After A Year Of Excess, I Finally Realised How Badly I Need Moderation

Photo by Poppy Thorpe.
When I think of the word 'moderation' I am reminded of a quote from Peep Show. "Four naan, Jeremy? Four? That’s insane," exclaims Mark Corrigan at his housemate's overzealous Indian takeaway order. 
Forgive me this drawn-out flatbread metaphor but I am Jeremy and my life has been one long surfeit of naan. It's been an all-you-can-eat buffet of naan. That is, if naan were shorthand for alcohol, cigarettes, exercising, not exercising, coffee, overpriced face cream, supplements, pizza, googling symptoms on WebMD, scrolling Instagram, working, procrastinating, veganism, halloumi. 
I am one of life’s immoderates. I am that friend who always takes things a bit too far. This has, unfortunately, been a pattern throughout my life. My inauguration into the world of drinking alcohol ended in a brief trip to hospital, a ruined school disco and a mass confiscation of my Year 9 classmates' fake IDs. That was 14 years ago but some things remain the same. Last week I fell off a bike, cycling too quickly down Telegraph Hill in south London, and face-planted into a kerb. Nothing sobers you up quicker than the crunching sound of a Nissan Micra driving over your hair.
Besides feeling permanently exhausted, flip-flopping between extremes rarely leaves you feeling satisfied. Yet our culture has normalised excess, whether that’s working to the point of burnout or drinking to the point of blackout. As lockdown eases this week you only have to glance into any raucous pub garden to see the fruits of our toxic relationship with substances. Only last week the Office for National Statistics published a report showing that alcohol-related deaths are at their highest level in 20 years. Smoking has increased and, according to the World Health Organization, long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people every year.
You’d think, then, that a period of mandated stillness – or a lockdown – would assuage some of our bad habits and quieten our anxious minds. Alas, no: during the first lockdown in March 2020, almost half (49.6%) of the UK population reported high anxiety levels. Despite lockdown restrictions easing in June 2020, reported depression and anxiety increased by a further 4.9% and we have seen a similar spike in the last month as restrictions have loosened again. 
"We live in an addictogenic culture," explains Dr Andrew Parker, a consultant psychiatrist at London’s Nightingale Hospital. "We are primarily concerned with having fun and pleasure-seeking." In our relentless pursuit of sensuality and excess, we have forgotten the value of self-denial. Eating pizza every day sounds appealing in theory, until you develop scurvy. "Bad habits are very often more immediately attractive, exciting, pleasurable and comforting," adds Dr Parker. "The good habits are a bit like a desert: dry, difficult and hard work."

We live in an addictogenic culture. Bad habits are very often more immediately attractive, exciting, pleasurable and comforting. The good habits are a bit like a desert: dry, difficult and hard work. 

Dr Andrew Parker
Slow living, conscious breath and mindfulness may be prudent but they are hardly the Skins-style house party we were sold as impressionable teens. No one has ever been considered cool for exhibiting superhuman self-restraint. But the problem with living fast is that too many late nights, too much work, too much caffeine and too many dates are more likely to culminate in a weeklong panic attack than a glamorous rock-and-roll fantasy. Sometimes you have to put Baby back in the corner and have a long, hot bath. 
Holly, 29, found that having a glass of wine as a 'treat' at the end of each day rapidly morphed into something less manageable. "I started having a bottle of wine a night to myself," she recalls. "At the time it would numb some of the loneliness and give me a feeling of semi-contentment but then I’d wake up with an awful hangover and eat rubbish and after a while I started to feel so low." This had a severe impact on Holly when restrictions finally began to lift. "I felt anxious and insecure when things started opening, I didn’t feel good about myself and when I went to the pub for the first time I got so drunk, I couldn’t stand. I think my friends were quite shocked."
Holly’s experience is far from unique: a University of Oxford study which collected data over the first lockdown uncovered a stark rise in negative mental health, an increase in binge eating and a 46% decrease in physical activity among its participants. "COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in increased levels of anxiety, poor sleep, persistent sadness, binge eating, suicidal thoughts, snacking, consumption of alcohol and reduced levels of physical activity," said Stanley Ulijaszek, a professor of human ecology who conducted the study. 
So what has gone wrong and why are we permanently on the precipice of self-destruction? Dee Johnson, an addiction specialist at the Priory Hospital, thinks there is a direct correlation between our capitalist mindset and an increase in unhealthy habits. "We live with the fear of not being the best and not meeting the expectations of what we have culturally established to mean success, specifically a very materialistic and judgmental way of being," she explains.
By constantly striving for something better – a better job, relationship, life – we are unconsciously accepting that our present reality is lacking. It makes sense, then, that we look for ways to fill this perceived void. "We have put heavy, demanding conditions on what makes us worthy, lovable and successful. [To] what solace do we often turn to numb the pain in order to keep going?" asks Johnson. "Any drug that will temporarily suppress our central nervous system – like alcohol – will do, and drink is easy, legal and affordable for most people, and can be consumed in plain sight."
Although temptation is always hovering in front of us like an apple ready for the picking, the majority of us are able to mitigate our impulses to an extent. A tendency towards extremes is often the product of childhood or environmental trauma. "People who have a sense of abandonment, shame (even for things that are not their fault), low self-worth and hatred all have a propensity to self-destruct, and cannot always accept or see logic," explains Johnson. "These self-sabotaging behaviours act as an anaesthetic."
So it’s not always our fault if we have a propensity to behave immoderately but it is possible to rewrite old habits and form healthier ones. Dr Parker suggests we refer to the ancient Greek cultivation of virtues (as opposed to vices) in order to regain a more balanced approach to life. Aristotle hypothesised that the secret of 'happiness' in life boils down to the prioritisation of reason over emotion. Although he died 2,000 years ago, Aristotle’s model for happiness is still prescribed by psychotherapists today.
"What’s absolutely essential is learning to make reason the boss and not your feelings. I like the metaphor of the charioteer and horses that comes from classical philosophy," enthuses Dr Parker. "Imagine a charioteer being pulled by several horses. The horses represent passions and appetites, including feelings and impulses. The charioteer represents reason. If we didn't have the passion and appetites, we wouldn't move at all but if we leave them without the control of reason then they go all over the place and the cart tips up."

Balance and inner harmony are about allowing the flow and respecting when it's time to sleep, when it's time to work, when it's time to eat, when it's time to run. When you start to get in tune with yourself and your body, the inner wisdom guides you.

Expunging a lifetime’s worth of negative habits can’t happen overnight; it takes time and, sadly, practice. Buddhist monks learn the art of obedience by a process of 'living by the bell'. Instead of wearing a watch, they stop whatever activity they’re doing when they hear the sound of a bell ringing and move on to something new without lingering and regardless of its state of completion. The idea is that by practising obedience to the present 'duty' you stop yourself from doing anything to excess, whether that’s exercise, work, eating or cleaning. 
We can’t all walk around with a hand bell stowed away in our back pocket but we can set ourselves deadlines and stick to them. Anamarta, a teacher of Taoist (Buddhist) philosophy, is a firm believer that we are what we 'do': if we devote too much attention to anything, we become unbalanced. "Balance and inner harmony are about allowing the flow and respecting when it’s time to sleep, when it’s time to work, when it’s time to eat, when it’s time to run," she says. "When you start to get in tune with yourself and your body, the inner wisdom guides you. I know when I start pushing myself I have to tell myself to slow down."
As lockdown eases again this week it might be tempting to jump back into the rigmarole of nine to five, Sunday anxiety and fluctuating cortisol levels but if we can pause briefly and embrace the practice of self-restraint, we have an opportunity to move forward as a more contented society. Turning down a fourth glass of cold, delicious beer may feel alien at first – even impossible – but according to the experts it can become second nature.
"There may be a temptation as we come out of lockdown to party and live it up again but that would be going backwards," muses Dr Parker.
"We have to have the courage to change. To change often throughout life is to become perfect and the best version of ourselves and it is only when that growth exists that we can really say we have life and are living."
Unpicking the lessons learned over a lifetime spent feeling inordinately full, inordinately tired and inordinately drunk is hard but as I hang up the phone to Dr Parker, I feel buoyed by the possibility of something different. I can’t claim to know anything about self-restraint yet but the very real possibility of a face full of stitches does sharpen one's resolve to quit smoking and spending the rent money on Deliveroo and leather trousers.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series