1-Oct 2015, by Lee Sandwith
Around this time last year I was starting to put some serious thought into potential goals for 2015. I do something every year but this time round I wanted to do something really special. I knew that I wanted to do something big; something that would change my life forever, an achievement that I could be proud of.
The tallness of such an order resulted in much deliberation but around the same time I was coming to terms with the possibility that I had acquired a bit of a problem. A problem which had been building for pretty much my entire adult life but one which was being managed adequately enough that it wasn’t that big of a deal. In fact, it was a problem that I have always embraced; after all, being a drinker is manageable, socially acceptable and has been known to be rather entertaining.
It wasn’t long after moving to the UAE in 2011 that I was appointed the rather dubious moniker ‘Safe Hands’. I wasn’t overly keen, but my mates loved it as it couldn’t have been more apt. Obviously I wasn’t assigned said nickname on account of my finely tuned chaperone skills, but, of course, because of how potential peril looms for anyone who happens to be in my company when I’ve gone ‘off-piste’.
Without going into too much detail (because my Mum reads this), having chalked up quite the archive of Safe Hands related stories, it’s fair to say that I played up to the name.
The downfall of Safe Hands
Towards the end of 2014, as I touched on in my first article about the challenge, I was starting to suffer from some particularly unwelcome side effects of alcohol.
The first, and probably the main reason, was my weight.
My life-long struggle with my waistline is the main inspiration behind ingfit and the fact that I found a very simple, effective solution provided the motivation for my eBook.
With the exception of a few very minor blips, I’ve been in pretty decent shape ever since I unlocked the winning formula and, in my mind at least, alcohol has never really played that much of a role.
But, alas, most probably a consequence of having a few more miles on the clock, booze has definitely started to jostle for a position on my waste-line-watch-list.
The next major motivation for quitting was the unwelcome bouts of depression which descended in the aftermath of an evening charged with serious alcohol consumption. It’s a very tall price to pay. Things can get ugly. The world can easily become lonely and dark.
Major ailments aside, for me, one of the most disturbing, and admittedly vanity-strewn issues, was how terrible I was starting to look after drinking, specifically the disgusting bags under my eyes! In all honesty, this was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. After all, what’s the point in all of this healthy eating and fitness training if I’m doing something which makes me look ten years older!!
Given all of the negativity alcohol was bringing into my life I thought it was time to nip that little problem in the bud before it got any more out of hand. After all, with my longest stint of abstinence being a notable 4 months, I am no stranger to sobriety. We’ve flirted, and I certainly acquired a fleeting taste for ‘the wagon’.
So that’s how I landed on 12 months of sobriety to satiate my appetite for achieving something big in 2015. Now that I’m 9 months in, I’m already starting to reflect on the experience so here’s a brief roundup of some of my findings; some of them are blindingly obvious, others…… not so much!
A functioning alcoholic in recovery
I started drinking when I was 17 and from that point forward there pretty much wasn’t a week that went by where alcohol wasn’t involved. In fact, throughout my twenties I was probably drinking every night with a few glasses of wine through the week and a shed load of booze at the weekend.
On reflection, I would definitely place myself in the functioning alcoholic bracket as, despite the excesses and the regular binge drinking, my life has never been affected in a way which could be considered outside the bounds of ‘normal’. After all, I’ve always held down a job and have built a pretty successful career over the years. Alcohol has always been present but my drinking has never adversely affected any of my professional or personal relationships.
Alcoholism, like most other things in life, isn’t so clear cut and operates on a scale. If you dig a bit online, there’s quite a lot of info on the subject and some reports have suggested that around 20% of alcoholics are classed as being functioning alcoholic and if you have something like 2-4 drinks per day you’re classed as ‘at risk’ (1).
In the UK, binge drinking is an infamous part of the culture, and even if you only drink at the weekend, you may still fall into the ‘functioning alcoholic’ bracket. In fact, according to numerous reputable bodies, the potential warning signs of alcoholism are many, for instance, those who obsess about their next drink, those who use alcohol as a reward and those who can’t imagine their life without alcohol in it (2, 3).
The latter of those reasons really resonates with me as the most common response I’ve had about going sober for 12 months is “Hats off, I couldn’t do it”. In fact, most people have said they’d struggle to go one month without a drink!
Okay, going sober for 12 months is definitely a stretch but if you genuinely think you’d struggle to go without alcohol for one month then you probably don’t need to find another reason to quit.
Sorry guys, the truth hurts!
I’ve really improved my fitness over the last ten years but since giving up the booze I have significantly raised the bar. I haven’t even really tried to do anything differently, I just feel like I’m perpetually motivated to get off my arse and do something. This seems to have gradually escalated to the point where I am easily the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. And I have to say, it feels unbelievable.
What’s more, I’m totally in tune with my body. If I’m tired, it’s because I’m tired. not because I’ve poisoned myself all weekend with alcohol and I’m being a lazy bum. My body is telling what’s what and if it’s telling me to rest, then that’s what I do.
Food, portion control and satiety
Given that I practice what I preach in my eBook, I’m a very healthy eater for 80% of the week and have either a cheat meal once per week, or loosen the belt a bit over the weekend if I’m in more of a maintenance mode.
Typically, I head out to a restaurant on Thursday evenings to catch up with friends and celebrate the weekend (Friday and Saturday is the weekend in the UAE). When I was boozing, the highlight of the evening, and typically the primary focus for me, was alcohol. A few beers before the meal, a couple of glasses of wine during and probably a few shots to finish.
The result was that I wasn’t really concentrating on the food or the company as much as I should have been and was as a result missing out. As a knock on effect, I would also be unconsciously eating and taking on a lot more calories than needed.
The impact of this would typically spill into the next day as I’d usually have (at least) a bit of a hangover and wasn’t really in touch with what my body needed. My body and mind were freaking out a little bit and I would spend most of the day on the sofa eating shit, trying to soak up the alcohol.
Since I’ve been sober I have experienced a huge difference in these evenings out. Firstly, I find myself engaging much more in the conversation and at no point do the topics waver off into nonsensical bullshit.
Secondly, as alcohol isn’t even a factor, I find that I’m much more aware of the food and enjoy the flavours, textures and overall experience much more than when I was drinking. In terms of satiety, I never gorge and I find I can easily stop once I feel that I’ve eaten enough.
One obvious added benefit is that I wake up the next day with a much clearer head, usually motivated towards doing some exercising, eating a good breakfast and creating some sort of content for my website.
Alcohol and weight control
Alcohol, along with our friend refined sugar, is in the premier league of empty calories and with its negligible (at best) nutritional profile it can be a major problem for anyone with a weight issue.
It’s almost 10 years since I conquered my long-term weight issue but, strangely enough, alcohol was definitely not a major contributing factor for me. I sorted my diet out, started exercising and bingo, the weight dropped off, despite there being no change in my (excessive) alcohol habits.
That said, over the last few years I’ve been trying very hard to get super lean and have seen the best results when I cut out the booze altogether. It’s a no brainer really.
In 2015, the impact of cutting booze out altogether on my weight has been unprecedented. I’ve lost almost 8kg without making any significant changes to my diet and exercise routine and, at almost 40, I’m leaner and fitter than I’ve ever been.
If you want to lose a few pounds, cutting out booze for a while certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
To qualify this, I have never suffered from bona fide depression and have never even considered this as a serious issue.
That said, over the last couple of years, especially in 2014, I was starting to experience what I could only describe as the onset of depression which I purely relate to alcohol consumption. Or, as I described it in my original article, The Fear!!
To elaborate on this a bit, I was experiencing a level of depression which was greater that the ill feeling associated with the typical hangover. In fact, at its worst I was experiencing feelings of depression up to somewhere between 4 days to 2 weeks after drinking.
Generally I was feeling exceptionally down on life, with feelings of self loathing and very negative views on the future. At its worst, I would find myself thinking about death for hours at a time. Like I said, it was getting pretty dark.
Since I’ve cut out alcohol, in 9 months I haven’t had one thought along these lines. I’ve experienced the occasional mood but nothing like what I was feeling.
I accept that this isn’t exactly scientific, however, alcohol is a known depressant so it’s not exactly an unexpected benefit of sobriety. Personally, I’m very pleased to be free of The Fear and feel like I nipped an issue in the bud before it got out of hand.
If this sort of thing rings true with you, then cutting down on the booze certainly isn’t going to do you any harm.
General well being, mindfulness and meditation
The sum of all of the aforementioned benefits is a greater state of well-being. I feel amazingly positive about life, the future and what it means to be a fit, healthy human in this inexplicably wonderful universe.
As well as all the fitness stuff, I’ve also been getting into mindfulness, a very popular subject at the moment but one which has had a place in human history for millennia.
The thing is, it’s very easy to get distracted these days. Anyone with a smartphone knows this all too well. Personally I’m getting bored of ‘tech’ as the amount of noise out there is vast and getting sucked into a cat video wormhole isn’t very helpful towards one’s endeavours.
To counter this I’m starting to get a better appreciation for the small things in life. My morning coffee, reading a book, breakfast, and ‘just ‘being’.
What I mean by ‘just being’ is that I’m trying to be more present. As an ode to this, I’ve started meditating for just 10 minutes every day. Not the woo woo, guru style meditation that may come to mind, but just 10 minutes where I sit, relax and tune in to what my body is experiencing.
I’ve tried meditation a number of times over the years but it has never really stuck. However, I was emphatically encouraged after listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast where he regularly, and energetically, highlights that 80-90% of the people he interviews partake in some form of meditation.
The reason that’s so fascinating is that he only interviews extremely successful individuals, those at the top of their game in their field of expertise. That alone says something about mindfulness, presence and meditation.
So how does this relate to alcohol?
Well, it’s fair to say that I have a very active ‘monkey mind’ in that I’m constantly thinking about a million different things. To cut through the noise, it’s essential to have some sort of method to control the madness, otherwise you simply don’t get anything done.
I’m a pretty productive guy, however, when I was drinking the ‘chatter’ was terribly loud and constant, with my monkey mind bouncing around from branch to branch more than ever. To counter this, I used to distract myself with some sort of input, such as a movie or some music. In fact, I found it very difficult to be alone in my apartment without ‘something’ on in the background to give me the feeling that I was in company.
After quitting the booze and taking up meditation the chatter seems to have died down somewhat and I often spend time alone in the apartment with no music or TV for distraction. This may sound very strange but it’s actually quite liberating, especially in the context of mindfulness. Relating this back to alcohol, I’m not sure whether meditation or mindfulness would be even at all possible, or at least as beneficial, in a hungover state.
If I can keep the meditation going I may elaborate further but in the meantime, if this is something that you’re interested in I would recommend Tara Brach who has awesome resources for beginners and Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, which is essentially a secular guide to spirituality.
Last but not least, it’s in the bag
If I’m completely honest, staying sober has been no big deal. I think making it public and doing it in the name of charity was a pretty solid, fail-safe strategy.
Undoubtedly there have been a few interesting hurdles, such as a trip to Goa in May and a holiday back in the UK in July, but not only has it been fairly easy, it has been extremely enjoyable.
Now that we’ve come this far, I can’t see anything stopping us getting over the finish line. Whether this resolves the old functioning alcoholic problem for good is yet to be seen but hopefully this experience will lead to a serious improvement with my relationship with alcohol.
Finally, if you can relate to this challenge and find any of this useful, we’re collecting donations in the name of the awesome charity, Lionsraw. We’ve just breached the halfway point of our £1,000 target so any support to get us over the finish line would be very much appreciated.
If you’re feeling extra generous, you could also take the time to share this article as it would be awesome to spread the word further.