How can you cut down your drinking during the festive season?
Author Annie Grace talks about her own relationship with booze and offers 10 tips on how to curb your intake at Christmas and beyond
By Hannah Stephenson
So, how are you going to control your drinking over the festive season?
The yuletide celebrations which so often involve early cocktails and flutes of celebratory champagne and long Christmas dinners with lashings of wine followed by liqueurs can leave even the most enthusiastic drinker feeling the worse for wear.
Former high-flying marketing executive Annie Grace was one such drinker. By her mid 20s she was downing two bottles of wine a day while holding down a top job and functioning at home, although she’d wake at 3.33am every night, worrying about her health, feeling disgusted with herself.
Grace, who lives in Colorado, carried on in this manner until her mid-30s, by which time she had a husband, Brian, and two sons, who are now aged 11 and eight. Her third son, now three, wasn’t yet born during her drinking days.
“I spent a lot of Christmases in a stupor,” she admits. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to drink until at least 5pm’ but then it would be two or three in the afternoon or maybe even some Christmases it would be starting off the day with Mimosas (champagne and orange juice), and we’d end up drinking the entire day.”
The catalyst came one Christmas.
“I remember my son came over to me and I asked him to sit on my lap and he said, ‘No mum, you smell bad and your teeth are purple’. It was very clearly because of the wine I’d been drinking. It really affected me. I didn’t hit the proverbial rock bottom but when I think of tragic moments, that was certainly one of them.”
She tried to cut back on drinking but found herself drinking more, because setting strict rules and limits for herself didn’t work. As her mindset shifted, she realised she wanted to drink less but it took three years for her to stop completely in December 2014.
During this time, she set out to understand why she was in control in every other area of her life. Through research she learned about alcohol, the brain and body, which resulted in her book This Naked Mind.
It examines how the unconscious mind has been conditioned about the benefits of alcohol, how alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking and how not drinking is seen as being boring.
She explores the reasons people drink and offers ways to find freedom and discover happiness without alcohol.
Today, at 42, Grace is in a very different place, working full time running a freedom from alcohol movement, offering people strategies to cut back on or give up alcohol altogether.
She suggests the following strategies for anyone who wants to cut down their drinking over the festive season.
1. Create new mocktails
Make a decision in the run-up to Christmas to have an evening where you make mocktails and develop an enjoyable one. “The ritual is often as powerful as the drink and we don’t realise that,” she says.
“The expectation when we think about not drinking is that it’s going to be miserable. Put aside that expectation and get curious how mocktails might work for a night, which can interrupt that pattern of thought so much.”
2. Make two lists
“Create two big lists – one which is all the reasons you like to drink and the other is all the reasons you’d like to cut back. Compare those lists and decide which one is the more important in your life right now. Then get curious about the reasons you like to drink and are they true?”
3. Experiment with the effect of alcohol
“Have a (alcoholic) drink and time how long it makes you feel good for. The truth is that a drink will probably make you feel good for maybe 20 to 30 minutes, when your blood alcohol content is rising. As soon as the blood alcohol content starts to fall, your body says ‘We are purging the alcohol’ and your body starts to feel quite bad, restless and upset.
“When you see that – and want to reach for a second drink because you feel worse than you did before you poured that first drink – you can understand that alcohol isn’t actually giving you an evening of euphoria, it’s giving you 20 minutes and then making you a bit miserable.”
4. Give yourself realistic targets
“Make a firm decision you can keep, such as ‘I’m not going to drink until 8pm’ and then you know your drinking is going to be consolidated to just a few hours. Don’t compromise on that.
“Often we say, with total ambiguity, ‘I’m just going to drink less’ and we don’t give ourselves tangible, manageable goals we can achieve. Make your goals realistic and really simple.
“If you break those limits, make yourself super curious and not judgmental of yourself. Work out what you were feeling, why you wanted a drink, why you kept drinking. Curiosity without judgment is the number one tool to changing your behaviour because it awakens self-compassion, which is the catalyst for change.”
5. Don’t let family arguments at Christmas make you reach for the bottle
“Treat yourself in another way, whether it’s treating yourself to a fancy dessert or to a nice walk outside or a bit of time alone. If the relatives are stressing you out, go for a walk. I’ve done that, I’ve gone outside and phoned a friend. It’s so much better than being drunk.”
6. Deal with friends and relatives who can’t understand your abstinence
“Confidence is your ally. We don’t like to say no, so if someone offers you a drink, I like to say, ‘Yes, I’d love something, can I have a big glass of water because I need to hydrate before anything else’ or ‘Yes, I’d love a Coke, I need some caffeine’. A yes instead of a no can be really helpful.
“Also, having a drink in your hand that looks alcoholic is really helpful. It’s very rare that people will come over and sniff your drink. It might be a mocktail or a glass of elderflower cordial which looks like a glass of wine. People won’t hassle you.
“Or you can be self-deprecating. If they try to get you to have a drink, say something like, ‘I drank enough over the last three Christmases to do me in’. Make light of it and make light of yourself to let them off the hook.”
7. Make other people comfortable with your decision
“They believe your decision is some sort of judgment on them and that you are sitting there on your high horse judging them. To make people comfortable, especially if I was hosting, I would get everyone a drink and then get my own non-alcoholic drink, which sends out the message that you are not here to judge them. People will then relax.”
8. Ignore accusations that you’re not being much fun
“In the early days of not drinking, I would order a vodka tonic and then go to the waitress and ask her to leave out the vodka and just bring me tonic for the rest of the evening. It proved that I could be fun without booze.
Then at the end I’d tell them I’d just been drinking tonic all night. It viscerally showed them that nothing was changing.”
9. Avoid stocking up with masses of booze at Christmas
“If you have to stock up to entertain people, I’d do it with drinks that you don’t like.”
10. Be curious about measures you take to fit in
“You may think, ‘I’m just doing this to fit in and is that a good enough reason to feel physically ill the entire next day with a hangover? Is that a good enough reason to give up my festive memories this year?’ Curiosity is your best friend in changing your behaviour.”