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I quit drinking two years ago – here’s what I’ve learned about Britain and alcohol

“I don’t trust non-drinkers.” 

I lurched into the bathroom like a shambling zombie hungry for brains. It was a Wednesday morning, and I’d been out for a “few quiet drinks” the night before. Glazed and bloodshot eyes stared back at me in the mirror, set deep in a pale moon face sheened with cold sweat. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.

As I stared at my pallid reflection, I remember thinking: “I’ve literally poisoned my body. I am 30 years old. Why am I still doing this to myself?” 

We know instinctively that alcohol is terrible for our health. Never is this more keenly felt than in the first throes of an especially vicious hangover.

As the body works to break down alcohol, it produces a chemical called acetaldehyde. Last week a new study by Cambridge University revealed for the first time exactly how this substance can trigger cancer, by permanently changing the genetic code of your stem cells. Alcohol is a factor in more than 12,000 cancer cases a year in Britain, and now we understand why. 

But knowing the damage it causes isn’t enough to stop most people drinking again once the memory of the last hangover fades. 

I never woke up in a police station or a hospital bed. I didn’t lose my partner, job or home because of my drinking. I was considered a “normal”, socially acceptable drinker. But my consumption had been creeping up insidiously over the years. I often woke up dehydrated and anxious at 3 am, my heart racing, reliving an argument I had with someone five years ago. I had a spare tyre around my middle, a bloated red face, I frequently lost my purse, ate takeaways and overspent. Drinking was draining my time, money and energy in exchange for supposed fun I could barely remember, and I didn’t like the person I had become. 

I must not be the only one who’s had enough, because the latest official figures show that the UK has a growing teetotal population. About 21 per cent of UK adults surveyed in 2016 said they don’t drink, and that figure rises to 27 per cent for 16 to 24 year olds, up from 19 per cent a decade ago.  

I started by doing what everyone does when they don’t really want to stop drinking. I tried moderation. I made up arbitrary rules - no drinking in the week, only beer, no more than two glasses of wine, no spirits – and then I broke them all because after one drink I didn’t care about the rules anymore. I once read on a sober blog: “if you need to moderate, you can’t moderate.” The suggestion that it might be easier to have none rather than trying to manage it all the time was a revelation. So I tried that. But at the first sign of trouble, I was straight back to my only coping mechanism. It wasn’t until I found better ways to deal with stress that my periods of abstinence began to get longer.

I cared a lot about what other people thought in the early days, and it was tough. I began to experience the stigma around sobriety and the assumption, sometimes unspoken and, incredibly, sometimes not, that I must have A Drink Problem.

At a family party, I explained that I wanted to feel better and get more done, holding my sparkling water white-knuckled. A relative eyed me suspiciously over her fruit cider and asked loudly in front of everyone: “But what’s the REAL reason?” I doubt she would have asked me the REAL reason I’d quit smoking. Our society venerates an addictive substance, and then pillories you if there’s even a hint you may have become addicted to it. I had been ashamed of my drinking and now I was being made to feel ashamed of my sobriety. 

Sometimes other people think you not drinking is about them, and they feel threatened and judged. The ones who behave worst are those who have a reason to feel defensive about the spotlight shining on their own consumption. At a wedding, a sozzled guest sneered nastily, straight to my face, “I don’t trust non-drinkers.” 

Not drinking feels lonely at first, because alcohol greases the wheels of every social occasion. You’re celebrating – drink. You’re commiserating – drink. You’re going to a gig, a movie, a restaurant – drink. Every birthday card in the shop makes a joke about gin. 

But there are strategies you can use to get through those early days, until your confidence grows and you work out who you are as a sober person. Yes, you’ll probably spend less time in bars, but you’ll still have fun. 

Stopping drinking in my 30s is the nicest thing I have ever done for myself. The self-respect I reclaimed was a powerful antidote to the chronic shame that came with drinking more than I wanted to. I’m now two years alcohol free, and what I thought would be a plain old boring life is actually not boring at all: it’s peaceful. When you remove the alcohol, space opens up for better things to come in. 

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.