The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 13th, 2008

A tot of hypnosis stopped me drinking

Over the Christmas period I was suddenly surprised by faith. I don’t mean that I found God; I mean that over a few days, against my preconceptions, I become a true believer in hypnosis. On December 5 I went to a hypnotherapist to be hypnotised into stopping drinking, and it worked.

As a scientific materialist, I have always been sceptical about alternative therapies. There may just be something in black boxes or Rolfing or homeopathy, but there just isn’t enough evidence – or in some cases any evidence – that they work. There certainly isn’t enough scientific evidence about any of them to justify chancing National Health Service money on them. All the same, hypnotism seems to have done something remarkable for me.

It began when my GP, who is a friend and knows I love medical talk, was discussing treatments of fashionable obsessive compulsive and eating disorders: he remarked that hypnotherapy seemed to work surprisingly well for some people. “Does it work for drinking?” I found myself asking. He replied that it was worth trying and recommended someone nearby.

This is not a confessional column. I am not proposing to use the word alcoholic. I reject the notion of middle-aged, middle-class binge drinkers. All I am saying is that I recognised late last year that the time had come for me to take control of alcohol before it took control of me; there are alcoholics in my family, and my husband’s parents conducted life afloat on a choppy sea of dry martinis, carefully chosen wine and digestifs. Hypnosis sounded quick, and if it worked, easy. So off I went.

If I had expected someone alternative looking with a beard I would have been disappointed. I was met at the door by a middle-aged man in a suit, who led me through an elegant house full of books, and spoke of an earlier career in business in the Far East. His manner was that of an Oxbridge don, though gentler.

He told me he might be able to help me, and that it would quickly be obvious whether he could or not. In any case, I would need two sessions at the most. He would give me a CD and he would teach me the beginnings of self-hypnosis as well. This inspired confidence – my experience of alterative therapists, and I have trawled round many for journalistic reasons, is that they are not usually inclined to say that it will quickly be obvious if they cannot do anything – rather the reverse.

My hypnotist offered me a comfortable chair in a quiet room and we talked at length. He explained his process and I explained my problem; then we discussed what I wanted to do about it. His process seemed simple. We were to prearrange a suggestion for myself – I decided mine should be to refuse all drinks, except one or, at most, two glasses of wine once a week to overcome writer’s block, if necessary, when writing this column. Then he would make this suggestion to me while I was under hypnosis.

First he talked me into a trance, to see how well that went. I was afraid that I would be too obstinate or too sceptical to be suggestible. I was worried that I might find the process funny, or that it wouldn’t work, and I’d have to pretend out of politeness that it had. But it did work. Over about 20 minutes he talked me down into a state of deep relaxation – like intense meditation – which induces a slightly altered state of consciousness. In this state one is supposedly more receptive to hypnotherapy, but only to suggestions of which one approves. I felt detached and relaxed but exceptionally aware at the same time. My neck lolled over and started aching, but even that did not disturb my mood until the hypnotist talked me out of that state.

Since this had gone well, after further conversation the hypnotist induced the state again, and made our agreed suggestion to me, as I lay back blissed out. Then he talked me out of the trance state and invited questions. A few days later I came back and he taught me a technique of self-hypnosis to reinforce my “suggestion”, and another mind-trick called anchoring, which helps to deal with moments of temptation. Then I wrote a cheque. That was it.

All I can say is that it worked. I am sorry to say that I haven’t used the CD or the self-hypnosis technique. Even so, through the Christmas parties, the trials of Christmas itself, the dark days of the end of December, I did not drink, except for a glass of wine a week. I still haven’t. I have sipped fizzy water. I have wanted to say no. The only exceptions – which revealed something surprising to me – were on my birthday, a week before Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve.

On my birthday a few friends came for a drink round the Christmas tree and, readers, the man tempted me. My husband, handing me a glass of champagne, said I should certainly have an occasional drink on a special occasion, and try not to be boring and puritanical. So I took a sip. But I didn’t want it! I felt bad about it! I didn’t even want to hold the glass, and quickly put it down. And I am someone who drinks champagne like water, given the opportunity. The same thing happened on New Year’s Eve; under pressure to be more fun, I drank two small glasses of wine, didn’t want them, didn’t enjoy them and immediately developed a headache that lasted until the next day. And I am someone who has almost never had a hangover. Writing this column over Christmas, I found myself pouring my hardly touched glass of wine into the kitchen sink, to the astonishment of my little Irish nephews.

This resolution may not last, I know. It isn’t always easy. I do miss drinking, both when gloomy and when cheerful. I do feel that I am not much fun, stone cold sober at parties, and – equally – I notice that drinkers often turn into bores. I am planning a dispensation for holidays abroad. But I feel extremely well, I have hugely more energy, my memory is better and although I haven’t lost any weight, I’m told I look much better. Best of all, I have proved to myself that I can stop drinking if I mean to. As to whether it is hypnosis that stopped me, I shall probably never know. Perhaps the sessions were just a rite of decision-making, a formal recognition that I had made up my mind. Perhaps on the other hand, hypnosis does work, at least for some of the people some of the time.