• Author:Ben Jones
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Alcohol and anxiety do not mix

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. Or Lady Chatterley’s lover. Or any of Jilly Cooper’s raunchy romps. But I understand from those who have that they must be read in a covert fashion. Hidden from prying – judging – eyes. On the low down. 

There are – they say – many uncover options available. Inside an altogether more acceptable – less eye-brow raising – dustcover. Hidden inside a broadsheet newspaper or copy of The Beano. Or only ever read behind closed doors and away from fellow commuters or neighbouring latte slurpers.

There are some books – some materials – that would not just raise eyebrows but serious concerns if your nose was spotted in there. Concerns about your state of mind; your fitness for duty; your ability to function. I’ve had something of this reading experience over the last few days after working through the excellent “Unexpected joy of being sober” by Catherine Gray. It was recommended to me by a fellow breakdown survivor, who, like me, has recently given up alcohol altogether, despite not being an alcoholic or a problem drinker. 

We both made the same judgment; that if you are looking for the perfect mixer to go with your anxiety and/or depression then alcohol definitely is not it. 

Before I get into that, it is worth saying that the nervousness I felt about reading this book in public – btw, I got over it did it all the same on the train between Southport and Liverpool – reflected that sense the people would judge me; will conclude that to be reading a booking about getting and staying sober, I must be an alchy. Have a problem. Be a pisshead. Some of the same judgments are ironically (or perhaps coincidentally) the experience that as a non-drinker I get when I refuse a drink or say I don’t drink. I am often judged for either being a dried up drunk/in recovery or for being boring and not fun for not drinking at all. You can’t win. That’s if you define winning by what other people think. 

As with all my advice and views on mental health, recovery, healthy lifestyle and work life balance, I often say that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution or that there are no totally hard and fast rules for you to follow. But and it is a big but – giving up the drink – the pop; the keg; the swill; the ale; the vino; the sauce; the sherbets; the holy water, is as close as I get. I know from personal experience and from talking to many, many people who are prone to anxiety, depression, self esteem issues, grief and a wide range of mental health issues from the mild to the major, that a) there are no solutions to those issues found at the bottom of a glass or bottle and, more importantly, b) the days(s) after drink very rarely do anything but make their original issues feel very much worse. It’s not just the hangover but the stimulation that alcohol provides to your darkest concerns and issues – the edginess; the paranoia; the regret; the memory loss; the self consciousness; the nervousness; the downer; the physical damage and the knock on effect it has on your state of mind. Put similar drink is a mood changer and, more often than not, a depressant. 

I have never been a problem drinker. Like many people who grew up around and saw my fair share of drinkers (i.e. not a collection of teetotalers) – some of whom couldn’t handle their drink or became worse company to be around when they drank – I came to drink very late. I was reluctant. It did not appeal to me at all. I didn’t want to be one of those people. 

I was not a 13/14 year old trying White Lightening or cider on street corners or the local park. I wasn’t going to house parties in my teens and trying to get into the local hotspots of Lowies or Appleby’s. It was my 18th birthday before I had a beer and starting to drink. Like many people that age, once I started alcohol became part of my social life and over the next 20 years I drank beer with friends, especially around sporting events, wine with meals and prosecco and champagne when the occasion dictates; say for example, it’s Friday night and I’ve escaped work! 

During my stressful times at work –  of which there were many, many years – like many people, I was self medicating with drink. I didn’t have a problem in that I needed a drink in the morning, or every day, or had the shakes, or craved it throughout the day. But I drank a little too much. Too much by any doctor’s standards. Too many units a week, despite dry days each week and some dry weeks altogether. It worked for a while – or so I thought. It “took the edge off” and relaxed me. But as I write that I realise that I was treating the symptom and not the cause. It would have been better to work on the reasons for my need for relaxation and stress relief rather than pander to it with “just one for the road”.  

Before we had Miss J and the need to be alert at 3am when your little person calls you – there was a steady stream of meals out, nights in the pub, beer when cooking and the like. Aoife was a settling influence on this – with the extra responsibility came restraint but by then the habit was set. I really noticed the issue for me when my breakdown struck and I was still having the odd beer or glass of wine. It may have helped me to relax a little and for an hour or two forget my problems but in reality it made me less patient, more on edge and the following day very anxious and edgy.

In the aftermath of my breakdown I made a number of lifestyle changes – including losing over two stone in weight. One of these changes was to give up drink. I did it for six months – and then I fell back into the habit. I was drinking much, much less than before but still using as part of my support network. Over the next year or so I noticed how much worse I was feeling the next day or the day after – and that was after only one glass of wine or beer. Even the smallest volume, mixed with my depression and anxiety made for a lethal combination. 

Like many people who try to eliminate drink altogether, I had more than one go at giving it the elbow. I finally succeeded last year. I am now a few days short of eight months without a drink and as each day passes, I miss it less and less. I don’t have any interest in it and have replaced it with much healthier activities, including reading, more music, more decaf tea and my new favourite aperitif, slimline tonic! I don’t miss it because I know that drinking made me more anxious; it made me more off form; it made me more emotional; more melancholic; more snappy; more sweaty; more on edge; less me. 

I have enough genetic and environmental issues to deal with to maintain my wellbeing to need to add to them with the self induced  complication that drinks brings. I am not preaching; I am not judging; I am not telling people what to do. I am simply saying this; I am yet to meet someone, myself included, who experiences the positive difference that alcohol makes in the attempt to get on top of depression or anxiety. I am yet to see what good it does beyond a short term high or hit. I am yet to benefit from taking a drink as much as I benefit from not taking it; I am calmer now; I sleep better; I feel sharper; I have more energy; my skin is better; I can run further; I weigh less; I like myself more; I am me all the time not me wearing a mask; I never wake regretting what I drank, said or did the night before through drink; I never lose a day at the weekend because I am too rough to move.

Catherine Gray’s brilliant book is an honest reflection on her battle with drink – after many years of abuse. Her story is extreme – like all alcoholics – but within it lies truth for anyone who drinks. She sets out practical advice and help for anyone wanting to quit and/or find a healthier relationship with it and she found in writing her book something of same therapeutic value I find in writing this blog. She said that only when she writes something down can she deal with it and that in her relentless writing she wrote herself to recovery. By writing she was processing issues and dealing with them. By sharing she was helping herself as well as others.

She also superbly captures the challenge of being a non-drinker and the pressure that drinkers and society – especially in Northern Europe – places upon you. The questions. The surprise. The horror when you say you don’t drink or are teetotal. The pressure too to make an excuse for the killjoying of not drinking; I’m the designated driver; doing Dry January; on a health kick; training for the marathon; etc etc. As I’ve written before, I prefer honesty and openness with my mental health and so I do tell people the truth; I don’t drink because it does not mix well with my depression and anxiety; it is not good for my mental health. Mostly people quietly smile, look uncomfortable and try to move the conversation on but that’s fine with me as I turn back to my pot of tea or tonic water.

Catherine Gray’s book is her story and my blog is mine. Everybody must write their own. Make their own decisions. Find the best way to manage their own health and wellbeing. I just pose the question; does alcohol need to be part of it or can you the best version of yourself without it? I know my answer and Catherine’s. 

I strongly recommend adding ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober’ to your library…….https://www.amazon.co.uk/Unexpected-Joy-Being-Sober-alcohol-free/dp/1912023385/ref=sr_1_1?crid=28J461657XIPX&keywords=the+unexpected+joy+of+being+sober&qid=1555966958&s=gateway&sprefix=The+unexp%2Caps%2C940&sr=8-1