Episode 4: The week when it stopped being fun

Having looked at my personal motivations for quitting drinking, the pressures of life trying to thwart me and the place that alcohol holds in the heart of society, I thought we’d take a look this week at the mental and neurological changes we need to undergo in order to succeed in this or any challenge where breaking away from ingrained patterns is required.

Once the shine wears off and the excitement of doing something different subsides, it’s pretty easy to get bored of it. It’s at this time that it would be so easy to call it a day, be content that we’ve achieved as much as we have and revert back to default settings. With this in mind, therefore, it is doubly important to take control of our thoughts and actions as the novelty-induced strength diminishes.

The honeymoon is well and truly over. I won’t deny that this week I’ve had many thoughts of giving up giving up! I had a certain strength of mind for the first few weeks of sobriety that stemmed from the excitement of a new challenge, giving up drinking was all-encompassing and I was riding high on the wave of writing blogs, losing weight and feeling morally superior to my former self. But dear God I’ve wanted a drink this week!

It surprised me how and when the cravings have hit me, especially after having nothing of the sort for the first few weeks. I had originally thought that it would be a beer that I wanted first, but it was in fact my old friend G&T who first pushed his tempting flavours into my conscious mind. I wasn’t surprised that it was while I was cooking that this first encounter occurred — the daily après-work soother in the kitchen had become habitual to the point that it was a struggle not to have one! And it was often one that led to two, and sometimes the gateway to quietly getting drunk on my own with the tunes blaring and the dinner sizzling.

It was an odd experience, I could actually taste the spicy citrus flavours and my whole body filled with a desire for the cold, fizzy refreshment from my old mates Hendricks and Schweppes! This went far beyond what I had previously felt when I had been stressed or upset and it was purely ‘a drink’ that I’d wanted, this was my first real experience of a true craving. Following the advice of the guys at One Year No Beer, I had a fridge full of sparkling water and a cupboard full of cordials and quickly whipped up a tasty lemon, lime and bitters. Not the most exotic of drinks but it hit the spot and assuaged my thirst. It’s worth noting at the point that as I reached in to the cupboard for the mixer, the bottle of Hendricks was directly behind it. I gave it a lingering glare, closed the cupboard and smiled to myself that I hadn’t caved in.

The next time a craving hit me, it was with even more force than the first! I was barbecuing a couple of succulent steaks from my local butcher and as they popped and sizzled on the grill I thought to myself how well a glass of rich, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon would go with them. Foolish! As soon as the thought entered my mind, there it was again — the undeniable full-body yearning coupled with the ability to physically taste the red wine! Once again I reached for a flavoured fizzy water, but it was nothing like the drink I really wanted and didn’t quell the longing that flooded through me. A couple of minutes passed and all I could think about was opening a bottle. A few minutes more and I’d mentally decided which bottle I was going to break my drought with! (It had to be good enough to make it worthwhile letting myself down, but not too good that it was a total waste opening it on a school-night. I’d settled on the Jim Barry Cover Drive, a delicious yet well priced Cab Sav from Clare Valley in South Australia!)

The battle raging inside me was horrendous! On one shoulder was my little ginger devil — There was nothing I wanted more in the world at that moment that a glass of wine to go with my steak so why should I deny myself that pleasure? After all, I’d gone three weeks without a drink and I felt I deserved the treat. On the other shoulder was my conscience, keeping me strong, keeping me on track to achieve the goal that I’d set myself. “Do it!” “Stay strong!” “Do it!” “Stay strong!”

I sat down to eat and delved in to the first mouthful of delicious steak, I made a point of concentrating on the texture, the flavour and the enjoyment I got from that piece of beef — and in an instant the wine craving vanished. Mind over matter — it was all in my head, my body wasn’t crying out for wine like it does for food or water when it needs fuelling — as soon as I distracted myself with another pleasure the wine craving passed.

There were 2 lessons I learnt from this, both separate but ultimately linked. The first was that it’s essential to have a replacement at hand. There’s a danger that you can simply replace one vice with another, like sweets or cigarettes, so make sure your replacement is a healthy one. Also make sure it’s an enjoyable one, if you deny yourself any sort of pleasure over and again it is only a matter of time until you snap and give in. The second lesson learnt is that this is a marathon not a sprint, going sober is one thing, staying sober is another! As the exhilaration of a fresh way of living wore off and ennui kicked in it took genuine discipline and will-power to fight off the urges within.

I’ve previously completed some endurance sporting events like triathlons and half marathons, anyone who has done anything similar will know that you have to break down a mammoth undertaking like that into bite-size pieces to make it more manageable. Over the course of this week I’ve really wanted to give in, the draw of the gin almost stronger than my resolve, but being so close to hitting the 30 day mark gave me something to aim at, a bite-size target on the way to a full year without drinking. Thousands of people do Dry July, FebFast and a whole array of different monthly challenges — if all those people can succeed for a whole month, then so can I! If you’re struggling with your own motivations and determination, add a bit of ego, competitiveness and a short-term achievable target into the mix, it does wonders to your ability to stay strong! Almost at 30 days? Push on through! From 30 days to the 6 week mark is only another 12 days — Easy! And from there it’s just a short push to 50 days, etc, etc. Baby steps — one at a time. Wherever you are in the proceedings, you may find it easier to count down to the next milestone than to keep counting upwards with an ever-increasing number that’s beginning to lose its lustre and significance.

One of my key drivers for this undertaking was to lose weight, with this in mind I took the plunge this week and signed up for Crossfit. I’ve always shied away from the gym under the pretence of it being boring as hell, deep down though I’ve always know this is the sort of exercise that my body needs in order to ditch the flab. It isn’t a type of exercise that excites me though, I’d rather chase a ball around a patch of grass or get out on the road on my bike for a few hours. However, life experience has taught me that neither of these things will give me the body shape I am looking for and for me to succeed I need to make some changes in mindset and application. Much like with plunging into a year of non-drinking, my choice to sign up to Crossfit was a snap decision, despite the fact that Wifey has been on at me for years to change the type of exercise I do in order to get better results! (Sooner or later I’ll have to admit she knows what’s best for me!)

So within 2 days of making the decision I found myself at the local Crossfit gym, sweatband on and nervous energy coursing through me. For those of you unfamiliar with Crossfit, it’s a high-intensity strength and conditioning program which consists of aerobic exercise, calisthenics (using your own body weight — think gymnastics on a bar and rings) and weightlifting. Each session is a 1 hour workout involving body movement, skills, strength and a super-set at the end combining all of the above.

An hour later I was drenched in sweat, gasping for air and grinning from ear to ear! Having not done high-intensity exercise before I was astonished at how hard the body could be pushed in such a short space of time. The rush of chemicals my body produced was incredible, it was like drugs, booze, rollercoasters, sex and bungy jumps all rolled into one! I can quiet happily jump on a bike for 4 hours and ride 100km, but this is a whole new ball game. The workout left me annihilated yet invigorated, an hour after leaving the gym I felt a bizarre and wonderful combination of light-headedness, starvation and euphoric energy! After a meal out at the local Thai with Wifey, I returned home to come down off the natural high and slept like the dead. The following morning I went for a moderately difficult 50km bike ride with a local group, then on Sunday afternoon I had another session at the gym — who is this man I’ve become? The weekends are historically a time for boozing, regret, dehydration and over-indulgence.

As Sunday evening drew in and I cooked the weekly roast dinner I reflected back on the weekend, the extra vitality I’d experienced throughout the last couple of days and how full of vigour I felt despite expending far more energy than I normally would have. Gone were the cravings, gone was the feeling of being fed up with denying myself — I was floating on life’s natural endorphins and soaking up every second of it. I felt strong, invigorated and physically demolished, I also felt really proud of my efforts and that I’d taken another step towards achieving the ultimate beach body! (God, there’s a long way to go though!)

This journey is about change, it’s about breaking bad habits and forming new positive ones — purely a mental game. The old adage of ‘fake it till you make it’ springs to mind; by thinking the thoughts of a healthy-living gym junkie, it isn’t long until those thoughts become permanent and you find yourself actually being a healthy-living gym junkie. New thought patterns don’t just happen, you have to actively create them and proactively have the strength of mind to integrate them time and again into your everyday life choices. Your brain will naturally and immediately go to those old thoughts and habits, the comfort zone is a warm and friendly place for it to be but the thoughts that reside there are not the right ones, and it’s at this point that you need to take control and implant the correct new thoughts. Now that the honeymoon period is over it is crunch time to make sure that the hard yards pay off, it is at this precise time that we need to ensure that we have the strength of mind to continue thinking the right thoughts, to think in the way in which we want thoughts to come naturally, to build those positive habits in lieu of ancient and ingrained negative ones.

For me, and I would imagine this is the case for most people, having a specific target to aim at focusses the mind and makes being strong that much easier. As an example, having the goal of hitting 30 days sober makes it easier to hold out when a craving hits on day 27 than ticking the tally over to 28 days, which holds very little extra excitement. Breaking goals into bitesize chunks also makes them more achievable, pushing through to 30 days, then 60, 90 and onwards is far easier for the brain to comprehend than the enormous challenge of having 338 days to go! The added bonus is that you’re not only gradually making your way towards the ultimate objective, but you are concurrently training your brain to win, to achieve its target, thereby creating new positive habits and making your brain stronger. This in turn then makes achieving the later small goals easier as well! Baby steps, one at a time, to climb the mountain — each step making your legs stronger and the next step easier.

Sometimes the hardest part of breaking bad habits is identifying them in the first instance, it is only by taking a step back and taking a look at how we naturally do things that we can pinpoint areas which we can improve. As an example, I have 1 sugar in my tea. Correction, I have no sugar in my tea, even that first one in the morning that needs to be sweeter. Turns out it doesn’t need to be sweeter, I’d just got into the habit of it. One habit that I am really struggling to break is the stubborn mindset that the evening meal needs to have carbs in it. When planning a meal, I choose the meat or fish, then second in my mind is always a choice of potatoes, rice, pasta, couscous, then a couple of veg. I really need to cut out that unnecessary carb intake if I’m going to lose the tyre, but I’m terrified I’ll be hungry afterwards! Ingrained negative thought patterns at their best! Sigh! I wonder if there’s a One Evening No Carbs support group!

To wrap up this week, I will leave you with this thought. Change is an ongoing process, it doesn’t happen overnight and it is a hard process — especially when it comes to changing the way we lead our everyday life. Mental strength is sometimes hard to find, so break down your goal into manageable bitesize pieces and give your resolve a helping hand. I promise you this, it does get easier! As you eradicate old habits and develop new ones, the mental battle will subside and without even noticing it your natural habits will be the ones you’ve been aiming for all along.

Thanks as always for reading, I hope my prattling on helps or entertains you, in the words of the mighty Garth Algar “I just hope you didn’t think it sucked!”

Finally, if you’re not already enjoying the brotherhood of One Year No Beer, check them out at www.oneyearnobeer.co.uk or their facebook page.

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