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First person

The 90-day suspension

It takes Michael Herrick a month to escape the craving for a drink, then two more for the desire. But it's worth it

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

At midnight on New Year's Eve, I wipe the taste of Champagne from my lips and abstain from alcohol for 90 days. Ninety-one days in a leap year, but who's counting?

People have asked me why I bother. I am a retiree with lots of time on his hands. In 10 years, I have done all the things you're supposed to do when you stop working, such as enjoying the stuff you didn't get a chance to do when you were busy, or engaging in all the things you're passionate about, even bucket-listing before-end-of-life goals, and, of course, reading War and Peace. Alas, you can do only so much volunteering before becoming a needy nuisance. When I first retired, the weeks flew by, but now some of the days are long. Too long.

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There are three reasons for my abstinence: When my dad retired, there was so little to interest him and so much time on his hands that he and his brother made home brew and sat in the basement consuming it before it had time to ferment. Then one senior I knew started spiking her coffee at dawn and stayed buzzed all day. As for me, one Christmas not long after I first retired, I consumed so much that I developed GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease.

My solution at first: to abstain for a month. It wasn't as hard as I thought because January goes by fast when you are engaged in doing everything you always wanted to do, wondering what you should be doing or just plain avoiding doing anything. After my month off alcohol, I resumed my usual "it's-five-o'clock-somewhere" behaviour. However, the rest of the year weighed on my mind (and certainly my waistline).

As I approached the Christmas drinking season again, I knew something was wrong and I needed a change. Why not try three months off spirits from Jan. 1 to my birthday on March 31?

Now that was harder. It took a month to rid myself of the craving for a drink. Then two months to rid myself of the desire for a drink: I would imagine raising a glass to my lips like a smoker pantomiming a drag. By the end of a third month of turning down drinks, the taste was gone. It was renewed oh so quickly, however, with a bottle of wine at my birthday dinner.

The following year, I took a consulting job in the Arabian Peninsula for six months. I decided to use the opportunity to abstain from drinking – this time from Jan. 1 through June 30 – so I didn't apply for the permit that would allow me to buy and consume alcohol. That didn't stop some of my expat friends from offering me a drink every time I turned around. But, trying to be respectful of my Muslim colleagues, I declined. (Not so of some of my Western colleagues who'd even drink at lunch. I could smell it on one guy's breath in meetings.)

I held out even on the flight home, when I turned down the free wine because it smelled like vinegar. I wondered why anyone would drink stuff like that. I had an overnight layover in London and sought out the nearest pub for a pint but I couldn't finish it. Then I arrived home in time for Canada Day, and it was a different story.

For the rest of that year, like every year, the taste and desire for alcohol returned in spades: rum and Coke before dinner, wine with dinner, brandy or cognac after dinner, beer at lunch, sporting events and barbecues. When visiting Germany, after bicycle touring with my wife along river paths I love cooling down on a hot afternoon with a refreshing radler or two.

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Until Dec. 31, I continue to take the odd drink. Tea with rum and honey is my weekly homeopathic remedy for preventing winter colds and flu (I haven't been sick for a decade). Mulled wine is delightful before a fireplace to while away the chilly start to a Canadian winter. And, isn't it logical that once a bottle is opened, it must be consumed before it evaporates?

One long weekend when my wife was away, I overdid things. I drove her to the airport, came home, poured myself a big rum and Coke and lined up three DVDs with my favourite Lonesome Dove cowboys, Captain McCrae, Woodrow Call and the gang. When I woke up on the couch in the middle of the night, I staggered to the bathroom drunk. Half the bottle was gone. Still alone the next two afternoons, I thought a little rum in my tea would be no big deal. Then the bottle was empty. A hard truth scared the hell out of me.

I have to abstain. Now for three months, my friends and family accept my abstinence and provide me with soft drinks or sparkling water. People who don't know me ask if it's a New Year's resolution; I guess it was at first. Sometimes they ask if I've given up booze for Lent, but the timing is only a coincidence. I also emphasize that I am not an alcoholic.

One year, when I started drinking again, someone asked, if abstinence is such a good thing, why don't I do it for 12 months? Unfortunately, I don't have enough willpower.

I look forward to being alcohol-free for three months every year. I feel good, I lose weight, my thinking sharpens, my self-worth doesn't diminish and I'm depression free. Afterward, I drink less. With any luck, my annual abstinence will help me survive retirement.

Michael Herrick lives in Halifax

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