It has been 4 days since I decided to embark upon a 30-day break from alcohol. So I have 26 days left, and yes, I’m counting.
As I set off on the month long ‘pause’ in my evening drinking habit, I didn’t really expect anything dramatic to happen. The odd urge maybe, but nothing that couldn’t be quenched with an expensive kombucha in a long stemmed glass. After all, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a habitual alcohol drinker, and there’s a difference. As ever the dutiful researcher, I had a look at what might happen when a not-an-alcoholic person stops drinking alcohol. I was put on alert to feel sweaty, shaky, even to have possible hand tremors within the first 24 hours. I didn’t have any of those; I reasoned that as I didn’t drink every single night, I probably wouldn’t really get any physical side effects at all.
The first 24 hours for me was effectively something of a hangover, and the Diet Coke and large bar of chocolate that I had purchased for myself did an effective job of buffering any issues. On the 3rd night, the 72 hour mark, lying in bed after a usual full-on and exhausting day, I couldn’t get to sleep. Not only that, but my brain was positively whirring with activity - social dates for the calendar, logistics for a family party we were organising, a work deadline, it went on and on. These weren’t the spinning abyss of overwhelming anxiety, more like the type of brain activity I think my kids used to have as toddlers when they were going through a developmental leap and would wake at 2am clapping their hands and singing Wheels on the Bus for 45 minutes. Without the dampening effects of a bottle of wine, or the exhaustion of a hangover, I realised that I was wide awake. Jumping straight from having under 5-year-olds routinely climb into sleep with me, to contemporary Me, finishing of a glass of wine, throwing my clothes off, brushing my teeth and collapsing onto the pillow, I suddenly had the embarrassing realisation that, despite spending nearly a decade teaching my children how to wind down and get themselves to sleep, I’d never actually developed a bedtime routine for my adult self. I grabbed my phone and had a quick Google as to how, as a grown woman, I should get myself to sleep. The internet is obviously built for insomniacs, so the advice came thick and fast. Top tips were:
Get off of your screens (I will in a minute when I’ve read the rest of this advice)
Have a bath (it’s past midnight at this point, so that feels like way too much hassle)
Have sex (husband is away so no dice there)
Perform light exercise such as yoga (I’d have to get the laptop out and follow a tutorial and then that breaks the screen rule....)
Listen to a meditation
Ah ha! Meditation. That was also on the list of things to do to help you avoid wanting to drink so perhaps I could kill two birds with one stone here. I found a sleep meditation on my podcast list, hit ‘Play’, laid back down and closed my eyes. The meditation was twenty minutes long and I heard the WHOLE thing. I’ve literally never made it all the way through a meditation without nodding off, not even when I listen on the Tube or in the middle of the afternoon. But on this night, there I was, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the final ‘bong’ that's meant to bring you back to consciousness.
I couldn’t face another twenty minutes of a calm voice telling me to scan my body so I just laid there, trying to work out if the sound downstairs was the fridge adjusting its temperature or a maniac intruder who had come to murder me in the night. I think I finally fell asleep around 1:30am. What was even weirder than not dropping off immediately for the first time since records began, was the amount of vivid and trippy dreams I had. The receptionist from the office I have been freelancing in lately was serving me huge ice creams out the back of an Ikea van, and my youngest child’s teacher was pushing a pig on a tricycle, headed for the roundabouts in the nearby park. I was fully invested in what was happening, but at the same time I knew that I was in a dream. I was just about to start following the pig-trike when my daughter started singing loudly from her bed (she does that; at the moment it’s songs from Disney’s Zombies). It took a minute to realise that this was actually happening in real life and it yanked me out of my awake-seeming dream and into the usual chaos of a domestic morning.
Later in the day when I investigated these goings on, I found that I’d been having some fairly radical REM dreams. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and this brain activity in the night helps to improve mood regulation, storage of memories and general learning. Alcohol just before bed, it turns out, can suppress half or even more of the REM sleep that a human is supposed to have in a night. And while alcohol acts as a sedative when you get into bed, it also wakes you up prematurely when it starts metabolizing in your liver a few hours after nodding off, a cycle known as Drinkers’ Early Dawn, which can leave you feeling exhausted during the day, and reaching for - you guessed it - another drink late at night to help you fall asleep. Well I never; my body and I were physical side effects a go-go.
And that wasn’t the end of it for me (I am going to talk about something a bit gross now, so if you’re eating your lunch or outside enjoying some bright blue sky and pretty flowers, you may want to pause here and wait until you’re feeling a bit grittier before you read on.)
When I went to the bathroom the following morning (entering Day 4 without alcohol for those who like specifics), I did my mental bowel check and noted that I hadn’t been, well, properly, to the bathroom since the night before the previous night, we're talking around 36 hours. Cut to the chase: I was due a poo. My stomach was a bit bloated and my body felt like it needed to go, but nothing was forthcoming beyond some strange belly gurgles and some sporadic, very smelly (told you it was going to be a bit gross) expulsions of air from my backside. I thought back to what I’d eaten the previous day. A chickpea and spinach curry with a side of broccoli and no rice, a piece of rye toast and peanut butter, one of the kids' leftover chicken goujons and half a punnet of berries, grapes and apple slices. So I shouldn’t be constipated. After a bout of IBS in my 20s, I always make sure I eat a lot of fibre. I’m never constipated. Except I was constipated.
Back to the internet and actually, my mind was quite blown by this one. It turns out that stopping alcohol, even at a moderate intake, has signalled to my body that it can get back to homeostasis (it’s own natural equilibrium) as it doesn’t need to be in defence mode to fend off the mega toxin that presents itself as beautifully packaged and wondrously tasting sauvignon blanc. As my body starts to adjust itself back to its happy place, the rebalancing has caused what seems to be commonly (and rather generally imo) called ‘gastrointestinal upset’. This could have gone the way of diarrhoea but in my case it’s gone the way of constipation. Upon further enquiry, it appears that these rather embarrassing sounds and smells could last for the next five days(!) before my gut settles into a new rhythm.
All day, thinking about these two physical symptoms has thrown me somewhat. They’ve made me feel like maybe I did have an issue with drinking. For my body to react in this way after 84 hours without alcohol must mean that I’ve not gone for more than 84 hours, 3.5 days, without alcohol for many years. So my gut and related organs have been stressed for, what? Nearly a decade? Now I'm coming towards the close of Day 4 and my whole body is stressed by this revelation. I’m not sure what to do to calm down; I’m certainly not going to have a drink, despite the fact that the neural pathways in my brain are goading me towards the fridge. It’s 10pm, so I pour myself a large glass of prune juice followed by a large glass of water to try and get things moving again, and decide that if I want to sleep well tonight, there's probably still time to run a bath