New year - a time to think about starting afresh. Promising yourself you'll be nicer. Promising yourself you'll be kinder to yourself. To other people as well. And promising, also, to give up bad habits.
About 10 years ago I gave up smoking, and nearly a year ago I stopped drinking. To be honest, I didn't realise I was giving up drinking. I thought I was just giving myself a little break from a lifetime's habit of not particularly heavy but definitely regular drinking. In fact, apart from the odd day when I was ill or in hospital, there hadn't been a single day when I hadn't drunk a little something.
Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't a lush. I have very rarely appeared drunk. Indeed, I'm one of those people who, the more they drink, the tighter rein they keep on their behaviour and emotions.
When I say I haven't drunk now for nearly a year, most of my friends, even my closest friends, say: “But you were never a big drinker, anyway!”
The truth is that I never appeared a big drinker. But, in fact, I nearly always had a few glasses of wine before I went out to meet them. And at the point I gave up, I was known to have a small glass of wine in the day as well as the evening. It sometimes turned into a gin and tonic.
I was pretty obsessed with the stuff. I knew the alcohol content of most bottles of wine, I'd talk about drink obsessively with other women of my age, who were also worried abouthow much they drank, and the prospect of not being offered a drink when I arrived at someone's house would really upset me.
I was one of those women who'd drunk more than twice the recommended levels at least one day a week - if not more.
But the problem was that however little or how much I drank, I didn't seem to be able to stop. I'd wake up with a headache and say to myself: “I won't drink tonight,” and it never happened. I started to become worried, particularly since my mother was a real alcoholic, the sort who'd be seriously ill with liver damage and still have hidden bottles stashed in her bed. Most of my boyfriends have had big problems with alcohol, to the extent that three gave it up completely.
Perhaps I had a problem, too? Not a huge one like my mother's, but a problem all the same.
Cutting down had never worked. By the time I'd had the first drink, my willpower seemed to be shot to pieces. So the only thing to do was to give up completely for a while. But how?
Four factors played their part in my giving up. The first was having a nasty road accident, running into a stationary car that had broken down in the slow lane of a motorway without its warning lights on. I'd only had one glass of wine so I'd have been well under the limit had I been breathalysed. But it made me think: what if I had been over the limit? I could probably have coped on public transport but it would have been dreadfully humiliating: “Agony aunt on drink-drive charge.” The idea made me squirm.
The second factor was meeting a fellow journalist at dinner, who was gulping down the wine at the rate of knots. “Great to be drinking again,” he said. It turned out he'd stopped for a month and this was his first day back on the booze.
Were there any advantages? Yes, he said. He'd lost weight. He'd saved a fortune. He'd slept better, and he didn't wake up in tears in the mornings.
I've never been happy in the mornings, I’ve always woken dogged by anxiety, so to get rid of that wretched feeling would, on its own have been an incentive to give not-drinking a go.
Thirdly was going back to how I'd stopped smoking. I'd done it not with patches or hypnotism, but simply by reading an advertisement for NiQuitin, which featured two photographs.
One showed a picture of a cigarette being lit with the words: “I smoke because I like it,” and the next picture was of a hand stubbing out a cigarette with the words: “I also want to stop.”
I was blown away by the honesty of it. All the stop-smoking ads had always been telling me that smoking was evil, that my mouth smelt like an ashtray, that giving up would be hell.
This one spoke the truth. The two thoughts might have been at odds with each other, but they could exist in a single brain. I realised that this was me to a T. The moment I could see the “liking smoking” part as a separate voice, it was easy to ignore it. From seeing that advertisement to this day, I've never smoked again.
Could I apply this thinking to alcohol?
Well, curiously enough, I could. And that determination, plus a feeling that I should be ashamed of myself if I couldn't stop drinking for a week at the very least, surely, drove me to make every effort to stop. Was I a woman or a female mouse? Did alcohol really have such power over me that I “couldn't” stop? No. It was more, I realised, that in the past I didn't really want to stop.
And now, I thought, I did. At 66, I thought I might, in my lifetime, have actually drunk enough.
Now, anyone who's been around real alcohol addicts as long as I have inevitably finds themselves drawn at some stage to the 12-step meetings. For four years I was helped enormously by an Al Anon group, designed to help the partners, friends and relatives of alcoholics, the mantra of which was that you should leave the alcoholic to get on with his or her own life, while you got on with yours. If you got obsessed with their drinking, you slowly became as much in thrall to the bottle as they were.
But when I attended the odd AA meeting, not for myself but to find out what went on at them, I found the whole ethos rather offputting.
The first step runs: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” I wanted to be powerful over alcohol, not powerless. Another step went: “We made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to God, as we understand him.” This, from a so-called non-religious organisation.
So when I dragged Rational Recovery, by Jack Trimpey (Pocket Books, E16.50), which I've often recommended to people who seem addicted to drink or drugs, out of my bookshelves to reread, I was struck by how extraordinarily powerful and rational its message was. From Trimpey's first sentence, “Over a decade ago, I defeated my own 20- year-old addiction to alcohol by stubbornly refusing to drink any more of it”, I was a sucker for his every word.
Here was a man who didn't believe alcoholism was a disease, didn't believe that there was anything involved in giving up but two things: first, the ability to recognise the addictive voice (the one who says: “You'll never be able to stop,” “Just the one,” “You're only a social drinker,” “You need a drink,”) and second, having the willpower to refuse to listen to it.
Throughout his book, Trimpey emphasises that you are responsible for your own drinking. It's you who pours out the glass, you who fills it with booze, and you who lifts it to your lips and swallows. No one else does it for you.
You're not in denial, either. Every drinker knows exactly how much they drink and how much it can hurt other people. “Denial” is another cop-out.
I stopped drinking for a week. Then I said to myself: “Well, you've done a week, so why not start again, more moderately?” But a little voice inside challenged me: “Bet you can't give up for a month!” And when the month had passed it said: “Bet you can't give up for three months,” and so on, until now I'm coming up for the full year. And, you know, I'm really not sure that I will start again.
True, the downside is that I find parties a terrible strain, but on the plus side, any other social events, even big dinner parties, I cope with easily, even when everyone is falling over drunk beside me. And I remain alert and jolly till the end of the evening instead of, as I used to do, pack up after about 9.30pm wishing my guests would go home.
I do wake up in the mornings feeling, well, not happy, but less unhappy. I am saving more than €2,300 a year. I am sleeping better. I do feel clearer-headed and less depressed. And though occasionally I think, in stressful situations, “golly, it would be nice to have a glass of wine”, the feeling usually goes in a few minutes. I have a tonic water, instead, with ice and lemon. I also have a great deal more time to do things, not drained by that faintly headachey, hungoverish feeling that lingers during the day until the next drink briefly picks you up in the evening.
And every time I drive late at night and a police car passes, I just long for it to stop and breathalyse me, so I can glow with smug satisfaction at the results.