What it really feels like to give up alcohol

Sam Delaney
'My advice for anyone is to quit sensibly and with the help of your GP', writes Delaney - Rii Schroer

To prepare himself for his appearance in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, politician Nigel Farage pledged to go teetotal in the week running up to the jungle. And while producers are said to have granted him permission to smoke 10 cigarettes a day off camera, access to alcohol on the show is less liberal - contestants often go for days on end without so much as a sip of the stuff.

For some, this can be a real challenge. Actor and singer Darren Day recently admitted on an episode of Good Morning Britain that he went ‘cold turkey’ from drink and drugs when he appeared on the first series of I’m A Celebrity in 2002 and was eliminated third. The star has been free from both since 2019.

Darren Day on the first series of I’m A Celebrity in 2002
Darren Day on the first series of I’m A Celebrity in 2002 - Shutterstock

Effectively, the celebrities will be engaged in a form of extreme detox for the first week, denied all alcohol while sleeping on a jungle floor, wrestling with snakes and eating marsupial members – a brutal regime for those who enjoy good food and fine wine.

Farage has always described himself as “a boozer, not an alcoholic”. He loves his PFL’s (“Proper Farage Lunches” as he calls them) featuring copious amounts of red wine and port was documented in Michael Crick’s recent biography.  Add this to the pint he clutches in every single photo opportunity and an adoration of gin and tonic so profound that he has even launched his own range of Farage Gin (slogan: ‘The taste of Brexit’) and it is safe to conclude that he enjoys a tipple.

nigel farage
While in the jungle, Farage may miss his 'Proper Farage Lunches', which supposedly consist of red wine and port - ITV/Shutterstock

This made me think about how different my own experience was and how difficult it can be to stop drinking suddenly. Unlike Farage, I couldn’t stop drinking - I had an addiction.

The last alcohol to pass my lips was, I hazily recall, a pint of beer (the last of several in that particular session) on the evening of June 24, 2015. The next day I went to see an addiction therapist at a recovery clinic and effectively turned myself in. I was a daily drinker of beers, spirits and anything else I could get my hands on; I often started drinking before midday and I usually stayed up long after my family had gone to bed to continue drinking into the night.

I would drink alone on a daily basis, during my lunch break at work and on the way home in the evening. If I was “working from home” this would usually mean an all-day session in the local with my laptop in front of me, a pint of lager and a large whiskey chaser constantly by my side. I think we can safely say I was more than just a boozer.

I was a mess: overweight, miserable, stressed, scared and lonely. I needn’t have been: I had a loving (and implausibly patient) wife, two brilliant young kids, a ton of supportive relatives and a wide circle of friends. But alcoholism had crept up on me slyly and secretively over a period of decades and, by my late 30s, it had successfully taken over my existence, making me withdraw from all of the wonderful relationships in my life in order to spend more time guzzling booze.

In that first meeting with a therapist, I was advised they wouldn’t be able to help if my aim was to simply cut down. But if I wanted to stop completely my life could gradually become almost inconceivably better in every single way (spoiler alert: this turned out to be 100 per cent true).

I made a unilateral decision to stop for good after leaving that meeting. And then, the next day, I chose (unwisely) to go cold turkey. An immediate and sudden withdrawal. The pangs and urges began, as always, as soon as I woke up. I resolved to distract myself from them. I called my brother, who was already seven years sober at the time, and asked him to come over and help me build a storage shed in my back garden.

sam delaney
Delaney: 'Alcoholism had crept up on me and taken over my existence, making me withdraw from all of the wonderful relationships in my life' - Andrew Crowley

It was a sunny day and, as we toiled over the flatpack assembly in the heat, I told him about why I had decided to quit booze. He asked me how I was feeling and I told him: “Exhausted, anxious and sweaty.” This, he said, was normal. The feeling lasted for a week - a good 50 per cent of which I slept through. But I was very naive and should have taken my therapist’s advice to seek medical help with withdrawal. I got lucky; it could have been much worse.

Those who require a medical detox often have to take a benzodiazepine, such as Valium or similar, for the first week in order to replicate some of the effects of alcohol and reduce the risks of severe reactions,” says Dr Niall Campbell. consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in London.

These reactions include alcohol withdrawal seizures. High alcohol intake over a prolonged period has a small anti-epileptic effect that calms the brain by increasing production of the brain’s natural inhibitors. Abruptly stopping your intake altogether can destabilize the brain and trigger seizures.

“It’s common in A and E departments or orthopedic wards, where young men have been admitted with an injury and lied about their drinking habits. They spend 24 hours in hospital and suddenly start having seizures,” says Dr Campbell. “You have a one in one thousand chance of death from these seizures, either from heart attack, stroke or collapsing while in a hazardous situation, such as near traffic.”

Another major risk of unmonitored and sudden withdrawal is delirium tremors (“the DTs”) - a reaction in your central nervous system which causes uncontrollable shaking, hallucinations, delirium, fever and high blood pressure. “Again, there can be a high risk of heart attack or stroke,” says Campbell. “The DTs are a serious medical emergency that requires you to call an ambulance immediately.”

Building a garden shed and chatting to my brother seemed like a good way to occupy my mind in those first 24 hours of sobriety but, if I’d been going by the book, I would have been at the doctors having a full health check before attempting cold turkey.

Your GP will refer you for tests to assess the amount of alcohol in your blood and your liver function in order to establish your requirements. “Pretty much anyone who thinks they are drinking too much would be well advised to get an assessment first before attempting to reduce their drinking gradually over seven days or so,” says Chip Sommers, a psychotherapist and counsellor specialising in addiction.

It is tempting to believe the above applies only to those with a diagnosis of alcoholism. But even in less extreme cases - where you only see your drinking as “just above average” - a person needs to be mindful of the dangers of cold turkey.

“You might not see yourself as alcohol dependent because you feel like you can function quite well on high amounts,” says Sommers. “But your body might not see it the same way. When you stop drinking abruptly, there is an immediate impact on the brain, the liver and the heart - and even if you think you’re an average drinker, you just don’t know how risky cold turkey is until you try it. That’s why you have to consult a doctor first.”

“Some people have stronger metabolisms than others and you might not realise what yours is,” adds Dr Campbell. “It might seem OTT to get a blood test just to stop drinking half a bottle of red a night but the potential risks can be huge. It is very dangerous to just come off alcohol suddenly without any supervision.”

As for smoking, he won’t necessarily need those 10 secret fags per day.

nigel farage smoking a cigarette
Producers are said to have granted him permission to smoke 10 cigarettes a day off camera - Getty

“The withdrawal from nicotine, like that from heroin or cocaine, is very unpleasant and uncomfortable but not as dangerous as alcohol withdrawal,” says Sommers. “It might actually be helpful to spend some time away from all the temptations and visual stimulations around cigarettes - if he abstained in the jungle he might be ready to quit when he comes out.”

When it comes to drinking, my own experience tells me that it is not the first week but the following months and years that demand the hardest work. Once you have managed to gradually wean yourself off, the trick is to start building a better life in which you no longer want or require the embellishment of alcohol.

With the renewed energy, mental focus, better sleep and more positive relationships that sobriety brought me, I stopped hankering after drink pretty quickly as I immersed myself in a better life that booze had just been getting in the way of. My advice for anyone, jungle bound or otherwise, is to quit sensibly and with the help of your GP. Then dive headfirst into the exciting new life you’ll find on the other side. As Sommers neatly puts it: “The easiest part of stopping drinking is stopping drinking.”

5 tips for quitting booze (safely)

1. Go slow

“Tapering off is the safest way to quit alcohol,” stresses Dr Campbell. “So if you’re drinking seven glasses a night, cut down by one drink per night until you arrive at none.” A similar ratio can be applied however large or small your intake. “Try to complete the wind down over about a week,” he adds.

2. Get supervision

“Even if you don’t go to a doctor, make sure you have a couple of people you can really depend on to support you, monitor your health and set strong boundaries in your first few days of sobriety,” says Sommers.

3. Eat Properly

People with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) tend to have poor nutrition. Heavy drinking can also reduce the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin B1, which is vital to the proper functioning of the nervous system. This deficiency is worsened by withdrawal and can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome - a serious condition that impairs the proper functioning of the brain. “We would always administer B1 supplements to all detox patients,” says Dr Campbell. Fish, beans, yogurt and sunflower seeds are some of the foods rich in the vitamin.

4. Get busy

“Go for a run, talk to someone, complete a task you’ve been putting off or join a talking group,” says Dr Campbell. “It is important to distract yourself and do things that will naturally make you happy. Finding other people who have gone through a similar experience can give enormous relief and hope that things will get easier.”

5. Rest up

“Your body is going through a big shock and it needs to rest,” says Chip Sommers. “I certainly wouldn’t advise taking part in strenuous challenges in a jungle during detox. For the first week, you need to take time out from your usual routine, get plenty of rest and perhaps just do some gentle movements outside once a day to get fresh air inside of you.”


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