Virginia Ironside: 'Why I gave up alcohol'

After a lifetime of enjoying a drink, Virgina Ironside explains how she stopped, and why tonight she'll be sticking to the soft stuff

End of the year. A time to think about starting afresh. Promising yourself you'll be nicer. Promising yourself you'll be kinder to yourself. To other people as well. And promising, also, to give up bad habits.

About 10 years ago I gave up smoking, although, so keen am I not to let down my libertarian side, I encourage smokers to light up in my house and refuse to allow them to smoke in the garden. And nearly a year ago I stopped drinking.

To be honest, I didn't realise I was giving up drinking. I thought I was just giving myself a little break from a lifetime's habit of not particularly heavy but definitely regular drinking. In fact, apart from the odd day when I was ill or in hospital, and an extraordinary six weeks one summer about 10 years ago, there hadn't been a single day when I hadn't drunk a little something, and usually something a bit more than a little.

Drinking is what my generation does. And particularly what my occupation does. When I was younger, the idea of going out to lunch, as a journalist, and not downing half a bottle of wine was most peculiar, and though I grew out of that habit in the Eighties when everyone did, I continued to drink in the evenings – although quarter to five was starting to become the hour the sun went down over my particular yardarm.

Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't a lush. I have very rarely appeared drunk. Indeed, I'm one of those people who, the more they drink, the tighter rein they keep on their behaviour and emotions. I still believe that my driving was far better when I'd had one over the limit than none at all, simply because I was always so excessively careful. When I say I haven't drunk now for nearly a year, most of my friends, even my closest friends, say: "But you were never a big drinker, anyway!"

The truth is that I never appeared a big drinker. But in fact I nearly always had a few glasses of wine before I went out to meet them. And at the point I gave up, I was known to have a small glass of wine – very occasionally – in the day as well as the evening. It sometimes turned into a gin and tonic. I was pretty obsessed with the stuff. I knew the alcohol content of most bottles of wine, I'd talk about drink obsessively with other women of my age, who were also worried about how much they drank, and the prospect of not being offered a drink when I arrived at someone's house would really upset me.

I was one of the recently-researched middle class professionals who drink almost every day and one of the 15 per cent of women who'd drunk more than twice the recommended levels at least one day a week – if not more. (Though frankly the recommended levels have always seemed bonkers to me. If you're even a semi-serious drinker, 14 units a weeks is just peanuts.)

But the problem was that however little or how much I drank, I didn't seem to be able to stop. I'd wake up with a headache and say to myself: "I won't drink tonight," and it never happened. I just did. I started to become worried, particularly since my mother was a real alcoholic, the sort who'd be seriously ill with liver damage and still have hidden bottles stashed in her bed. Most of my boyfriends have had big problems with alcohol, to the extent that three gave it up completely. Perhaps I had a problem, too? Not a huge one like my mother's, but a problem all the same.

Cutting down had never worked. By the time I'd had the first drink, my willpower seemed to be shot to pieces. So the only thing to do was to give up completely for a while. But how?

Four factors played their part in my giving up. The first was having a nasty road accident, running into a stationary car that had broken down in the slow lane of a motorway without its warning lights on. I'd only had one glass of wine so I'd have been well under the limit had I been breathalysed. And, amazingly as well, I wasn't breathalysed. But it made me think: what if I had been over the limit? What I had been breathalysed? I could probably have coped on public transport in London, but it would have been a nightmare getting my grandchildren over. Also it would have been dreadfully humiliating. "Agony aunt on drink-drive charge." The idea made me squirm.

The second factor was meeting a fellow journalist from The Independent on Sunday at dinner, who was gulping down the wine at the rates of knots.

"Great to be drinking again," he said.

"What do you mean, again?" I said.

It turned out he'd stopped for a month and this was his first day back on the booze. Were there any advantages, I asked? Yes, he said. He'd lost weight. He'd saved a fortune. He'd slept better, and he didn't wake up in tears in the mornings.

Now, I've never been happy in the mornings, always woken dogged by anxiety and misery, so to get rid of that wretched feeling would, on its own, have been an incentive to give not-drinking a go.

Thirdly was going back to how I'd stopped smoking. I'd done it not with patches or hypnotism, but simply by reading an advertisement for NiQuitin, which featured two photographs. One showed a picture of a cigarette being lit with the words: "I smoke because I like it," and the next picture was of a hand stubbing out a cigarette with the words: "I also want to stop." I was blown away by the honesty of it. All the stop smoking ads had always been telling me that smoking was evil, that my mouth smelt like an ashtray, that giving up would be hell. This one spoke the truth. "I smoke because I like it." And the two phrases weren't linked by the word "but". It was linked by the word "also". The two thoughts might have been at odds with each other, but they could exist in a single brain. I realised that this was me to a T. I liked smoking and I wanted to stop. The moment I could see the "liking smoking" part as a separate voice, it was easy to ignore it. From seeing that advertisement to this day, I've never smoked again.

Could I apply this thinking to alcohol? Well, curiously enough, I could.

And that determination, plus a feeling that I should be ashamed of myself if I couldn't stop drinking for a week at the very least, surely, drove me to make every effort to stop. Was I a woman or a female mouse? Did alcohol really have such power over me that I "couldn't" stop? No. It was more, I realised, that in the past I didn't really want to stop. And now, I thought, I did. To be honest, at 66, I thought I might, in my lifetime, have actually drunk enough.

Now, anyone who's been around real alcohol addicts as long as I have inevitably finds themselves drawn at some stage to the 12-step meetings. For four years I was helped enormously by an Al Anon group, designed to help the partners, friends and relatives of alcoholics, the mantra of which was that you should leave the alcoholic to get on with his or her own life, while you got on with yours. If you got obsessed with their drinking, you slowly became as much in thrall to the bottle as they were.

But when I attended the odd AA meeting, not for myself but to find out what went on at them, I found the whole ethos rather off-putting. The first step runs: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol." And I didn't like the thinking. I wanted to be powerful over alcohol, not powerless over it. Another step went: "We made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to God, as we understand him." This, from a so-called non-religious organisation. No matter how they said that the "high power" could be anything, from a toaster, to the power of the group, I still balked at the idea of anything being my "higher power."



So when I dragged Rational Recovery, by Jack Trimpey (Pocket Books), which I've often recommended to people who seem addicted to drink or drugs, out of my bookshelves to reread, I was struck by how extraordinarily powerful and rational its message was. From Jack Trimpey's first sentence – "Over a decade ago, I defeated my own 20-year-old addiction to alcohol by stubbornly refusing to drink any more of it" – I was a sucker for his every word.

Here was a man who didn't believe alcoholism was a disease, didn't believe that there was anything involved in giving up but two things: first, the ability to recognise the addictive voice (the one who says: "You'll never be able to stop," "Just the one," "You're only a social drinker," "You need a drink,") and secondly, having the willpower to refuse to listen to it.

According to Jack Trimpey, between 40 and 70 per cent of people who recover from serious addictions do so without any help at all. Indeed, Charles Bufe in his book Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? estimates that AA's overall success for its members is only 5 per cent. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, in his four-year study The Natural History of Alcoholism found that a majority of people had overcome their alcohol problems on their own.

But in a victim culture, we've started to believe we can't do anything without "help" – from withdrawal programmes to 12-step groups to counselling to rehab – when nine times out of 10 the answer is that we can. (In cases of extreme alcoholism, there can be a case for medical treatment as withdrawal can be life-threatening, for most cases it's just a matter of saying no.) But the disease model presents people as victims, different from others, and special, and it's in problem-drinking stars' and celebrities' interests to emphasise the specialness of the condition. Sadly the disease concept is tremendously attractive to addicted people, because it absolves them from responsibility.

But throughout his book, Jack Trimpey emphasises that you are responsible for your own drinking. You're not out of control when you drink. You're in control. It's you who pours out the glass, you who fills it with booze, and you who lifts it to your lips and swallows. No one else does it for you. You're not in denial, either. Every drinker knows exactly how much they drink and how much it can hurt other people. "Denial" is another cop-out.

After taking all my factors into account and reading the book, I stopped drinking for a week. Then I obviously said to myself: "Well, you've done a week, so why not start again, more moderately?" But a little voice inside challenged me: "Bet you can't give up for a month!" And when the month had passed it said: "Bet you can't give up for three months," and so on, until now I'm coming up for the full year.

And you know I'm really not sure that I will start again.

True, the downside is that I find parties a terrible strain, and I used to love them. But on the plus side, any other social events, even big dinner parties, I can cope with easily, even when everyone is falling over drunk beside me. And I can remain alert and jolly till the end of the evening instead of, as I used to do, pack up after about 9.30 wishing my guests would go home.

I do wake up in the mornings feeling, well, not happy, but less unhappy. I am saving over £2000 a year. I am sleeping better. I do feel clearer-headed and less depressed. And though occasionally I think, in stressful situations, "golly, it would be nice to have a glass of wine", the feeling usually goes within a few minutes. I have a tonic water instead, with ice and lemon, or occasionally, a splash of bitters. I also have a great deal more time to do things, not drained by that faintly headachey, hungoverish feeling that lingers during the day until the next drink briefly picks you up in the evening.

And every time I drive late at night and a police car passes, I just long for it to stop and breathalyse me so I can glow with smug satisfaction at the results. In fact, I might spend the whole of the coming New Year's Eve, just driving around, waiting to get picked on just so I can say those magic words: "Go ahead. It's fine. I don't drink."

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