So, drinking

I don’t have a problem. I just can’t stop. Wine o’clock for me is 5pm and I’m starting dinner and ping goes the switch in my brain. Second glass eating dinner. And if it’s been a really stressful day, or a really good day, or just a day, maybe another half glass to finish.

I like drinking good wine with good food. I like drinking. It doesn’t interfere with my life, unless I need to do anything after dinner that involves a vertical position. I lie in bed and read, nothing too taxing, couldn’t cope with video remote instructions, for instance. Yoga, even corpse pose, would be beyond me, because I’d have to concentrate on breathing.

So I don’t have a problem, not like some of my friends, who clearly drink too much. But I decided to cut down anyway, why not, and that’s how I found out I couldn’t. I told myself I’d have a small glass a day, red, for heart health, or a bottle a week, then weekends only, or just Friday. But whatever the plan, I’d last a few days, creep back up to my comfort zone, and stay there wearing a wine glass like an old favourite shoe. Pass the bottle.

So when I was seeing my GP about something else I said at the end, casually, that I thought I might be drinking a little too much. She asked how much was a little too much. I was honest, named the three standards drinks a day for what they are, rather than two big glasses, and told her there were not many alcohol free days. Having just done four AFDs, I was feeling quite virtuous but they were rare and I said so. “You are drinking too much,” she said, “and we better check your liver.” She looked at me. “Just stop,” she said. “Stop altogether for two months and then decide what you want to do.” So that was scary, that my two big glasses of wine a night might actually harm my liver. Even more scary, my doctor said it. And stopping? Holy cow.

Public health experts are becoming more concerned about alcohol and not just about moderate drinking. While red wine has often been touted as the ideal source of grapeskin antioxidants, increasingly, advice about alcohol’s benefits is being replaced by advice about its harms. Ethanol, pure alcohol, makes cars go. We’re starting to understand that we probably oughtn’t drink so much of it.

Research has been harumphing for a while that women in particular drink too much, and the amount we should drink is shrinking. The US Department of Health says women shouldn’t have more than one drink a day. Our own National Health and Medical Research Council says no more than two but their drinks look a lot smaller. Alcohol is now linked with nasty things in addition to liver damage, like heart disease, five kinds of cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

I never thought of alcohol as an addiction. I never thought I’d have to kick a habit, like smoking or chocolate. But I took my doctor’s advice and stopped for two months. Cold turkey rather than chilled white wine. I’m not sure I felt more healthy but I definitely felt freed of something. Three nights were hard, and focusing on the future beyond that week was very, very unhelpful. I could have written a country and western song. I’ll never drink agaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiin…

For a month, I felt like a wowser, that Australian word that connotes all manner of bad form. No thank you, not for me. But I did find I could read a book for an hour at night and remember what I read next morning. I also got better sleep. After a couple of weeks, I noticed life was more intensely real. No wonder I was drinking every day!

I don’t think I’ll remain a non-drinker – I’d like to enjoy good wine with good food again – but I don’t plan to go back to drinking every day. Somewhere between not drinking at all, and drinking every day, I hope I’ll find a niche that might fit me and a small glass.

First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  6 April 2013. You can Get in touch with Mary-Rose,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter