Keith Walsh: ‘I gave up alcohol to reduce anxiety –after a weekend drinking I would be wracked with it until Wednesday’
After the excesses of Christmas, many people decide to lay off the booze for a few weeks to give themselves a ‘detox’, save a few quid by not going out, or just because they fancy a challenge.
hen radio presenter Keith Walsh decided to stop drinking in January 2020, it was down to the latter — he had heard about the 100 Days of Walking Challenge established by Ciara Kelly and decided to set himself the goal of giving up alcohol for the same amount of time.
“Before I gave up, I liked having a few beers on a Friday night, then perhaps opening a bottle of Prosecco to share with my wife,” he says. “I might do the same on a Saturday and then that would be pretty much it, apart from the odd beer on a Sunday or weeknight if there was an event on. And of course, when I was away or off work for something like Christmas, it was a free-for-all and I’d have a few drinks every evening, even starting in the afternoon sometimes.
“I never drank spirits and didn’t get hangovers as I was a fairly moderate drinker, but all the same, I knew it wasn’t great for me as I used to suffer a lot from anxiety — and regularly, after the few drinks on the weekend, I would be awake most of Sunday night, going straight into work on Monday with very little sleep. I would be wracked with anxiety until Wednesday and then by Thursday I would be OK again, as it was almost the weekend. So I thought that the challenge would be good for me, as it would also help reduce my anxiety.”
Walsh, who lives in Kildare with his wife Suzanne and their two teenage children, says that he didn’t have any difficulty with the 100-day challenge he had set himself. But when the end date came and went, he had no desire to start drinking again, so just continued abstaining without any long-term plan.
“Before I took on the challenge, drink was always on my mind in the sense that I’d be thinking that I couldn’t have one because I was working the next day,” he admits. “But I could easily stay off it for weeks if I had a big job coming up, as I knew it would affect my anxiety — so I didn’t find it difficult to give up for the 100 days.
“Feeling anxious was my biggest problem and I began to realise that alcohol was a form of self-medication for me. I had been seeing a therapist to try and work through the anxiety and discovered that I had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder), chronic anxiety and a few different autism-type issues — things that I might never have discovered if I stayed drinking, as I was masking my thoughts and quietening my mind with the drink.
“Of course, there were times during the 100 days that I was tempted and I’d be asking myself what was the point of giving up, as I should be enjoying myself because life is too short. Also, I had a weird feeling of guilt as well because giving up didn’t just affect me — I had also taken away the ritual my wife and I had of sharing a bottle of wine while watching a movie. But I was determined to stick with it.
“Then when the date was up and I was offered a drink, I considered it and even though an inner voice was telling me not to be so uptight and to just have a drink, I decided not to.”
Although stopping drinking altogether wasn’t the initial plan for the broadcaster, he continued to follow his intuition and rather than just accepting a drink when it was offered, he found himself declining every single time.
This, he says, was due to the fact that he felt physically better and even though his anxiety symptoms hadn’t resolved, he was better able to keep track of his feelings.
“During the initial challenge, I continued having panic attacks and anxiety and without the drink, there was no joy, so I knew that my problems weren’t just caused by booze,” he says. “I remember saying to a friend that I had lost my mojo and there didn’t seem to be any point in anything, as I couldn’t even go to the pub and have a laugh. I wasn’t enjoying life without drink at that stage, but I knew I needed to go further to find out what the problem was.
“So when the 100 days were up, I was really tempted to just give in as alcohol is a great medicine for anxiety and ADHD as it quietens the mind and allows you to be still. When I think back on it, having a glass of wine in the evening was what was allowing me to sit down and watch a movie without my mind being hyperactive.
“After having therapy and discovering what had been going on all those years, I had a clearer picture of things. And without the alcohol, I realised that although I was still anxious, my sleep had improved tremendously. I felt less anger, I was more level-headed and less triggered. And my wife said I was looking better, so there were definite health benefits. I also changed how I exercise — when I was drinking, I would have gone to the gym and done a lot of running, often to purge weekend drinking by sweating it out. Now I walk a lot and play a bit of football, so it’s less manic and less intense. These were amongst the reasons why I decided to keep avoiding alcohol.”
Making the choice to stop drinking should be a personal one, but sometimes friends can, wittingly or unwittingly, put pressure on the person to ‘let their hair down’. The father of two says he did experience some of this, but once he had decided to abstain, he was resolute about sticking to it.
“There would have been a few friends good-naturedly telling me that I had to drink on a particular weekend if we were going to a festival or something,” he says. “But it wouldn’t bother me at all, I’d either tell them to feck off, or I’d say that I would and then just not drink. Also, the year of lockdowns definitely helped me to stick to my plan as no one was meeting up. And then by the time we did, I’d already given up for quite a while.
“I think it’s easier as well these days because there is a good range of non-alcoholic beers available and people either don’t know that your not drinking alcohol or don’t care. And to be honest, now that I’m older, I’m not really too bothered what people think anyway.”
The 49-year-old says he’s taking things one day at a time and doesn’t rule out drinking again in the future. He would advise others who want to stop, to think about why they drink and how they benefit from it — but says if they enjoy it and do it in moderation, then ‘good luck to them’.
“At the moment, I can’t really see myself ever drinking again but I do have this notion of myself and Suzanne on holiday in the future enjoying a glass of wine in the evening — whether that will happen or not, I don’t know, but I’m trying not to overthink things,” he says.
“It’s difficult to give advice to other people about giving up because it’s so individual. For some people, a few glasses of wine at the weekend is their saviour and they need the self-medication to deal with the stresses of life. Obviously, if it gets out of hand or they are too dependent on it, then that’s another issue, so I would say to them to try and figure out why they need it, what it does for them and how it makes them feel.
“I think talking to a therapist is also a good thing, not necessarily about drinking but just to discover if there is something else going on. But I would never say to anyone not to drink if they feel they need it — I know a lot of people do Dry January and it can often make, (what can be a bleak month), even worse for them. So I think anyone planning that should try to figure out why they are drinking — just giving it up for a while isn’t the answer, you need to deal with why you need a drink and then you will just stop.
“However, some people are able to just have a few drinks on the weekend. And if that is the case, then, I would say they should enjoy it.”
For information on alcohol and advice on cutting down or giving up visit drinkaware.ie and hse.ie
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