Tested: The Magic Pill That Stops You Drinking

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Published in Men's Health on 02 Apr 2015

How do you cure a nation of drunkards, bingeing its way from one week to the next? Nalmefene is a new wonder drug that the NHS hopes will haul us back on the wagon. Three Men’s Health writers dosed up to see if swapping pill for pint is the answer…

The Social Drinker

Matt Blake, 33

Units consumed per week: 30-40

I’m no hardcore boozehound, staring into an abyss of wasted opportunities and empty cans of Special Brew. But I do drink. Never alone – it’s strictly social. Even so, like most men my age, I knock back more than most domestic and global health organisations think is wise: about 35 units, or 15-odd pints, weekly.

I go out on average five nights a week, drinking two or three pints a time. Notout out, but to the pub after work or for dinner with my girlfriend. I don’t set out to get drunk, but when you’re hanging out in a pub all evening, where’s the impetus not to get another round in? I don’t think that’s unusual. Then again, waking up more than half my mornings feeling groggy and regretful is no fun.

The first time I took nalmefene was a Thursday. It wasn’t going to be a big night, just a couple of impromptu jars with a colleague; the usual recipe for an unplanned hangover. An hour into the evening, my lager began to taste peculiar and drinking became more of an effort with every swig. I managed two pints and left feeling a little fuzzy, whichI put down to the beer. When I went to bed that night, I didn’t sleep a wink. I’ve never suffered from insomnia, but lying there, cursing the tick-tocking clock, I became aware of my beating heart. It felt faster than usual, not quite right.

On Saturday afternoon I popped a pill and went to meet friends in the pub to watch the football. My mind began to wander. My friends asked me if I was OK. They said I seemed detached. I struggled to follow conversations and grew bored. I wanted to go home, but pushed on because I didn’t want to be the killjoy of the group. But by 9pm, I’d had enough and beat a retreat.

It was the same story each time I went out over the next 10 days: sleepless nights, detachment, headaches, a palpitating heart. I soon realised it wasn’t just alcohol that I had stopped enjoying;it was everything. Even sex with my girlfriend seemed to lose its edge. But was this the drug or some kind of psychosomatic reaction? “It is perfectly feasible your experience was a result of placebo,” says Matt Field, professor of addiction at Liverpool University. “When the manufacturer trialled the drug, all participants reported a big reduction in drinking, even those who received placebo. So everybody’s drinking went down, simply by virtue of taking part in a trial. The number of side effects were similar too. So, in my view, you have to be cautious in attributing what you experienced to the pill.”

Nalmefene never really stopped me drinking. It just ruined my night. If you were the joyless sort you could say it worked, at least in part. But it did little to help me understand why I drink to such an extent. Whether it’s the cultural by-product of a busy life or the result of physical or biological dependency, I’m no clearer. That’s because we blur the line between the two, says Bernd Leygraf, a consultant psychotherapist specialising in addiction. “Peer pressure is a powerful motivator to drink but dependency is a real issue too,” he tells me. “Especially in the case of working-age men, it’s almost always a form of self-medication for stress or anxiety. To reduce your drinking meaningfully, you need to examine your own motivations.”

I decided my own reasons for drinking stem from the desire to bond through shared experience. I put it to Leygraf that this is important in itself and the way meaningful relationships are nourished. “Absolutely,” he concurs, “but that doesn’t mean you have to drink every time you go out. Breaking an addictive cycle is hard to do alone. Most people need peer support to change – friends who suggest going for a coffee or seeing a film instead of another fix.”

Ah. That, it seems to me, is the heart of the problem. The support I require to limit my alcohol consumption must come from the very peers who pressure me into drinking in the first place – and the double shots they’re ordering don’t flow from an espresso machine.

In lieu of a magic pill, or a sudden teetotality among my mates, my greatest weapon against one more pint remains my own willpower. And I am determined to strengthen my resolve. In the morning. Tonight I’m meeting a friend. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the pub.

To find out how the others got on, download the full PDF.