At the beginning of 2018, I took part in Annie Grace’s Alcohol Experiment.
What is the Alcohol Experiment?
The Alcohol Experiment is an invitation to give up alcohol for 30 days.
It is completely free, and the format is an online forum.
Every day, Annie gives a little video presentation about some aspect of drinking. There is a wide range of subjects from the ‘mommy drinking culture’ to Maslow’s hierachy of needs, and interviews with people from many warps of life, from Johann Hari, the author of two books – one on addiction (‘everything you think you know about addiction is wrong’) and the other on depression (‘the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection’) to an expert who advocates colonic irrigation (I listened intently to this one, but passed – er, not literally).
In the very first video Annie tells us not to label ourselves. You don’t have to be, or think of yourself as, an alcoholic, to do the experiment. As she packages the month’s challenge as an ‘experiment’, she encourages us to simply examine throughout this month whether life is better without alcohol. Or not. You should see yoursef as a ‘detached observer.’ So there’s no pushing. No pressure. She knows, from her personal experience, which she talks candidly about, how hard it is without any extra guilt, thank you very much.
‘a decision of empowerment … not a punishment’Annie Grace
When I did the experiment back then, the idea of giving up alcohol for 30 days was both terrifying and exciting. It felt like the beginnings of a promise of something new, clarity, self-compassion. I was doing something for myself. It was mostly terrifying though.
One really big deal in the experiment is what Annie calls ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is the main reason that she says we drink too much. There are two sides of you – the conscious desire to drink less and your unconscious mind which ‘is built on a lifetime of input’ and beliefs (emotions and desires) which lie below your conscious awareness. If these two parts are in disagreement, then that internal battle rages within you and pulls you apart, making you feel rubbish for not being able to stop drinking, or for having drinking habits that you are not completely comfortable with.
As Annie says, if you consciously want to stop or control your drinking, but you find it impossible, it’s because your unconscious mind ‘has not got that memo’ from your conscious counterpart, due to years’ worth of messages telling you that drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable habit and you can’t really have fun without it.
But not to worry. Because this is what she works on with you.
This is where the magic begins.
My Reasons for doing the Alcohol Experiment – The first time around
My very first article on my blog touches on giving up alcohol. Like I said then, I had a break from drinking because I was ready to.
What my article didn’t say, however, was how I felt about myself. Maybe because my drinking habits were not those of someone you might consider a ‘classic alcoholic’, it almost made it harder to admit there was a problem.
Not your classic alcoholic… so was there really a problem?
I didn’t drink when I woke up in the morning.
I didn’t drink secretly.
There was no bottle of vodka stashed in my handbag. No gin in the bedside cabinet.
I didn’t smash tellies, kick down doors. I certainly didn’t beat people up. Neither did I roll around the floor nor sleep in the street.
What I did do though, was what, I think, a lot of people do.
I looked forward to that time of day considered as ‘wine o’clock’.
I knew exactly how much I could drink without slurring (or I thought so).
I knew what the maximum recommended number of units were for a woman to drink and remain within healthy limits (and I sometimes kidded myself about just how big a measure of wine was).
Do you relate to any of this behaviour? And if so, does it bother you?
More recently I’d begun typing in searches such as ‘Do I have a problem with alcohol?’ and ‘Am I an alcoholic?’
I drank to feel relaxed (and it always worked… for the first glass), and I drank instead of facing up to problems. I drank so that life would become a little more blurry, a little out of focus. A little less harsh.
Anyway, I deserved a drink.
Something didn’t feel right when I heard a friend say that they were drinking ‘to take the edge off’. This bothered me. To take the edge of what exactly? Life?
I’ve always been a grateful, optimistic kind of person (despite having experienced depression, trauma and anxiety – this grateful optimism was always there somewhere), so this made me uncomfortable. This eternal merry-go-round. I didn’t want to take the edge off. I wanted to remember how to feel happy again and have fun. To live life to the full.
But how to do it without alcohol?
I prided myself for not taking anti-depressants when I had a breakdown. But I drank plenty of wine instead. When I was seeing a (wonderful) psychologist, I frequently mentioned that I wasn’t happy with how much I was drinking. She picked up on so many things. Never this.
She was an incredible support to me and helped me heal. But when I told her about not having drunk for over a month and I suggested I was in no hurry to begin again, she visibly balked. I was sure that for just a moment, she turned her focus to herself. Mentally considering her own habits.
That is how ‘socially acceptable’ drinking is. It makes it easy not to even question your habits.
It has to be a one (wo)man rescue mission
I had been waiting for somebody to notice. Somebody to save me.
But nobody noticed. Nobody came.
When I told the people closest to me, those who support me and love me, that I was probably drinking too much, they would reply with comments like, ‘Whatever gets you through.’
So I finally realised nobody was going to save me, and Annie Grace came along. She didn’t exactly tell me what to do. But her Alcohol Experiment gave me the guidance and support I needed for me to address the problem – because it was a problem – myself.
What works in the Alcohol Experiment – You consider what you gain, not what you give up
What worked for me was the psychology of the Alcohol Experiment. ‘It didn’t feel like I was giving up something. It felt like I was gaining so much.’
I might have given up alcohol…
…but I gained:
- honest conversations,
- better health,
- better sleep,
- being a far better parent and being ‘present’ all the time with my kids – and with myself,
And those are just the first things that fell out easily from my head and onto the page.
What happens after the Alcohol Experiment?
After the 30 days, I just wasn’t ready to go back to drinking. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll just carry on for another month.’ And then, ‘I’ll just carry on for six months.’ And so on. So although I never decided to never drink again, I left things vague and open.
A year went past and that felt like something to be proud of. However, I realised it would be a really dumb idea to celebrate by having a drink. And so I continued to abstain for another, perhaps, seven months or so.
When I did drink again, it was a decision I made in advance. We had friends coming over and I just thought it might be nice to have a couple of glasses of wine (tops) with my friend. It was… okay. Nothing special. My friend laughed to me, ‘You can write a blog about it!’
There was a moment when I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ Things went just a little fuzzy and I wondered whether it was the greatest idea after all. But of course, there was the pleasant side to the fuzziness too. It was a giggle.
Since then, I have had a couple of glasses at social events – we live in the back of beyond so it’s pretty rare that I even get to these ‘social events’ – so it’s been a double ‘treat’(?).
And I’ve continued with this ‘mugginess’, this vague thinking that things will be okay, that I’ll never return to habits that harmed me (with low self-esteem, low confidence, anxiety and in the worst times, self-loathing).
There’s been a couple of times when I’ve bought myself a half bottle of wine. To drink at home. On my own.
My Reasons for doing the Alcohol Experiment – The second time around
And then there was that long weekend away with a friend last month. I love her dearly. But she’s a drinker.
Because I was officially ‘drinking’ (but not much) again, I had a couple of drinks with her on the first evening. And then the second.
Then one day, I woke up with a headache. But it wasn’t just a headache. It was a hangover. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever had. Far, far from it. But the feeling I had still meant that I had been cruel to my body and hurt myself physically by drinking too much alcohol.
I hadn’t planned an exact strategy before I left for the mini-break. I didn’t have a ‘bottom line’. And that was my mistake.
If I’d have had a plan in place, for example, no drinking two nights in a row, and no more than two drinks per day, it would have been okay. I wouldn’t have had the hangover, and I wouldn’t be going back to redo the Alcohol Experiment.
It’s been a long journey I have travelled towards healing. I could never have got to where I am now if I hadn’t sobered right up. There is no way on this Earth that I am going to let alcohol scupper me again.
Owning up to my Reading Group
I am currently in an Artist’s Way reading group (you can read about my first experiences in the group here and here). The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, is ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self’ and one of the exercises in Week 10 is called ‘The Deadlies’. Do it if you dare. It really is as bad as it sounds.
Basically, you write down seven words, the ‘sins’: work, sex, food… alcohol… on small pieces of paper which you fold and place in an envelope. Then you shuffle them around and take one piece of paper, look at the word, and then write down five ways in which this particular ‘sin’ has ‘had a negative impact on your life’.
You then place the ‘deadly’ back into the envelope and repeat the process so that by the end of the task you will have journaled seven times in total.
So there I was. Hand poised to dive into The Envelope of Deadlies. I felt a moment of dread, my guts churned slightly. I willed myself to not be silly.
My internal voices were arguing quietly.
‘It’s going to be alcohol. You know it is.’Me
‘So what if it is? It’s just down to chance. Anyway, it’s not going to be alcohol.’Me again
‘Yeah but what if it is? What are those chances? One in seven! Ha! It’s going to be alcohol, isn’t it? You know it!’Me (again)
‘Yeah well maybe it will be. And I’m kind of hoping it is, actually. Maybe it’ll give me a chance to big up to myself. Er… to you! To me… um…’Me again (again)
Joking aside though, it would give me the perfect opportunity to address my growing unease instead of letting it fester and go unchecked.
Drum roll… I pulled out the paper. Low and behold. ‘Alcohol’.
I wrote down five ways that alcohol has harmed me. As you can imagine, it wasn’t difficult.
I gave the envelope a good shake. Ducked my hand in again. What did I get? Alcohol! Again. And again… In total, I pulled that little slip of paper five times out of seven.
‘Yes, you may draw the same deadly repeatedly. Yes, this is significant.’Julia Cameron
I was a bit fed up really. Resigned.
Imagine all the work I could have done on myself, in other areas, if I hadn’t begun a very slow slide back into the slippery depths of a bottle of wine. I could have worked on money, food… work even! Now that could have been really useful.
Instead, I know that the most important thing I can do for myself right now, is to pick up this evil monster by its hairy scruff and examine it closely, from every angle. I cannot and I will not, little by little, or in ungainly huge lurches for that matter, return to becoming somebody who drinks three glasses of wine rather than being ‘present’ with her family (and herself!) and/or writing a blog post or working on her novel of an evening. Or even just dozing in front of the telly (but dozing because I’m tired, not drunk).
Zooming in on ‘The Deadlies’
In the weekly Zoom call with the Artist’s Way group (an online meeting where we discuss our progress and any issues with each chapter of the book), I owned up to pulling alcohol five times, and I explained a little part of my story with alcohol.
The other members seemed genuinely interested. In fact, that motivated me into writing this post. I think a lot of people might actually relate.
It’s very easy to come over as judgey, preachy, evangelical even. Hopefully I didn’t and I don’t.
And that’s the thing. I’m not. There’s part of me – a huge part – who wants to believe that drinking can still be fun (for me). That drinking could be relaxing. Or even that drinking could still help me creatively, lower my inhibitions and take me in artistic directions that I would not go in otherwise.
After writing this post, though, I’m kind of thinking, maybe not.
Alcohol is legal. It’s everywhere. It’s a wonderful excuse to have fun – if you believe what you see on the posters (what posters? All of them!). But I’m thinking also, it could be our excuse to dodge life.
So I’m doing the Alcohol Experiment again (thank you, Annie!). Maybe at the end of the experiment I will decide to ‘mindfully drink’. But whatever the outcome, I won’t be leaving it vague. This time, I’m going to set my ‘bottom line’.
What’s a ‘bottom line’?
A parallel between the Alcohol Experiment and The Artist’s Way is that they both talk about a ‘bottom line’. In The Artist’s Way, after the ‘deadlies’ exercise, we are asked to work out our bottom lines regarding any addictions we may have.
In Annie Grace’s project, if you do decide to return to drinking, you are asked to do it mindfully, which means considering your – very clear – bottom line (she doesn’t call it this – and it’s been a while so I don’t remember her terminology, but this is the general idea). It could be, ‘I will not wake up with a hangover again. If I do, I will do the experiment again.’ Or perhaps, ‘I will not drink over three bottles of wine in a week. If I do, I will give up alcohol for three months.’
Although I did pretty much all the exercises in the 30 days, and I watched all of the videos religiously, I didn’t make a bottom line. Maybe I figured that if I made one, I’d return to drinking more quickly. Maybe… maybe…
Surely… that is where I went wrong.
I need a Bottom Line
And how about you?
Do you know exactly how much you can drink in the evening so that you won’t be hungover the next day?
Do you count the hours until an ‘acceptable’ time to have that first glass of cider?
Is there some little nagging doubt in the back of your mind, just wondering about your drinking habits?
Does it seem impossible to even consider giving up alcohol for 30 days?
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, I know exactly how you feel. I have felt all of those feelings and so many more.
If you answer ‘yes’, I encourage you to give the Alcohol Experiment a go.
If you want to do it, you can do it! You may, like me, even enjoy it. Learn about all the things you gain instead of what you give up. But whether you choose to drink again (more mindfully) after those 30 days or not, do make yourself a bottom line!
I am not an expert in addiction. I have no training other than the proverbial school of life. There are many resources to help if this article has triggered anything for you that my recommendations might not help with. Please reach out.
I would be really happy to hear any thoughts. Thanks for reading… thanks for commenting. And please remember, you are not alone.