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How to sort out your drinking as we come out of lockdown

The evening that Boris Johnson announced that the UK was going into lockdown, I – like a lot of people in the UK – poured myself a large glass of wine. It was the first time I’d drunk a wine at home on a Tuesday night, since I was a student.

And the next night, I had another glass. And the next. And before I’d even given it any thought, I was drinking every night. Not a lot – not even enough to get drunk. But more than usual.

If you drank a lot during lockdown, then there’s no judgement here. It was one of the few pleasures we were able to enjoy, and for many of us, a way to bring the working day to the end. A study by Waitrose found that one in four of us drank more more during lockdown, and sales of tequila, specifically, were up by 175%.

But as lockdown eased, and Saturdays were spent drinking in the park, or making tentative explorations of local restaurants, I found myself returning to my pre-lockdown drinking habit of drinking a lot at the weekends while keeping my lockdown routine of having a couple of glasses of wine a night, which added up to booze every day of the week.

How much you drink is ultimately up to you, but by June, my drinking was making me gain weight, feel mentally slow, and making my anxiety even worse than usual. I realised that it was time to rewire my relationship with alcohol. I tried a variety of different approaches, alongside good old fashioned will power, to get my drinking back to its pre-lockdown state.

Here’s what worked.

Non-booze booze

Much of what I like about drinking is the ritual. When I was having a Tuesday cocktail I would take time making it, then I would sit outside with my partner or call a friend while I drank. Of course, none of that is actually reliant on alcohol, but somehow it’s not the same with a glass of tap water.

I tried a huge variety of alcohol replacements. There are plenty of options for pretend wine (Jukes cordial is a very good version, and McGuigan’s non-alcoholic wine is as nice as non-alcoholic wine can ever be), but I found that fake alcohol just made me want more real alcohol.

For me, a fancy Fever Tree tonic with ice was a better substitute. One of my favourite improvements was using everyone’s childhood favourite, the Soda Stream. Being able to make ice-cold fizzy water, and experiment with flavouring it, ticked many of the same boxes that came with making a mojito.

The commuting hour

I know we all hate commuting, but there is an element of decompression in that stage between leaving work and getting home. Yes, smelling someone else’s breath on the bus is awful (and not very safe in a post-Covid world), but it was a huge part of our lives for a long time, so it’s no surprise that many of us are still a bit lost about how to go from work to play of an evening.

I started finishing work at about 6pm and then going out for a 45-minute walk around my local park, like a sort of commute. This allowed me to feel that when I got home from my walk I was ‘home from work’ and it also kept me busy during that key hour between 6pm and 7pm, where it felt most natural to have a drink.

Evening classes

Gyms reopened this week and I automatically booked myself a 7pm class for as many Tuesdays as I was allowed. This means that I can’t have a drink before 7pm, because spinning after a glass of wine is not your friend.

A class gives a shape to your evening. You also usually have to pay beforehand and are charged if you give less than 12 hours cancellation notice, which means that if you do decide to bail and have wine instead, it’s got a financial penalty attached. The prospect of wasting £15 is certainly enough to make me put down the Chardonnay.

Reprogramming your mind

I’m a big believer in hypnotherapy, but not all of us have the option to go and see a professional right now.

We spoke to Susan Hepburn, hypnotherapist to the stars, who gave some tips on how to reprogram your drinking.

She says: ‘Keep an alcohol diary – all you need is a small notebook that you can always carry with you. Just use two pages a day – page one to note down the units of alcohol you drank and when and page one to make note of your general emotions throughout the day.

‘You might be shocked by how much alcohol you do consume, even when you think you’ve hardly had anything. This can be a valuable wake-up call.

‘By noting your emotions, too, it can help you to understand what prompts you to have a drink. But try and use your diary at the time and not later.’

Susan also points out that if you’ve been drinking heavily, you should speak to a medical professional before stopping cold turkey.

Talking about it

One of the most helpful ways I’ve managed to kick my drinking back into touch is by being honest about it. Saying out loud ‘I really want a glass of wine, but I’m not going to have one’ makes the whole thing feel like less of a dirty secret.

It’s also helped me to work out what it is that makes me feel I ‘need’ a drink. Am I bored? Anxious? Looking for an activity? Much of the time, whoever I’m talking to feels the same way, and we’re able to support each other into being strong and saying no.

Buying more expensive wine

The final way I’ve taken control of my drinking might is basically by harnessing my own tightness. By spending £15 on a bottle of something really great, ideally from a local independent wine shop, means that I’m much more aware of what I’m drinking.

It’s easy to pound a bottle of £5.99 supermarket rosé, which you can replace the next day. But when you’ve made a significant investment in a bottle of Whispering Angel, you’re far more likely to savour it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major thing that made a big difference for me, was cutting myself a bit of slack, and accepting that getting back to my pre-lockdown habits is going to take time. If you slip and have a drink when you were hoping not to, you’re not a failure or a bad person. You just enjoy that drink, and then start again afresh. 

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