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14 February 2024

In “sniper’s alley” well-being is all about feeling in control

Apparently I should be eating 30 plants a week. It’s a plan I can get behind.

By Tracey Thorn

It may have been foolish of me but, after an extremely indulgent Christmas, I started my Dry January at the end of December. The festive period had been great – I’d done lots of cooking and socialising, until the eating and drinking reached a point where I couldn’t fit in another bite or sip. I even had a Dry New Year’s Eve, watching the three and a half hours of Killers of the Flower Moon with a glass of water in my hand and, my dear, New Year’s Eves don’t get any drier than that.

On 1 January I headed off to a health spa to kick-start the new regime. I’d looked at several that advertised their alcohol-free, caffeine-free, plant-based, holistic menus and that seemed too strict; instead, I went somewhere more old fashioned, with booze and treats still allowed, a measure of self-control still required.

And it worked fine, as I was in the mood for abstinence. In the post-Christmas silence of my room I stretched, and meditated, and read, and stretched some more, and drank another herbal tea, and contemplated the new year and what it might bring.

My stay was enlivened by the woman next door, who spent hours out on her terrace chain-smoking her way through a complex row on the phone. That night at dinner she ordered pink Prosecco, and the following morning an empty red wine bottle sat outside her door. It was a novel approach to detox, and I could only stand back and salute.

Back at home, I pinned up a chart on the wall beside my bed and ticked off the booze-free days as they passed – quite briskly and easily as it turned out. I’ve shied away from the concept before, believing, along with many others, that January is simply too dark and miserable a time of year to exercise self-denial. I tried Dry-at-Home-January one year but that just encouraged me to go out more.

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This time I approached it as a challenge rather than a punishment, my wallchart appealing to the stubborn side of me that likes to make a rule and stick to it. I’ve heard it said that desire is stronger than willpower; that it’s easy enough to do anything when it’s what you want to do anyway. It forced me to think about WHY I wanted to be doing it, and the only reason was to do with health.

On social outings with friends now, we all talk gloomily about how we have entered “sniper’s alley”, and we compare notes about who has been picked off so far, and which conditions we have each been diagnosed with and how they add to our personal risk factor. I can’t lie: it is sometimes quite depressing being this age.

To make ourselves feel more in control, we adopt strategies, many of which seem to revolve around incantations of certain magical numbers. So we compare our step counts, and our minutes of brisk walking; we monitor our alcohol units and our veg intake.

I picture us all drawing a circle around ourselves, chanting our numerical spells, believing, or trying to believe, that if we do these things we will be safe and bad things will not happen. Which, of course, they will.

A friend tells me, while we are having lunch in a vegetarian restaurant, that we need to be eating 30 plants a week. Along with broccoli and spinach, these can include coffee beans, and basil, and turmeric – basically anything that comes from something that grows. I perk up at this idea and I like its focus on adding to rather than subtracting from your diet. The number 30 may be as arbitrary as any of the other rules, but the basic principle seems to be: As Much Variety As Possible.

That’s a plan I can get behind. I had already made a New Year’s resolution to go to as many films and concerts and art exhibitions as possible in 2024, so this seems to be in the same spirit. Forwards into the year, with Variety as my watchword. More, more, more!

[See also: Feminism has always been complicated – just ask the women of the Seventies]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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