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Some sober thoughts post-lockdown

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As I sit down to write this, I check my calendar and see I am coming up to 80 days without drinking alcohol.

I never, ever thought I would be one of those people— one who turned down a chilled flute of champagne when offered, who could resist a gin and tonic on a hot afternoon, or who declined to share in a particularly notable bottle of wine.

But here I am having done exactly that since I emerged from lockdown in October.

Post-lockdown I have found myself in a new relationship with alcohol after confronting some pretty stark realities about my own drinking habits, and more broadly, how deeply entrenched drinking is in our culture.

 

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I have never considered myself a big drinker but gosh I have enjoyed sharing a champagne with friends and settling into a good Netfix series with my husband and a bottle of something special in front of me!

I don’t binge drink and since having my first child 16 years ago can count on one hand the number of hangovers I have had. Who has time to wake up dusty when they have things to do, places to go, children to get out the door to school?

But things went a little off piste when we were all snapped into another lockdown in August.

My world shrank to fit in the four walls of my house. Again. And while I felt lucky in so many ways—to have a flexible job, a supportive school for my kids, and to live in a city where we all worked together to minimize the spread of COVID—it was still a bitter pill to swallow.

I increasingly found myself turning to alcohol to take the edge off yet another day of the same same sameness.

Food and drink became my distraction. I love to cook and would make more elaborate dinners than usual. And with that came beautiful bottles of wine from our cellar. Then I found myself embracing my inner mixologist, and out came the cocktail shaker.

My husband and I started a lockdown tradition in 2020 to take our glasses into a quiet room and listen to our record collection. It is not a small collection and we started at A (for ABBA of course). Part of the joy was mixing a special cocktail for the music. I made martinis, margaritas, mojitos, pina coladas and many a gin-based tipple.

By the second lockdown we managed to finish our last record (XTC) and my cocktail skills were exemplary (even if I do say so myself).

I look back on these early evenings with fondness. Candles, cocktails, a turntable, and quiet time with my husband to signal another day of being a teacher, journalist, and chief chef and cleaner was over.

But an uneasiness started to creep into my mind. How eager was I to drink the cocktail? Was I checking my watch until it reached 5pm? Did I decide in the morning what we would drink that evening? Did we follow cocktails up with a bottle of wine? Did I go to bed feeling a bit disconnected? Did I wake up and experience a few moments of fuzziness the next day? Had I done my mandated two alcohol-free nights that week?

Friends in Melbourne and Europe confirmed it was a fairly common lockdown occurrence to turn to drinking to get through. But two friends in particular admitted they had drunk so much in their extended lockdowns that they had stopped drinking altogether because they were frightened of what they had become.

I greeted this news with disbelief. What? Stop drinking? Completely? But how? And certainly lockdown was no time to do it? It seemed a rather extreme option to me to be frank.

They were both adamant they knew when enough was enough. I simply could not imagine ever getting to that point. I didn’t think I had a problem.

 

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I know a few people who have stopped drinking for long periods or even permanently.

I encouraged Megan Cook to write about her decision to stop drinking in 2020 after she attended a social event at my house and politely declined a cocktail I offered her. I could not wrap my head around why anyone would refuse such a delightful drink on a balmy summer afternoon in a backyard full of people.

If I am brutally honest, I felt a little bit suspicious of people who didn’t drink. Didn’t they miss the buzz and the bonhomie? Did they get bored in a room full of socially lubricated strangers? Were they part of a group of people for whom alcohol is a serious problem? The whole topic made me uneasy, and I didn’t want to think too deeply about why that was.

Wine, champagne and cocktails signify celebration, indulgence, connection, and a welcome pause in the day. Everyone drinks. And even if you don’t have a drink in front of you, you only need to turn on the TV for someone to put one there. If you want the alcohol imagery switched up a notch, just turn to Instagram. Everyone has a glass in their hand.

Alcohol is everywhere, and little prompts make it hard to ignore even if you want to.

So what changed my perspective you might well ask?

In the end it was nothing dramatic, no bender where I regretted the previous night’s actions, no blackouts, no hangover…Just a general feeling of lingering unease. A feeling that I was drinking more than I should.

So I just took a few days off.

I was out of lockdown and my liver deserved to celebrate.

It didn’t even feel hard as I had drunk so much in the previous months. I just decided to have a small break, for the sake of my health and to convince myself that I could stop if I wanted to.

One day turned into three days which turned into a week.

And by then I experienced some things that encouraged me to keep going.

First and most importantly, my sleep improved. You would think a delightful glass of red wine or a neat whiskey would be just the thing to encourage a long and deep sleep. But it turns out alcohol was affecting my sleep patterns far more than I was aware of. To sleep through the night deeply rather than fitfully was a blessing.

The second thing that I noticed was clarity. I woke up feeling fresh, alert, aware, with no fuzziness for those first few seconds, like I was having trouble finding the on-switch for my mind. My memory also seemed to improve after a downward slide post-40. Now I am not saying I can remember people’s names upon introduction (that, for me, would be a bridge too far!) but I have surprised myself with some improved random recall.

And the final and most important change I noticed was mood. My outlook turned from increasingly gloomy to surprisingly sunny.

Now of course it follows that going into lockdown in the middle of a Canberra winter would send anyone into something of an emotional downward spiral. And emerging into freedom with the spring would signal joy. But for me, a cloud truly lifted when I cut alcohol out of my diet. We seem to have forgotten that it is a depressant, and instead we rely on it to cheer us up at the end of the day.

I now see that I am more enthusiastic, and energetic without the glass of bubbles in my hand. Cheers to that.

Have I felt like a drink since October? Not even slightly. Especially not now that I am feeling so much happier and healthier. Another welcome bonus has been has been that the five COVID kilos I put on in lockdown along with everybody else, have disappeared, and I can see a difference in my skin. I’ve had a few compliments.

Lockdown fundamentally changed my relationship with alcohol and right now I don’t want to go back.

I am the sort of person who is everything or nothing. So for me, it is far easier to not drink at all than to have, say, half a glass of chardonnay twice a week. Am I quitting alcohol forever? I doubt it. But let’s just take it one day at a time.

A few years ago I quit sugar. I was hardcore for a couple of years and found it so much easier to have none than some. But have now reached a place where I may indulge in the odd dessert while out and not feel bad about it. So I suspect I will return to alcohol, but in a reduced capacity. Right now I am not thinking about returning to drinking. I am acutely aware that alcohol, like sugar, is addictive.

So far, I have not found a social situation difficult to negotiate with a mineral water in my hand even in the Christmas madness. I still have fun, I still find people interesting (and like to think they still find me interesting?), and I can still enjoy a beautiful meal without the wine to accompany it. I can also watch those at the table enjoy their drink without feeling any emotion at all.

For now I am keenly aware that alcohol has not always been my friend. And like all bad friends, I am crossing the street to avoid it. At the very least I think I drank enough for the shitstorm that was 2021 by October and needed to finish early. And 2022 seems all the clearer now. I may as well keep going.

Me and alcohol may reunite sometime in the future. But even if we do, I feel I will keep my distance a little more. I see alcohol far more clearly for what it is now, and that is, something that threatens to control me far more than I am comfortable with.

I finally understand the appeal of an alcohol-free life and I am writing this to acknowledge the experiences of others who have led the way and to perhaps plant the seed for those feeling as uneasy about their relationship with alcohol as I was. If this article encourages anyone else to try their hand at an alcohol-free week, or longer, then I wish them clear heads and happy hearts (can’t lose!).

If this article raises any issues for you, you can contact the National Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline, or find free support online, such as at Hello Sunday Morning and counselling online, or join support groups in your area, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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