There’s a final to step to the kids’ bedtime routine that many parents relish: tiptoe out of the room and beeline for the kitchen to pour a celebratory wine. After all, what signals ‘time to relax’ more than the clink of a glass? You’ve earned it.
With so many of us now juggling homeschooling and working-from-home in these highly-stressful times, we can all be forgiven for going through a few more bottles than usual. A scroll through social media reveals a common thread, with parents worldwide joking about their increasing reliance on alcohol to see us through the coronavirus pandemic. Harmless, right?
Annie Grace is the author of This Naked Mind, and hasn’t had a drink in five years. She hasn’t quit drinking, though – she just hasn’t felt like one. And before you ask, yes, she has kids! It was an incident with her children, in fact, ending with them soaked in beer below the famous London Eye, which inspired Annie’s research into her desire to drink.
What she discovered was revolutionary. “Alcohol doesn’t actually help you unwind”, she explains. “It actually increases your stress. And when you understand so clearly that the drink isn’t doing what you thought it was – that it isn’t relaxing you and it isn’t helping you unwind and it is actually making things worse – your desire for it fades. And, once your desire is gone, you’re not tempted to drink.”
Sounds too simple to work? Think again. Over 100,000 people have used This Naked Mind to better understand their relationship with drinking. Positive reviews abound. The book has been developed into a program, a live web class, a video intensive, and a podcast.
And that bedtime routine? “There were so many times I was just trying to rush the kids off to bed so I could drink”, says Annie. “Or, if they were taking too long to fall asleep, and I knew the bottle was waiting for me downstairs, I would be frustrated. But I now savor bedtime, I savor reading before bed, I savor so many things I was rushing through before.” If there’s one thing this enforced slow-down time has taught us so far, it’s how rushed our lives have been. Maybe it’s time to slow down the drinking, too.
Main image: Jiwon Kim
It was an incident with your kids that actually helped you to realise that you may have a problem with alcohol - can you tell us about that?
I was over in London. We had been living there on and off for my job. It had been a really heavy drinking week, and it was Saturday morning, and we planned to take the kids over to the London Eye, the huge ferris wheel. We were rushing out the door and I felt just awful, so I opened the fridge to find something to drink to make me feel better and I saw this huge 40-ounce can of beer and I thought, “OK, great, perfect,” and I put it in my bag because it was super early and in my mind I couldn’t drink that early. But I thought, “As soon as it’s noon, I can drink this.”
That was one of those little lines that I thought, ‘as long as I don’t cross it, I’ll be fine’. So I put it in my bag, and then we were at the London Eye and the line was much shorter than I thought it was going to be. I had forgotten all about the beer until I realized they were checking bags, and I wasn’t going to be able to bring it up with me. So I went to the garbage, and I was trying to sneak the beer out of my bag and throw it away, and my kids were right there and I dropped the can. It exploded and sprayed beer all over them. They were drenched in beer, my bag was drenched in beer, and I was looking at my husband and we were trying to laugh about it but inside I was dying. This was not the mom I wanted to be. My kids smelled the entire rest of the day. And, in that moment, I just said ‘this is not who I want to be in the world.’
What inspired you to write This Naked Mind? How did you develop the concept?
What inspired me to write This Naked Mind was really my own journey, which began not long after that London incident. For years, I’d been on this roller coaster of trying to make promises to myself and breaking them, and it was like, “OK, I’m not going to drink until Friday,” and then I’d break that. So, I’d be like, “Well, I’m not going to drink until Wednesday, at least Hump Day,” and then I’d break that. And, then I’d be like, “I’m just going to have one alcohol-free day a week,” and then I’d break that. And, then I’d say, “I’m just going to have two glasses of wine a night” and I wouldn’t do that. And over and over and over until I just stopped trusting myself.
I think when you don’t believe you can change, because you feel like you have tried everything, it is one of the most helpless places. You almost give up, you just give in. And then one day, I was coming back from another London trip. I had woken up early that morning after another very boozy night, and I was very hungover. I went into the restaurant in the train tunnel and asked for a mimosa. The waitress told me they were not opening the champagne yet because it would go flat unless I was planning to drink the whole bottle. I said, “Oh, no of course not, haha.” And she said, “I can give you a screwdriver, which is vodka and orange juice,” and in my mind hard alcohol in the morning was another one of those little alarm bells, a line I didn’t want to cross. But, I said, “I just need to get through today, no big deal.” I had two or three of those and then I felt better for a minute. I got in the taxi and got to the airport and was sitting there, and was really feeling bad – I had compounded my hangover with those drinks and now they were leaving my system and I was just miserable.
That’s when I did something really revolutionary. I stopped asking myself what was wrong with me. That had always been my primary question around this. “What’s wrong with me? Am I an alcoholic? Do I have a problem? Why can’t I get this? What’s my problem?” And I began asking myself, “What changed? Why did this not used to be a big deal? Why did I used to be able to take it or leave it? Why did I have so much fun in college not drinking? What changed?” And, I decided I was going to figure that out.
So I made the decision to stop trying to stop drinking, which was really radical. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had to get myself off that roller coaster of shame and blame. I decided to dedicate as long as it took. I said, “I’m going to drink whenever I want, I am going to go ahead and just let myself get off this roller coaster of trying to make these rules and I am going to have compassion for myself, but I am just going to make myself the one commitment that I am going to find out why.”
So, I wrote a list of all the reasons I drink. I actually asked people all the reasons they drink and I started systematically going through them one by one and researching them, and really finding out if they were true or not. And that research took me close to a year. When I finished, I realized alcohol wasn’t doing anything it said it was for me. It was actually making everything worse. I didn’t want to drink any more. My desire to drink had shifted, and I had these pages and pages of research and notes (I had been doing work on airplanes, traveling internationally) and I had it all in this really dirty, messy document. And, as soon as I felt like the hold of alcohol had released me, I told my husband, “I think tonight’s the last night I am ever going to drink again so if you want to get drunk with me, tonight’s the night.” And we split a bottle of wine.
Since then, I’ve told myself I can drink as much as I want, whenever I want. I just haven’t wanted a drink, and it’s been more than five years. I turned my notes into a PDF and put it out there, and 20,000 people downloaded it in two weeks and started sending me emails saying, “Hey this changed my life, this is incredible.” So, I took that original research and hired a few editors, and spent a very long time editing it and getting it in good shape, and turned it into what is This Naked Mind today.
Many parents find they 'need' a drink or two to help them unwind after a tough day. How does This Naked Mind help to alleviate that feeling?
I think the primary thing This Naked Mind does to alleviate that feeling is show you consciously and, far more importantly, talk your subconscious mind through the logic, that alcohol doesn’t actually help you unwind. It actually increases your stress. Alcohol increases the stress response in the body. And when you understand so clearly, not only on a conscious level, but also subconsciously (This Naked Mind is written to deal with the subconscious mind), that the drink isn’t doing what you thought it was – that it isn’t relaxing you and it isn’t helping you unwind and it is actually making things worse – your desire for it fades. And, once your desire is gone, you’re not tempted to drink.
How has an alcohol-free life affected your experience of parenting?
When you’re parenting, you have to be present for all your emotions – the good and the bad. And when you’re not numbing the bad, you actually take the time to fix things. My husband and I have taken parenting classes. We have established routines in our house. We have really dug in and done the hard work to make our house a peaceful place, because you can’t just numb and get through with alcohol anymore.
Emotions guide us to where things are broken or can be improved. When you’re numbing them you can’t see what can be improved. Also, if the feeling is being numbed, you don’t have the motivation to fix it. We do a lot of work to do the best we can and be the best parents we can be and, as a result, we feel very proud. It’s been hard work.
Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It’s a tough job. If you do the easy up front — pouring the glass of wine – it’s going to be hard later. But if you do the hard work up front – staying present, finding out what the kids really need, what you really need, what structures and systems your household needs – then it becomes easier later on and you reap the benefits, which is amazing. I have also been so much more present with my kids. I thought alcohol was helping me be more present because it was slowing down all the negative noise in my head because it makes your brain fire more slowly, but it wasn’t making me more present. There were so many times I was just trying to rush the kids off to bed so I could drink. Or, if they were taking too long to fall asleep and I knew the bottle was waiting for me downstairs, I would be frustrated. I now savor bedtime, I savor reading before bed, I savor so many things I was rushing through before.
Do you think it's possible to have a healthy relationship with alcohol and drink in moderation?
There are two ways I look at this. I don’t personally moderate alcohol because I don’t want it taking up the brain space that I know moderation takes. For me, moderation is like being on a constant alcohol diet – having to count my drinks, having to know when too much is too much. It takes a lot of effort. I want alcohol to be small and irrelevant, and trying to control my drinking and trying to moderate makes it big and powerful.
That said, the science is pretty clear that there are people who drink very problematically and can, in some cases, go back to non-problematic drinking. They heal and I even have a few friends who have done that. In most all of those cases it is after a very long break – at least one or two years. So, yes, I think it is possible. But, if you’re questioning your drinking and your drinking is really causing issues in your life and you feel out of control with it, then you need a reset for at least a few years. Often, the people who do this see how much better life is, and they don’t start drinking again.
After the busy Christmas and New Year period, lots of people decide to do an alcohol fast. Do you recommend this approach or do you think it's too short-term?
Taking a break from alcohol can be incredibly eye-opening. It can show you if it’s really difficult. And, if taking a break makes you really sad or upset and you’re just wishing for it to be over, I think there’s some danger to starting drinking again. I would do this all the time – I would take breaks and prove to myself that I didn’t have a problem, and then go back to drinking even more emboldened because I felt like, “Oh, I don’t have a problem.” And, this is exactly why I created The Alcohol Experiment. It is a 30-day break that lets you get really curious about the role of alcohol in your life. Every single day involves a mindset shift where you’re educating yourself both consciously and subconsciously, you’re educating the mind about what alcohol is and does, so that instead of looking at it as an alcohol diet where by Day 15 you’re saying “Oh thank goodness I’m halfway there; I can’t wait for Day 30,” you’re saying, “Wow, this is really great. I’m feeling really good,” because you’ve started to go through the education and the mindset shift.
Actually, it’s not so much education as it is de-education – questioning the long-held societal beliefs about alcohol like thinking it makes things more fun, it helps you relax for sex, it helps you relax in general, it helps you unwind. It’s really looking at those things and questioning the science, and when your mind sees the black and white answers, it’s hard to desire it as much as you used to, which is great. So, I think breaks can be incredibly eye-opening and we actually call The Alcohol Experiment (which is a free 30-day program at www.alcoholexperiment.com) an experiment because it’s meant to invoke curiosity. It’s meant to make you wonder, “Huh, would my life be a bit better drinking a bit less,” and at the end of The Alcohol Experiment there are multiple paths whether someone wants to continue drinking or try moderation or go for another 30 or 60 days; it is all designed to be completely led by each individual so there’s no predetermined outcome.
How has your life changed since you gave up alcohol?
Not only has my life changed so much since giving up alcohol, but the true journey of life, the true journey to who I am meant to be and what I’m supposed to do in the world, has just begun. I think that is true for so many people. We have this feeling of discomfort, the Human Condition, these feelings of “Is this it?” and we have this feeling of striving and wondering and looking for the next things – “If I just get that job, or if I just get married, or if I just get that house or that promotion, then things are going to be OK.” When you stop drinking, you stop numbing some of those really intense feelings and you’re forced to choose – either go back to numbing by finding another thing that you’re going to use to numb, whether it’s sugar, or Netflix or something else, or start to really explore why you have the feelings in the first place and ask yourself, “What is this life all about and how can I connect more with myself and the people I love?”
And we start to ask these questions that all humans on their journeys do well for asking, and we launch ourselves forward into this place of self-inquiry and diving into our thoughts, and the stories we’ve held true, and really rewriting our stories and moving through and growing. For me, all that has begun on the other side of drinking, and I love the journey.
What's the first step to changing your relationship with alcohol?
The first step to changing your relationship with alcohol is getting really, really, really curious. We spend so much time judging ourselves and our behaviors. We judge ourselves for how much we’re drinking, for doing and saying things we don’t like, and all the judgment creates a negative feeling inside of us. We’ve been conditioned that when we feel bad, we need to drink to alleviate those bad feelings. But, when you replace judgment with curiosity, you put down those weapons of blaming and shaming and you say “OK, why was this happening?, why am I doing stuff?” you combine curiosity with compassion, you really truly realize that you’ve been doing the best you can with the tools you have, you start to look at the whole situation without this dread but with a sense of, “Huh, OK, I can figure this out.” And, that’s really what my journey was all about, just putting down all the nasty feelings about myself because this area of my life was out of control, and realizing that alcohol was the tool I had and maybe it was the wrong tool and asking myself, “What else can there be?”
Getting curious opens the door to all sorts of change.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
It’s maybe not so much advice but an introduction to the the idea that everything we need – all the wisdom, all the love, all the compassion we need to have toward ourselves – is already inside us. We just need to undo all the stuff that’s in the way of it. I used to think that I had to learn how to love myself, learn how to have compassion for myself, learn how to listen to my inner wisdom. But, really, I don’t have to learn any of that at all; I just have to unlearn all the stuff that’s been blocking it.
What are you loving right now?
A book called Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
A podcast called The RobCast with Rob Bell
My EVO Planner