The Five Stages of Giving up Alcohol
My job as a nutritional therapist involves working with individuals to change their diet to improve their health. Simple right?
While many of us embrace new healthy habits such as zooming up a fermented milk 'kefir' shake with fresh ginger, berries, and chia seeds, and ditching hidden-sugar-loaded cereals in the morning, when it comes to talking 'alcohol', it's another matter.
Perhaps you want to reduce your pot belly, improve your chronic skin condition, get relief from constant heartburn, reduce your risk of breast cancer that runs in your family, stop running to the loo with your irritable bowel, or decrease the pain of your arthritis, but do you really want wellness? Because if you are in any of these scenarios, it would certainly be beneficial for you to pause alcohol. Red wine is often quoted as good for your heart, but many people drink quantities that cancel out the benefits, and are not drinking naturally produced types (eg sulphur dioxide free).
Conversations about letting go of alcohol can be tricky. Changing habits is exceedingly hard. But what is often not acknowledged, is that change takes time, and involves going through several stages. And each stage needs plenty of support.
So in the name of empathy with clients, I decided to give up alcohol two and half months ago. I don't know how long I'm doing it for, but I wanted to experience how hard and scary it can be, and see if my health improved. I realised that I had been drinking habitually for almost 30 years. I also wanted to see what the cost-health benefit equation would come out like. I had been suffering chronic headaches for a year and had tried lots of dietary changes. A brain scan ruled out the headaches being down to a tumour. I wondered if my headaches were connected with the many unlabelled preservatives in wine.
Stage 1 - Denial
I had to accept how much I was really drinking and get over the denial stage. My mantra of “I only have a small glass of wine in the evenings", was disingenuous to myself. One well-known nutritionist said in a lecture I attended that she always doubles in her head whatever people write down as their habitual alcohol intake on health questionnaires. I can see why. I read an article in The Times by a journalist who gave up drinking for a couple of months and described it as “social suicide". I wasn't ready for that.
Stage 2 - Contemplation
I started tuning in to conversations others were having about giving up alcohol. I was in contemplation mode, but still attached to the idea of summer Aperol with prosecco. A neighbour told me about her massive weight loss – and said she had given up drinking a year ago. A friend told me she'd given up to get rid of a yeast infection, and another said it interacted with a medicine he had been taking, so gave up for a month, but then found he didn't miss it so just carried on. I started to think maybe it was do-able. If you're reading this article you are probably in contemplation mode right now.
Stage 3 – Preparation
I gave away half of our drinks cabinet, stocked up with replacements that were not loaded with sugar - coconut water, fizzy water, and favourite green tea blends, and took a deep breath.
Stage 4 - Action!
This is where I am right now. After the first week, I stopped even noticing I wasn't drinking. Went to a party last Friday and huddled in a corner with other coconut water drinkers. Got up early the next morning for a cycle ride. Feeling really energetic, and not a single recent headache.
Stage 5 - Maintenance
I'm not there yet. Will I get there? Or will I slip back between different stages of change and never get here? As quickly as we move through stages of change, we can slip back down them to where we started.
Good luck to everyone doing Dry January!