The Alcohol Experiment: how to fix your relationship with booze in 30 days

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock  

When it comes to questioning our drinking habits, everyone has their own tipping point. It could be the office party you can't quite recall; the cold-shouldered disapproval from your partner, the morning after the night before; the Dry January peer pressure, rivalled this year only by the record numbers signing up for Veganuary.

For high-flying executive-turned self-help author, Annie Grace, it was accidentally drenching her two small children with beer as the family queued for the London Eye, one Saturday morning.

"I'd been out the night before for work, which meant drinking heavily," she says. "The next day I felt really lousy but my husband and I had promised the kids a day out, so I slipped a large can of beer into my handbag from the hotel minibar, which I intended to drink after midday as a pick-me-up."

When American-born Grace and her husband neared the front of the line, she opened her bag for the security check, having forgotten about the beer.

"The can fell on to the ground and exploded, spraying both my sons, who were two and six at the time," she recounts. "I tried to make a big joke of it and laugh, but inside I was dying of shame and mortification."

It was this incident - the culmination of too many humiliations to remember, during what Grace now terms her "corporate drinking" decades - that prompted her to take stock of how her habit was affecting her health, happiness and family.

The result was her first, self-published book, The Naked Mind, which detailed her quest to rediscover happiness without recourse to wine (or feeling deprived in the process). The book garnered a huge online following and sold so well that it soon attracted major publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic.

This last week has seen the publication of her second book, entitled The Alcohol Experiment: 30 days to take control, cut down or give up for good, which might sound like it diverges little from Dry January, but promises a crucial difference. Rather than whiteknuckling it to the end of the month, counting down the days until you can return to your old ways, it sounds a clarion call to look objectively, enquiringly and unflinchingly into our personal relationship with booze - with the aim of rethinking it for good.

To be clear, this is not for those with a physical addiction to alcohol, but for the very many more of us who are of two minds about drinking - we may have no desire to quit, but still wonder whether we overdo it a bit; we try to cut back, but feel like we're missing out when we do; we're tired of waking up slightly hungover, but can't truly relax without a glass of something at the end of the day.

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"Some of the smartest and most successful people in the world drink more than they want to," writes Grace. So not finding it easy to cut back doesn't mean there's anything wrong with us.

Having always instinctively cavilled at the zeal of militant Dry Janissaries, I have only ever attempted the full month off myself, at the behest of this paper - and found it an irritatingly huge effort, which didn't affect my drinking habits thereafter.

Reading Grace's book and mulling over her findings was more of an eye-opener. It wasn't so much her copper-bottomed assertion that alcohol is a carcinogen (which it is) or addictive (which it also is) that struck a chord. It was more the detailed analysis of what, exactly, happens when you drink.

In short: you get a 20-minute high but as soon as that wears off the alcohol has a depressive effect, so you reach for another drink to combat the low mood caused by the first - and so on.

"Alcohol overstimulates the pleasure centres in the brain, and numbs us which, after a hard day, is an attractive feeling," admits Grace. "After that first glass, it's pretty much downhill. But in our drinking culture the only question we ever ask is 'Am I an alcoholic?' and if the answer is 'No', which it usually is, we carry on. What I'm advocating is mindfulness, not abstinence."

The full 30-day programme tackles the symbiotic relationship between alcohol and every area of life, from boredom and cravings, to parenting, sleep, sex and socialising. The idea is you read that day's recommendations in the morning, and put them into practice during the day, jotting down how you feel, physically and emotionally as you go.

"Magic happens in 30 days," writes Grace. "It's a period of time when the brain can actually change - by making new neural connections - to build great new habits or to eliminate habits that have held you back."

I reached my epiphany by day six (why willpower doesn't last for long), by which time I realised, or rather was reminded, that not drinking for a week or two feels a bit like a holiday, but without liberal quantities of the local hooch, obviously.

"I thought wine was the cement that held things together. Turns out it was the crowbar, prising everything apart," Grace says, reflectively. "There's all this humour centred round women drinking; you see it on greetings cards and plaques that say things like 'You're not drinking alone if the kids are in the house', but none of it is funny."

Warm and self-effacing, Grace, now 40, is a charismatic mother of three. Her youngest child, a daughter, is 18 months. She will enjoy a different childhood from her brothers, not least because there is no risk of her milestone birthday parties failing to register through her mother's blurry haze of alcohol.

Those days are over. So, too, is Grace's high-flying career in international currency exchange, which saw her become head of marketing for 28 countries, criss-crossing the globe and doing her level best to match all-comers, drink for drink.

"I was based in New York and promoted in my early 20s," she says. "I worked long hours, but one day I was drawn aside by my boss who wanted to know why I never went for drinks afterwards. He told me in no uncertain terms that deals were made in the bar not the boardroom and that schmoozing with clients was crucial."

Hell-bent on proving herself, Grace would sometimes slope off to the ladies' and make herself throw up - just so she could return to the table and drink more wine. It sounds shameful; it was shameful. But let he or she who hasn't ever drunk too much, or drunk too often, cast the first stone.

Having turned her back on the money markets in 2013, Grace has now dedicated herself to helping others. But her modus operandi isn't to scold, reproach or chide - simply to urge others to question their dependence on alcohol as a relaxant, social prop, weekend treat or anaesthetic, making the stressful world pleasantly fuzzy around the edges.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Annie Grace & This Naked Mind (@thisnakedmind) on

The Alcohol Experiment makes particularly salutary reading for anyone crowing about their Dry January achievements: "Going on endlessly about how tough it is and how deprived you feel, just serves to highlight your unhealthy dependence on alcohol," says Grace. "It's the same mindset that sees people boast about the amount they drank last night and how awful their hangover is.

"People who binge drink look at people who drink every day and say 'at least I'm not as bad as that'. The people who drink every day look right back and tell themselves exactly the same thing. We are all in a state of denial."

Grace's soul-searching led to some uncomfortable truths; early in her marriage she didn't need to drink every night, yet now she felt evenings were incomplete without a glass of wine. Where did that sense of emptiness come from?

When she tried to give up drinking, her thoughts dwelled obsessively on that bottle in the fridge; the battle between willpower and her subconscious was draining and distracting.

"I stopped trying to stop drinking and started trying to understand the science; what does alcohol do to our body? Why do we crave it? Does it actually relieve stress and relax us?" she says.

"The more I researched the more I felt in control because instead of just mindlessly reaching for a glass, I paused and weighed up the arguments; was I already having a good time? If I drank would that make it a better time, or would it have a knock-on effect on the evening and the next day?"

At the end of her own experiment, Grace decided to stop drinking indefinitely - she doesn't like the word "forever" - but doesn't advocate that anybody should or shouldn't do the same.

"Many people ask me if they will have to give up drinking forever if they try the experiment. My answer is, it's up to them."

If you find your life is better without it - your head is clearer, you function better, your relationships improve - then you might decide to drink less (and less often), to give up for another 30 days just for the heck of it, or that you feel so good you don't want to go back.

"The Alcohol Experiment isn't any sort of pledge or commitment, it's just what it says; an experiment," says Grace. "Approach it with curiosity, as an observer. It's about learning, not beating yourself up."

The Alcohol Experiment by Annie Grace is published by HQ, RRP $24.99

- The Sunday Telegraph, London