Lockdown is a curious contradiction. On the one hand, we’re all following a strict set of new rules; but on the other, life is strangely rule-free.
There is no dressing for the office, no commute, no real schedule at all. And in the spring, some of us filled those newly flexible days by relaxing personal rules around drinking, too. ‘Wine o’clock’ got earlier and earlier. First it was 6pm; then 5pm; then 4pm after the departmental Zoom; then 2pm … then, oh, let’s have a glass of wine with lunch.
Some of us were lonely, many were anxious. A global trauma such as a pandemic is bound to have that effect. And women in particular were run ragged by extra domestic responsibility until that 30 minutes of numbing escapism between making dinner and tidying up seemed like the only time we had to ourselves. No wonder we reached for the bottle.
Figures released last week by the industry monitor Drinkaware reflect all those drinking memes and Facebook anecdotes we shared, showing 26 per cent of people in the UK drank more during the first lockdown, with most of the increase in consumption driven by women.
Self-help guru Annie Grace (pictured) shares her tips for lockdown without wine o’clock
Midlife, middle-class drinkers in particular were more likely to have drunk more than pre-lockdown.
The reasons most often given were ‘having more time available’ and having ‘less structure to my day’, although stress, anxiety and boredom played big roles, too.
And yet, this time around, many of us don’t want to drink like that.
I run a freedom from alcohol movement called This Naked Mind, named after my best-selling book, which offers people strategies and support to cut back on or give up alcohol altogether.
More than seven million people have downloaded my podcast. And at the end of the last lockdown, we noticed a distinct uptick in people signing up to join my programme to quit drinking.
For many, lockdown was a period of reckoning. Perhaps for the first time, they saw in stark outline how much they drank, how easily it could get out of hand and how exhausted it was making them feel. Living in thrall to the bottle is not how they want to spend the second lockdown, let alone the rest of their lives.
Before quitting alcohol, Annie would order a mimosa cocktail for breakfast (stock image)
I stopped drinking six years ago next month. It was in London that I hit my rock bottom, on a trip to the HQ of the firm at which I was global head of marketing.
Back then, most evenings I’d drink at least one bottle of wine —and sometimes two. I was flying all over the world, often going to three or four glamorous but booze-soaked business dinners in a row.
In the interests of my career, I dedicated myself to building an alcohol tolerance in order to keep up with colleagues. I’m 5ft 8in and 10 st, and I can honestly say that in my last years of drinking I consumed more calories in alcohol than in food.
On the last night of that visit to London I stayed out late with colleagues, and then got up at 6am to catch my flight back to the U.S., where I now live.
To calm my banging head, I requested a mimosa cocktail of orange juice and champagne for breakfast from the very posh hotel where I was staying, only to be told they wouldn’t open a bottle of champagne for just one glass, but would I like a vodka and orange instead?
Ambitious ultimatums such as giving up ‘for ever’ will fail — just focus on this four-week period of lockdown
Hard liquor pre-7am was one of my red lines, but I drank it anyway.
At Heathrow Airport, I knew I had to stop. Why was this one thing out of my control when I had a perfect handle on everything else in life?
I ate well, I exercised, I had two beautiful children at home and a husband who worked for an investment bank. Yet my hangovers were becoming so bad, I’d frequently drink a couple of beers at lunchtime, sometimes earlier, just to feel better.
I’d started to carry miniature bottles of red wine in my handbag and would whip them out before I had to give a speech or presentation — convinced, wrongly, that I needed a shot of alcohol to make me sparkle.
From the outside, no one would have guessed how much I was drinking, but beneath the surface my life was a mess.
It was at night that I confronted it all. In bed, I’d fall asleep quickly thanks to the quantities of booze I was drinking — even at home — and then wake at 3am, when the carbohydrates and energy from the alcohol flooded my system.
Every night, I lay there chastising myself for overindulgence, vowing with all my heart to be better tomorrow, full of worry my behaviour was going to wreck the lives of my children and ruin my marriage.
She said although she would fall asleep quickly thanks o the alcohol in her system, she would wake up at 3am when all the stored up energy would hit her (stock image)
But I never was better. By late afternoon, I’d be craving my red wine and I’d push all those night-time fears to the back of my mind — and the cycle would begin again. In the daylight, the thought of giving up drinking felt like an incredible sacrifice.
And so, having decided in London to dig deep and finally get to grips with my drinking, when I did stop — partly by learning about the science of addiction and writing my book — the real surprise was how my life improved in every possible way.
My confidence skyrocketed, for example. I thought I drank for confidence, but it turned out it was destroying my self-esteem. And once my body healed, I found myself amazed at how well I felt.
During my years of drinking, I didn’t feel particularly sick but I didn’t feel great either, and I’d forgotten how it felt to have tons of energy. Now, I’m often surprised by how much I can get done.
Most unexpected of all, I’m having far more fun than I ever did with a drink in my hand. It’s the biggest fallacy of all to think that you can’t enjoy yourself without it.
At the age of 42, it’s as if I’ve woken up from the Matrix and realised that alcohol was only dulling my senses and keeping me trapped, rather than adding to my life.
Annie’s first tip is to realise you shouldn’t beat yourself up for having had a drink (stock image)
I wonder whether any of this sounds familiar to you?
Perhaps your drinking isn’t as bad as mine once was (I hope not).
But if you’re one of the millions who drank more during the first lockdown and know in your heart that you’re not in control, that you spend more time than you want thinking about that first drink of the evening, now is your chance to change for the better …
THIS IS NO TIME TO BEAT YOURSELF UP
First of all, recognise that you’re doing the best you can with the tools you’ve got. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and we’re constantly told (falsely, but how are you to know that?) that alcohol relieves stress.
On the face of it, drinking more is a rational thing to do. So don’t beat yourself up.
Guilt and shame are the biggest barriers to doing something about your drinking. If you feel constantly negative about yourself, it simply perpetuates the spiral.
Don’t worry if you slip up. Have some compassion for yourself.
ALCOHOL IS A STRESS- BOOSTER, NOT BUSTER
The sad truth is alcohol will not relieve the stress you’re feeling. What alcohol does is slow down your brain function, resulting in diminished ability to think and reason, and slowed speech and reaction times. You literally think more slowly.
So, yes, while I was drinking I’d forget the things that caused me stress. I drank to ignore them. But they wouldn’t go away — and they just got bigger.
In fact, it’s much easier to handle stressful events without drinking. When you stop, you regain the confidence, energy and courage to deal with whatever is stressful.
She pointed out that while many people consider alcoholic drinks to be stress busters, they actually cause you to feel even more stress
SET A TIME PERIOD YOU CAN ‘WIN’
If you’re thinking about stopping altogether, experiment with a time period that you can ‘win’.
Don’t tell yourself that you’re giving up alcohol for ever: ambitious ultimatums like that are bound to fail and make you feel worse. I always say I drink as much as I want whenever I want; I just haven’t wanted to in six years.
Tell yourself you’ll give up for this four-week period of lockdown. It’s the perfect timeframe. If you’ve been drinking every day, it will take your body a week or two to feel better — but after that you’ll really start to reap the benefits.
HAVE A LAST DRINK (BUT NOT A FAVE)
Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a final drink. This marks the occasion, letting you know you are truly free.
Don’t choose your favourite drink, though; have hard alcohol, like a shot of vodka or whisky. Concentrate on how bad it tastes, and wonder how you ever let this toxic liquid control you and why you paid for the privilege. Heavy drinkers can spend £300,000 on alcohol during their lives, so think of giving up as winning the lottery!
WINE O’CLOCK ISN’T ‘JUST A HABIT’
Sorry to be blunt, but drinking is not just a habit, it’s an addiction. The test is in how you’d react if I offered you £200,000 to stop drinking for ever. Would you? Do you have to think about it? What about half a million pounds?
You can buy a beautiful home, but you can never drink again. If drinking was ‘just a habit’, there would be no hesitation. For £500,000, you wouldn’t hesitate to break a habit, no matter how much effort it took.
ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU ‘NEED’ A DRINK
No matter what limit you’ve set yourself — giving up entirely for lockdown, or sticking at one glass a night instead of two or three — if you fail and drink a whole bottle, ask yourself why. Be curious, but not judgmental.
Yes, there will be physical reasons (your brain’s ability to muster willpower diminishes with each glass), but look deeper than that. Did you think the Zoom quiz would be more fun if you carried on drinking? Why?
Think of giving up as winning the lottery! Drinkers can spend up to £300,000 on alcohol during their lives
If you’re feeling social anxiety, will alcohol really help? Or will you spend tomorrow fretting about that stupid thing you said after a whole bottle?
Or are you somehow convinced that only with a glass of wine in your hand can you be witty and interesting?
Remember how much fun it is when you have coffee with those same friends — nothing stops you being witty and interesting then.
When you start to unravel the reasons why you drink, you often come face to face with a heap of irrational assumptions about a ‘need’ for alcohol.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS YOU’VE GIVEN UP
the drinkers among your friends may have a hard time with your decision (‘How can you not want to drink?!’). They may feel judged when you decline a glass.
I was too vocal about it and ended up annoying my friends.
‘You don’t need alcohol to have a good time! It’s crazy, but we’ve all been duped,’ I’d repeatedly tell them, until one friend told my husband: ‘Yikes, I can’t imagine what it’s like living with the anti-alcohol evangelist.’
So how can you gracefully tell them without alienating them? You’re doing this for you, and by making this decision, even though you may cause tension at first, you’ll soon become a beacon of hope that they can change, too.
These are some phrases that did work for me: ‘I realised I’m happier when I don’t drink’; ‘I’m on a health kick and giving up booze is part of it’; ‘I decided drinking was no longer doing me any favours, so I quit’. And simply: ‘I feel better when I don’t drink.’
Think about it — was the boozy mums’ group really that much fun when you realised you were back home but had no memory of how you got there?
Another piece of advice Annie suggested was to tell your friends that you’ve given up alocohol (stock image)
MANAGE YOUR PARTNER’S REACTION
When I gave up alcohol, my husband was clear that this was my thing and he had no intention of ever stopping drinking himself. He was supportive, but he didn’t want to join me.
And yet he’s definitely cut back as a result. It’s healthier for everyone in the family when one of you stops.
When I was drinking every night, my five-year-old once refused a cuddle because I smelled of wine and had ‘horrible purple teeth’. That’s a painful memory.
That said, any change in a relationship is bound to cause anxiety. You don’t want your partner to feel judged. I went out of my way to make my husband feel better about it and would always order him a beer alongside my tonic water when we went out.
I’m not ‘triggered’ by his drinking because I truly don’t want to drink any more. But if you are, again, be curious about it. Think hard about why you still want that glass.
I found another bonus in giving up. Because I was happier than I’d been in years, I could stop taking an antidepressant I’d been on for a long time. The result? Libido! Sex is more fun and more frequent these days.
To make quitting alcohol easier, Annie suggested you make a selection of mocktails so you still feel like you’re having a treat (stock image)
BEWARE OF HAVING ‘JUST THE ONE’
It’s counter-productive to beat yourself up if you slip. But if you’re trying to give up altogether, do be aware that the ‘just the one’ game can wreck your good intentions.
For me, this was a cycle of insanity. I would make myself promises about moderation, which I would keep at first.
Success gave me a profound sense of satisfaction, of control. But then I would stumble upon seemingly legitimate reasons to give in to temptation — and, of course, one drink would lead to ‘just one more’. And so on.
The next day, I’d feel so ashamed. I began to isolate myself from those close to me, as I knew they would be disappointed. I became a miserable shell of myself.
The ‘just the one’ game clouds your judgment. You realise there is no true pleasure in drinking. You understand it won’t help you de-stress. Yet when you start to drink, you allow yourself to be duped again.
MAKE YOURSELF A FANCY MOCKTAIL
Experiment with a delicious non-alcoholic recipe — a mocktail. Even if it’s just for one night, try making something really delightful for yourself.
I noticed when I was drinking that the ritual was as powerful as the drink itself. It was the act of reaching for a bottle that made me feel good, before I’d taken a single sip.
You can change that trigger by swapping wine for something non-alcoholic.
Remember, any reduction in drinking decreases the risk of illness, helps you sleep better and benefits your family.
Trust me, life is more fun without a drink.
This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace (£9.99, HQ), is out in paperback on December 10.