I love the film Airplane!, and my favourite of its many running jokes involves Lloyd Bridges’ hapless tower supervisor Steve McCroskey. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking”, he announces relatively early in the movie as the scale of the challenge before him becomes apparent, before popping a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it.
As the film degenerates, McCroskey also announces that he picked the wrong week to quit drinking and amphetamines, hip flask and pill jar in hand, before culminating in his decision to fall off the glue sniffing wagon. He inhales greedily through one nostril, then the other, before falling backwards, cross-eyed and catatonic. It’s a perfect cinematic moment.
The reason I’ve been thinking about Steve McCroskey is that in the run-up to lockdown I was making a conscious decision to lose weight and lower my alcohol intake and, to paraphrase the great man, it looks like I picked the wrong time to quit comfort eating and boozing. Nearly everyone I know is relying on alcohol to get them through weeks stuck at home, and lockdown presents an almost infinite number of opportunities for what I can only describe as chonkification.
It’s especially difficult for me, as someone who has always used food and drink to fill a no doubt gaping spiritual void. “He’s only truly happy when he’s eating or drinking” my mum told Zoë, shortly after we got together and, sad to say, there is probably some truth in that.
I made the decision to lose weight last winter. I was doing a clearout of my wardrobe, picking things to send to the charity shop, and it involved one of the most depressing processes known to man, where you try clothes on to work out whether they still fit. It made me realise just what a high percentage of my clothes simply sit in drawers, folded and undisturbed, because I don’t want to face the reality that I probably can’t wear them any more.
Zoë’s approach to this, pragmatic and not unkind, wasn’t like any I’d experienced with previous partners. Clothes were divided into categories: “okay, you’d need to lose a stone to fit into that”; “two stone for that one” and “forget it – by the time you fitted into that you’d want to buy something new to celebrate”. I made my decisions, black bags were filled and I decided, this time, to actually do something about it.
My first weigh-in took place, bleary-eyed, on the scales in the bathroom one Friday morning in October. “It’s best to weigh in on a Friday, so you can tear the arse out of it over the weekend and then make up ground the rest of the week” said Zoë, clearly speaking from experience.
Needing spectacles is often a nuisance – when you have your hair cut, for example, and you have no idea how it’s looking until right at the end – but when having weekly weigh-ins I was decidedly glad that I couldn’t see the number on the scales. Zoë made a note of it, and we made a deal that every week she would tell me how much I had gained or lost but not my actual weight. I reckoned that would be too demotivating.
I didn’t have any grand plan for how to lose weight. I just knew that you either exercised more, or ate less, or did a combination of the two. Looking at the amount that I ate in a week, I could see a calorie intake with plenty of opportunities to make cuts. Was having chocolate most nights really a sensible decision? Did I honestly need that second sugar in tea and coffee? Was I drinking that additional latte in Workhouse because I loved it, or because I was bored and I didn’t want to head home?
I’m very much a food lover, but in all honesty the last square of chocolate, inevitably, tastes exactly the same as the first. And when you hoover food down without even really noticing, the way I can sometimes, you could argue that there really isn’t much enjoyment in it, or much point. So I decided to be mindful, and make a note of everything I ate every day, and try to trim some of the excess. I didn’t stop eating out – those restaurant reviews weren’t going to magic themselves into existence – and I didn’t stop going to the pub, but I thought I would see how far that got me.
Between October and lockdown, my weight loss was very much two steps forward, one step back. Some weeks the weigh-in was a cause for celebration, some weeks the celebrations of the previous seven days made for grim readouts. There was the holiday in Paris – that was a setback – and of course Christmas, when nobody loses weight. That was okay, I decided, because weight loss should be a controlled descent, rather than a crash landing. People who lose a lot of weight quickly often look like the air’s been let out of them in a hurry: this would be more like having a slow puncture, I decided.
Even when I was making depressingly little progress, something was changing in my mind. Just as a hangover is the bill biology hands to you at the end of a brilliant evening, weight gain is the consequence of all the fun you had. And when you look at the receipt, if you decide that the payback didn’t feel proportionate, you have to do something differently. Gradually I began to think about calories a little more: did I really want this particular treat? Was it genuinely worth it? A single chocolate HobNob, for instance, has nearly a hundred calories in it. Was it really worth demolishing a third one, or was two enough?
Zoë said that she sometimes used the acronym HALT in situations like this: was she really hungry, or just anxious, lonely or tired? Anxious made a lot of sense – I am usually battling at least one low-level anxiety or another – but, more damning than that, I think I often just do it because I’m bored. Comfort eating is, after all, one of the safer ways to go looking for trouble.
And so to (very moderate) exercise. I also started using the health app on my phone to track how many steps I was taking every day, which essentially measured how often I left the house. I’ve not developed David Sedaris levels of obsession, but on the days when I go for a walk I feel like a failure if I come in under ten thousand steps. Most of the time that involves a stroll up towards the university, round the Harris Garden, back down to Reading Old Cemetery and home, which normally gets me to the magic number: I tell myself that pacing the length of the kitchen doing the drying up does the rest.
People are still everywhere, in greater numbers than I’m comfortable with. This week Zoë and I went for a walk down the Thames from Caversham Bridge, heading in the direction of Mapledurham. It was a warm, close evening, still light at nine o’clock, and the path was thick with people. Just off the path, congregated around a bench, I saw a group of almost a dozen people clustered together, smoking and drinking and chatting. “You’re going to have to stop muttering as you go past these people,” Zoë told me. “There’s no point.”
By the time we went into lockdown, I had lost about half a stone, but I still had to reckon with the other main reason behind my calorie intake: the booze. Zoë had decided to cut down on her drinking last year, and she recommended that I download the app she was using. So I did that back in November, reasoning that I didn’t drink that much anyway and that moderation would be a doddle. How little I knew.
With the app, called DrinkAware, you log every single drink you have and the number of units in each. Often, that involves finding a way to navigate the app, as (appropriately) it contains a limited number of drinks. It definitely doesn’t cover all the weird and wonderful beers and ciders which have taken up residence in my basement.
The app helpfully tots up your units, tells you how many drink-free days you’ve had and whether you’re high risk for that week or month. There is even a functionality where you can get the app to flag hot spots where you tend to do a lot of your drinking. I didn’t enable that, because if I had the app would have ended up contradicting the official health advice from the government by telling me to get the hell out of my house, and fast.
You probably know this already, but I didn’t: the recommended maximum intake is 14 units of alcohol a week. I certainly didn’t know that the average pint of cider – my usual pub drink – uses up 2.6 of them. But that’s okay, I reasoned, because I don’t go to the pub that often and I don’t drink that much when I do. Unfortunately, the data from the app suggested otherwise. I excused November because I’d been on holiday in Paris, and I decided I’d earned a pass for December because it was Christmas. And for January – well, everyone needs cheering up in January, don’t they? But even in February and March, although I was drinking less than I used to, I was still consuming more than you’re meant to.
Getting that under control in lockdown has been one of the most surprising aspects of how the world has changed. For three months now I’ve been drinking comfortably within limits, and it hasn’t felt like privation or donning some kind of Covid hair shirt. If you add the number of units I had in April and May, it’s still fewer than I consumed in the whole of November.
I have a drink when I feel like it – on a hot day after a walk, or because some interesting beers have arrived – but I often stop at the one. I still have a virtual pub session once every few weeks, and that blows most of my allowance for the week, but when I do it’s a special event rather than me chugging through pints, as I would in a real pub, just because they are there.
It makes me realise just how much social interaction revolves around drinking, and how much drinking is driven by being sociable. If someone is going up to the bar to get a round in, you ask for another even if you don’t necessarily need it. If it’s coming up to last orders, you get a gin and tonic in as a finisher even though you’ve already had quite enough. I have a friend who will turn up to the pub, say she’s not stopping, buy her own drinks, have a couple of halves and then shoot off home: I used to find this strange, but now I admire her iron will. She is, unsurprisingly, thin.
I crossed the Rubicon in late April: I had finally lost a stone. At that point, to celebrate, I asked Zoë to tell me exactly how much I weighed (and, by implication, how much I had weighed when I began all this). If I’d known how depressing the number would be, I might not have asked, but it was still good to know how far I had come, even if it showed that I had some way to go. Things being as they are, it was a Rubicon I re-crossed – in both directions – in the weeks ahead, but for the last few weeks my gradual descent has continued.
It’s hard to visualise a whole stone. I find the easiest way is to picture those bags of sugar that I take far longer to work my way through these days. I’ve lost six big bags of sugar – a lot of weight, and yet looking at my body I can’t quite figure out where it has gone. Six bags of sugar has been spirited away, but to my eyes I still look the same. When you weigh more than you want to, you get used to trying to be photographed in certain ways that conceal it: from above, from a distance, not side on. Maybe what’s really happened is that I’m starting to look just a little more like the flattering photographs.
And maybe not. Zoë showed me a picture she had taken of me almost a year ago, on holiday in Bologna, and I can see it: my face is bigger, more rounded, the edges less distinct. Just to twist the knife, Facebook recently threw up a memory with a photograph of me from when I was 19, looking away from the camera, with a jawline I would kill for now (“all prick and ribs, as my mum puts it” said Zoë). But there is progress, even if it’s slower than I might like.
By the time this piece goes live I will have had my dreaded weigh in. On the weeks I’ve lost weight I celebrate, on the weeks I’ve gained I am glum. The weeks when it stays static can go either way: I’m either frustrated or I look at what I’ve eaten and drank and deep down, I know that I’ve dodged a bullet. It seems to be an inexact science, and the result is often one I haven’t predicted.
Either way, tomorrow I will have a takeaway and I have a virtual pub to hop on in the evening. Zoë is already going through the beer in the basement, if not physically then in her mind, working out what we’ll sample next. My DrinkAware app will flash red to tell me that you shouldn’t have ten units in a single sitting, something I already know. But however it turns out, I will properly appreciate every single sip of those drinks. And when I have my hangover the following morning, when biology hands me the bill, I will know that it was really worth it.