After decades of drinking, Annie Grace decided to rethink her relationship with booze.
When it comes to questioning our drinking habits, everyone has their own tipping point. It could be the office party you can't quite recall; the cold-shouldered disapproval from your partner, the morning after the night before; the Dry July peer pressure, the ongoing fuzziness.
For high-flying executive-turned self-help author, Annie Grace, it was accidentally drenching her two small children with beer as the family queued for the London Eye, one Saturday morning.
"I'd been out the night before for work, which meant drinking heavily," she says.
"The next day I felt really lousy but my husband and I had promised the kids a day out, so I slipped a large can of beer into my handbag from the hotel minibar, which I intended to drink after midday as a pick-me-up."
When American-born Grace and her husband neared the front of the line, she opened her bag for the security check, having forgotten about the beer.
"The can fell on the ground and exploded, spraying my sons, who were 2 and 6 at the time," she recounts. "I tried to make a big joke of it and laugh, but inside I was
dying of shame and mortification."
It was this incident — the culmination of too many humiliations to remember, during what Grace now terms her "corporate drinking" decades — that prompted her to take stock of how her habit was affecting her health, happiness and family.
The result was her first self-published book, The Naked Mind, which detailed her quest to rediscover happiness without recourse to wine (or feeling deprived in the process). The book garnered a huge online following and sold so well that it soon attracted major publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her second book, entitled The Alcohol Experiment: 30 days to take control, cut down or give up for good, might sound like it diverges little from Dry July — but it promises a crucial difference. Rather than whiteknuckling it to the end of the month, counting down the days until you can return to your old ways, it sounds a clarion call to look objectively, enquiringly and unflinchingly into our personal relationship with booze — with the aim of rethinking it for good.
To be clear, this is not for those with a physical addiction to alcohol but for the very many more of us who are of two minds about drinking — we may have no desire to quit but still wonder whether we overdo it a bit. We try to cut back but feel like we're missing out when we do. We're tired of waking up slightly hungover but can't truly relax without a glass of something at the end of the day.
"Some of the smartest and most successful people in the world drink more than they want to," writes Grace. So not finding it easy to cut back doesn't mean there's anything wrong with us.
Reading Grace's book and mulling over her findings was an eye-opener. It wasn't so much her copper-bottomed assertion that alcohol is a carcinogen (which it is) or addictive (which it also is) that struck a chord. It was more the detailed analysis of what, exactly, happens when you drink.
In short: you get a 20-minute high but as soon as that wears off the alcohol has a depressive effect, so you reach for another drink to combat the low mood caused by the first — and so on.
"Alcohol overstimulates the pleasure centres in the brain and numbs us, which, after a hard day is an attractive feeling," admits Grace. "After that first glass, it's pretty much downhill. But in our drinking culture the only question we ever ask is, 'Am I an alcoholic?' If the answer is 'No', which it usually is, we carry on. What I'm advocating is mindfulness, not abstinence."
The full 30-day programme tackles the symbiotic relationship between alcohol and every area of life, from boredom and cravings, to parenting, sleep, sex and socialising. The idea is you read that day's recommendations in the morning, and put them into practice during the day, jotting down how you feel, physically and emotionally as you go.
"Magic happens in 30 days," writes Grace. "It's a period of time when the brain can actually change — by making new neural connections — to build great new habits or to eliminate habits that have held you back."
I reached my epiphany by day six (why willpower doesn't last for long), by which time I realised, or rather was reminded, that not drinking for a week or two feels a bit like a holiday but without liberal quantities of the local hooch, obviously.
"I thought wine was the cement that held things together. Turns out it was the crowbar, prising everything apart," Grace says. "There's all this humour centred on women drinking; you see it on greetings cards and plaques that say things like, 'You're not drinking alone if the kids are in the house.' But none of it is funny."
Warm and self-effacing, Grace, now 40, is a charismatic mother of three. Her youngest child, a daughter, is 18 months old. She will enjoy a different childhood from her brothers, not least because there is no risk of her milestone birthday parties failing to register through her mother's blurry haze of alcohol.
Those days are over. So is Grace's high-flying career in international currency exchange, which saw her become head of marketing for 28 countries, criss-crossing the globe and doing her level best to match all-comers, drink for drink.
"I was based in New York and promoted in my early 20s," she says. "I worked long hours, but one day I was drawn aside by my boss who wanted to know why I never went for drinks afterwards. He told me in no uncertain terms that deals were made in the bar not the boardroom and that schmoozing with clients was crucial."
Hell-bent on proving herself, Grace would sometimes slope off to the ladies' and make herself throw up — just so she could return to the table and drink more wine. It sounds shameful; it was shameful. But let he or she who hasn't ever drunk too much, or drunk too often, cast the first stone.
Having turned her back on the money markets in 2013, Grace has now dedicated herself to helping others. But her modus operandi isn't to scold, reproach or chide — simply to urge others to question their dependence on alcohol as a relaxant, social prop, weekend treat or anaesthetic, making the stressful world pleasantly fuzzy around the edges.
"Going on endlessly about how tough it is and how deprived you feel just serves to highlight your unhealthy dependence on alcohol," says Grace. "It's the same mindset that sees people boast about the amount they drank last night and how awful their hangover is.
"People who binge-drink look at people who drink every day and say, 'At least I'm not as bad as that.' The people who drink every day look right back and tell themselves exactly the same thing. We are all in a state of denial."
Grace's soul-searching led to some uncomfortable truths; early in her marriage she didn't need to drink every night, yet now she felt evenings were incomplete without a glass of wine. Where did that sense of emptiness come from?
When she tried to give up drinking, her thoughts dwelled obsessively on that bottle in the fridge; the battle between willpower and her subconscious was draining and distracting.
"I stopped trying to stop drinking and started trying to understand the science; what does alcohol do to our body? Why do we crave it? Does it actually relieve stress and relax us?" she says.
"The more I researched the more I felt in control because instead of just mindlessly reaching for a glass, I paused and weighed up the arguments; was I already having a good time? If I drank would that make it a better time, or would it have a knock-on effect on the evening and the next day?"
At the end of her own experiment, Grace decided to stop drinking indefinitely — she doesn't like the word "forever" — but doesn't advocate that anybody should or shouldn't do the same.
"Many people ask me if they will have to give up drinking forever if they try the experiment. My answer is, it's up to them."
If you find your life is better without it — your head is clearer, you function better, your relationships improve — then you might decide to drink less (and less often), to give up for another 30 days just for the heck of it, or that you feel so good you don't want to go back.
"The Alcohol Experiment isn't any sort of pledge or commitment, it's just what it says;
an experiment," says Grace.
"Approach it with curiosity, as an observer. It's about learning, not beating yourself up."
What happens when we drink?
Clearly, we must like drinking. Otherwise we wouldn't do it, right? At least, in the beginning we liked it. Right now, you might be struggling with how much you actually hate the after-effects. But there's no denying that the first drink feels good. Before we can unpack all the complicated pieces of the alcohol puzzle, it's important to understand what's actually happening in the brain when we drink.
So, I'm out with my friends, and I order a glass of wine. I've had a hard day at work, and I'm looking forward to relaxing and laughing with people I love. That first glass makes me feel giggly, and there's a little rush of euphoria that makes me feel good, maybe for the first time all day. What's happening is that the wine artificially stimulates the area of my brain called the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure centre. The chemicals responsible for euphoria are endorphins, the same chemicals responsible for the good feelings when you exercise.
Two main chemicals work in the pleasure centre: dopamine, which is responsible for desire and craving; and serotonin, which is responsible for the feelings of satiety and inhibition. In a healthy brain, there is a delicate balance between the two. But alcohol throws off that balance and so, as I'm drinking that glass of wine, lots of dopamine gets dumped into my system, making me want more of what gave me pleasure (the alcohol).
Since the pleasure centre has been artificially stimulated by an outside substance, my brain seeks to regain the correct balance. So it sends out a chemical downer, called dynorphin. This actually suppresses my feelings of euphoria and, as the effects of the first glass start to wear off, my sense of well-being actually falls below where it was when I started drinking. That means I'm lower than when I got off work after a hard day.
Bummer. The dopamine is still working, though, and makes me crave more of what made me feel good. So I order another glass of wine. And the cycle starts all over again. An unwanted effect is that in order to combat the depressant effects of alcohol, my body counteracts the alcohol by releasing things like adrenalin and cortisol.
You may have heard of cortisol — it is also known as the "stress hormone". So now in my body's attempt to maintain homeostasis and combat the alcohol, I am lower than when I started. In other words, I now have to cross an even bigger gap to get above that baseline of pleasure. And that's miserable. Even worse, though, is that the alcohol is starting to affect other areas of my brain. My senses are being numbed, and my brain is actually slowing down. Eventually, I might slur my speech. Perhaps my vision blurs. I feel detached from reality. I convince myself that this is a welcome break from the real world.
The drinking cycle continues, and I get more and more drunk. What was at first a nice tipsy feeling is now completely out of control. But I don't care, because my brain isn't processing the long-term meanings and implications of my behaviour.
Eventually, if I'm drinking a lot, it's been slowed down so much that I have to work hard to walk straight on my way to the restroom. My brain receptors have become numb, and my senses don't relay the information as well, so memories aren't formed. I don't completely recall the embarrassing things I say or do while I'm drunk. I don't feel the pain I'm trying to escape.
The stress from the workday fades away for a little while. But the stress remains when I sober up, and it's compounded by the hangover I'm suffering from. The embarrassing photos show up on Facebook. And my best friend won't talk to me because I pissed her off so badly ... somehow ... I'm not really sure what happened. You know what I'm talking about. The initial rush doesn't last. The more drunk you get, the more you regret it when you sober up. It's a downward spiral. And if you're like me, you blame yourself. Why can't I get it together? Why am I so weak? What's wrong with me?
The cycle has nothing to do with you being strong or weak. It has nothing to do with you being a good or bad person. It's a chemical chain reaction that happens to everyone. Although we all feel the effects slightly differently based on our age, weight, sex and environment, the biological reactions are the same.
Edited extract from The Alcohol Experiment: 30 Days to take control, cut down or give up
for good, by Annie Grace, (Harlequin, $30).