When Annie Grace wrote her book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness and Change Your Life, it is unlikely that she realised how much traction it would get. Meticulously researched, coherent and persuasive without ever being sanctimonious or preachy, the book examines our complicated and enduring relationship with alcohol and proposes practical measures to stop drinking, should one wish to do so.
If Graces experience with alcohol ran along a well-worn path, but her childhood was certainly unconventional. “My father fell in love with a small cottage, 3,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado mountains and that’s where I grew up,” she recalls. “In winter we would be snowbound for months. He had a very unconventional view of life and he always encouraged me to question my beliefs and assumptions.” In college in Colorado, Grace was an occasional drinker but all that changed when she went to New York to become, at age 26, the youngest Vice President of a multinational company. Drinking was now an intrinsic part of the work culture.
“Happy hour was where deals were made,” she says. “and I was basically trying to keep up with men in their 40s. By the time I became head of global marketing I was spending a lot of time in London, and I was missing my young family. I drank because I was lonely and because I believed it alleviated my stress. On a trip to the London Eye a can of beer that I had in my purse to kick start my day after the previous night’s drinking, fell out and sprayed my children. I laughed it off. But internally I was wondering how had this had happened? What had I become?” At age 35, and by now drinking two bottles of wine a night, Grace wanted to stop drinking. However, she didn’t want the spend the rest of life attending AA meetings. There must be another way. A way that didn’t put drinking or avoiding drinking as the central focus of her life. Thus, began her systematic research into both the detrimental impacts of alcohol, but also the positive impacts of stopping. She decided to review the evidence and on that basis to objectively re-programme her thinking. She decided to stop.
“I don’t want to criticise AA because before it there was nothing,” she says. “But it perpetuates the ideas that there are alcoholics who have an incurable long-term illness and there are people who drink normally. This comes entirely from AA, not from the medical or scientific communities who don’t use the term alcoholic.” For Grace this crude method of defining our drinking habits has, to a degree, led us down a blind alley. She believes that alcohol is by its nature addictive and poisonous and once we start drinking we don’t know the point at which addiction kicks in. It could be the next drink.
“Any person with the right level of exposure over time can become addicted,” she says. “If someone has very little money this process may take a long time, for a celebrity who has all the money and freedom and opportunity to drink, the cycle may be much shorter. But tolerance only goes one way, the more you drink the greater the tendency to become addicted. Anyone who drinks a lot is somewhere on this spectrum.” Of course, there are many elements in society who have a vested interest in alcohol consumption remaining high. Something that Grace, with her experience in the world of marketing, knows all too well. “Industry is paying a lot of money for studies that show the benefits of drinking red wine for example,” she notes. “When you actually read these studies, there is so much manipulation, the results are taken out of context or the sample size is very small. There was a recent report that people who drink two glasses a day live longer, but the study was done on people over 90.” For Grace the decision to stop drinking was a decision to move towards something, it was about the positives of not drinking, of building a life without the crutch and self-deception that alcohol provides.
“As a species we crave variety, and alcohol appears to add spice to life,” she says. “The thousands of people that have stopped, tell stories of hiking in the Alps, of horse riding, of finding true wonder and awe in their lives. Alcohol gives you a false perception that you are doing something different with your life, when really you are still on the hamster wheel. Getting drunk is always the same process wherever you are.” Now free from the corporate world, Grace has no regrets over her decision to stop drinking. Although sometimes she has a natural human urge to fit in with a society where drinking is the default position for most people. It is bizarre when viewed objectively, but alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking.
“I was lucky, she says. “If I had kept drinking the outcome for me would not have been positive. I had a clear moment and I could see where the train was headed. I managed to get off that train before it crashed.”