Vicar's wife and Radio 4 regular Anne Atkins shocked friends and family when she described herself as an alcoholic. Here she reveals how she battled the booze – and won
Ready for a new beginning: Anne Atkins gave up alcohol for Lent and it changed the way she saw alcohol forever
A short while ago, I wrote in the Daily Mail of my apprehension about giving up alcohol for Lent in what was a carefully chosen act of denial.
While I wasn’t damaging relationships, spending money I couldn’t afford or indulging in the other tragedies of alcoholism, I had been drinking more than I wanted to – and finding it almost impossible to cut down.
Perhaps provocatively, I described myself as ‘alcoholic’. An alarming appellation, but if I were eating chocolate every day I’d call myself a ‘chocoholic’.
Anyway, I wanted to shock myself, and those around me, into taking the issue seriously, because, along with my family and probably a large number of my friends, I had been drinking alcohol almost every evening for some time.
I never totted it up, but I was probably drinking more than the government-recommended maximum, which is 14 units a week for women and 21 for men.
So did my husband Shaun and I achieve our goal of giving up alcohol for Lent Judge for yourself.
At about 7pm on Ash Wednesday, I was still at my desk working and would have dearly loved to pour my customary opener to the evening: a glass of wine or a small sherry.
I concocted an alcohol-free cocktail instead: five splashes of Tabasco, a spoonful of Worcestershire Sauce, two shakes of celery salt, pepper, a slurp of lemon juice, and the rest of the glass filled with tomato juice.
A drink so hot that, like alcohol, it took a while to sip down and had a kick far stronger.
It felt good. The truth is – and I’ve long known this – I would happily have fiery tomato juice most evenings instead of a glass of wine. True, it doesn’t relax me in the same way, but it does give me renewed energy.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to pull out a cork than to make a drink from scratch.
The same goes for my nightcap: I like a mug of hot milk with honey, but it has to go into the microwave, be watched, be removed from the microwave, the honey stirred in, and the drink kept warm during my bath so it’s still hot when I get to bed.
How much simpler to pour a small tot of whisky.
One study has indicated that women from managerial or professional backgrounds are 19 per cent more likely to drink heavily at home, compared with women in working-class households
I’d set myself the challenge of not drinking alcohol, so it was worth making the extra effort to have a non-alcoholic drink.
Why wasn’t it worth it before I’d simply got into the habit of taking the lazy option.
There were other evenings, if we were particularly tired or we’d had a difficult day, when, I confess, we would have loved an alcoholic treat, but still we resisted.
We remained strong even when we were invited to a black tie dinner and were the only people in the room drinking water. But how lovely it was to feel so fresh and alive on the bike ride home, and so well the next morning.
Then, about halfway through Lent, I gave a lunchtime lecture for a Ladies’ Guild, and my hostess told me we would be having champagne afterwards.
‘Oh!’ I moaned. Champagne has always been my favourite drink.
When I explained my situation, however, she offered the perfect solution – ‘We’ll give you a bottle to take home!’
She instructed me to drink it on Mothering Sunday. The conventional Church teaching is that every Sunday is a feast day, even in Lent, and therefore exempt from fasting – particularly Mothering Sunday – otherwise known as Refreshment Sunday.
So while this may not be generally known, it is perfectly respectable to exclude Sundays from Lenten abstinence.
More women over 55 are dying of alcohol-related causes than any other age group
Nevertheless, I agonised about my champagne for about a week.
In the end, the fact that we had old friends whom we rarely see travelling hours to have lunch with us that day was the deciding factor. Celebrations were called for.
As I observed in my original piece, wine used to be for special occasions rather than an everyday tipple for the middle-classes.
This was definitely a special occasion, so we had the bottle of champagne, then red wine with our roast lunch. About three glasses each, over the course of the afternoon.
I thought the occasion would be a good test of how we were getting on, and of whether we could take up abstinence again.
In the past I might have faltered, but this time it was delightfully easy: the following day we simply resumed our teetotal lifestyle.
On Palm Sunday, again after prior agreement, I had a glass-and-a-half of bubbly and a small glass of red wine at a celebratory family lunch hosted by Shaun’s sister.
My only real blip came late one night, two or three weeks in. I was making Gravadlax, as taught by our daughter’s Norwegian chef boyfriend. I was marinating salmon in dill, salt, sugar, coriander and Aqua Vit – a Scandinavian spirit which he’d left for me.
Nobody was around. I poured myself a tiny liqueur glassful, and drank it. No one would ever have known – but I resolved to confess all.
Admittedly, it was so little that I didn’t feel particularly guilty, and it didn’t make me want more. But it hadn’t given me any pleasure either, so it wasn’t worth breaking my resolution for.
Shaun and I discussed our abstinence. I thought going public was what helped me most. Whenever I was tempted to have a drink, I thought: ‘Do I want to confess that I couldn’t do this’ Emphatically not.
So if you want to cut back on alcohol, or stop drinking it completely, my first recommendation is to tell as many friends as possible what you’re doing.
Doing it with others also helped. I couldn’t have done it if Shaun hadn’t too, and four of our five children (our youngest daughter is only eight) also gave up drinking.
Perhaps most helpful of all was analysing exactly what I was addicted to. I already suspected it wasn’t the alcohol itself, and I certainly had no physical symptoms from giving up.
What I enjoy, apart from the taste of wine, are the associations that go with alcohol.
Champagne means happy weddings. Pimm’s signifies long, lazy days in the garden. Mulled wine is for Christmas. A bottle or two of wine had become associated with joyful family suppers together at home, while a drink at the end of a day offered relaxation after work.
I can’t entirely divorce some of these events from their alcoholic connections, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to, but I realised that if I shifted my thinking, I could find substitute associations.
So I began imagining homemade lemonade on a summer’s day, and dark, cream-laced hot chocolate drunk late at night instead of a glass of port.
After that, everything fell into place. Celebrating Shaun’s homecoming at the end of the day with tonic water and fresh lime proved just as relaxing as a glass of wine.
When it comes to breaking a habit, I now realise that choosing the right time to try to do so is critical to success.
Cutting back: Anne and her husband Shaun have decided to no longer buy cheap wine and to view alcohol as a special and rare treat – rather than as something to have whenever they feel like it
Three years ago, Shaun had taken a new post with a church which, unbelievably, failed to house us.
We were homeless for nearly a year, then in extremely cramped housing for three more. This eventually resulted in Shaun having a work-induced breakdown, which meant we were then threatened with eviction again.
It was a deeply traumatic time for the family.
At the time, I told our wonderful GP I thought I was drinking too much. In response, she offered common sense and compassion.
‘For goodness’ sake, Anne,’ she said. ‘Haven’t you enough to cope with Go home and have a lovely glass of wine.’
I was taken aback, but she was right. At that time, cutting down on booze would simply have added to my misery.
Now we are settled and happier, it’s much more realistic to change our lifestyle.
And the benefits Shaun said he felt much healthier, though he has put on weight after snacking on cheese or dried fruit when he came home from work, instead of pouring himself a drink.
I slept better – for years alcohol has affected the quality of my sleep – and woke more refreshed. But the real benefits were the psychological ones.
I’d been irritated with myself for years for deciding to cut down on alcohol then not doing so. Achieving what I’d determined to do this Lent has given me back a sense of self-control.
It inspired me to address other issues, too. A day or two into Lent, I dared to stand on the scales for the first time in years and discovered that I’d put on nearly two stone over a decade.
I went on a strict diet as a result, and so far I’ve lost more than a stone.
A few weeks later, one of my sons suggested I consume too much caffeine, and that it was affecting my concentration. So I gave up caffeine the next day – and had a splitting headache for the rest of the week.
I was clearly physically dependent on caffeine in a way I never have been on alcohol.
When I wrote about my apprehension over giving up alcohol for Lent, I was fascinated by people’s reactions. Some responded with near-hysteria, others with patronising concern.
There was gratitude, too: many said I had described their situation exactly: you get a bit low, you want a pick-me-up, you pour a comforting drink, and before you know it you’re drinking way over the recommended maximum, and unable to cut back.
Several people thanked me for my bravery in speaking out so publicly, and one woman most movingly crossed the town where I live to put a thank you card through my door.
She told me I had given her the courage to tackle comfort eating, which was her addiction.
So what of the future How will we relax the ban without slipping back into our previous excessive habits
Our daughter, Bink, who is in her mid-twenties, is adamant we mustn’t have a single drink until we’ve had a family conference so we can agree on a policy.
She has suggested we each measure units meticulously for the first few months, and write in a ‘Drinks Diary’ what we have consumed, which I think is a great idea.
Shaun says we should never again buy wine cheap enough that we feel we can just open a bottle whenever we feel like it.
The transition to drinking sparkling water with supper hasn’t been difficult, and my father – who lives with us – now brings a large bottle of ginger beer to the table instead of his contribution of wine.
I want us to return to how we were 15 years ago, when drink was a rare, and more appreciated, treat. The special occasions needn’t be anything more than friends for supper, but definitely not every day.
We should stick to the government guidelines, at least until we have firmly changed our habits.
As for right now, and most importantly of all, I feel spiritually ready for a new beginning.