Alcohol for Lemons – The science of willpower for the soul

A few weeks ago, HeadStuff Science published an article by Dermot Corbett, who gave up the habit of cigarettes and alcohol to run some marathons. It got us thinking about the science and psychology behind habits, especially the tough ones to give up or take up. Willpower is described by experts as being like a muscle, the more it is exercised the easier it becomes to flex it. We have a finite amount of willpower each day used in all types of decision making. If you want to form a habit, like exercise, the trick is to be vigilant and use your willpower until that moment when bounding out of bed to go for a morning run becomes second nature. At that point you will no longer have to think about it and your willpower can be utilised for another purpose. If you are breaking a habit, like drinking alcohol, the trick is to identify and break free from your triggers. Dermot replaced his alcohol and cigarette habits with running, but largely avoided his triggers. HeadStuff’s History editor, Angela Long, gave up alcohol for Lent to test her willpower and self-discipline and below you can read her account. Angela describes her Pavlovian reaction to her trigger (the intro music to a TV show) and describes how she used another recommended way of dealing with it, that of replacing the habit with a more acceptable option, in her case replacing alcohol with lemon! So with this science in mind enjoy reading Angela’s account of giving up the hard stuff. With a little science and inspiration maybe you can tackle a habit of your own!

If you would like to contribute to this series get in touch with our science editor.


Holy Moly. Hell’s Bells. Mrs MacGinty’s goat, and other such chaste Catholic curses. NOW they tell me.

What they told me, via the Catholicism About.com website, was that Lent, according to the old traditions of the Church, is 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. On the calendar, that’s 45 days. But apparently – faint memory of parents and teachers muttering this decades ago – Sundays are not included, being joyous occasions commemorating the Resurrection, so that’s how the figure of 40 is arrived at.

And why was this important? Because I had vowed to abstain from the demon drink for Lent, for the good of body, mind, soul and pocket. But it wasn’t easy – and it was especially galling to read those words, validating Sundays off, on Good Friday, right at the end of the tortuous course.

I’m not exactly Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses, thank heavens, but drinking, wine in particular, is part of my lifestyle and diet. Like Pavlov’s dog, when the music for Pointless starts on BBC1 at 5.15pm, I begin to salivate for a nice drop of chardonnay. Not, of course that I am so slack as to abandon daily work at 5.15. I record the addictive quiz show – and watch it at 6pm with an end-of-day libation in my contented fist.

And when socialising, especially with the female friends, it is much more pleasurable to go to some dimly lit, coolly-decorated wine bar, or cocktails at happy hour, than keep within the confines of tea and total sobriety.

So why do it? Why does anybody embark upon the prolonged renunciation of Lent, and why alcohol in particular?

For myself, it is a test of willpower and self-discipline above all else. It’s a measure of one’s own integrity. Can I stop doing something I like, when nobody is making me do it – in fact quite the opposite, as my husband campaigned for me not to stop drinking, largely because it made him feel bad opening a bottle of burgundy just for himself.

The religious aspect is pretty incidental these days – when I first did this, years ago, I was closer to growing up with Catholicism, and accustomed to giving up chocolates or sweets during Lent. So it was natural to morph into the grown-up version of self-sacrifice, abstinence from grain and grape.

People sometimes get the impression that one must be a religious nut to do this. A parallel, it seems to me, is Ramadan, and the fast during daylight hours that many Muslims undertake, without being extremists or zealots. But those who have a problem with religion, or “organised religion”, often paint such fasting an unrelieved black.

One year, when I was working for a national radio network, I was doing the Lenten dry. One evening, when I was off duty, a knock came at my front door. It was one of my colleagues, a man with whom I was quite friendly if not especially close. He was a real leftie, and hardened against all the conventions of society, including religion. “I heard what you were doing,” he declared dramatically, taking a seat in my living-room. “I couldn’t believe that you are doing this – don’t you know the harm that religion has done down through the ages?”

What ensued was a long and passionate denunciation of organised religion, and the folly of supporting it by giving up a few glasses of rosé or gin and tonic. I barely got a word in edgeways – maybe he had been sipping a little firewater before his visit? – so mostly just sat shaking my head in bemusement.

But people don’t like hearing that you’re not drinking for Lent, often because it reminds them that they wouldn’t be able to stick to a regime of self-abnegation. In my family, the females do something – my daughter gave up chocolate and pastry, which she loves – but the men are resolutely “pffft, that’s for losers”.

How did I do it? With lots of lemon juice, in a nutshell (a metaphoric nutshell, that is – actually I kept it in an old Vegemite jar). Fresh lemon juice is great to give an edge to the babyish sweetness of commercially-produced fruit juices, or add interest to sparkling water. Whenever it was drinks time, watching Pointless or out with friends, I’d have a lemon-juiced refreshment, and it was almost like having the hard stuff. Almost …

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The fizzy drinks from the supermarket aimed at grown-ups, like Shloer, were some help. (The best of these is an apple and pear pressé from Aldi, by the way.)

And tea, glorious tea. Bewley’s normal, Earl Grey, peppermint, the superb thé des Lords from Salon du Thé in Dublin – great big goloptious potfuls of them also helped ease the thirst, or the habit of having something to drink while reading, writing, or watching TV.

For full disclosure (keeping it to last, in wily fashion) I did fall off the wagon, but just once, and, I hope, understandably. It was the day after Ash Wednesday, and I went to a talk with meal provided at one of the universities. The food was school dinners of the poorer sort: a cup of vague soup, frozen fish, a giant, pale chocolate éclair for dessert, and I’m averse to chocolate eclairs. However, there was some rather fine-looking organic wine provided. So for the €30 shelled out, one had to get some return, right? I only managed to suck down two and a half glasses before we had to move for the talk.

But apart from that, I was clean as a whistle, even when my husband tried to convince me that not only was St Patrick’s Day not part of Lent, but St Patrick’s WEEK was exempt.

With around about two weeks to go, it was very hard, a long slog behind and no glimmer of early relief. Ah chardonnay! (As Barry Humphries, in guise of Les Patterson, sings in the tribute above.) Oh Margaritas! But I remained abstinent and virtuous, so that by the time the last week of denial had arrived, I could face a book launch or a boozy seminar feeling quite happy about my watery state.

However … when the hubby loomed up with a bottle of finest Prosecco as we sat down to watch The Martian on Holy Saturday, who was going to say no?

Just remember to enjoy your alcohol responsibly.

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