Looking ahead to the coming week, my diary sends a little chill down my spine. Christmas parties already! Thursday, December 2 — a work do. Saturday, December 4 — heading to a jazz club to greet the festive season with close friends.
In the past, both would have meant ample red wine and the probability of taking a taxi home pretty well loaded.
So, there’s an element of dread that I may be tempted to overindulge, especially having just spent nearly five months trying to battle the alcohol habit that had escalated during repeated lockdowns.
Living alone in my London flat for work, while my husband stayed in our home on the south coast, I’d found the lure of the demon drink increasingly hard to resist.
Jenni Murray (pictured) shared a diary account of the lapses she had while trying to become teetotal, after developing an alcohol habit while living alone in lockdown
It was back in July that I announced in my column my intention to quit and become teetotal. Moderation is not a quality I have ever been known for, so initially I thought it needed to be all or nothing. On the first night, I fixed up a non-alcoholic drink in a tall, cut glass — all the better to fool myself.
I’d frozen a couple of slices of lemon in the freezer in preparation, so I put one in the fancy glass and topped up with slimline tonic.
It might have looked just like an alluring vodka and tonic, but it tasted nothing like it. No vodka. No kick. I persevered and made it to bed stone- cold sober.
I had got through the first evening of withdrawal with none of the overwhelming sense of deprivation I’d expected. Cheers!
I kept up the tonic and lemons trick for a week and felt awake and alive in the mornings. Not a hint of a headache or the familiar lassitude which had continued in the past until I’d consumed two huge, strong cups of coffee.
But goodness, temperance was boring. It took a severe talking to myself to keep me away from the half bottle of Stoli in the kitchen — alcohol is addictive, after all, so it wasn’t surprising that my brain had a few battles with my body. Brain said ‘No!’ and, at the start at least, I obeyed.
I’ve always enjoyed a glass or two of wine at home — never before 6pm when I could say officially that the sun had gone over the yardarm.
In England, 40 per cent of adults now drink more than the recommended 14 units per week — and, like many people, my drinking increased during the pandemic.
A couple of small glasses on most nights had gone up to what amounted to a whole bottle. Not good.
A recent study found that drinking just four small glasses of wine a week increases the risk of dementia (file image)
At first, as suggested by a friend, I changed my drink to vodka (apparently far less fattening than wine when mixed with slimline tonic).
I started with single shots and tried to make do with only one. It didn’t work. The singles grew to doubles. One glass went up to two, then three. The threat of alcoholism raised its ugly head. Something had to be done.
There is a growing list of health issues associated with drinking too much.
A few days ago, a scientific study revealed that drinking just four small glasses of wine a week increases the risk of dementia. Researchers warn it raises the chance of short-term memory loss and diminished spatial awareness by as much as half.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that hangovers are horrid and wine in that quantity is nothing more than empty calories. One glass is the equivalent of a slice of cake.
I’ve struggled with my weight in the past — constantly on a diet, losing, gaining and never finding moderation appealing. Success at keeping the weight off only came after having metabolic surgery to reduce the size of my stomach.
There is, as far as I know, no such treatment to arrest the slide into alcoholism.
I knew it would take all my willpower, but I couldn’t risk blowing up again because of my new, lonely tendency to overindulge on an increasingly regular basis.
I was truly sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I hoped I would discover that life was so much better the fitter, more sober, I felt. That I would find I was not verging on alcoholism because I would be able to quit alcohol without any difficulty. But it was not quite to be, as the following diary of my lapses recounts…
Jenni (pictured) swapped alcohol for a drink made from a couple slices of lemon and slimline tonic on her first night of being teetotal
Wednesday, July 7
A week has passed on the lemon and tonic trick and today I must admit I am hugely relieved that tonight’s party for the presentation of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been cancelled.
Boris has pushed back the easing of Covid restrictions. No temptation to slide into the inevitable glass of champagne then. That would have destroyed a whole week of sobriety — one drink always tends to lead to another as relaxation sets in.
So, I can stay home, read a lot, tidy up a bit and keep occupied to resist sneaking a drop of vodka into the glass.
Unusually, I watch an exciting football match with water by my side. I’m not really a footie fan, but along with the rest of the country I’ve got quite caught up in the Euros.
It does feel a little strange not to root out a nice, cold bottle of beer for a big sporting occasion, but I resist and enjoy the game anyway.
It hasn’t been easy sitting alone and sober after wine o’clock. But I feel sharper… and richer
Thursday, July 8
ALCOHOL: One can of Pimm’s
I set off on the two-and-a-half-hour journey to our home on the south coast.
I thought it would be easy to keep up the no-alcohol plan. My husband would be the perfect sober companion. He hardly ever drinks, never has hard liquor or even wine in the house, and only keeps the occasional small bottle of beer in the fridge.
Slight concern arises when I arrive and discover the village folk club has decided to risk a small, socially distanced opening night after being shut down for so long. David has booked tickets.
The bar isn’t open, so no temptation there, but cans and bottles of wine can be ordered at the table. David thinks a can of Pimm’s would be a pleasure on a warm summer’s night.
He is right, and I am sure one little drinkie won’t do any harm. I drink it. It tastes like pop and has no discernible effect other than quenching my thirst. Even though I’ve broken my no-drinking rule, I’m rather proud that there’s no longing to have another one.
Jenni (pictured) admitted to missing the flavour of vodka and wine, while investing in interesting bottles of cordial
Sunday, July 11
ALCOHOL: One small beer
I read through lots of lovely emails from readers in response to this week’s column about my plans for sobriety.
There is plenty of encouraging support and suggestions of non-alcoholic mixers and beers, but I’ve tried those before and thought they tasted horrible. As with decaf coffee, what’s the point of wasting money on something that doesn’t have the kick you crave?
We watch the football final —England vs. Italy. It seems somehow unpatriotic to be teetotal on such an occasion — especially when we lose.
One very small beer is consumed in solidarity. Of course, I don’t really like beer so one was really one too many!
Tuesday, July 13
Back to London, leaving my ‘drink only when absolutely necessary’ companion, my husband, behind for another week. A food shopping trip reveals some interesting bottles of cordial — raspberry, elderflower, rhubarb with ginger — that are all low-sugar. Trouble is, they still turn out to be too sweet.
I’m beginning to miss the flavour of vodka or a delicious wine.
Friends have already started to express astonishment that I turned my back on the wine everybody drinks at dinner parties. No one but me seems to be cutting down, and I get the feeling they think I’ve become a bit dull.
Jenni admits that she lost count of her alcohol intake while celebrating her son’s wedding for three days (file image)
Thursday, July 22
ALCOHOL: Small glass of wine
My agent and her husband invite me to dinner in a restaurant we love and I fail to deny myself one small glass of a very fine rosé. It is delicious and I begin to feel a little bit like the old me — self-denial clearly doesn’t sit well with my personality. Just the taste and a smidgeon of a feeling of relaxation cannot be denied as great and familiar pleasures.
I’m realising that being teetotal isn’t going to work. My social life has always consisted of having dinner or just a drink with friends. I’d hate them to think I’d become a puritan who’d turn my back on a good glass of wine. Not sure they’d like me much any more.
Saturday, July 31
ALCOHOL: Two glasses of wine and a sip of champagne
It’s becoming clear that limiting my consumption is having a profound effect on my health.
I am not fearing falling over as I climb the stairs at bedtime. I am waking up in the morning with no headache and a bright, ‘let’s get on with it’, cheery attitude to the start of a new day.
But today is the birthday party of my best friend Sally’s husband. I accept the glass of champagne, take one sip and, deciding I don’t really like it, set it aside.
With a buffet of delicious food, I allow myself two small glasses of red. I just can’t be the party pooper sitting in the corner, announcing in a self-righteous manner, ‘No, thank you, I don’t drink’.
How to master moderate drinking
By sobriety coach Lucy Rocca
Sobriety coach Lucy Rocca (pictured) recommends planning social occasions that don’t revolve around alcohol
- Put your glass down between sips. Holding it permanently in your hand means you’ll drink faster and more copiously.
- Plan a lovely event for the morning after a big night — something you don’t want to spoil with a hangover.
- Alternating between alcohol-free (there are so many options now) and alcoholic drinks will instantly halve your units.
- Rehearse your ‘script’ for saying no to drinks — and have it ready to use in the face of peer pressure. Weight management, sleep problems, prior commitments or cutting back for better health are good reasons.
- Plan social occasions that don’t revolve around alcohol —it’s not the only way to have fun.
- Be honest with yourself — if you set rules for cutting back and repeatedly fail to stick to them, drinking in moderation may simply not be possible for you.
- Soberistas.com is a useful resource for people working towards an alcohol-free life
I remember the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg telling me some years ago that he and a group of friends had diminished their dangerously alcoholic socialisation by having a whole month booze-free from time to time, then limiting their consumption to two days a week. It makes perfect sense.
Drinking every day, alone or in company, has a disastrous effect on the liver and I know I’ve abused mine in the past. It seems a good idea to apply a regime similar to the 5:2 diet, which involves eating normally on five days a week and having an extremely low-calorie diet on the other two.
When it comes to drinking, why not abstain for five days and drink for two — a dry week and a wet weekend?
Of course, you don’t have to pick the same two days to indulge every week which, as a drinking rule, would allow for the occasional party and wine at dinner with friends week by week, but on the remaining five days there would be abstinence.
Saturday, September 11
ALCOHOL: One vodka and tonic
I’ve been doing so well. I’ve had no big occasions since the birthday party, but today a little group of us — my husband and neighbours — gather in my London garden to plant a white rose and scatter my beloved dog Butch’s ashes around it. I read a poem and we watch films of him as a puppy.
I know he’d find it surprising to see me without my favourite drink in my hand.
He’d also be saying, ‘Just the one, Mum’. He wouldn’t want me to slip back into drinking and risking weight gain.
We’d both had to watch our weight. He loved food even more than I did. He would have wanted me to stay fit and well, and hold him in my memory.
OCTOBER 29, 30 and 31
ALCOHOL: Lost count!
To celebrate my son’s wedding, some 50 of us, friends and family, spend three days in each other’s company with fine wine, champagne and some spirits on tap.
I decide to let myself go — having had no lapses for the previous five days and promising myself none on the subsequent five.
A wonderful time is had by all. One glass of wine at dinner on the Friday night, then nothing till after the starter at the wedding feast on the Saturday.
I refuse the proffered glass of champagne happily as I’ve found I don’t really like it. No alcohol before the meal, sticking to my forever rule — never drink before a performance. My son’s now father-in-law speaks before the first course; I speak before the main course.
Then I have lovely red wine to toast the bride. One glass and, in the evening, two vodkas and tonic. Far from excessive on such a joyous occasion. Sunday dinner is another glass of wine and then back to no booze. I think both sons are proud of me.
Thursday, November 18
ALCOHOL: One glass of wine
It hasn’t been easy every night while sitting alone after ‘wine o’clock’, but when I don’t drink I feel sharper and richer.
And it’s always worth considering how hard booze hits the pocket. I work out that I’ve saved about £40 a week.
I’ve learned I can control my previous overindulgence, but that, for me, it’s much easier to do if you don’t have to convince yourself that ‘you will never encounter the demon drink again’.
On my 5:2 diet, I know I can still join in with friends — look forward to it, even — but I need to tell myself, on sober days, that I will simply not drink today.
That’s the message Alcoholics Anonymous preaches, but for a true alcoholic there can be no let up, no believing that one more drink will do no harm.
So, while I’ve failed to give up completely, I’ve also learned I’m not an alcoholic.
I can control it day by day; one drink does not drag me back to those worrying lonely days of excess. There have been some weeks when I haven’t felt the need for a drink at all.
Tonight I have one glass of red at a short party to celebrate my friend winning a libel case.
As the party season arrives, I know I needn’t be afraid to say yes, nor afraid to say no. It’s a relief to admit I don’t really like champagne, and to know I shan’t be staggering out of next week’s work do the worse for wear.
Christmas Day itself will be no trouble at all with my family, none of whom have ever been known to overindulge. Moderation is the name of the game and it feels surprisingly good — as long as I don’t buy that always-tempting bottle of Baileys!