Dihydrogen Monoxide: How I Became An Addict in Just 10 Days

Written in 2016, for the MindBodyGreen website…

Enjoying my first mouthful of wine after drinking only water for 10 days, I tasted subtle flavors I’d never noticed, from every individual grape that went into making it. As I stood in a girlfriend’s Brooklyn kitchen, with a glass of rose, I realized my tastebuds had been completely reset. Water no longer tasted metallic, and wine tasted like ambrosia.

I spent 10 days this past September drinking nothing but plain water from the tap, or filtered water from a jug. No tea, no coffee, no alcohol, soda, or even sparkling water. Not even a slice of lemon. I ate normally and carried a small bag of chocolate covered coffee beans for emergencies, because feeling weary is one thing, but falling asleep and ending up in Canarsie is quite another.

The idea came about when I was visiting London during my summer vacation. I was on an underground train when I noticed the “H2Only” campaign to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution — a volunteer organization that saves lives along the British coast.

When I returned home to New York, I tried to sign up, but being outside the UK, I couldn’t create a sponsorship page. Instead, I took the challenge and made a donation to the RNLI. I also joined a 950-strong support group of Brits on Facebook, who called themselves “H2Onlies”.

While I applaud the RNLI’s mission, which echoes that of the volunteer lifeguards seen on the beaches in Australia where I grew up, my motivation for the challenge was a personal one — I wanted to make a healthy change. I also crave novelty and personal challenges, much to my husband’s consternation. It didn’t seem too difficult.

On the first full day with only water to drink, I had a headache that soon became a constant companion. I took painkillers to dull it. At times, I thought I’d fall asleep standing up. By the third day, my energy levels started to even out and the headache abated somewhat. I no longer experienced the highs and lows of my usually caffeine-fueled days, I felt, to use a lifeboat term, on an even keel.

I also realized I use cups of tea and coffee as rewards for myself, as punctuation for my day, and as ways to procrastinate. Outside my home office, there was little respite. Why was everyone else in the city constantly drinking coffee, no matter the time of day or night? My thirst for water, because water was all that was available to me, was not easily slaked — I would look around for the nearest glass, and it was invariably empty. I lost track of how much I was drinking, but it was a serious volume.

By day five or six I felt less scatterbrained than I normally do. I was able to hold on to fleeting thoughts and even action them.

Towards day eight I started noticing my sense of smell and taste had sharpened considerably: not always helpful in the dog days of a New York summer when there’s trash piled up in the streets, but great when it comes to a joy that remained in my life: eating. I was like a child, with strong likes and aversions, no longer experiencing the mediocre ambivalence to flavor that has come with middle age.

Drinking so much water, and nothing else, also reduced my appetite. I ate less, less often, and I felt full after eating smaller amounts, something that was quite new to me.

From the outset, I thought I would miss an evening glass of wine or cocktail the most, but by that first weekend, I would have traded anything for a morning pot of tea.

Brits are a nation of tea drinkers, as are Australians. Americans have their java, their beloved cup o’ joe, their wildly disparate quality and strengths of coffee, from the bitter weak brews found in polystyrene cups that extoll ‘America Runs on Dunkin’ ‘, or the 75c takeaways that New Yorkers grab from the cart at the top of the subway steps, to the high-end, slow drip pour-overs and wasp-waisted Chemex brews of the artisanal coffee houses that are populating the city.

Americans have also perfected drinking coffee cold — as iced coffee (hot coffee that gets cooled down) or cold brew (it has never been heated and tastes completely different to all other coffees). After six and a half years of living in the states, and much to my own surprise, I have turned into a cold brew drinker. But having grown up in Australia the daughter of two New Zealanders, my dedication to tea remains life long and unwavering.

I usually start the day with a cup of tea, at a time when I can barely focus. That gets me through my morning tasks and the school drop off, then I switch to coffee. Just one, or sometimes two, and never after midday. For an afternoon pick-me-up, its tea all the way. Then as evening approaches, its time for a wine, a beer or a cocktail, depending on the occasion. I’d aim for a couple of AFDs (alcohol free days) per week but when you’re tired, discipline is in short supply.

But for 10 days it was water only. Initially I felt bloated yet with a barely quenchable thirst. I would feel panicky if I didn’t have a bottle of water in my bag, or access to a drinking fountain. This leveled out after a few days, at the same time as my skin plumped up, my eyes cleared and I managed stay awake through the daylight hours.

Checking in with my British counterparts on a daily basis, I saw that others in the group reported misplacing five, six or more pounds during the 10 days. I had no such experience.

When it was over, many of my fellow H2Onlies were horrified to find they no longer even liked the taste of tea, coffee or soda. One posted: “Nothing has any flavour — not even espresso! WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS?”

It truly felt like my individual cells had been flushed out, on a microscopic level. Such a simple change, despite the discipline involved, made an astonishing difference to how I felt. As a result, I am now a committed water addict, and I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.

However I wont say no to a martini, if you’re making one.

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