was that drinking, for me, was a habit.

At some point, perhaps years ago, I had stopped enjoying it but just kept on doing the same thing every week. What was quite startling was that I did not miss it one bit.

So, how has it changed me? I won't lie by claiming any dramatic overnight impact.

But the alterations, though gradual, are telling. It is wonderful to know that you will never wake up feeling groggy because of booze.

I have a two-year-old son, James, so this is important. I sleep in more regular patterns than before and feel better rested.

My energy levels have improved and I can concentrate on my work more effectively. I no longer slump in the afternoon, as I had for my whole career.

Because I feel more energised, I am able to do a lot more exercise. I ran my first half-marathon last year and will attempt the full distance this spring.

Stopping drinking has helped to contribute to my fitness levels being better than ever.

I have lost weight, almost two stones in the past year. Again, this is not simply down to abstinence but a combination of exercise and a better diet.

But I repeat the point that having no alcohol in my system makes it easier for me to eat well and train.

I can't remember the last time I ate a takeaway meal. I don't give people advice, because I hate it when people tell me what to do but, for me, the single biggest factor in losing weight was giving up drink.

The number of calories in a glass of wine is scary.

There are other things. It is a comfort to know you won't have to wait outside a pub or a restaurant in the cold for a taxi. You save a few quid.

It's a fun and different experience watching other people get drunk.

I would never have the courage to dance sober at a wedding - that's a benefit to mankind in general. My mood is stable and positive most of the time, no post-drink blues.

Some people react awkwardly when you tell them you don't drink, but you get used to that. I have a weekend away with mates planned for later this month and am already preparing myself for the onslaught of abuse when I tell them I will be sober.

The most important point for me is that alcohol skews your judgment. It can make you do or say stupid things. I have had the daftest arguments with lifelong friends when inebriated over the most inane topics.

Drink is a great social lubricant when you are young and want to meet new people, but at this stage of life I would rather just be in control.

The brutal truth is I think I am not quite as good a person when drunk. I like myself better this way.

I have had one significant setback. At a conference in London last autumn, I drank. Embarrassingly, this was not because I wanted to, but simply because there was so much alcohol at the event and it seemed rude not to.

Tellingly, the sickness I felt afterwards left me significantly less, rather than more inclined, to want another drink. My body was free of alcohol and was signalling very clearly it didn't want to go back.

I thought Christmas and New Year, the traditional times of excess, would be a challenge, but I sailed through them without any temptation.

I avoided all Christmas parties and was tucked up in bed asleep before 10pm on New Year's Eve.

Boring? Perhaps, but I felt great the next morning.

Alcohol is rooted so firmly in our society that whenever doctors advise against it, as they did last week, people rail against their opinion.

I certainly used to. It is still a big part of my life, because most of my friends and family still like a social drink.

Sometimes I pick up a bottle of wine for my wife, Deborah, on my way home. Often I fancy a glass of red wine myself. I might have one next week, or next year, or never. I genuinely don't know.

As I write this, it is 10pm on a Saturday and I'm nursing my third glass of sparkling mineral water of the night. Cheers.

Belfast Telegraph


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