I'm writing sober. I hope so - it's 9.30 am. If I'm buzzing, blame caffeine.
I gave up alcohol last month. Not for Lent, but for a friend. Unlike "Feb Fast" or "Dry July", there are no catchy slogans or social media campaigns promoting autumnal abstinence. Just squishy April, with cyclones, school holidays, Easter and stress.
What the hell was I thinking?
My decision to abstain for four weeks was impromptu. A friend had been medicating with booze. It would start with a couple beers, then a stiff drink, followed by more stiff drinks. The pattern climaxed with shattered glass, slurred words and a late-night confessional that life was crap.
I told my friend her troubles would worsen if she kept drinking. Especially solo. Especially the hard stuff. "I'll quit with you for a month," I offered, half-hoping she'd say, "Yeah, nah," so I wouldn't have to forsake my glass of Shiraz on weekends (and sometimes, weeknights). I was surprised she agreed to it. As Yoda said, "Do or do not, there is no try."
I last gave my liver a month's vacation several Februarys ago. I ordered soda water at a swank Tauranga cafe on Valentine's Day. The world kept turning.
Imbibing is one of life's escape chutes. Sip a hoppy beer, fragrant Pinot Gris, or smooth malt whisky (so I'm told) and feel mildly altered after one or two drinks. Even if you're not among the estimated 10 per cent of Kiwis addicted to alcohol, the challenge for some drinkers is setting limits when we have nowhere to go, no task to perform. I need clarity in the morning. I need my run. Pounding pavement with a hangover makes no sense. Neither does getting ready for work with a fuzzy head.
What if there's no job? A Finnish study published last month in the journal Addiction showed although one in 10 employees increased alcohol consumption to risky levels at the time of retirement, the increase seemed temporary. No need, then, for pensioners to abstain, aside from smokers, men and those who reported depression. All three are known risk factors for alcohol abuse.
I don't smoke. I'm not depressed. Why deny myself a tipple? Because I'm female, and studies link alcohol consumption to breast and other cancers. Thousands of studies spanning decades show alcohol use linked with more than 200 health conditions and 6 per cent of deaths worldwide.
Also, don't tell anyone, but I'm ageing. The latest research pours cold water on theories a couple daily drinks promote good health in older adults. Past studies showing moderate drinking tied to better health in people aged 55 to 65 failed to account for the fact moderate drinkers are wealthier than heavy drinkers or non-drinkers.
Yet it's hard to ignore the social consequence of abstinence in a country that embraces alcohol with religious zeal. We don't just drink together, we receive the sacrament of adult beverages at home altars, neighbourhood pubs and work functions.
Sober April meant no Easter bubbles, no wine after a day of herding children on holiday, no sampling from the well-stocked cellar at the home of friends in Whangarei. Our hosts prepared a pitcher of virgin mojitos. Over four nights (including a birthday celebration), they drank wine while I sipped sweet fizz. I found our conversations just as smart, silly or sad without alcohol as with.
The real buzz and connection flowed from stories - from laughing around the fire at night and crying at the kitchen table in the morning. No fermentation required.
I nearly put off inviting another set of friends to our home for dinner last month as they like to party. They brought ginger beer. They quaffed it with us, saying, "We were relieved when you said you weren't drinking. We had enough alcohol during two weeks of holiday."
Even a brief booze break can improve health. Research published in the New Scientist showed staff members who abstained from alcohol for five weeks saw a decrease in liver fat (a prelude to liver damage) of 15 per cent. Blood glucose and cholesterol fell, too. Participants lost an average 1.5kg.
My takeaway from Sober April came not from medical testing, but from the recognition no one cared what I drank. They still wanted my company. They still ate my food.
And the dry companion, the reason for my fast, said she completed her first alcohol-free month in decades. "Thank goodness for ginger beer."
I might drink to that. Or I might not.