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Is there anybody out there?

Like a religious hermit, or a post apocalyptic survivor, I have emerged from my self-enforced isolation (from fizzy drinks) blinking and full of mixed emotions. Sunday night marked the end of a successful 28 day challenge to drink no carbonated beverages. Not one drop. The focus was on avoiding cola, as my drink of choice for most of my life after I got to the point of regularly drinking one to two 2l bottles a day. Hey, even with deals like 3 for £3, that gets expensive.

I also wanted to take the chance to explore some issues about addiction generally. Things which affect smokers, alcoholics, gamblers, obsessive eaters.  I tried to use a trivial challenge to open up a discussion on some very serious issues which have probably touched everybody – through personal problems to knowing people who have had and continue to battle with these issues daily.

During the four weeks we learned how hard it was to avoid reminders of our addictions in everything we do. You can’t simply walk away from the problem. I was bombarded by imagery for Coca-Cola on the first day of the challenge. Imagine how it is for a gambler to see all these advertisements for football betting making it look fun and sociable. Or the booze culture in Britain where people often look at you sideways when you say your teetotal. To this day my ex-classmates repeatedly pledge to get me drinking. They see not drinking alcohol as odd. Why drink if you can have a fun time without alcohol? And as for smoking, well that might be the one exception. As a combination of government and health initiatives have risen the price of smokes dramatically in recent years, banned advertising and required special licenses to sell them. Still however, for those generations who took up smoking when it was the ‘cool’ thing to do, quitting is a very difficult business. My mother regularly cites the fact that my dad won’t give up smoking so she never will be able to. Seeing, and smelling my Dad smoking would just be too much of a temptation.

—– The following was written at a later date:

Due to a build up of work and technical problems with my computer I have been unable to finish off this blog post. I thought I would still post it however and give a round up of where I am at with my coke habits. That sounds wrong doesn’t it? Anyway, I am back drinking the bubbly stuff. However my consumption rate is a lot less than before. I’m averaging two 2l bottles a week. compared to 1 2l bottle a day before the challenge. I would also suggest that my appreciation of the drink has waned as well. I now drink a lot of diluted juice drinks (still water based) specifically for the strong flavours and find Coke no longer to be as nice to drink. Yet just like the alcoholic when things get tough, when I have a deadline to meet, the drink I go for is Cola. As a behaviour experiment I think #xcoke28 has been a worthwhile venture and I hope it has given pause for thought.

The Vysocina Diaries should resume normal service in the next couple of days as I am caught up on work now and my new netbook is functioning just lovely. Until next time, Ciao!

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“Just because they are alcoholics Robin,

doesn’t mean they’re not human.”

That line, somewhat paraphrased is from the campy original Batman television series. You know the one with all the dancing, colour, ka-pows and general hint of drugs gone wild in the creative department. It’s a good line which removed from its context stands up ever truer. We often think of people with addictions as being somehow different. He’s not your buddy from college, he’s the alcoholic from college. We tend to describe people by their addictions creating a subtle division between us and them. It is a classic form of Orientalism once used to distinguish the civilized people from the savage people. Now that’s just not kosher, so instead we make divisions within our own societies. First it was class, but again, that’s not acceptable anymore unless you’re a Labour supporter. So we have all these weaknesses that we pick up on instead. When the simple truth is that we are all capable of forming an unhealthy addiction or obsession with something, or someone. So the next time you dismiss that degenerate gambler, consider whether you could give up the lottery or your scratch cards cold turkey and never go back. Hmm?

I’m halfway through this dastardly challenge and have avoided drinking Coca-Cola or any fizzy drinks for more than fourteen days. Quite an achievement for me considering how long Diet Coke was my only drink. And I have been tempted, sorely tempted. In that first week I was willing to have crafty cans at the school I teach at, or replace bottles of coke in the house after drinking them whilst my fiancé was out. However I kept my composure and have in saintly fashion passed out half of the month.

This last week I came to learn another lesson about addiction and the struggle to get it under control. This was a lesson about boredom. So often we read about kids and adults saying they took up drink or hard drugs because of boredom. We’ve scoffed at it. You took them up because your stupid and weak and easily peer pressured. With all the evidence of the damage that they do, nobody in their right mind should take them up. Yet they do, and we do with our own socially accepted addictions. The issue of boredom interested me this week as for the first time under the challenge I had a couple of days free instead of working in the museums. These days without a doubt have to be the hardest of the challenge so far. I had nothing to do, or more rightly felt like doing nothing (I could have you know done a blog, worked on my novella, played the guitar, done the ironing?) and was getting wound up by the fact that I couldn’t get a refreshing glass of coke when it was staring at me across the kitchen. When I’m working, and I come home tired, I neither have the mood nor inclination to get a drink and the challenge is easy. When I have a lot of free time on my hands, I start to think more about it and frustrate myself. This must be the single most dangerous issue that follows recovering addicts around like a second shadow. Giving up alcohol or drugs whilst kept busy (they don’t sit around doing nothing at rehab centers, they have activities to keep busy) is one thing, but when we are left to our own devices – isolated with our thoughts, then we are prone to doing the worst things. And for an alcoholic or drug addict – another fix is unquestionably the worst thing they can do. Buying that blue movie on satellite television is alright in comparison (unless your addiction is pornography, in which case this passage is a case of foot-in-mouth). Keep busy, help keep your friends busy. Maybe with time it gets easier to face the boredom. I don’t know and this challenge doesn’t cover a long enough time period.

Two weeks left. Going to be a breeze?

Whilst this challenge is trivial it allows a reflective comparison of some real issues. If you have any thoughts on addiction generally, or words of encouragement for me please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

My poisons of choice now, H20 and OJ

A quarter of the way through and I’m feeling like a real big man.

If you have just stopped by the first time let me first welcome you and explain that you have stumbled upon my self-imposed challenge of avoiding my beloved Diet Coca-Cola for the entire month of February. No small feat considering it is primarily the only drink I’ve drunk for the last 20 years. Then again, I’m not exactly giving up alcohol or hard drugs so perhaps any triumphalism should be rather muted. I hope this challenge will prove that will power is effective when applied purposefully and perhaps discover whether my health will improve without the caffeine and carbon dioxide of carbonated drinks.

So I have survived my first week of the challenge and find myself looking ahead to the next week a bit more relaxed and comfortable than I was when this started. Though believe me, I am giving every calendar the evil eye. I am going to so thoroughly enjoy having that first glass of coke in 21 days time.

It hasn’t been all easy this week. The amount of opportunities and places where I could get a sneaky can or bottle of coke are mind-boggling. My fiancé and parents have encouraged me and bought in a dozen cartons of orange juice (though I’m drinking mostly water with a touch of orange as too much orange leaves me feeling bloated).  That first day on the way to the school I teach history at seemed like I was being blatantly teased by the gods. A Coca-Cola truck drove under the footbridge I crossed, the Tesco Petrol Station was advertising its coke offers and students had red Coca-Cola gym bags! I was tempted to pop in to Tesco and buy a bottle to drink in the school’s staff room. However something steeled me and I walked on by. The next day I was left home alone with three 2 litre bottles of Diet Coke and I pondered how I could drink a bottle and buy a replacement from the corner shop before anyone noticed. Instead I drank a carton of orange juice. Fast. And suffered for it. On the Wednesday, I was going positively stir crazy and told my colleagues what I was doing (much to their bemusement). One colleague said I could probably get sick leave from the council to deal with my coke issues. I bought a bacon and sausage butty for lunch and felt shortchanged by the lack of Diet Coke. And it hit me;

This doesn’t affect just me. Think of the small shops and cafe’s I usually frequent, missing out on the variable 90p-£1.20 price of a bottle of my refreshing liquid lift.

Then I was informed that my parents were getting divorced.

Dont worry, I didn’t touch the Coke. I stayed strong and passed out the week with each day seeming a little better. Headaches probably from lack of caffeine or dehydration are just about gone and I feel able to walk up to the fizzy bottle in the kitchen, even touch it, and know I won’t drink a drop. So far, so good.

Did you know Coca-Cola advertise their drinks in the US as being healthy energy boosts? In a clear example of a marketing strategy to cut off people thinking of taking on more fruity still waters or energy drinks they have labelled their boxes and bottles with messages informing the prospective purchaser that Coca-Cola can hydrate you – its made of water you know! And that its caffeine kick can compare with other energy drinks. So buy me now! Almost as odd as McDonald’s re-branding itself green and healthy. Every time I ever drank coca-cola and did sports I’d blow up. Not my first choice for rehydration then, just for enjoyment.

I guess this week I have looked inside the mind of the alcoholic and gambler, seen how easy it is for an addict to find ways of continuing to get their fix without those whose opinion they care about learning of it.

If you are giving something up and want help, or want questions answered to better understand a friend who is fighting an addiction the following charities give free information and/or counselling;

In the UK – Talk to FRANK for Drink/Drugs and for gambling theres Gamblers Anonymous.

If you are abroad and know the website address for your help agencies please post them in the comments along with the country it works in. Until next week, you can follow my progress at #xcoke28 on twitter and share your own struggles trivial and serious.

Warning fizzy drinks may be bad for your health

Should they carry a health warning?

They said I couldn’t do it. You know who I’m talking about… them, they, those… They said I couldn’t abstain from my precious Diet Coca-Cola and yet here I am without a single drop having landed on my tongue since 11.50PM January 31st 2010. It’s been dicey. I’ve been tempted. However I write to you tonight with a clear conscience. I have stayed true to my mission. So what if it’s only been 18hrs? Are you going through this with me? What have you given up lately? This is hard, don’t judge. Today I have pleasingly rediscovered the simple pleasures of nectarines and have gone through a half-dozen of them this afternoon. Delicious.

I am getting a little ahead of myself.

First; If you have just joined us here – welcome – there is a not inconsequential science experiment being undertaken with myself as the lab rat. Having spent most of my life within the recyclable silver aluminium can of Coca-Cola’s diet drink, I have embarked on a 28 day abstinence from which scientists as far apart as Harvard, Oxford and Thornaby are eagerly awaiting the results. We are regularly told that fizzy drinks are bad for us, and it was my hypothesis that as a person who has drunk almost exclusively fizzy drinks most of my life, we should rapidly see distinct physical changes resulting from the absence of this naughty but nice drink. Would I lose weight? Would my skin improve? Would I have more energy? Would my teeth improve (I’m english)? What if anything would happen, besides a potential nerve shattering crash from so many years on the fizzy nectar.

You can follow my daily progress on Twitter – just type in the hashtag “#xCoke28” to bring up my experiment related tweets. I’d appreciate any messages of support you can send me. As trivial a matter as giving up Coca-Cola may seem, I’m sure we are all aware of someone in our lives who has had addiction problems to more socially unacceptable things like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling etc. The mechanics are the same. Everybody knows gambling, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and fizzy drinks etc are in greater and lesser ways bad for you, yet we still are drawn to it. I guess the message for things like fizzy drinks is that they are okay in moderation. Well, lets look at that.

According to the Daily Mail, just a couple of cans of carbonated drinks can raise the risk of liver damage, diabetes and heart disease. Quite alarming considering the amount of bottles I was going through and the fact that I was born with serious heart problems. Did my fizzy drink addiction start in the womb?

Having replaced fizzy drinks with juice and water, I can tell you I am not amused to find that same article suggesting two glasses of fruit juice can increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease. These israeli scientists must have had a right giggle after giving this interview.

Until 2008, the Coca-Cola company was using a preservative called E211 in my favourite beverage Coca-Cola Light (thats Diet Coke to us). Fair enough, they change the recipe regularly right? We’ve all seen those new and improved recipe adverts for everything imaginable. Well, this preservative E211 which I had taken in for at least 18 years of my life (more than 3/4) was highlighted by Martin Hickman in the Independent to have possible carcinogenic properties and links to an increase in hyperactivity among children and to having the ability to switch off your DNA.

No sweat right? Ahem…

In more traditional contexts we apparently know that teeth are very susceptible to damage from fizzy drinks. To directly quote a Dr Peter Rock in a 2004 BBC.com news article, fizzy drinks were “by far the biggest reason in causing dental erosion among teenagers”. Confusingly three years earlier the BBC touted an American study that showed “Soft drinks ‘not bad for teeth'”. The author of the study, in a view-point I will support out of loyalty to my addiction, says you only have problems when you drink to excess. Peter Rock suggested even one drink a day could be damaging.

Is there any wonder people ignore medical advice? When the media sends out these mixed messages without the inherent context of academic/medical/scientific discussion that surrounds these studies, then people are just going to shrug their shoulders blankly and carry on drinking/eating/smoking/gambling. Because if the clever people can’t come to an agreement, then I’m not convinced.

I shall direct you to this Mind Connection article on Soft Drinks: Unsafe beverages without comment because I feel it speaks for itself.

I am not here to convince you to give up fizzy drinks. More than likely at the end of this month I will resume drinking Diet Coca-Cola but at reduced amounts. This is purely an experiment born out of curiosity, what I think all worthwhile ventures come from. I hope you stick with me on this journey. Follow my struggles daily on twitter, and I’ll post another blog update after the first week.

Diet Coca-Cola

28 days without the refreshing taste...?

Once in a generation a people must undertake such great trials and tribulations that their shared stories become echoed through eternity.

This isn’t one of those stories.

Facing me, in this month of February 2010, is not the logistical and endurance feat of crossing the Alps (with Elephants) which faced Hannibal. Nor do I have to brave the harshest of environments in an international race to the south pole like Shackleton and Amundsen. I also do not find myself having to score from a free kick in the last seconds of a match against Greece to send my country to the soccer World Cup like one David Robert Joseph Beckham. My trial, my great suffering, is to undertake a period of no less than 28 days – a lunar cycle – without partaking in the thirst quenching bubbly nectar of Diet Coca-Cola. I know, I know. I am brave, some may say foolhardy, to attempt such a feat. However I am sure you will be with me on this when I explain some of the background to this impossible challenge.

I have never been a fan of agua mineral. From the moment I was no longer able to rely on fluid from my mothers placenta for sustenance I have sought my own personal liquid refreshment path. No breast milk for me, I chose the bottled powdered substitute. From there it was on to cordial juice as a toddler, mixing blackcurrant or oranges with water. They said the right mixture was 1 part juice, 10 parts water, well reckless as I am I endeavoured with 3 parts juice and 2 parts water! Nothing could stop my single-mindedness. But for a time when my older cousin Katy took to tipping my four-year old head back and pouring alcohol down my throat, this juice drinking ‘rainbow period’ lasted through my preschool years. Then it happened. My father, not averse to an alcoholic drink or three, stood mixing his vodka and Jack Daniels with coke. A bubbly, dark enchanting liquid that seemed to tease me with every escape of carbon dioxide at its surface. I drank my first Diet Coca-Cola that day, and never looked back.

In recent years I driven, grudgingly, to the need to consume bottles of water – I spent two summers working on a flea market as security in ninety plus degree heat – from 6am. If you don’t drink water and work in the open air in Cape Cod then your going to find life very uncomfortable. Yet the general pattern of my drinking habits hasn’t changed, and thanks to special Tesco deals since christmas I have gone through unholy amounts of Diet Coca-Cola. I am aware of all the arguments against fizzy drinks, but so a smoker is aware of the huge cancer warning on the packet of cigarettes. I like it, its available, it’s the easy option when I wanted a drink.

Tomorrow, on Monday 1st February 2010. For 28 days. The easy option is no option! I shall drop the fizzy bottle cold turkey and embrace the alternatives of… ahem… agua mineral, fruit juice and even coffee. I have never been a drinker of alcohol so I don’t have that to turn to, which is probably a plus. This shall be an experiment not purely for vanity. Certainly not to prove those who said I couldn’t give up Coca-Cola wrong… though I can, are you reading this Pete? This shall be conducted in the best of scientific intentions. I have drunk Cola most of my life. What, if any, of the physical complaints I have are down to carbonated drinks? Will I lose weight? Will my teeth make any improvement in their appearance (I am English…) by the end of the 28 days? Will I be filled with untapped reservoirs of energy, released by the absence of bloating, poisonous carbon dioxide? Or will I be reduced to a quivering wreck, rocking back and forth in the corner of my study etching into the wooden floors the Coca-Cola swish logo over and over again?

We shall see. I will post updates every few days, at least once a week as the days unfold to update you on how I’m feeling. Whether any of the withdrawal symptoms are particularly uncomfortable etc. I will also highlight the arguments against carbonated drinks and those for. Stick with us, and share the journey.

Have you given up fizzy drinks before? Chocolate white mice? Bon Bons? Liquorice Allsorts? Whatever you’ve given up, however successful you were – share your thoughts in the comment box below!

Now, if you will excuse me, like all great addicts planning to ‘give it up’… I’m going on one last Diet Cola bender. I’m such a wild child at heart.

Themes of Interest

And in the Twitterverse…