Today, being Easter Saturday, is the last day of my Lenten abstinence from alcohol — a full 46 days without a single drop of the stuff passing my lips (the closest I’ve come is an M&S Tiramisu, which I calculated had about 1% alcohol in it). I’ve not followed this for religious reasons, more that, on the face of it, it seems to be as good a time as any to do it — not coinciding with any holidays, not a totally depressing time of year (like January when you need a drink) or (I thought back 6 weeks ago) any good weather. Apparently, I’ve been over-strict in my observance by the religious yardstick as Sundays don’t count as Lent (this is a method I tried a couple of years ago) and Lent’s considered to end after Good Friday (46 days minus the 6 Sundays is how it’s calculated I believe).
Why did I do it, if not for religious reasons? Probably the main reason is just to see if I could do it. Normally I like a drink as much, if not more, than most people and lots of my social life involves pubs and drinking. But I’ve never really had an problem not drinking if necessary — for example if I needed to drive anywhere. It might seem surprising but I’ve not been seriously tempted to have a drink during Lent, even though I’ve been in situations where most other people have been drinking — in pubs many times and bottles of beer and wine have been easily available at home. I’ve also had a few situations, such as returning from job interviews and the recent gloriously sunny weather, when my normal reaction would have been to open a bottle or sit in the beer garden for as long as possible.
At the time of writing memories of what it’s like being pissed are strangely abstract and I’m actually a bit nervous about the effect my first few days of drinking will have on me. The booze will definitely act more quickly if last year’s almost complete Lenten abstinence (exactly 6 weeks) was any guide. I’m sure the feeling of trepidation won’t last.
In an almost perverse way I’m pleased that I can stay off drink for that long because I can then feel happier when I resume drinking. There’s an almost constant stream of health advice and warnings about alcohol that I’ve blogged about in the past (my theory is that the Treasury gets the Department of Health to soften taxpayers up for sin taxes by this dripfeed of scare stories). By abstaining for so long I hope to prove to myself and anyone reasonably minded that I’m not an alcoholic (of course, many in the anti-alcohol lobby are so unreasonably minded that they believe the only way one can prove one’s not an alcoholic is to never drink, ever).
However, I knew anyway that I could easily give a drink a miss if I needed. In fact I think a large proportion of CAMRA members and others who are discerning over what they drink are, almost by definition, not alcoholics. No matter how foul a pint of bad real ale or tasteless and acidic a glass of wine, they contain as much alcohol as their more palatable equivalents — maybe the reason why so many pubs serve bad beer without improvement is that they have a core of non-discerning customers who just drink for the alcohol alone? These people, unlike most CAMRA types, would never risk the hassle or embarrassment of taking a bad pint back to the bar or walk past many pubs that served OK beer to reach one that served an excellent pint (or endure complex public transport journeys to get to one). Yes, drinking is something CAMRA types enjoy but it’s not the sole end in itself — and I have enough of a Puritan conscience sometimes to think it’s the people whose small basket of shopping at Tesco’s includes a litre bottle of own brand gin or vodka who are those who have the real problem.
On the health aspect, I’m also relieved in a contrary sort of way, that I haven’t continued to notice any dramatic change in physical well-being. For the last few years I’ve tried to do a perfunctory bit of exercise and drag myself comparatively slowly around the roads and footpaths and do the occasional race (I’ve managed to complete the Wycombe Half Marathon in a time that’s not been completely embarrassing for the last couple of years). I’ve definitely noticed the effects of a few pints the night before — both in feelings of fitness and in increased readings on my heart-rate monitor. However, after about three days without drinking I’ve found there’s no further tangible feeling of improvement — certainly I don’t feel any different six weeks on compared with a week in.
One aspect that I did have to adjust to was sleeping — drinking has a soporific effect on me after a certain threshold and it was a bit difficult to get used to nodding off naturally for the first few days. But I didn’t experience any energy boost. In fact, with the prospect of not having another drink to stay in the pub for or staying up for then sleeping becomes a more attractive option in the evening — perhaps making me paradoxically less productive overall.
Sadly, seeing as alcohol is meant to contain lots of ’empty’ calories, I’ve not seen the pounds drop off, despite doing fairly regular exercise. This is probably due to a desire to have a drink being substituted by other forms of gratification — edible ones, particularly hot cross buns. But I do wonder if there is anything in the arguments that are sometimes advanced about alcohol not necessarily being as readily converted to fat at the rate its pure calorific content might suggest.
One undoubtedly positive effect has been financial. I’ve still been going to the pub and the drinks I’ve been ordering haven’t been cheap — in fact the White Hart’s J2O’s at £1.90 are more expensive than a pint of real ale with a CAMRA/Wetherspoon discount voucher. Unlike beer, though, I’ve not felt much need to drink several of these so rather than spend going on for £20 on a fairly average night out, it’s been more like £5 — and I’ve been able to drive everywhere I’ve wanted to go. But I have decided not to go on some potentially enjoyable social occasions — the CAMRA members weekend in Sheffield was one and the Good Friday pub crawl in High Wycombe was another.
It’s these events that would probably be the biggest loss were I to decide (however unlikely) that I’d abstain permanently — the ceremonial purpose of alcohol for social bonding and cementing friendships is probably more difficult to manage without than the substance itself.
I’m not sure it would have been quite so straightforward to sip orange juice and lemonade had I not had an end-date to look forward to. I’ve been counting the days as I’ve been going but that’s partly down to thinking how I might best mark the end of the abstinence rather than any intrinsic desire to consume booze for its own sake — I’m hoping to have a pint of real ale on the stroke of midnight.
On Monday, just under six weeks in, I sat in the White Hart in Aylesbury with a J2O and several CAMRA friends who were all sampling some fascinating beer and I was almost shocked when I realised the thought of drinking beer myself hadn’t entered my head and that I was actually quite happy with my soft drink. I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought that before — perhaps it’s a good job I’ll be getting back to ‘normal’ imminently?