One Year Off The Beer. Part 2

As my year off all thing’s alcohol comes to a close, I wanted to share a few things I have learned, picked up and discovered along the way. Been some year, plenty happening in many aspects of my life. I graduated from University, I moved in with my girlfriend when I came home, I decided I would further my education and study a Masters, ran a half marathon and did lots of charity work with The James Burke Foundation to name a few.

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To say that the last 365 days have been easy would be a lie. I think if you asked just about anyone, they would consider a year off alcohol to be up there with waking up at 5am on their list of things that would probably be good for you, but fuck that. I have spoken to many people who have done Sober October, or Dry January, or whatever month they want to pick to make them feel good about themselves for a short period of time before they inevitably get absolutely wrote off on the 1st of the following month. I had considered doing something like that again. Seems like a piece of piss in hindsight, doing 1 month. But I had thought about it and came to the conclusion that, because it seemed relatively simple, and just about everyone has given it a go, it’s not really a challenge.

As I am one to do, I thought fuck it, and jumped in with both feet. Told as many people as possible about it in order to create some sort of accountability and started at the next available opportunity. I have read that telling people about your goals can actually be detrimental, because you receive satisfaction from telling them about it, which is often enough. Nevertheless, the people were told.

Win the morning, win the day.

The first month or two have definitely turned out to be the hardest. Nothing really changed. I was still hanging out with the same people, going to the same places, doing the same thing. Eating the same hangover food, with no hangover, because pizza. It started to take its toll on me if I’m honest. It is incredibly difficult to put on a front every week and be like, “yeah sound, I’ll come out with the lads, I enjoy your company”. When really, come 10 o’clock they are usually talking like a washing machine and morals become questionable. After the first few sessions I called it quits, I am not going to a nightclub, not because of who I’m with, but everyone else mostly. Its sticky, cramped, smells like shit and the next person to elbow me while squeezing passed is getting chinned.

I was going to keep myself busy, get up early, be productive, go to the gym, do some uni work, some stuff for the foundation or our campaign. Anyone who wanted to meet for a coffee, let’s be having ye. This has served me very well for the most part. Getting up somewhere around 6 or 7am, going to the gym, coming home as people are dragging their hungover carcass in for their 9am lecture gives you a great sense of accomplishment. In the words of Tim Ferris, “Win the morning, win the day”. It was this that helped me keep my mind off alcohol for the longest time. Having something else going on to distract me from it. Being absolutely knackered in the evening that the only thing I wanted to do was sleep, never mind sit in my kitchen listening to some bloke from London chat complete and utter bullshit at 1am.

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I have tried to continue this process since I’ve come home from uni. Get up early, get something done as soon as possible and tick something off the to do list before most people get out of bed. Now I’m not saying I am some sort of productivity beast who smashes it day in, day out, because a lot of the time it is a serious pain in the hole when the alarm goes off, and I’ve snoozed it approximately 1 million times in the last week. It is tough, but when you awaken from your slumber and feel like you’ve accomplished something by simply getting out of bed, the rest of the day looks after itself.

That sort of mindset has helped me keep my mind off alcohol, stay busy and productive, and not be crying out for a pint come Friday afternoon. The best thing I can say for me, was distraction. That’s how this became, shall I say, easier than first thought.

I wanted to share a few lessons I garnered along the way, while there were many, here is my top 5, in no particular order.

  1. 1 year was easier than 1 month.

The thought of giving up booze for 1 year sounds dreadful. However, whether you want to think so or not, your mind will become accustomed to it. Early doors, there were a few instances where I nearly screwed the whole thing, purely by accident. Going to a pub with some guys and saying, “pint of Guinness please”. Wait, shit, back up. You sort of come to the conclusion that because it is so long away before you can have a drink, there is absolutely no point in worrying about it, or even looking forward to it. You are here now, get a cranberry mate. With 1 month off, the end date is always so close that all you can see is the finish line. You start to regret doing it in the first place and it becomes difficult not to go, “I’m at 20 days here, what difference is it going to make?” When I stopped for one month, I lost count of the number of people who said, you have to drink at XYZ party. Can you not add a week on at the end? When I decided to stop for a year, the pressure turned into congratulations or, “Jesus Christ, are you mental?”

  1. You get to know yourself much better.

After 6/7 years of social drinking, some binge drinking and a lot of hangovers, taking a year off enabled me to really take account of what is going on in my life, where I am, and how I got here. It was interesting to find out that I can actually show emotion, sometimes anyway. I think I’ve cried more in the last 12 months than I have in the previous 6 years combined. I am an angry wee man, but I am learning how and why, and I am able to identify what agitates me and what to do about it. I have improved my relationships with a number of people on a personal level, because those relationships have developed into more than a drinking acquaintance, and I have left some superficial relationships behind also. I am starting to discover what truly makes me happy.

  1. There are a lot more people who don’t drink than you would think.

About 21 per cent of UK adults surveyed in 2016 said they don’t drink, and that figure rises to 27 per cent for 16 to 24 year olds. 1 quarter of young people admitted they didn’t drink in 2016? That’s a lot. Mind you I don’t know how many people they asked, or where they asked them. That number is probably a lot lower if you stand outside the Students Union. Nevertheless, I encountered numerous people on nights out, at the pub or wherever who, when someone suggested a round or even that we go to the pub, have exclaimed that they don’t drink. The alcohol-free market is on fire at the minute. More and more beverage companies are producing an alcohol-free alternative, and more and more bars are stocking it.

  1. You can do it too.

Trust me, deciding what liquid you pour down your throat is not as hard as it might seem. Take one day at a time, one week at a time, one social event at a time. You’ll soon get over it and feel all the better for it. The first time you wake up after a night out completely hangover and fear free, feel proud of yourself and hold onto that feeling for the next time.

  1. You get to know your friends much better.

This sort of ties into point number 2, however as much as you know yourself, you never truly know someone until they are forced into a position where they can do nothing but react, as opposed to having time to think about their reactions and how that fits whatever mask they’ve put on that day. On occasion, I would think someone I was with would be supportive of my journey, they won’t try and peer pressure me into having a drink when they know I can’t. What a lesson that was. This was rare, thankfully, but it did happen. I’d be with people and someone would be like, “do you want a beer?” “Obviously not, dickhead”. “Awk go on, nobody will know, we won’t tell anyone”. “I’m good thanks, I’ll see you later”. By later I mean hopefully never. That’s not a good way to respect or treat someone you consider a friend. That’s being a dickhead.

I have been asked a lot, whether I will go back to drinking. It’s an interesting question, as if drinking is some sort of religion. It’s like asking those Amish kids on the TV that go to New York on the piss for a week, whether they will go back to their Amish families. It depends on your relationship with alcohol and whether you are in control of it, or it is in control of you. Needing to have a glass of wine after work to unwind? Think you’re losing that battle. For me, I will certainly have a pint of Guinness on the first day after my year, partly to prove a point to myself that I was able to do it, and secondly because I don’t think I have a problem with alcohol, at least not anymore. I would like to utilise it as a social thing, having a pint with your mates every so often, or at Christmas. One thing is for sure, massive piss ups every week are not my thing. You see too much when you go to a nightclub sober one too many times. A birthday party or a wedding? Straight to the bar no doubt. Beers after work? Not for me.

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I would like to say thank you to so many people, not only for any donations that I have gratefully received on behalf of The James Burke Foundation, but also for the moral support and words of encouragement. At times it has tested me in ways I’ve never been tested before. I have felt sad, angry, anxious, happy, grateful and excited at different times of this journey. My life has improved tremendously and I am very glad that I decided to take this challenge. Not a single moment of regret. Thank you to every single person who has sent me a message, patted me on the back or said a word when they have seen me about. It means an awful lot to me and at times, I probably wouldn’t have got through it without you. 

Cheers.

I have a story by Ian Whitehead.

This weeks instalment comes in the form of Ian Whitehead. A very honest account of times when he has suffered from depression. We thank Ian for opening up and sharing his story!

I started suffering symptoms of depression in October 2016 when I woke up one day in a bubble and struggling to break through it. I received counselling to diagnose my problems and discuss my feelings and emotions through my struggles. I realised that university life was becoming a struggle as well as suffering a serious injury in American football, which led me to think more suicidal, thinking whether day to day life was really worth it.

It got to a point where one day I couldn’t leave my room because I thought I was going to self harm, which I have done a couple of times fairly recently, but those thoughts made me ring the NHS 111 service who came over to my uni house and spoke to me whilst taking notes. They booked me an appointment and moved me into having rehabilitation appointments at the local medical centre.

Suffering symptoms of bipolar and schizophrenia, the doctor wasn’t sure what exactly was wrong with me but thought this all this was caused due to being severely depressed, to which they gave me a lot of medication to overcome these problems or at least calm them down.

Once checking out of rehab I felt better and the symptoms of depression calmed down but I’d still go through some daily struggles. I decided to go back to uni after having the year deferred and do a 4th year.

American football is my outlet and has been the reason as to why I haven’t committed suicide. As well as the support from friends and family, I sit here today with a degree in Sport, Coaching and Physical Education as well as reaching the division 1 finals with the Kent Exiles. I still suffer from depression and symptoms of bipolar to this date but with the help of medication and support, they have helped me overcome these problems and helped me become a better person. My aim now is help others. To guide and support them through the personal battles and problems.

I’ve also raised money for Mind mental health charity doing a full tough mudder and a half tough mudder.

I’m always here for people if they want to talk or discuss any problems they’re having. I’m only a message away.

One Year Off The Beer. Part 1

I thought I would talk about what I’ve learned from my year off alcohol. In order to do that, I thought I should start at the beginning and discuss my motivations behind such a difficult challenge that I set myself. Said motivations are two-fold. I have personal reasons, and not so personal reasons for taking on this challenge.

After James died, I had started to slowly take account of my own internals and mental health. From a selfish point of view, I was able to recognise that I was drinking too much (a big call from a university student). I would go out on a Wednesday with the boys to celebrate a win on Wednesday afternoon, or drown the sorrows of a loss. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but the problems arose when 1 night out blended into 3 (or 4 on occasion). Not being one for moderation, any night out was taken to excess, often drinking a lot more than required.

I had noticed it starting to affect my relationships with my friends, where I’d become a liability more often than not. My girlfriend, where any fights we had were due to me being hammered. The establishments in which the nights would occur, where I would on occasion end up in someone else’s scrap and be thrown out as a result. If I didn’t happen to be on good terms with most of the bouncers the rest of the time, I’d probably not have got back in again.

So, for obvious reasons, I could see how at least taking a break would make my life easier, and I wouldn’t have to deal with any fallout (often nuclear) the following day. My university work would often fall behind to the last-minute, and because that was priority, any other personal admin would be forfeited as a result. I could stop going out every week AND get my work done AND pursue other interests? Seemed like a fair enough trade-off.

I toyed with the idea of stopping for a month, which I have done on two occasions before in January for dryathlon. But a month seemed too easy, surely that wouldn’t be that hard? Was a month really long enough to make a long-term difference to my life? Probably not. I had seen comedian Kevin Bridges do an interview, where he talked about abstaining alcohol for a year, so I thought I’d give that a go.

I have been quite vocal on mental health this past year, and with the recent establishment of The James Burke Foundation, I had an external motivation that could help me. I decided I would try to raise money for the foundation, while at the same time telling people about my goal in order to hold myself accountable. I knew if I tried to keep it secret, to avoid the inevitable questions and banter that would come my way, I would break. By telling as many people as possible, as early as possible, I could negate that issue.

An added benefit that I hadn’t really considered beforehand was the hangover. Never underestimate how good a hangover free morning feels. I had decided that I would still make an effort to go on nights out with the boys, to prove to myself that as a person I can be good craic. As opposed to hiding behind the mask of alcohol, pretending to be something I wasn’t. For me, it was a big part of the challenge that I could be my authentic self in every environment, and not change mask depending on what stage of the play I found my part.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I committed about 4/5 days before I decided to start. I have been sober since October 10th 2017, which just so happens to be World Mental Health day. That wasn’t an accident. To be fair, I didn’t have a drink from the Sunday before hand, but I didn’t count those days (I started on a Wednesday).

The first week, no bother. Everyone can go a week without having a beer. It’s by the end of the second week that I started to feel the urges. I decided to go out to the usual watering hole exactly two weeks after I started. We would usually go to a few pubs before hand, easy enough. The early stages were generally ok, nobody was particularly drunk yet. It did start to get a bit rowdy before going to the final destination, and that’s where it started to go downhill. Everyone was hammered, loud and sustainable conversation became difficult. In fact, getting any sort of rational, coherent response from just about anyone was difficult. Safe to say, that did not last very long. I had high hopes, but it wasn’t to be.

All was not lost, at least going forward I knew that I probably wouldn’t enjoy staying any longer than 11pm, which meant I would be able to go home content. I have tested that theory a few times since, and confirmed it.

I was expecting to be inundated with people offering to buy me alcoholic drinks (because they’ve either forgotten, or they are an arsehole) but everyone, at least that knew, were encouraging me and saying that it was a great thing I was doing. A bit of motivation goes a long way.

Quite a number of people have told me that they wish they could do what I am doing. If you ask anyone that knows me well enough, I’d be safe in the knowledge that, “if I can do it, you can do it” will stand true. It takes willpower, commitment and personal responsibility, but if you have a goal or a vision greater than yourself, it’s not that hard. By that I mean, don’t stop drinking for the sake of stopping drinking. Have a goal, have a purpose, and stop worrying about what other people think.

Are we addicted to the device?

Do you find yourself picking up your phone first thing in the morning? Maybe leaving your phone on the table at dinner, or worse, at a restaurant? Perhaps you’ve noticed it around you, where someone will pick up their phone to send a text mid conversation? And those people who put their phone upside down?! So magnanimous.

It’s incredible the strength that our phones have over us. We can’t exist without them anymore. LIFE will stop if we forget our phones. Perhaps it’s not even the device, but what’s on it that counts. Not so much nowadays are people concerned with the latest iPhone or the latest whatever (I mean, not as much as the days where one had to upgrade to the latest Bluetooth Sony Ericsson so they can send their mate a Basshunter tune) but it’s all about who can get the most likes on Facebook, or followers on Instagram. The irony of me posting this on social media.

Image by medium (https://medium.com/@jsanchezbt/phone-addiction-the-new-drug-that-is-killing-us-softly-53b8b9454ad2)

You may have heard of dopamine. It controls the pleasure parts of the brain. It is released when we gamble, drink, smoke or have sex (and probably more things), and it is addictive. Social media also releases dopamine. In a world where we seek instant gratification, dopamine rewards us for seeking said gratification. Want food? Deliveroo. Want to see what your mates are up to? Facebook. Want a date? Tinder. Everything is instant these days, and when we have achieved our instant gratification, we get a hit of dopamine and hence we seek out more and more. It becomes increasingly difficult to put your device away in the hope that you’ll get a new text, email, or Facebook like.

Not only is the device addictive, but it encourages some, let’s say mental mistakes. Everyone likes to think they can make rational decisions, but they can’t. While there are any number of fancy sounding terms for different mental f*** ups, I’d like to draw your attention to one called The Availability Heuristic. A man by the name of Steven Pinker at Harvard University released research to show that we live in the least violent time in human history. Many people will debate this and refuse to believe it. “But all I see on Facebook is terrorism and violence, so how can this be true?”

Voila, the availability heuristic.

Not only is this the least violent time in history, it is also the time where information is most widely available. Probably worst case, news of a stabbing in Thailand will take a day to reach my newsfeed. That wasn’t possible 100 years ago. This is where the instant gratification comes in. We can’t put our phones down for two seconds for fear that we will miss out on an important news story that most likely has nothing to do with us, nor is there any way we can exact a response that will help the situation.

That’s just one example of how the instant information available through our device can conflict our view of the world. I am guilty of it myself sometimes, albeit I am trying to be better, but not long ago I deleted most social media. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. I thought the world would stop spinning. Reality check, no one cared. In fact nobody cares generally as much about your Instagram likes and followers as you do. Very recently, and only for a short while I de-activated my Facebook in an attempt to harbour more concentration and productivity. It helped, a lot. I almost found myself with nothing to do except what I didn’t want to do, I.e., my work. The device is very handy for procrastinating, and very bad for productivity.

I have kept my Facebook, for fairly obvious reasons at this point, but I would like to see myself thinning it out a little. Deleting people who’s values disagree with my own. For example, I find myself getting annoyed at some muppet’s opinion on a certain topic, and here I am talking about ignoring these exact type of people. The same principle would apply to this blog, or in fact just about anything on social media, if you don’t like it, don’t follow it. I’d also like to really sit down and go through all the weird pages I followed in 2012. You know those ones that have something supposedly really common as their name and bombard you with useless crap? (I went on Facebook at the time of writing for an example here. “Thinking if you raise your phone 6 inches in the air u will get better signal”, that shared a video of some weird device to aide snoring, and asked, “tag someone who needs this lmao”. WTF.)

What I’m getting at is that while the devices we use can be very useful for getting information and staying connected, it’s important not to focus on information or connections that slow us down, decrease our productivity, or straight up piss us off. The device is addictive, and a lot of people probably know that, but next time you are out and about, see how many people do some of things mentioned at the beginning of this article.

People often say that young people are terrible for their phones, which they are. However, I notice a lot of older people doing the exact same thing. Not only does the device distract us from our relationships with our friends, but they are distracting parents from their kids. A photo went viral where a kid was asked, if there was one piece of technology that you wish was never invented, what would it be? The child replied, “mobile phones, because my mum is constantly on hers and she ignores me”. That child is the same person sitting across from you while you are texting over dinner.

Image by fotolia by Adobe

Focus more on the information you can utilise and gain knowledge from, rather than information that you are concerned about, yet have no control over. What the Kardashian clan call their next baby might seem like something worth concern. It is not, nor do they care about your opinion of said name. Your addiction to the device fuels their income and thus, we have to read more s*** about them. It is a constant cycle of crap that is not within our control.

Oh, and next time you go for coffee and the person you are with takes out their phone in the middle of the conversation, smack them in the face. Or leave, whatever works for you.

One Year Later

This article is part 2 of an article I wrote last year for The Tab. You can find it here: https://thetab.com/uk/leeds/2017/06/03/male-suicide-pandemic-lets-start-talking-32856

So here I am, once again on a train. However instead of a song from The Fray, I’m listening to One More Light by Linkin Park. People often ask why I listen to sad songs, especially after everything that happened with James. It’s quite hard to give a definitive answer, maybe that’s my way of dealing with grief. For me, I am content with the fact that I have found a method, that works for me. I’ve seen it time and time again this year where people have tried to avoid dealing with loss, in the hope it’ll go away.

I used a very negative event to mark a significant shift in my life, which is very often the case. Over this past year I have learnt a lot from people who I admire, people like Stevie Ward and Sharon Burke. I have also learnt a lot from… other people, who I won’t name, but let’s say I’ve learnt what NOT to do.

Having been a university student for 3 years , I have been able to witness people putting on a mask for society, when we both know they aren’t like that behind closed doors. I have seen people avoiding the harsh realities of life, people pretending to care about things they don’t care about, so that their peers will like them. It’s like a massive beauty contest of, how many people can I get to like me all at once. There is nothing wrong with having people like you of course, but for me, I wanted to be true to myself, my values, and try to live everyday on my terms, where if someone I encountered had conflicting values with my own, it was in my best interest to not engage with said person.

Now that I have finished university, I have had time to reflect on the last 3 years. The friendships I have formed that will last a life time, and some that won’t make it past 3 weeks of graduating. The peaks and troughs of mental health as a student and a millennial. The dream that is sold to every naïve 18 year old, who is fresh out of school, promised that university will be the best years of their lives. Whilst possible, it’s not necessarily going to happen. For me, I wish I had been able to read an honest account of what was to come, both good and bad, to better prepare myself for the journey ahead, so that I was able to be content with my life situation rather than chase a dream too good to be true.

With that said, what’s changed? So far I have spoken to quite a few people who have asked for advice with regards to their mental health and while I’m no expert, it was nice to see people at least asking for help. University of Leeds Rugby League has been a significant part of my life, and I am proud to say I have been part of a very engaging mental health campaign this year, ItsOKNotToBeOK. With the help of American Football, we were able to raise money and awareness for mental health on campus, but more on that later. People have approached me in nightclubs (while I’m sober might I add) and said, “are you that guy from rugby league?” Well, I’m A guy from rugby league. “Who has done the mental health stuff?”. It sounds like I am blowing my own trumpet, but what I am trying to say is people know that mental health is a thing, they know suicide rates are on the rise and are thankful someone is talking about it. It’s been part of the driving force to keep me going, and to start this blog. If no one cared, I probably wouldn’t bother.

I have been fortunate enough to go on a retreat with Mantality Magazine, courtesy of Stevie Ward, which opened my eyes to self awareness and mindfulness, which I had dabbled in before hand, but this was a fully immersive experience. With that in mind, with the help of a few others, we created the Mantality Society at university. Now that I have left, I hope it will carry on doing incredible things and open more peoples eyes, particularly Wim Hof breathing.. unbelievable.

The James Burke Foundation (my favourite part) was officially registered in April and aims to provide education in mental health awareness and help combat the stigma behind suicide and depression. I have worked alongside Sharon Burke to be a part of this, and we both know that the student body is a massive market where mental health issues are on the rise, and the available help is on the decline. After her son James committed suicide last year, Sharon has been on a mission to make the Foundation come alive, and has already rolled out its first set of courses, which I was lucky enough to take part in before I head back home. Having identified a gap in the market, The James Burke Foundation will change the game. Watch this space.

In late September, early October I identified that I was drinking a lot (I was a student after all, also Irish) but I started to question why. Was I really enjoying myself, or was I hiding behind a mask that I had created for myself? I knew I drank a lot, but I’d always put that down to being good at it, rather than a more plausible reason. When I took time to really think about my life, and what 3 day sessions were doing to me, it’s no wonder I hated the other 4 days a week. “I feel like shit, I need a drink”… yeah, good idea pal. Made sense to me, probably rings true for a lot of people. Now, I don’t like to do things in half measures (3 day bender, half marathons out of nowhere), so when I decided to take a little break from alcohol, to clear my head and see how it affected me, I thought, go big or go home right? I could stop for a month, but that’s boring, so I decided I would take 1 year off alcohol. 365 days. Game changer. I will be writing about the things I have learnt from this specifically nearer the end. I’m 7 months in and here I am writing a blog post.

Only my second blog post ever, so bear with me on this. Thought I would tie up the last year after my last article and share insights into what’s changed for me, and what I have seen. This is the first thing I have written over 1000 words that I haven’t hated every single word of. Feedback appreciated. Enjoy.

“Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do” (Linkin Park, 2017)