2016 was a big year. And this is how probably nearly every sentence you’ve read since late November has begun. But 2016 was a big year for me personally because it was the year I looked drinking in the eye; it was the year I sat down with my wild, one-for-the-road, erratic other self (inexplicably called Shelby) and talked things over; it was the year I confirmed I don’t have a drinking problem but, however, my drinking can be problematic.
Getting to this point came in stages. First: fumbling through December 2015 with too much wine, finding myself making decisions I wished I hadn’t (New Cross club at 12.30am with someone I don’t really know? Sure). Next: Dry Jan. I dived in and discovered being hangover-free every day is as cool and cleansing as your body slipping into a pool for an early-morning swim.
But, six months after Dry Jan, everything I learnt had disappeared, just as easily as a bottle can on a Thursday night. My drinking was constant, back to December levels, occasionally chaotic and a crutch – I was finally realising that Shelby was far better at talking about things than Marisa ever was. My drinking wasn’t an accessory to a night out – it was woven too tightly into my life and I was starting to suffocate in the fear of what this might mean.
My relationship with wine is not a test of willpower, like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. This is a complete rewiring of my brain to make different choices when I walk into a pub, to make different decisions when I feel stressed or sad or hurt
So, finally, I did something about it. I met Shahroo Izadi, a behavioural change specialist, and for 12 weeks she counselled me on my drinking. I wrote about it here and lots of women got in touch with both myself and Shahroo. Problematic drinking is clearly a widespread problem – that space that isn’t AA-worthy, but isn’t totally fine either; the murky middle ground of guilt and shame and varying degrees of over-dependence, either real or powerfully imagined. And, through Shahroo, I learnt bucketloads.
So now, here I am, one year on, in the official month of socially acceptable sobriety, having spent much of last year writing about the problems of drinking, having thought profoundly about the place wine has in my life, and I have decided not to do Dry Jan. Because Dry Jan was as useful to me as a piece of paper is under a wobbly table – a precarious short-term solution to a much, much bigger problem.
My challenge is moderation. I realised this pretty early on during my spell of abstinence this time last year but, one Dry Jan down, one pretty life-altering counselling session down, and now I’m putting all those Shahroo-isms into practice (especially after a boozy Christmas). My relationship with wine is not a test of willpower, like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater or do a handstand for. This is a complete rewiring of my brain to make different choices when I walk into a pub, to make different decisions when I feel stressed or sad or hurt. This is fundamentally about forging other neurological pathways in my brain, retraining my reflexes, realigning my associations, relearning how to react with the world – or, at least, the part of the world that has wine in.
And so this January won’t be a 31-day Challenge Anneka – it will be digging my feet into a new, long-term way of being. It will be deciding that one glass of wine on a Tuesday night is enough; it will be deciding that staying in doesn’t have to always mean a bottle of wine; it will be reacting to a bad day at work with dinner and a bath first and wine second, not wine first, second and third (and probably fourth, if I’m being honest); it will be going out and getting tipsy, but not having Sunday ruined with a splitting head and an existential hangover.
With Shahroo's help, I have a bag of tricks and tips to do this – some practical, like planning and self-awareness; some more emotional, like building confidence and self-belief. Some people call this personal development; I call it crisis talks.
Either way, the biggest lesson I learnt last year is that when something is problematic, be it your relationship with wine or a dodgy boiler, it's never really ever fixed, job done, off the list. It’s a work in progress, ongoing – you’ve got to keep working at it.
"Moderation" is my shorthand for "working at it" and I’ll keep working at it long after January 31.