I Quit Alcohol...By Accident
How Illness Paved My Way to Better Health
2021 was the fresh start I didn't plan for or expect.
This time last year, I was in Chile, sipping on piscolas with my best friend. Having come from a family of ex pats, she'd moved back to Santiago after we finished high school, and I hadn't seen her in years. Naturally, we spent a lot of time reminiscing...and drinking. We talked about the good times, the bad times, and the funny times. And on this particular evening, as we drank ourselves silly, we remembered back to when we were 18 and we'd shared our first drink together (it's legal in Oz). That was when I mentioned that I hadn't gone a week without alcohol since that time.
My friend was shocked.
'Are you serious?' she said. 'I go six months at a time without it.'
I was shocked.
'I guess drinking is just a big part of Australian culture,' I said. 'I can't really imagine going a month without it.'
'I think you should try. I think it would be good for you.'
'Ok, I will,' I replied, knowing deep down that I wasn't willing to see it through.
A few weeks later, I was on a plane back to Sydney, making the most of the complimentary red wine on board. It was Friday March 13th, 2020 - a couple of days before the flight-slashing began. While the proverbial hadn't quite hit the fan, there was a palpable uneasiness on that flight, and the wine helped to soothe my nerves.
When I got off the plane, it felt like everything had changed. People had become weary of each other; the supermarkets had been emptied; news anchors spoke of chaos at home and abroad. Soon enough, the city was in lockdown. People started losing their jobs, and I found I couldn't get one. Before I knew it, I was reaching for the gin bottle on a daily basis.
This trend continued for a few months. I was still functional; I picked up casual work - albeit sporadically - and threw myself into creative projects. I tried to remember to eat well, and to stay connected with friends. Need I say, we were absolutely ecstatic when the pubs reopened in June, and we were able to drink in groups again.
However, by mid-July, my health started to deteriorate. I was getting increasingly tired, and increasingly sick. I had to take antibiotics for a bladder infection. When the infection recurred, I took another round, but the drinking never faltered.
By late August, I couldn't function. I was experiencing severe headaches, chills, a fever, nausea and abdominal pain. I could barely eat. Every day, I lost more and more weight. I went to the doctor to have some tests done, but amid the chaos of COVID-19, no one got back to me. I tried again. I was (mis?)diagnosed with another bladder infection, and I was put on a third round of antibiotics.
By mid-September, the doctors finally got to the bottom of it. I had clostridium difficile - an antibiotic resistant 'superbug' - in my gut. It wasn't clear where or when I'd caught it, but my overuse of antibiotics had allowed for the bug to take over. I was prescribed a special course of antibiotics with a 70% clearance rate. My doctor printed out some information for me to read, which explained that relapses were relatively likely.
I hoped for the best.
Though I managed to clear the infection with the first round of antibiotics, the three months that followed were extremely difficult. I'd lost 10kg and I was underweight. I was suffering from all sorts of nutritional deficiencies - including iron-deficiency anaemia - and finding it difficult to battle the fatigue, anxiety and pain. I had to teach myself to eat again, but I'd developed sensitivities to certain foods and drinks, including gluten, dairy, legumes, caffeine and - of course - alcohol.
I remember feeling strange when I realised that I'd gone for three months without any alcohol. I reported it to my best friend - who was still in lockdown in Santiago - and she congratulated me. But it didn't feel like a personal achievement. The truth was that even if I'd wanted a drink, my body wouldn't have been able to handle it. It felt like a choice that had been made for me, not by me.
That was nearly two months ago, now. Meaning that I've gone nearly five months without a drink. It seems absurd, now, to think that I couldn't imagine going a week without one, and that I didn't feel like the choice was within my control.
My health hasn't fully been restored, and I've been left with some uncomfortable symptoms. But when I learned that an old acquaintance of mine had been struggling with a chronic clostridium difficile infection for over two years, I realised how lucky I am to be on the mend.
I'm eternally thankful that I was given the right advice, not only from my doctor, but from nutritionists, as well. They highlighted the importance of lifestyle and put me on a low-sugar, high-fibre diet filled with plenty of prebiotic foods and probiotic supplements. They also warned me against eating too much junk food or drinking any alcohol, and I realised that maybe - just maybe - the drinking was the thing that had eroded my health in the first place.
So here I am. It's been a year since I was sipping piscolas with my best friend, and my life has drastically changed. It was difficult for me to figure out what my New Year's resolution was going to be because - like so many other people - I tend to make resolutions that pertain to my health. It's usually to drink less, eat better or sleep more. Given that I'm already doing those things, I had to have a really good think about what I actually wanted out of this year.
I decided that what I really want to do this year, is to look after myself because it feels good, not because I believe it's what I 'should' be doing. In other words, I want my approach to wellness to be intuitive as opposed to neurotic. Thanks to my sickness, I've been forced to give up many of my vices (including but not limited to alcohol), which I didn't think I had the strength to do. I'm on a good trajectory, and it would be foolish for me to waste the second chance that I've been given. In this way, I see the illness and suffering that I experienced last year, as a blessing and a fresh start.
If you're reading this and looking to improve your own health, don't worry - I'm not suggesting that you go and make yourself sick in order to simulate some kind of reset. Nor am I suggesting that you become and teetotaller for the sake of it. My journey to better health was an accident, and it could have led to a much grimmer outcome. However, what I will say is that looking after yourself is a lot easier than you think it is when you're stuck in a cycle of limiting beliefs, like, 'I can't stop drinking, it's just a part of my culture.'
If I'd looked after myself a bit more to begin with and listened to the messages that my body was sending me, I wouldn't have had to experience months of pain, weakness and decreased productivity. And the truth is, if you abuse your body for long enough, you're eventually going to get sick.
This year, be sure to ask yourself these questions:
- Do I feel well?
- If not, what's stopping me from feeling well?
- How badly do I want to get better?
If the answer to Question 3 question is 'very badly', then you're on the right track. The power is in you. All you need to remember is that you actually deserve to feel better. The great thing about wellness is that once your physical health starts to improve, your mental and emotional wellbeing tends to improve, too. You can do more and be more, for yourself, and for others
To make things a bit simpler, here are 5 practical habits you can adopt with me this year. And remember Voltaire's wise words: 'Perfect is the enemy of good.'
1. Each morning, do a guided breathing meditation with Wim Hof.
During the worst part of my sickness, I started doing this every day, and it’s totally revolutionised the way the way I breathe. So, I've decided to keep it up. It works best if you do it before breakfast. Just make sure that you listen to all of the instructions and perform the meditation in a safe environment. You can look forward to better breathing, decreased anxiety, and - according to Wim - improved immunity.
2. Aim for a serving of fermented food every couple of days.
Prebiotic fibre and probiotics are so important for gut health, which is intimately linked to mental health. When I was at my sickest, I was on a high-strength probiotic powder. Now, I'm segueing into fermented foods, which will help to keep things in balance in the long-term, and act as a preventative measure against reinfection. My favourite fermented food is sauerkraut, but you can opt for yoghurt, kombucha, tempeh or any of these foods instead. Happy gut, happy mind.
3. On weekdays, hit the sack no later than 10pm.
I used to be a real night owl, and so I empathise with those who have the urge to stay up all night. However, it takes a massive toll on your health. These days, I try to go to bed as early as possible. I find that 10pm is a good cut-off because if you get up at 7am each morning, it allows you to squeeze in your 9 hours (7-9 hours is the recommended amount for the average person, but there are clear benefits to getting more sleep).
Let your body repair. Have some crazy, fun dreams. Your health, immunity and quality of life will soar.
4. Eat with nutrition in mind.
Diet culture got everyone focused on calories, carbs and fat alone. Don't be fooled...there are so many important nutrients that our bodies rely on to function properly and ward off disease, and our focus should be on making sure that our bodies receive these nutrients through a balanced diet.
If you want to figure out whether you're meeting your body's nutritional needs, you can check out these Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). If you're not meeting the DRIs, you may need to talk to a specialist about making some dietary changes.
5. Only drink on special occasions.
For me, this one is a big one. I don't want to say that I'm never going to drink again, because I'm sure there will be nights where it feels like the right thing to do. However, my days of binge drinking - and drinking alone - are well behind me. I'm feeling stronger and more energised than I have in years, and I wouldn't want to risk losing it again.
I didn't know what I had until it was gone.
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