The Dry January Experience.

One of the many alcohol-themed pictures decorating my kitchen. This one was given to me by a girlfriend who knows me all too well.

One of the many alcohol-themed pictures decorating my kitchen. This one was given to me by a girlfriend who knows me all too well.

Just over a month ago, I opened the fridge, and the bottle of chilled rosé winked provocatively at me from beside the orange juice carton. My hand wavered on its way to the juice, and all willpower promptly dissolved. Once poured into a delicate stemmed glass, the rosé provided the illusion of a luxurious reward for the end of my day.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not exactly the female answer to Gérard Depardieu. Lindsay Lohan could drink me under the table within minutes. I’m a typical example of the mother who reaches for her first glass of rosé whilst simultaneously burning dinner, tripping over the dog, emptying the washing machine and resolving conflicts between her offspring.

That evening, I was irritated to see that “wine o’clock” had become an automatic reflex that wasn’t so much a pleasure as a habit. Many people have told me that if you can’t do without something on a daily basis, it is an addiction. I have often wondered if that means I need therapy because I cannot go to bed without having cleaned my ears with cotton buds. Or if I should consult a counsellor from “Peanut Addicts Anonymous” for my daily fix of Arachis hypogaea. When exactly does a daily habit become an addiction?

I didn’t find an answer to my question on internet, but I did find Alcohol Concern’s website, and a challenge called “Dry January”: no alcohol for one month. I liked the idea – an opportunity to prove to myself that I really did have more self-control than a golden retriever discovering a tennis ball machine in the back garden. If I was addicted, I’d be clawing my way up the curtains in despair within days.

So I signed up. I apologise to Dry January, because I cheated and used my parents’ UK postcode. Please forgive me, DJ, and consider letting non-UK residents take part without having to lie through their teeth next year. We expats in wine-growing countries could add a whole new slant to your statistics: here in France, a litre of droolingly drinkable plonk costs less than petrol in the UK, giving us a temptation rating equal to that of a four-year-old left to his own devices in a Cadbury’s warehouse.

Gladys showed the collateral damage caused to her provençale villa after inviting her English pals to try a selection of best wines in the village.

Gladys showed the collateral damage caused to her Provençal villa after inviting her English pals to try a selection of the best wines in the village. Image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Over the month, I regularly read Dry January’s Facebook page, a real source of inspiration. My resolve was considerably strengthened by the determination and solidarity of those taking part – the challenge worked a charm because people can encourage each other and be accountable to each other. Being accompanied is clearly a key factor to successfully achieve any major life change.

To multiply the accountability factor, I made the promise to you lot, my super blogger pals, who checked out my daily exploits and kept me on track… because I promised, and I hate looking like a loser. And finally, I swore an oath of abstinence to P.F. and my three bemused offspring who (for once) were stumped for words before falling off their chairs and rolling on the floor laughing.

The aim

The aim was simple on paper: give up alcohol for one month. As I’m an eternal optimist, I added an hour of exercise every day for good measure. I have been terminally allergic to sport for all my adult life, and it was as good a time as any to gently get back on track. Having never worked out the interest of paying for the privilege of running on a treadmill in a giant cage full of lycra-clad, poney-tail swishing hamsters with gadgets strapped to their arms and leads sticking out of their ears, I decided to get outside with Smelly Dog and explore. It doesn’t cost a penny, and you don’t have to inhale the smell of other people’s armpits or suffer the humiliation of being thrown off the running machine.

We quickly worked out a circuit through the local vineyards (that’s what you could term Dry January karma). Once we had established that we weren’t going to give up, we invested in a pedometer. We shunned the über-sexy “name and shame” gadgets that shamelessly broadcast everything bar your knicker size and the number of times you fart as you wheeze your way around the local park, and went for a cheap and monastic version that keeps our modest accomplishments (distance, number of steps and walking time) to itself.

Result? We have walked over 203,000 steps, or 145km (90 miles) over the month. Walking is amazingly good for the soul, particularly when attempting abstinence for the first time in 12 years. Excuse the pun, but motivating music, sunshine and great countryside are ideal to lift a trainee teetotaler’s spirits.

So, how did the abstinence go?

The first week, I surfed the virtuosity wave. I was a disdainful diva when faced with a glass of wine, even declining champagne on the beach to toast in the new year. By the middle of the second week, however, the saintly queen of self-control and restraint was glowering, Gollum-like, over her glass of Perrier and lime, as she observed a grinning PF savouring his evening beer.

Ch-ch-ch-ch- changes….

Once I had got through the first two weeks, I started to notice the first benefits of the experience. The first, blatantly obvious change was in weight and volume. I’m not talking about myself here, but the recycling bag. I never thought I could feel virtuous at the local dump, and it had bugger all to do with the environment.

The recycling run, before Dry January. Photo credit: Annabel Symington.

The recycling run, before Dry January.
Photo credit: Annabel Symington.

I was in bed snoring shamelessly before ten and was awake before the alarm at 6.15. My skin was looking better. I had more energy, and was smug to see that I could still exercise a little discipline over myself. I was half–way there – so it would be silly to crack now. I had a spring in my step I hadn’t felt for a very long time.

I was fitter, too. Although weight loss wasn’t a decisive factor for me, I have lost 5 lb and banished two inches of muffin top from my waistline, which is definitely better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper. Like many other people on Dry January’s page, my problem was the inexplicable need to substitute one treat for another – let’s face it, if you replace half bottle of wine by a bucket of cocoa and a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk every evening, you’re not likely to see your waistline shrink much.

A mystery is solved…

However, the most unexpected effect of stopping alcohol was a surprise: my multiple dashes to the loo mysteriously ceased. I used to blame it on the coffee, but discovered mid-January that I had been barking up the wrong tree. Alcohol is a diuretic. It sends a message to your kidneys telling them to empty your body of any water it comes across,  gagging and holding hostage a hormone called vasopressin who would otherwise be telling your kidneys to absorb water on arrival. Without this message, your bladder does a Hoover Dam impression every ten minutes. So the next time you’re at the pub and you see people dashing for the loo every ten minutes, you now know why: when Herr Hormone’s away, the bladder plays.

I was eating less rubbish. Here again, alcohol was the culprit: it opens up your appetite and makes you reach for those salty nibbles. The salt makes you thirsty, so you head for the fridge and fill up your glass, then the alcohol presses the « hungry button »…. bis repetita, ad nauseam. Less alcohol = less nibbles. Less nibbles = less fat + less cholesterol + less weight. Not exactly rocket science, but a winning equation nevertheless.

So what’s next, you ask ?

I’ve got used to this new routine. I am now capable of looking at the bottle of wine that has been in the fridge since December… and leaving it there. And there it will stay. I’ll be sticking to my lime & Perrier… for the moment.

I can’t see myself stopping the outdoor activity, simply because it makes me feel good. So here’s the deal… C25K. Couch to 5K. I have had the podcasts on my computer for light years, and now that I’ve got my body used to regular activity, I want to give it a go. So lift your glass of whatever to me as I try to move from my two factory setting speeds, stop and start, to three: stop, start, and run. One day at a time.

Mrs Playmo sobering up in the stream after drinking an entire bottle of champagne to celebrate my completion of Dry January.

Mrs Playmo sobering up in the stream after drinking an entire bottle of champagne to celebrate my completion of Dry January.

Grateful thanks to all who followed Mrs Playmo’s adventures this month. The conclusion is coming up soon… we are currently trying to track down Mr Playmo, who has disappeared without a trace….

In at the deep end.

I don’t call my son Bigfoot for nothing: his size 46 feet could easily qualify as flippers. He was spotted as potential competition material last year by the pool trainers, and I’ve been taxiing his Lordship and his collection of swimming paraphernalia back and forth to the local pool for training sessions three times per week ever since.

His two hours of training three times a week first appeared to be very good value, unbeatable at 130 euros for the year. However, I quickly discovered the hidden costs: the pool is 20 minutes’ drive from home, so I hang around whilst he trains to save on two return journeys.

That’s all very well and good, but the wait becomes expensive when the only available activity is to trail around the only other place that is open and has lighting: the nearby shopping mall. After cracking for overpriced imported ginger nuts, chutney and golden syrup once too often, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and brave the hazardous waters of exercise in the hope of investing less to achieve more.

swimming pool

swimming pool (Photo credit: freefotouk)










Now that my cholesterol level is acceptable and I’ve cleaned up my nutritional act, it would be good to get the remaining carcass back into training and tone it up a bit. Regular readers may however remember that I am about as compatible with exercise as King Kong is with needlepoint embroidery. But in the current context of European crisis, there was a strong argument for reducing spending and increasing health. Could I reverse the trend and be slimmer than my bank account?

So on Friday I reluctantly towed my swimming gear to the pool for the sixth time in three weeks, and endeavoured to avoid swallowing the entire pool as I choked my way up and down it. Two muscley, streamlined poseidons strutted out of the changing rooms, whirled their arms around like windmills then slapped their upper arms in a strange pre-swim ritual before adjusting their googles and their surgically-applied Speedo trunks. Once they were certain that all female eyes within a 10km radius were riveted on them, they plummeted into the pool without a splash and effortlessly cut their way through the water like hot knives through butter, their triceps, biceps and other perfectly honed youth-ceps glistening as they torpedoed through 20 lengths of the pool in the same time I took to swim four.

My chin unhinged and dropped open, letting the chlorine flood in. A woman laughed as she saw me choking, and chuckled “Don’t worry, they’re just pretending they know how to swim!” over her shoulder as she swam past.

As I finished my tenth length of the pool, my low self-esteem was dragging me towards the bottom like a dragnet full of tuna. I was a 2CV who had been overtaken by a Ferrari on the motorway. A tug rather than a Queen Mary of the aquatic world. Hanging on to the side, I gasped like a grounded herring, drowning in self-pity as I tried to massage a cramp in my left calf….and then I saw Bigfoot ploughing his way down the other side of the pool, encouraged by a coach. His back arched out of the turquoise water, his head bobbed rhythmically in and out of the spray, and his arms churned in synchro as he swam the butterfly. His determination to succeed came over loud and clear on my mummy radar. Despite the pain in my leg, I felt the warmth of maternal pride spreading through me and decided to clean my act up.

My smug, self-congratulatory moment was interrupted by the conversation of two young women behind me, who were ruthlessly demolishing the reputation of an unknown victim. “He’s just not motivated, ya know?” complained one of them in a nasal whine.  “Yeah, like your little Buddha’s gonna lose that pot belly of his without making an effort”, replied the nasty sidekick with a voice as smooth as a grater.  “He just hangs on to the end of the pool and says he’s tired. What a wimp”. I turned around, and was greeted by the vision of two tatooed, bikini-clad wonders, hair neatly pinned up on their heads. There was so much waterproof mascara on those eyelashes that I was surprised they hadn’t got tangled up whilst they talked. I secretly hoped that neither of them would spit in the water before I got out of the pool: they were so full of venom, they’d cause serious burns to anyone who swam too close.

They pushed off (in both senses of the term) and paddled delicately towards the deep end, their necks craned high out of the water like submarine telescopes to keep their hair dry. Their victim was a young man who was hanging onto the pool steps, staring sadly at the nearby lifeguard’s perfect physique. He sighed as he saw his torturers approaching.

A boy in a children's swimming pool.

A boy in a children’s swimming pool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is where doting Dad and his wailing offspring made things fun. As I already explained in “Beach Babes”, there are parents who never realise that their kids are growing up and bubblewrap them against the assaults of real life for years on end.  At the other end of the scale, you have the parents who think their kids are capable of passing their driving test, getting into University then starting a business at the age of four. This guy was one of them. He marched down to the deep end with his tot in tow. A gaudy gold chain snaked through the thick, dark undergrowth sprouting all over his torso, and the smell of his cheap aftershave left people gasping for breath in his wake. This was the ultimate local silverback. He shoved his quivering offspring onto the platform just above the venomous pool princesses, and snapped “Off ya go!” His skinny, shivering child wavered, and looked back at his Dad, who yelled “Come on kid, give it some gumption! Look, Daddy’ll show you how”.

Without waiting, he grabbed the kid’s hand and threw himself into the pool. The impact was worthy of a meteorite hitting the Pacific, and the pool princesses’ hair was drenched in the ensuing nuclear mushroom of spray. His child broke surface beside them, hair plastered over his eyes, and screamed hysterically in their faces. The sad boyfriend’s face split into a huge grin.  In the end, I quite enjoy going to the pool. Roll on tomorrow, I can’t wait!