Tired of the way a love affair with wine and whisky was taking over his life — and ruining it — Hauraki radio host Alex Behan reveals the challenges of turning his back on alcohol

The day this goes to print, I will have been sober for seven weeks.

For some people, my parents for example, that would be par for the course. By all accounts, my father was a renowned drinker before I was born. Yet in my life I never knew him to touch the stuff until after my little brother and I left home for good.

These days, he loves to share a glass of wine, sometimes two or three, with his sons when they visit. The personal strength and sacrifice of that quiet promise my father must have made to himself astounds me to this day.

For other people, including many of my friends, going a month without the joy juice would be unthinkable. And for all of my friends, it is certainly unthinkable for me to go a month without the ever-present glass of wine or occasional whiskey in my hand.

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• Read also: Mother of three happy going without a pint

Like many people who enjoy things to excess, I have made a habit of surrounding myself with people of similar tendencies. We form a sub-group, a clique within a clique that always say yes to one more.

We help each other to not feel bad about Monday recovery drinks or a Tuesday tipple (even the more conservative people in my office seem okay with a wet Wednesday here and there).

Also, like most people who enjoy things to excess, I have secretly dreamed for some time now of being sober. Those of us who shroud the sharper edges of life with mind-blinding beverages know we are avoiding important issues in our lives.

We know we occasionally do or say something so stupid that we wish we could just go out and have a good time without disappointing ourselves.

We all have our own ways of dealing with such a lifestyle.

I wake up early to rehydrate, recalibrate and regroup mentally. As the alarm goes off, I'm already expecting the panic, retracing the activities of the previous night.

Sometimes there are black spots, impenetrable dark clouds over patches of memory I'm not entirely sure I wish to uncover.

These frantic, paranoid mornings have left me quietly wishing I had better coping mechanisms for modern life.

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Drinking was just something I adapted to exceptionally well as I became an adult. My environment, my professional and personal relationships, every part of my culture, encourages a sip of the silly sauce at every turn.

New Zealanders drink on every occasion, to celebrate or commiserate together or alone. Win, Lose, Draw, Dancefloor. I'm not alone in taking it too far; New Zealand males are consistently drinking their own weight in "she'll be right", according to figures from Statistics New Zealand.

The first two weeks were awful. Photo / Michael Craig
The first two weeks were awful. Photo / Michael Craig

A couple of things. I hate labels. I have deliberately hesitated to use the word alcoholic because I think it provokes a response that isn't useful.

New Zealand's Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act defines an alcohol dependence as "any person whose persistent and excessive indulgence in alcoholic liquor is causing or is likely to cause serious injury to his health or is a source of harm, suffering, or serious annoyance to others or renders him incapable of properly managing himself or his affairs".

I could easily argue that I don't qualify by these standards but it would sound like the kind of denial you'd hear from anybody who is alcohol dependent.

The labels surely aren't useful, yet after watching Nigel Latta's excellent documentary last year, how can I not admit that I am causing harm to my health?

Also, I hate clubs. Alcoholics Anonymous, the church, boot camps, health retreats, rehab — all of these systems help many people and I've dabbled with them all.

But I can't commit to them seriously. I grew up in the church, I have friends in AA. Both rely heavily on a book that is open to interpretation by anyone who reads it — and everyone reads it differently — so the truth of the book often gives way to group interpretation.

Support from fellow humans is integral in our lives, of course, but the fine line from group support to group mentality has always held me on the fringe when it comes to membership.

The other thing to note is that I'm a fully functioning professional in a high-pressure, high-performance industry and I have a reputation for high standards and a dedication to what I do.

None of my friends has ever called me an alcoholic, although one or two of my closest have taken me aside once or twice to express concern for my health or happiness.

For all intents and purposes, I work hard and play hard. I'm the happy-go-lucky guy who has nothing to worry about.

Seven weeks ago, on my 35th birthday, I found myself at the Splore Festival, where up to 10,000 people party for two days in idyllic environs with every possible convenience available.

This means it's a perfect place to get as messy as you want. Most people handled themselves well. I didn't see a single instance of people upsetting other people because they were too intoxicated (it's a great place to take kids).

So there's me, high as a kite, contemplating another revolution of the sun, when it struck me that this was the moment.

Intoxicated enough to have superhuman powers of perception, I could see it was time for me to instigate change, to see what I could learn about myself, my habits and my potential.

Time to enact #Clean2015 — for 12 months I was going to drop the bottle. True to my word, I woke up next morning and haven't had a drink since.

Okay, not entirely true. Full disclosure. I've had three single glasses of wine three separate times. I've enjoyed every second of them. Enjoyed them enough to remind me that it's important I stick to this.

For perspective, let me point out that I have never put the lid back on a bottle of wine.

To me, a bottle of wine is something you drink in the space of an hour or so at the end of a workday to gear yourself up or wind yourself down for the evening.

The first bottle is merely a tongue-loosener. I used to call it "returning to par".

Some people organise their lives so they can fit in activities. I drink, then let activities come to me.

I realise now the ideal is to be able to occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or two socially and consciously. Photo / Michael Craig
I realise now the ideal is to be able to occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or two socially and consciously. Photo / Michael Craig

The intellectual problem in doing something so difficult for as long as 12 months is that the number seems so big you think it's an impossible task. It has become increasingly popular to give up alcohol for a month, often in a group, as thousands of New Zealanders do during "Dry July".

A valuable exercise that also raises money for cancer, its popularity is perhaps a sign that New Zealand culture is noticing its relationship with the bottle.

I know I could white-knuckle it for a month, and it might do me some short-term good, but changing deep-rooted habits can take longer.

For me, it was 12 months or nothing. It's also clear that one day at a time is the only way to look at it and I can't beat myself up for failure or I'll never make it.

I do like that about AA. When its members fall off the wagon, they turn up the next day and begin at day one again.

So judge me for those three glasses if you want, or trust me when I say that compared to my 34th year, what I have already achieved is immense.

In case you were wondering, the first two weeks were awful. Lots of not sleeping, lots of anxiety, which I treated with binge-watching television rather than medication, which I know would've been more effective, but was too hard to contemplate.

Alcohol dependence leads to chemical changes in the way our brain's neurotransmitters are wired, so coping with life can be a little up and down.

Your physiology changes in those first few weeks. You suffer a slow, drawn out, residual psychic hangover, your mind slowly clears, you lie awake a lot, there's a lot of guilt.

In the third week, my desire to sleep returned, energy levels normalised and I began to be comfortable(ish) with being sober. It was so novel it was kind of exciting.

Slowly though, something else started to rear its ugly head — boredom. The first two weeks of not drinking is almost a full-time job. It affects the entire to-do list of life and takes quite a bit of concentration.

Once being sober becomes more mundane, you find yourself with a lot of free mental space.

I questioned everything in week three, especially my decision to not drink. I complained to friends, blamed my job and life situation for all my troubles and generally acted like a bit of a baby.

One night, I went to a friend's 40th and, oh, what a party. Old friends, free drinks, great music; a party my friends and I will talk about for years to come.

This time I'll be able to remember it — the lovely conversations with people, the dancefloor, the performances, the speeches.

It was so much fun that it was surprisingly easy not to imbibe, although I still can't work out what to do with my hands and drinking three ginger ales makes me feel sick.

Alcohol dependence leads to chemical changes in the way our brain's neurotransmitters are wired, so coping with life can be a little up and down. Photo / Michael Craig
Alcohol dependence leads to chemical changes in the way our brain's neurotransmitters are wired, so coping with life can be a little up and down. Photo / Michael Craig

I don't really mind hanging out with drunk people. They're not always sharp but they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

I woke up in the morning with a renewed gratitude and felt I was on a path that would eventually renew my enjoyment of life.

The next night, I went on a date and that was much harder. Wine sure is good for small talk.

I realise now the ideal is to be able to occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or two socially and consciously, as my father can.

Yet those three glasses I've sipped in the past month and the yearning I felt for much, much more, help me see the reality.

I have to unlearn and relearn, to re-evaluate my relationship with drinking. And to do that, I have to take a break.

It's not you, wine bottle, it's me. I just need some time. Time to explore some other options.

I've found writing about it is useful. Staying busy, talking, sharing and having support is so important.

In AA, they have 12 steps. My plan is to write 12 times, once a month, as my way of processing and learning from what I'm doing. I get the sense there's a few lessons still to come.

PS: I promise not to turn into a condescending wanker.

Getting help

Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787-797
Al-Anon/Alateen 0508 425-266
Alcoholics Anonymous 0800 229-6757
livingsober.org.nz
likeadrink.org.nz