Seven months ago I wrote a story about how I was giving up alcohol for a full year. It was a self-appointed task, one I undertook to learn more about my relationship with the bottle.
At the time I asked for a monthly column and the editor told me, "One piece in September and one at the end of the 12 months." It was a solid offer - and as a first-time news¬paper writer I was grateful - but also it kind of put a spanner in my works. Why? Because it's easier to do something if you think everyone is watching. That's why you tell your friends about how much you love the juice diet you're on, or how you're running a half-marathon.
It has become clear to me in the past six months or so that many people, particularly in my generation, have found themselves caught in a similar mindless drinking loop.
It has become in vogue this year to give up drinking for a time. Mostly, I think, people are just bored by the repetitive cycle. Maybe we're reaching an age where we should be growing out of it. Half of our friends are married with kids, mortgages and football games on weekends. The rest of us are drinking.
It has been seven months and my failures stand out to me more than my successes. In today's social media environment, it's easy to think everyone is doing better than you. We share our pleasantries more than our deficiencies.
This story isn't like that. I wear failure like a skateboarder wears a grazed knee, with a grunt, a grimace then a grin.
Failure comes hand in hand with learning and if you asked me for the biggest lessons, I would be quick to say you don't have to get out of it to get into it. Life is fun enough. Also, change happens at a similar pace to test cricket, to describe it as thrilling would be extremely misleading.
I'm sure my new-found insights are as old as the hills, but if you'll allow me, I'll highlight some of my sobriety pact lessons learned because, well, sharing is caring.
It's all about support
I only have a couple of friends I really talk to. This is my support network. They are few, but their support is mighty.
In my first story, I noted my reservations about support groups and helplines and AA, but screw that - if it works for you, do it. The thing is, you're strong until you're not. By the time you're not strong, if you don't have the right support network it's too late to set one up. The people you surround yourself with have a large impact on your balance.
Kiwi culture is funny sometimes. Whenever you go out you'll get one or two people who really don't understand the concept of not drinking.
"Good for you, bro, but you're having a couple tonight, huh? It's Mike's 40th."
There's no reasoning. "You can still drink beer though, yeah?"
For all the complaints about how annoyingly enthusiastic sober people are, there is a veritable posse of alcohol missionaries in this country, and they are not going to church alone. There is no greater insult in Kiwi macho culture than, "You've changed, bro." I don't know how to even start explaining how backwards that thinking is.
My circle of friends hasn't changed much. There were a few people I had to cut out because being around them invariably led to a glass. These people seem supportive, but really they just want the old you back, and it can be too hard to let them down. If they're real friends, they swing back round sooner or later and it's good again.
Really talking to people about what you're going through, even just one or two friends, keeps you honest and keeps you motivated. You'd be amazed how kind some people are.
Don't push the trigger
In addict lingo they're called triggers and they are any stimulus that sets off a desire to engage in addictive behaviour. It could be people, stress, a location, it's different for everyone.
Official theory says to avoid triggers as much as possible while "in recovery", which is good advice. Triggers are temporary and the more often you face them without setting off a chain reaction, the more you understand them.
Once you start to identify them - for me they are all emotional, processing really high days or really low days or any time I'm with a girl - you have to develop techniques for dealing with them. This is basically reprogramming the mind and everyone does it differently. Many people take up yoga or running or, God forbid, read actual books printed on paper.
One technique that may sound silly but that is consistently useful to me is distraction, even if it only delays me for a minute. Just say: "Yup, I really want a drink, but I'm going to eat something first." Then: "I'll clean that table and after that I'll have a drink."
Halfway through cleaning the table I've forgotten I even want a wine and when I do remember, I'm not as bothered. My attention span is that short. The human brain loves to be distracted.
If you are sitting around and all you're thinking about is how much you want a drink, it's only a matter of time until you have one. If you're standing in a bar and instead of enjoying yourself, all you can think about is how this would all be so much better if you had a glass in your hand - do something. Walk outside, go and talk to someone else, make your apologies and go play pinball.
Keep yourself occupied. The brain will naturally follow.
Great, kid - don't get cocky
The initial process of changing habits is tricky and requires quite a bit of effort, but that gradually fades to a sweet little plateau where you're on top of your game. Ask anyone who has converted from being a drinker to sobriety: it's great, you feel awesome, you're always sharp, you've got heaps of energy, your GST is organised, you don't drool in public. There is a great joy and a quiet pride that comes with sobriety.
So you're on top of your game and you love your new power, then BOOM! The boredom gets you. A friend recently did 80 sober days and he told me he loved it, but confessed that he got bored sometimes, that each day felt the same as the last.
When this happened to me, I started to slip and would occasionally find an excuse to have a glass of wine. It was always three.
They were totally minor slips and I totally felt in control, and I totally justified myself, and then I felt totally awful. It was the four-month mark before I found a way to stop it.
When you fail, accept it, own it, and move on
If you're setting out to change your habits, chances are you won't get it right first time. Your brain plays tricks and changes your rules - it tries to make it easy for you, it convinces you that it's okay to fail. When you do, it will use that singular failure to mess with your commitment.
Because I've failed and guilt is one thing I've always excelled at, I crucify myself with self-loathing. Also, because I wrote an article, in my mind I am now also a fraud. Double guilt.
My monkey mind doesn't shut up during these phases. "You've failed once, you've failed again, maybe you should just keep failing. Failure!"
There are dark times. It is important to find a way through them.
Use your support networks. Talk it out. The failure is in the past and you learned something from it, you don't have to surrender to it. This feeling is just a different, well-disguised trigger and all triggers are temporary.
Don't confuse your own journey with somebody else's
It's all about support. Sharing is caring, a burden halved and all that is true, no doubt. You may identify with things that others go through, and that can help. You will have advice from friends, some of which will be helpful, some of which you should discard because the only person you ever have to answer to is yourself.
For that reason, you should remember to be kind to yourself. Notice the little things. Celebrate small steps. Look how far you've come. It's the hardest thing sometimes and that's when it's the most important.
At the four-month mark, to rein in my occasional tippling, I made a new rule. Every day I drank from then on, I would add another day to the 12 months. It's an arbitrary rule but it's an arbitrary task. If the rule works for you, use it. I've extended my deadline by five long weeks at this stage and the following story is why.
I've had two wheels-off wagon collapses during the seven months and they both revolved around a girl. I went to France for two weeks, to visit someone I'd shared a six-year relationship with. I hadn't seen her in two years but there were lingering emotions and I felt like an arse for never having visited her country.
She's French, her drinking maturity needs no refining but wine with dinner is appreciated. C'est la vie and all that. So I decided I was allowed a hiatus, I was allowed to drink in France. If there was ever a special occasion, this was it.
France was the most dignified sort of drinking. Civil, fun, a wine with lunch, a couple with dinner. I never felt drunk, just warm and happy even in the rain. Nothing sinister happened, everybody enjoyed themselves, it was a vision of how I am supposed to turn out after the 12-month mark, it was all very grown up.
On my return, sobriety took a couple of bumps, but was mostly easy and familiar. I had been on holiday on the other side of the world and when I returned all my systems were still in place. Months later, she came to visit me here for three weeks. I effected the same hiatus but the results were very different.
If France had been a scene from Love, Actually, Auckland became a tragic chapter from Love in the Time of Cholera. There were emotions. It got real. I was drinking in my own home and I was having wine in restaurants again and one night during those three weeks, we went on one glorious all-night bender as part of my radio job. Within three weeks I rewired myself back to associating all my emotions and triggers with pouring a distracting glass of pinot. In. Three. Short. Weeks.
Changing those habits back now is hard. Not as hard as it was the first time, but hard enough. Back to "one day at a time".
Hey, ground zero, you look familiar
Is that you, rock bottom? Have you been working out?
Failure. We have an aversion to it. We hide failure away. It dominates us internally but externally we constantly promote ourselves in an attractive light. We seem conditioned to see failure as negative, yet failure is our greatest teacher. We are ashamed to admit we don't know something. Worse still, we judge people who do.
We are embarrassed to ask for help for the fear we may be perceived as weak.
Imagine a skateboarder being embarrassed by a grazed knee.
According to Winston Churchill, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."
I would have loved to have shared a whisky with that guy.