Rocking the Dryathlon

Some people can have a few drinks and then stop. I’m often one of them – but admittedly, I’m often not. Yellowknife is known as a hard-drinking town and social options regularly revolve around drinking and socializing. In fact, we’re some of the hardest drinkers in the country. The 2009 NWT Addictions Report, conducted by the territorial Department of Health and Social Services, found that 43 per cent of people said they typically consume five or more drinks on a single occasion.

I like drinking. I like the taste. I like wine tours and beer on a hot summer day. But I had a major wake-up call when my skinny yoga jeans (the stretchy kind) were too tight, likely due to all the calories I was pouring down my gullet, and the missed workouts because I couldn’t motivate myself to get my butt off the bar stool and on to a treadmill. The only thing lighter was my wallet. Plus, as a closet hypochondriac I always had a nagging feeling about what effects ‘normal’ drinking was having on my health. Living in Asia several years ago, an old Chinese doctor was taking my pulse before an acupuncture session to discern the state of balance in my body and organs. “He says you have a weak liver,” my friend Masumi translated. “But don’t worry. You don’t have any diseases yet.”

So, in the spirit of health, finances and a testament to my own willpower, I decided to embark on my own dryathlon – an extended booze-free period (mine would be four weeks) to get back on the healthy bandwagon and see how busy I could keep myself in Yellowknife while being a Sober Sally. Aside from being called “lame” once or twice by friends when I told them what I was doing, most everyone was supportive. A few friends even expressed a desire to try it as well; but didn’t know how they would keep themselves entertained, or thought they would be missing out on something by not drinking.

Week 1 was easy. Although I occasionally wondered what excitement I was missing by skipping my usual wing night, I was too busy with other things: volleyball, a board games and curry night, spin classes, a Sunday afternoon crib game and a catch-up speed walk with a friend at the field house. I also signed up for a lunchtime yoga class. I felt more rested from being in bed by 10 o’clock on most nights, and my usual insomnia had taken a hiatus. This no drinking thing was going to be a breeze.

Week 2 dawned and after a Monday night workout, a friend and I in our hunger-fuelled haze decided to pop into the Black Knight for dinner. Although the urge to order a Corona to accompany my entrée loomed large, I resisted. Lesson learned: if I was going to stick with this, no more bars for the duration of my dryathlon. So I signed up to take my first squash lesson and loved learning something new. My nights were filled with dinner parties, running at the track, and spin classes. I even picked up my long-neglected guitar to strum a few tunes and remembered how much I loved to play and vowed to start practicing more. As I pulled out a twenty one morning to pay for my latte, I realized it was the first time I had spent money all week. The cost of alcohol and buying drinks resonates with many Yellowknifers.

More money in the bank is the main reason Aidan Cartwright cut down – or basically eliminated – drinking more than a year ago. Born in Yellowknife, Aidan spent his childhood in Fort Good Hope and returned to Yellowknife after university. With his new job and disposable income, he drank with friends almost every night. “I found that I was essentially spending the majority of my paycheque on booze,” he says. Even when I had no money, people would buy me drinks. Drinking wasn’t necessarily a pressure, but just an assumption. There’s this weird tendency in Yellowknife that everyone should be drinking – there’s this pride that you can drink so much.”

I wasn’t exactly thinking about the cost savings after a stressful week when a friend asked me to join him for “just one” after work that Friday. It turned into three, then four, then… I woke up with a headache and had to admit to myself that this was going to be harder than I thought. I had a newfound resolve to stick with it for the rest of the month.

Week 3 and I packed my social calendar. Being proactive about your social life is something Simone Tielesh, knows well. She moved to Yellowknife two years ago, rarely drinks, and has an active social life. “In order to connect with people you may need to be a bit creative,” she says. “Sometimes you have to be an initiator rather than going with what’s easy and what people propose and what’s available.” And initiate is what I did, sending out messages to people I hadn’t seen in a while and keeping my ears peeled for activities. I went to the movies, a play at NACC, played squash at lunchtime, made sushi with friends, went to a sports awards ceremony, had a pizza-making and rom-com night with girlfriends (they drank; I didn’t) and even finished the book I started a month previous. My after-work exercise routine was back on track and I was still in bed by 10:30 most nights.

Week 4

Week 4 and I was in the homestretch. I discovered not drinking at events was only as awkward as I made it. If I was spending time with people who drank, they didn’t even notice I wasn’t drinking after they had a few drinks anyway! Once or twice I’d heard that friends had gone out and not invited me because they would be drinking. Although I appreciated the fact they didn’t want me to be tempted, I couldn’t help but be a bit hurt they didn’t extend the invite. It’s a familiar refrain for Rebecca Alty, a born and raised Yellowknifer who drank socially until last June when she stopped on the recommendation of her naturopath. “I’m not against drinking,” says Alty, “I just don’t do it anymore. Sometimes people don’t know what to do or if to invite me. Put the invitation out there instead of deciding for me – I still go to the Range and dance up a storm and I still go to parties.”

The scientific evidence around short-term breaks from alcohol is in short supply, but an anecdotal study by a small group of volunteers in England sheds an interesting light on the dryathlon concept. Fourteen co-workers – all who self-identified as regular social drinkers – embarked on the ultimate dryathlon experiment: 10 would give up drinking completely for five weeks, and the remaining four would continue with their usual drinking habits. They answered questionnaires about their health and drinking habits, had ultrasound scans to measure the amount of fat on the liver, and gave blood samples to gather information about their liver and overall health. The results were sobering. After five weeks, each of the 10 participants who had given up alcohol had dramatic and consistent improvements to their health. Liver fat fell on average up to 20 per cent in some individuals, blood glucose levels dropped by an average of 16 per cent and total blood cholesterol (a risk factor for heart disease) dropped by almost 5 per cent. They also noted improvements in their sleep quality and concentration levels. Perhaps the most important outcome from this small study was that several participants reported they found it easier to decline alcohol after the study had ended, or to start an evening off with low-alcohol drinks – a feeling I also shared after my dryathlon had officially concluded.

Packed social calendar

The only negative with this study was that people reported less social contact. That is one experience I didn’t share. If anything, my social calendar was more packed than usual – likely due to my proactive approach to keeping myself busy. Marita Hollo has lived in Yellowknife for nearly 12 years and hasn’t drank since brain surgery over a decade ago. In her 40s she recalls turning to alcohol during times of crisis, but that is no longer part of her reality. “Once a waiter in Yellowknife called me a ‘wuss’ and asked what was wrong with me because I wasn’t drinking at dinner,” recalls Hollo. “It’s not so much that there’s pressure to drink, but people do wonder what I do to stay busy. My clubbing days are over and I have a rich life that includes visits with friends, travel, volunteer work, going to movies and doing things at home like painting, writing, photography, knitting and crocheting, and blogging.”

But is drinking all bad? No. Hundreds of studies have been performed on the actual health benefits of moderate drinking. Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines define moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day, max, for men. One drink a day decreases the risk of heart disease. Piceatannol, a chemical compound found in red wine, can slow the accumulation of abdominal fat, and other antioxidants in red wine can decrease your chance of a cold. A drink or two can increase women’s libido and make men more frisky by reducing the changes of erectile dysfunction by as much as 30 per cent. It can also reduce the risk of developing diabetes, dementia and gall stones.

The problem is that alcohol is so rarely enjoyed in moderation – particularly in the Northwest Territories. Statistics Canada defines “heavy drinking” as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion, 12 or more times over the past year. According to their latest Canadian Community Health survey, nearly 27 per cent of NWT drinkers fit into this category, compared to 19 per cent across Canada.

Other than one small hiccup, I had surpassed moderation and succeeded in my sober dryathlon. I had stayed busy, slept better and felt more energetic. There were so many other things that I wanted to try that my dryathlon activities spilled over into the next month and, even better, I found new people to do stuff with. I won’t be turning into a teetotaller anytime soon, but the experience did open my eyes to how important it is to drink in moderation, and how much money I spend on alcohol. I estimate my dryathlon saved me $400-$500, money I’d much rather spend on travel, expensive road bikes, and swanky camping gear. And, I fit back into my skinny jeans.

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