Monday, 30 June 2014

Interim conclusions

Hello, my name is Nick Wallis, and I have now not had a drink for six months. I am planning not to have a drink for another six months. This blog charts my progress.
Yes, this is a fundamentally weird image.
I've been looking forward to today, because it means the amount of time I have left to complete this task is less than the amount of time it has taken me already.

In my mind, I've reached the peak, and now I'm snowboarding joyously downhill, waving to people as I glide merrily towards the foot of the mountain. In reality, I'm only half way to the summit.

The overriding sensation I have experienced through staying dry over the last six months is one of boredom. People said I would feel much better. I don't feel any better. I don't feel any worse. That's what teetotalism does - iron out the extremes of experience so that the best you feel is okay, or possibly chipper.

I have to be careful here, because there are people reading this blog who have been through the mill with alcohol, and feeling "okay" or "chipper" is akin to a state of grace. If alcohol was such a problem that abstention is the only answer - more power to you.

It's only through researching peoples' experiences and the clinical effects of alcohol that I've got some way close to understanding what problem drinking might be. Here's a massive over-simplification:

1) If you are drinking the equivalent of a bottle of spirits a day, you're probably addicted to alcohol.

2) If you are drinking the equivalent of a bottle of wine every day, you should be worrying about your alcohol consumption and its long term effect on your health.

3) If you ever binge drink to the extent you wake up with chunks of the evening missing from your memory, you've given yourself brain damage.

The amounts in points 1) and 2) apply to male drinkers. For women, the equivalent might be as little as two thirds of a bottle of spirits and two thirds of a bottle of wine.

Point 2) is probably not a maximum "safe" level any more than 21 units a week for male drinkers is anything other than one-size-fits-all-take-an-educated-guess at "safe".

Point 3) is a sign you need to work out ways to manage your blood-alcohol level whilst you are drinking. Going at the wiring in the under-stairs cupboard of your brain with a blowtorch is not going to end well. If sweet oblivion is what you seek, the way to avoid it without drowning in ethanol is to make sure you start drinking when you are a) at home and b) really tired. You'll soon drop off.

The question of a safe amount to drink is one I keep coming back to. 21 units a week for men (14 for women) seems ludicrously low. It was, as we now know, a guesstimate reached by a panel of worried clinicians in the late eighties. The parliamentary report I have just linked to insists the figures were "not plucked out of thin air", but it also says that alcohol is the leading cause of death for 16 - 24 year olds, which is perfect bollocks.

Alcohol is a the leading contributory factor in the deaths of 16 - 24 year olds but of itself does not cause many deaths in that age group. This suggests to me young people are doing alcohol badly, in the wrong place at the wrong time. We owe them a debt of better cultural education in how to take a powerful drug safely.

If we assume government advisory levels of alcohol consumption are set at the safe end for a 9 st, 5'5" male with below average metabolism and organ function, then we can perhaps see why some people would think the idea of sticking to drinking a pint of 5% lager every day, or seven pints of 5% lager over the course of a week has no relevance to them.

Knowing what I know now, I can at least see why that panel of clinicians reached the conclusion they did, but that doesn't stop it being inaccurate and ineffective.

In my correspondence with Dr David Marjot, an expert in alcohol and addiction studies, I asked several times how I could find out what actually was a safe amount for me to drink, figuring if I knew the real answer, I would be more inclined to stick to it. Certainly when you read about the damage alcohol can do (and the myriad ways it can do it) you realise you are dealing with a substance that demands respect.

Dr Marjot not only couldn't tell me, he couldn't really tell me where to start:

"It's a very good question you ask and we might try to answer it or find there is no answer in the literature. We need an answer for each organ. It will be dose, genetics, body weight, organ susceptibility, general health, nutrition etc etc."

There is a movement called Moderation Management, the MM to Alcoholics Anonymous' AA. Their recommendation is never letting your blood alcohol content (BAC) go above 0.055%. To give you some context, this is some way below the UK drink driving blood alcohol limit of 0.08%.

On the face of it this method make slightly more sense than a straight unit check. Unfortunately it is impossible to know what your BAC might be unless you have tested it against whatever you are drinking to achieve it.

Why does all this matter? Well, it matters to me because I enjoy a drink. Other people ride bikes, go abseiling or learn how to fly helicopters. My hobby involves sitting around with a bunch of sharp-minded, articulate friends and chasing the ideas around words. The catalyst for this is often alcohol. But I don't want to drink so much it is doing me damage.

It matters on a wider level because the relationship we have with alcohol is right on the front line of what it means to be human in the 21st century. What do we, as a society, perceive as the reason for our existence? Here are some ideas. Please feel free to add your own:

To procreate.
To ensure our childrens' success.
To fulfill a higher plan.
To have fun.
To be rich.
To enrich others.
To work harder.
To keep the economy ticking over.
To live longer.
To be creative.
To be more successful than our peers/friends.
To be a good citizen.
To find love.
To buy more stuff.

Alcohol can (and does!) significantly affect all of the above.

The argument about crossing the road always comes up in this sort of debate. "Maybe I should cut down on my drinking, but I might get hit by a bus tomorrow." Ah but, so the argument goes, people have to cross roads to earn the money they need to survive. They don't need to drink.

No one needs to ride horses or go skiing, but once we've earned enough money to survive, many of us engage in risky behaviour for fun. Taking psychoactive substances, like alcohol, is one those behaviours.

Going one step further, having this break from booze has made me realise just how much the sociological, political and legal ramifications of steering us towards alcohol and away from other narcotics reverberates through our culture.

The illegality of so many drugs which could do far less harm than alcohol if they were legal (note - legal does not mean abundantly available) is a logical nonsense. Decriminalising other methods of intoxication in the safest manner possible may help us all be freer, happier, more productive, creative and healthy. It could also reduce crime, the pressure on the NHS, boost the economy, and reduce anti-social behaviour. But that's not where we are.

The dangers of opening up access to alcohol without proper care and consideration is a recipe for disaster. But that's where we are. Alcohol needs way more cultural voodoo around it. Drinking to excess is part of the human experience, but it ought to be done far more carefully than it is now.


This exercise in sobriety has a fundraising element to it. If you would consider a donation I would be most grateful. Either click here, or on the Virgin Giving link on the right of this page. If you want more information on the fundraising side of all this first, please have a read of this.


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