The bank recently sent me a new credit card. As I was about to snip through the old card with a pair of kitchen scissors, a thought occurred to me: I have never done this before. Why I have never done this before? I have been using bank cards since I was fifteen. Two decades as a bank account holder and not once have I had an expired card. Why? Because I always lost my cards. Why? Because I was so frequently drunk that a misplaced wallet had become synonomous with a fun night out.
You could say I was one of life’s losers. I lost everything. Cards, wallets, phones, handbags, jewellery, jumpers. If my head hadn’t been attached to my body all this time, I would say there is every chance it would be missing-in-action too.
It never occurred to me that alcohol was to blame. I thought the regular passing of my possessions was just one of those things, the natural wear and tear of a busy life. I suppose I was in denial, the same way that when someone would comment on a particularly nasty post-party injury, I’d tell them I had the kind of skin that bruised easily. Nothing whatsoever to do with my drinking then, or the fact that when I hit twenty units in a single sitting, which I regularly did, I’d lose control of my legs.
It makes me wonder about the other stuff I lost to drinking. More important than any material item, what about the things that can’t be so easily replaced? My dignity. My self-confidence. An elementary concern for my own safety.
It’s one of the aspects of alcoholism that still bewilders me: its ability to override a person’s character. Naturally, I am cautious. I like control. I don’t like mess, confusion, the feeling that I am disapproved of or have let people down.
But when I was drinking, I didn’t care what people thought (at least, the alcohol made me think I didn’t). I did scary and awful things. Things that make my skin prickle with shame. Things that, years later, still torture me at night.
I didn’t break the law (in any serious way, at least) but I did do stuff that was stupid and dangerous and the more my behaviour deteriotated, the worse I felt about myself. The worse I felt about myself, the more I drank. It was an excruciating cycle of self-harm.
The only time I felt relief from the pain I was creating for myself was when I was drinking. This led me to believe that my drinking persona was the best possible version of me. I began to disconnect from my true self, deeming that it was my true self that was the problem.
Every time I drank, I was drowning another little piece of the real me.
When I quit drinking, I made a startling discovery. I didn’t know who I was anymore. What I liked, what I didn’t like, the activities that made me happy, all of this information had been buried in the wine-bottle-shaped grave I’d been intent on digging for myself.
It’s been exhilarating, these last nine months, to unearth my true character. It’s been comforting to find, after all those years of self-flagellation, that I’m actually not that bad.
Because, as much as my old friend white wine would have had me believe it, it turns out I’m not such a loser after all.
The week before last, I was celebrating 250 continuous days without alcohol, the longest I have ever gone without a glass of wine. I had all kinds of plans, from bolstering sober-themed memes I could share on Twitter to my next big sober challenge (sober karaoke, anyone?). I’d even penned a blog about the 25 amazing, life-giving things I have learned from 250 days of sobriety. I was buzzing. So certain of my commitment to abstinence, I thought nothing, and I mean literally nothing, could rock me enough to get me to drink.
And then last Tuesday happened. What a difference indeed.
This was our second round of IVF. The first, which was in October 2016, was a success and our precious daughter is the result. At the time, it felt like a miracle. We had already had three failed rounds of IUI (the little sister of IVF, it’s a primitive process that involves your eggs, his sperm and a medicalised version of a turkey baster). My hopes for IVF weren’t great. In my heart I think I had already prepared myself that I might never become a mother and therefore when I started to feel queasy a few days before I was due to take the test, I couldn’t believe my luck. After three traumatic years of trying for a baby, I was finally pregnant.
So it was always going to be hard to keep our expectations in check for this second round. After all, it had worked the first time. Why wouldn’t it again? And this time was even easier. Frozen from the first round, we had seven top quality day-5 blastocysts (for those who don’t speak IVF, these are the crème de la crème, the Beluga caviar of the human egg world). I required less scans, less drugs; my husband didn’t have to ‘do his thing’; the painful egg retrieval had already been done. We felt that when we were ready for another baby, it was simply a matter of going back to the freezer and popping one in the oven. As easy, we joked, as cooking up a frozen pizza.
And at first, I didn’t worry. After all, it was only a bit of blood – pale pink, barely visible, so discreet it might have been the shadow of my fingers behind the loo paper. I looked again. Red this time but still no major cause for concern. I had bled in my first pregnancy and I was bleeding again. I went back to bed, telling myself it was okay. It might even be good, I thought. An early sign, perhaps, that we had struck gold a second time.
In the morning, there was more blood. Lots of it and cramps that made me grind my teeth. I tried to ignore it. I took deep breaths, I drank cups of fertility-enhancing ginger tea, I busied myself with the decorator who was starting work on the little spare room at the top of the house (and ignored the irony of ‘having the painters in’ – an expression that was a favourite of ours at school, along with surfing the crimson wave and receiving a visit from Aunt Flo). I decided not to tell my husband about the blood. I was sure that, by the evening, it would have stopped.
It didn’t. While my daughter tottered about the garden with her penguin watering can, I counted the cramps as they made fists in my stomach. I started Googling again, something I promised I wouldn’t do after the forum-frenzy of my first pregnancy. I scoured the internet for accounts of heavy bleeding that had led to positive pregnancy tests. I drafted an email to my gynaecologist, which I didn’t send because I wasn’t prepared to admit there was a problem. At lunchtime, I took my medication; the syringe of anti-coagulant I am required to inject into my abdomen to increase the blood flow in my uterus seemed to have more than double its usual sting.
By the evening, I had admitted defeat. It was over.
We put our daughter to bed and my husband took two non-alcoholic beers from the fridge. I watched him remove the lids, the fake beer spilling out of the top of the bottles, and was almost sick. I didn’t want a soft drink. I wanted alcohol. I wanted to sink as much as I could possibly get my hands on and obliterate the feelings of sadness and sorrow and rage.
I didn’t care about the consequences. I didn’t care about the hangover, or how awful it would be to wake up to the realisation that I had sabotaged my longest ever stretch of sobriety, how shaming it would feel to have to write a blog confessing that I had messed up, that Sober Woman Writes was not so sober anymore.
It would be worth it to have a momentary escape from this most intrusive and personal of failures. Because that is what it feels like, to me at least. Like it’s my fault that the treasured little egg that is half me and half him, the beginnings of a little brother or sister, a new grandchild, won’t have a chance of life.
I drank the non-alcoholic beer. We ate supper. Watched something on Netflix, I don’t remember what. It didn’t feel good, not giving in, but over the course of the evening the craving subsided. When we went to bed, I felt tired and raw but aware, in an abstract sense, of a kind of gratitude that I hadn’t drunk.
It was only the following morning that I realised how close I’d come. Like someone assessing their physical state, limb by limb, after a nasty fall, I lay in bed and took a mental inventory. There was sadness, of course, and anger. Frustration. Worry about the next steps, the treatment, the money, whether I will ever get pregnant again. But there was also pleasure. I didn’t drink. It was a grim situation, horribly reminiscent of all those times before our daughter when it would get to the end of the month and it was always ‘Not Pregnant’, all those nights when I would attach myself to a bottle of white wine in a bid to escape the agony of my so-called “sub-fertility”. It was reminiscent but, at the same time, quite different. Because this time I didn’t drink.
I think the reason I chose not to – and it was a choice, it’s always a choice, however automatic it might feel – was because I know now what I didn’t back then. That alcohol might numb the hurt for an hour or two, a night even, but it won’t take it away. In fact, it will make it worse. Because there’s no short-cut through sadness, no free lunch. Like every emotion, however discomforting, we have to meet it head on.
Drinking through a bad feeling isn’t the same as getting through a bad feeling. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s a way of putting the feeling off.
A week on and I am still grateful I didn’t give in. Grateful for my daughter, for my husband and for the timely reminder that, in the darkest of days, I will always need to fight the desire to drink.
Grateful that I am dealing with my heartache, that I am coping, that, without the deadening effect of alcohol I used to rely on, I am capable of healing.
I was shopping for a birthday card for my brother-in-law when I came across this:
It was in the ‘Humour’ section, which seems like a stupid place for it as I believe there is something genuinely sad about the notion that being a non-drinker is socially off-putting.
You see, like many drinkers, I used alcohol to compensate for my low self-esteem. The result of this was the more I relied on alcohol for confidence, the less confident I became. I looked to others for approval, for assurance. And when you are surrounded by people who seem to accept you on the basis of your drinking, it makes it very hard to break free.
And, if I am being totally honest, it was a handy excuse. My physical and emotional dependence on alcohol was growing and to justify my habit I told myself I couldn’t possibly let my family and friends down. It would be rude, odd, insulting even, to go to a party and not have a drink or two.
In her book Sober Curious, Ruby Warrington says that, because our brains are hardwired to seek out substances that appear to give us pleasure, she believes that, “Anybody who drinks on a regular basis is probably, kind of, just a little bit addicted.”
If this were true (and I believe it is), then it would follow that many of the people around us who drink are, in fact, struggling (whether consciously or not) in their relationship with alcohol.
Yet, as a society that is addicted to alcohol (to such an extent that drunkenness is, in many ways, socially acceptable), we make it tremendously difficult for these people to engage with that struggle. By colluding over the great alcohol-is-amazing myth, we make alcoholism out to be a shameful disease, something contracted by a few weak souls, rather than the very natural chemical response to the regular use of an addictive substance.
I just wonder, all those years when I was too ashamed to admit that I was trying not to drink because I thought I had a drinking problem, were there others in the room who were fighting the same battle?
And, by not not-saying-no, was I in some way neglecting more than my own self-care?
Had I had the guts to own up to my habit, would I have been giving them the chance to do so too?
I don’t mean that we should call out every drinker. Not at all. I am aware that many, many people manage their relationship with alcohol well and, for those who don’t, being asked to publically justify their every sip of wine might have the opposite effect (this last point is aimed particularly at the man who followed me around an Italian island for three long days, calling out “Cuckoo, vino bianco’ every time he saw me – he wasn’t helping me, he was shaming me and all it did was make me reach for another bottle of Orvietto).
No, this is not about shaming. This is about honesty.
Three years ago, I had a miscarriage. It was the first and only time I have managed to become pregnant without medical assistance and it felt like a miracle, until the day after my birthday when the doctor told us he couldn’t find a heartbeat.
Apart from our parents, my husband and I had kept the pregnancy a secret, which was kind of fun when we believed the day would come when we could announce to our friends we had a healthy baby on the way. Not so fun when I was stricken with grief, recovering from a gruesome procedure to remove the defunct embryo from my body, trying to pretend to my boss, my colleagues, my closest social circle that I was fine and everything was normal.
It was a mistake not to share it with our friends. Not only did we have to suffer the enormous pain of our loss without their support but, for me, the concealment of the pregnancy and ensuing miscarriage made it feel like an awful, dirty secret. Like it was something I needed to hide, to keep shut up inside me. Like it was somehow my fault.
When I eventually confided in my girlfriends, I realised that I wasn’t the only one to suffer this pain. Close friends had experienced similar events and although talking to them at the time wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the pregnancy, it might have helped me to come to terms with it better.
Giving up drinking isn’t something to be ashamed of.
It’s something to be proud of.
And when we say ‘No’ to alcohol in a loud, clear voice, who knows how many people might be listening.
I love this time of year. The air is warmer, the wind is softer, there is a layer of pink blossom on the pavement outside my gate that looks like the kind of carpet Barbie would die for. I should be happy. And I am, sort of, but there is something bothering me this spring and I think it’s probably to do with booze.
You see, my brain has hijacked spring. Forget new beginnings – gambling lambs and tulips and longer, lighter evenings. In my mind, spring means rosé. Buckets of the stuff, drunk from big, plastic glasses in the garden, or at friends’ barbecues, or picnics that last until the sun is going in. Clear and pink and cold, it conjures up memories of long lunches with my family, of trips to the South of France, of sunshine, sunlotion and sunny, carefree drunkenness.
Even the thought of it makes me salivate. And it’s difficult to brush aside, as I would any other craving, because every time I step outside and take a breath I am hit by the all-body urge to drink wine.
Last week, a man passed me in the street. He was smoking a cigarette. The smell of it drifted towards me and I found myself taking massive, wistful gulps and not because I wanted a cigarette but because, in that moment, it seemed to taste of spring, of summer, of all the wine I wouldn’t get to drink this year. And I felt sad, which, in turn, made me even sadder. Because I love being sober, I really do, and I wish with all my heart that I was free of any longing for the way I used to live.
Particularly as the memories – those fond recollections of happy, alcohol-imbued summer evenings – are not real. They’re a fantasy, a mirage, a deceptively vivid illusion that has been conjured up by my addiction in a bid to get me to drink.
Apparently, it’s called euphoric recollection, or recall, and according to American sociologist and international addiction expert Terry Gorski, it is when, “We remember and exaggerate pleasurable memories of past chemical use episodes. Then we block or repress our bad memories of drug use or deny the pain associated with them.”
Sometimes, I find myself wishing away the pain I caused myself in the drinking days. But it occurs to me now that instead of trying to break free I should hold onto it. Cling tight and be grateful for it.
Because every time I pass a shelf of pink wine in the supermarket, or catch a whiff of cooking sausages, or hear the laughter of my next-door neighbours as they crack open another bottle on their terrace, I will think of that pain and I will remember what drinking was really like.
I will remember the hangovers and the shame and the self-loathing. I will remember the time I drank so much at my friend’s lunchtime barbecue I was sick all over myself. The time I flirted with the guy with the nice dog because I was sad and angry and wanted to make my husband jealous. The time I couldn’t enjoy the holiday destination of a lifetime because I thought my head might split in two. The time I stripped down to my underwear and jumped in a pool in front of a bunch of my husband’s friends. The time I missed out on a day in the sunshine because I was waiting to be seen by a doctor, convinced that the amount I had drunk the night before was causing me to have a heart attack.
I am determined to enjoy this summer. I am lucky to have this opportunity to make some new memories, to change my thinking so that when I look out of my window next year and see the first shy buds of blossom, I won’t be sad, or tortured by the temptation to drink.
No, this summer will be different. And next year, when I smell the first, sweet scent of springtime, I hope my only emotion will be excitement.
I used to think the joy of a holiday was all in the drinking.
It didn’t matter what kind it was – French villa with friends, birthday weekend in Marrakech, Easter with my family – if there was a holiday to be had, I would be there, oversized wine glass in hand.
So when I gave up drinking, I was at a bit of a loss. I ran the calculations in my head. Take out the bottle of perfectly pale rose at lunch, the first sanitising, post-sleep-and-shower gin and tonic of the evening, the two and a half croissants in the morning that are necessitated by yet another hangover, the drinks in the airport that are permitted, regardless of time, because its the last day out of the office, and I wasn’t sure what would be left.
Was there such a thing, I wondered, as a sober holiday?
Last month, I went in search of the answer. I took my first official Sober-Cation. And I know there is nothing worse than a person who brags about their recent trip, but I’ve got to tell you: it was magical.
I used to feel a certain edginess at the beginning of a holiday. It was a yearning for that first drink, the reward for my hard work, a tangible marker that the holiday had finally begun.
I found I could never settle until it was there in front of me. Which would have been fine, except that, when it was empty, I always needed another.
You see, alcohol made me greedy. I was always hungry for it, no matter how much I drank. And this is a particular problem on holiday, because a holiday is for rest, for mind-emptying down-time, and when you have a voice in your head that is yelling at you to find another drink, it makes it very hard to relax.
And when I gave in to that voice, as I nearly always did, I would have too much. Then I would go to bed late and the next day I would have a hangover. I’d be weary, anxious, grumpy. I’d need wine at lunch to chase away the headache and the cycle would begin all over again. It was exhausting. I came home more tired than when I went away.
This holiday was different. I went to bed early. I got up early. I was clear-headed, energised, excited for what might lie ahead. In the past, I would have obsessed over our plans for the day and not because I had any great interest in where we would have lunch but because, for me, eating meant drinking.
But this latest holiday was a revelation, a picture postcard of what holidays are meant to be. And yet it was completely real. There was none of the impossible fantasy that used to accompany my alcoholism – we’ll drink and everything will be wonderful. It wasn’t perfect – I didn’t expect it to be – but it was pretty great. We collected shells on the beach, we flew a kite, we ate Cornish pasties with sand on our feet and shells in our pockets. When we discovered that the bee farm we were hoping to visit was closed, we stopped the car by the side of the road to watch a sheep nurse its young lamb, to my daughter’s jubilant, hand-clapping delight.
Because that was another problem with the holidays of my past. Alcohol made me selfish. I would put my own boozing ambitions for the day above the needs or desires of my family or friends. And worse, I would justify my agenda, to myself and those who would listen, with the explanation that holidays are for relaxation, for letting go. If you can’t have a drink or three on holiday, when can you?
Then there are all the details, the stuff you miss when you are hungover, or bleary and half cut. Cheery clumps of daffodils in the garden, purple stones on the beach, rivulets in the sand that look like skinny, wind-bent trees. The way the world tips upside down when you throw your head back to look at a cloud speeding across the sky, the feeling of cold sea air as it pushes into your lungs. It seemed as though I was experiencing, for the first time, a holiday in technicolour and it was glorious.
In my drinking days, I would have said a sober holiday was a wasted holiday.
I certainly wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that some day I’d happily never drink on holiday again.
Yesterday I saw a sign outside a bar that caught my attention. It said, WHAT’S YOUR POISON? I carried on by but the focus of the advertisement stayed with me for the rest of the day. In its shouty, capital letters, it seemed to expose the peculiarity of our drinking culture, that not only are the effects of heavy drinking commonly known, but they are also, in the case of that sign, being used to lure us in.
It made me think: how is it that alcohol has this hold on us? That, unlike other highly addictive substances, its use is not only accepted by society but feted?
For years, I had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. I loved it for taking away my pain, for lifting my spirits, for helping me to ignore my worries, for cloaking my feelings. I hated it for the control it had over my life, for amplifying my fears and anxieties, for the hangovers that reduced me for days at a time to a shameful, quaking wreck. I was addicted, physically and emotionally. I thought I would never escape.
And now I am out the other side, it seems cruel that this internal struggle isn’t the only battle I have to fight. There’s the battle inside me – I want to drink, I don’t want to drink – but there’s also the battle between me and the rest of the drinking world.
It doesn’t matter how many studies emerge about the dangers of alcohol, society seems to favour drinkers. Perhaps it’s mob mentality – it can’t be doing us any harm if we are all doing it – or it’s simply a matter of numbers – there are so many more drinkers than non-drinkers in the western world – but somehow sobriety still feels like a dirty word.
A recent discussion about alcohol with a family member highlighted this problem.
She said, “It’s fine to choose not to drink in your own home, but when offered a glass of wine at someone’s house, I think it’s rude not to accept.”
Imagine, for a moment, suggesting that it would be impolite to decline a cigarette, or a line of coke. It’s propesterous, but somehow, when it’s alcohol, there’s this sense that it’s normal to drink, necessary in some situations even, despite the fact that it’s a perilously addictive substance.
One interesting piece of research released in October last year showed that young people are drinking less.
Results of the study, which was conducted by University College London, showed that nearly a third of 16 to 24-year-olds are choosing to abstain from alcohol. As someone whose drinking habits were defined by the pressures of my late teens and early twenties, I welcomed the headlines that pronounced “It’s no longer cool to drink.”
However, when it came up over dinner with friends, these teetotal teens and twenty-somethings were regarded with pity. One friend commented, albeit half-jokingly, “How are they ever going to find the person they want to marry, if they are not out getting drunk and snogging people every night?”
Sometimes I find myself looking at my daughter, this happy, determined toddler, and I am struck by her confidence. She is completely comfortable in her own skin, totally accepting of her place in the world. I think of myself in the worst of my drinking years, the chaos, the impact on my self esteem as the giant sack of shame I carried around on my back got heavier, the scars I bear from the bad and self-harming things I did. Then I think about the way I am now. More centred, more balanced, more confident than I have been in decades. I feel like I have finally found my ‘reset’ switch.
So however hard the fight might feel some days – against the drinking voice in my head, against the drinkers around me, against society – one thing is clear to me:
Sober is natural. Sober is normal. Sober is the way I was born to be.
It’s been another long day. I’m tired. My feet ache. I feel thirsty and hungry and even a little bit sick. The only thing I want is a drink. An enormous glass of white wine. I can almost taste it; I can certainly imagine how it will make me feel, the way, like some kind of delicious, magic potion, it will vanish away my stress in just a few quick gulps. My shoulders will drop, my mind will still, the breath will come back to my lungs. And life will seem bearable, pleasurable even, once more.
This was the fantasy. This was what I always hoped would happen, and some days, for the duration of that first drink, it would. It’s why I allowed myself to believe for years that alcohol is the world’s best cure for stress.
Sure, it came with a price – hangovers, shame, self-loathing, the risk of life-threatening illnesses – but it was worth it, wasn’t it? Worth waking up every morning feeling like a bad person to have a few hours of peace each evening at the end of a hard day? Worth feeling like a person who was disappointing the people they love, like a person who was falling so short of their potential they were actually going backwards.
Only it wasn’t a few hours peace. Often, it wasn’t even minutes. Sometimes I didn’t get there at all. I’d keep drinking, waiting for the feelings I was trying to escape to disappear, but instead I’d feel worse. Agitated, angry, annoyed with myself for breaking my vow to stay off wine once again. And then there would be the next day to deal with, a wretched hangover on top of the stress I had been trying to bypass in the first place.
It was confusing. Time and time again I turned to my old friend white wine and it kept letting me down.
Because alcohol isn’t a cure for stress. It is a contributor. Aside from the physical effect of heavy drinking (I’ve never met anyone who says the common symptoms of a hangover have helped them resolve a stressful situation), there is evidence that alcohol can actually exacerbate stress.
First up, it’s a depressant. It slows down the brain and the central nervous system’s processes, interfering with the neurotransmitters that are integral to normal mental health. So while it may seem to reduce stress in the short-term, the feelings of anxiety and depression that are associated with long-term drinking will make us less able to cope with stress.
Secondly, coping with stress is a skill. It’s something we (hopefully) learn as children and continue to develop and improve on in adulthood. If we use alcohol as a cure for stress on a regular basis, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to exercise our stress-coping muscle. After a while, said muscle begins to waste. Our ability to cope with stress diminushies.
According to figures released by The Stress Management Society for this April’s Stress Awareness Month, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. We need to be able to handle stress because whoever we are, whatever our situation, we are going to encounter it somewhere along the line.
I’m quite a stressy person. I am easily flappable. Prone to panic at the smallest of problems. And, in my view, one of the most difficult aspects of getting sober was not being able to wash away the strains of every day life with a nice, big drink.
For the first time in years, I was forced to confront my emotions.
I had no choice but to tune into my mental channel. I discovered things about myself I had never come across before. I soared the so-called pink cloud and was overwhelmed on a regular basis with stratospheric levels of joy and positivity. I burst into tears in a traffic jam because a recording of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma was played on the radio and I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful.
But it was also scary. At times, I was brittle and raw. I felt pain that I had never felt and I wondered how not drinking could possibly be good for me when it hurt so bloody much.
It’s over a year since I decided to try sobriety as a way of life and I’m pleased to say it’s becoming easier. I’m getting the hang of it. Without the emotional anaesthesia of alcohol, I am learning to sit with my feelings, to accept them, to respect them, to allow them to dissipate in their own sweet time.
And this means I’m better at dealing with stress. At actually dealing with it, addressing the issues that are causing the stress, rather than sinking the feelings I have, both the good and the bad, into yet another bottle of cheap white wine.
Everyone loves a bank holiday – Monday lie-ins, spring-time weather, the opportunity, as they say, to eat, drink and be merry – but if you have recently given up alcohol, the countdown to a holiday can make you feel like you are fast approaching the edge of a cliff. Well, if that’s you, then don’t throw yourself out of the car (or off the wagon) just yet because here are my top tips for surviving (and enjoying) a sober holiday.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Benjamin Franklin could have had the recently-sober in mind when he said this because preparation is crucial to sobriety-success. I can think of umpteen occasions when my vow to stay clear of wine collapsed, simply because I was caught off guard. If there is a voice in your head that tells you to drink, then, from my experience, it’ll pounce on even the flimsiest of excuses. They ran out of soft drinks, the traffic was terrible, I fully intended not to drink but then I bumped into my ex-boyfriend and his beautiful, new wife… Be prepared. Plan your journeys. Carefully consider the events you are hoping to attend (and how they might impact your intention to stay sober). Pack your favouite soft drink as though you were packing for the apocalypse.
Be Aware of Your Pressure Points
This follows on from #1. Bank holidays can be stressful. Pile-ups on the motorway, bored children lobbing toys at each other in the back of the car, lost luggage, difficult family members. Identify the circumstances that make you want to drink. Personally, I get very nervous when I am hosting. It sends the approval-seeker in me into overdrive, which is manageable, if I am aware of it. If I make the mistake of letting it go unchecked, I could easily find myself at the bottom of a bottle of white wine before our guests have even arrived.
If you know what pushes your buttons, then you can find ways to avoid these conditions. If you can’t avoid them (your brother’s wife will be at the party, whatever happens…), then come up with coping strategies. There is usually a simple excuse to step out of a testing situation (you need to change the baby’s nappy, fetch another spoon, let the dog out). Sometimes, a five-minute breather can be all it takes to refocus yourself.
Distraction Is Key
If drinking used to be an activity in itself, then the empty hours of a bank holiday can seem like a daunting prospect, or, worse, a temptation too large to overcome. Find other things that you might like to do. Buy a couple of books you’ve been wanting to read. Download a podcast series. If you’re away from home, research places that might be cool to visit. When I was giving up drinking, one of the questions that plagued me is whether I would still be able to have fun. Although a lot of the fun I thought I was having with alcohol was imagined, I was terrified that life, without booze, would be very, very grey. I have been amazed at how wrong I was. It’s true, sobriety is a different kind of fun. It isn’t a quick-fix on any pain or anxiety you might be feeling but the flip-side of this is that, without the ejector-seat effect of alcohol, you can be wonderfully present. Be prepared to encounter a renewed pleasure in the small things.
Be Kind To Yourself
Giving up alcohol is very hard. Understatement. When you make the laudable decision to remove alcohol from your life, you should treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend who is going through a gory break-up. Be compassionate. Be gentle. Fill your life, as far as possible, with the other things that make you feel happy. My consumption of chocolate (and basically any consumable with a dangerously high sugar content) went through the roof when I gave up alcohol, which is okay, because the decision to become sober was one of the most important decisions I have ever made and my commitment to that decision merits safeguarding at all costs (even if that means eating cake as though I’m going for some kind of record). Clearly, you should avoid creating alternative negative habits to fill the space once occupied by alcohol, but the early days of sobriety are tough and it is important to allow yourself lee-way in other areas of your life, particularly during special occasions such as bank holidays when the people around you might be drinking more than usual and your decision to stay sober might feel harder than ever.
Share The Load
Bank holidays, like all the big drinking dates of the year, carry a lot of social pressure. Trying and failing to give up alcohol for all those years, I spent a lot of time ruminating the excuses I could use to dissuade friends and family from offering me drinks. I told them I was driving, I was taking antibiotics, I was trying to lose weight, but none of these seemed to cut it. People were determined to get me to drink. “You can have one, can’t you?” they said (and sometimes almost accusingly, even when I was pregnant and had a legitimate medical excuse). Everyone, of course, is different, but I have found only one way to prevent drinking pressure and that is to be honest. Now, I tell people I have given up drinking because I had a bad relationship with alcohol. That way, I don’t have to go into the grizzly details but it’s enough to keep those irksome drink-pushers at bay.
Be Proud of Yourself
Giving up alcohol is a mighty accomplishment. It’s not indulgent to give yourself a pat on the back and I would encourage you to do this often. Alcohol is one of the most addictive substances on the planet and you have managed to walk away from it. That makes you incredibly strong, which is a fact you should remind yourself of in those bank holiday, Bulmers-advert-style moments when drinking alcohol looks so wonderful, so harmless, so right. You are bigger and better than alcohol. Fact.
Sobriety clocks can be a helpful way of charting your success. I use Nomo. Whenever I am feeling the urge to drink, I check into the app. Just the sight of the number of days that have passed since I last had a drink is enough to set me back on track. I am really proud of my achievement (219 days). Why would I throw that away on a glass of wine (that will only make me feel rubbish in the morning)?
Don’t Think of It As ‘Surviving’
It can be easy to think of sober achievements in negative terms. I made it through the weekend without alcohol, I survived a booze-free bank holiday. Try to turn your thinking on its head. If you consider your sobriety as a positive – a decision that enriches your life rather than takes from it – you will be more likely to stick with it. Count the ways in which your life is better for becoming sober. It will help you to see sobriety as a choice you wish to make, rather than a course you are being forced to take.
“When everything seems like an uphill struggle, just think of the view from the top.”Unknown
It was 2012 and I was about to get married. As is the custom, two of my closest girlfriends had organised a hen party for me, a rare Saturday spent with ten of my favourite people.
At dinner, we played a game. Each friend had been invited to bring a ‘clue’, a physical item that would help me to guess the story said friend would be about to relate to the table. There were anecdotes from my teenage years, tales of antics from my twenties and beyond. We laughed a lot and I felt loved and cherished. I felt so lucky. There I was with these glorious women, women from the different seasons of my life – home friends, school friends, university friends, London friends, friends who are too big a part of me to belong to a single category – and I was known by each of them. As a collective, these girls knew it all.
It was a very happy day and I have thought about it often. I have thought about that game too.
Because there was something else those stories showed, something I didn’t see (or didn’t want to), something that linked each and every one, something my friends – from whatever segment of my life they came – all recognised in me and it was this: I was a drinker. A big drinker. I was the one who could be relied on to be the most drunk at any party, the one who would make all the other drinkers feel they had actually behaved quite well, the one whose hangover would be the worst, whose escapades would be the most wild, whose shame would be the most crippling, whose insistence that hair of the dog is the only the way to deal with the morning after the night before would be the most, well, insistent.
Put simply, if there is one facet of my personality that my friends would probably agree on, it was that I was ‘The Drunk One’.
Now, I don’t know if you have seen Friends (has anyone in the world not?) but if you have you’ll know that each of the six main characters has an unofficial by-line. Monica, the tidy one, Rachel, the pretty one, Phoebe, the hippy one, Chandler, the funny one. Joey, the dim one, Ross, the dinosaur-loving divorcee. And from the stories that were told at my hen party, it would appear it was the same with me. Through years and years of excessive drinking, I had created my own Friends-style by-line. Heavy drinking, it seems, was my ‘thing’.
Which is funny, because there is other stuff to my name. I have a degree from Oxford University, the experience of a decade-long career in PR, an MA in creative writing, a marriage that I am proud of, a daughter who is growing up in a secure and loving home. I have written a novel (sure, it is gathering metaphorical dust in a folder in Dropbox but I have still done it), I have (complainingly) completed the London Marathon, I can catch cherry tomatoes with my mouth, even if you throw them up really high. Yet, and in spite of all these things, boozing was my tag-line. And not always in a bad way either. I have lovely friends. They weren’t trying to make me feel down by reminding me of these stories, these incidents from my drinking past. They weren’t trying to shame me. Quite the opposite. They were showing me that they knew me and they loved the me they knew.
And I’ll admit, some of it was pretty funny. Over the years I have got myself into a grand number of scrapes thanks to my old pal, white wine, and I was always the first to laugh at these mishaps. To share them with my buddies like they were badges of honour, achievements to be proud of. As if getting carted away, mid-wee, on the back of a portaloo at a friend’s wedding was practically worthy of a line on my CV.
You see, there is a bigger issue here. Society normalises drunkenness, which makes it very hard for us to admit there is a problem, even if we really want to. And though I might have been the drunkest of my friends, I was in good company. The social order tells us it’s okay to drink ourselves into oblivion on a regular basis. Just look at the words we use for abstainence – sober, dry. The message is that going without alcohol is boring, whereas drinking alcohol is fun, social, normal even. Give up smoking and people congratulate you. Give up alcohol and people look at you as though you are weird. Or pitifully weak.
Perhaps if I had been bolder, more self-assured, I might have been able to look beyond the macro, the endemic of heavy drinking, and see what was going on with me at a personal level. I might have had the strength to believe I was worth more. I might have had the courage to ask for help. But as it was, years of heavy drinking had torn apart my confidence. I had forgotten all the good stuff, all the other things my dear friends love me for, and instead I had begun to embody my boozy by-line, as if it was the only thing going for me. I was The Drunk One. No less, no more.
I will be forever grateful for that last, defining hangover. I am not sure why it was the one to change me but that day – 22 January 2018 – made me realise I couldn’t go on. There had to be more to life than drinking, I thought as I took out the bag full of empty bottles. Surely, I thought as I longed with all my heart for that long, dark day to be over, there had to be more to me.
I have been trying and failing to give up alcohol for years.
The first time I swore myself off it – and I mean for a concerted period of time, rather than the standard day-after-the-night-before “I’m never going to drink again” – was when I was eighteen. I had recently returned to England after a couple of months travelling in South America and was biding time until I took up a place at university. I went to an ex-boyfriend’s twenty-first. It was the first time I had seen him since we had broken up and I was nervous. I drank too much. I met a guy who suggested we pinch a couple of bottles from the bar and continue the party back in his car, which was parked in a field behind the marquee. A couple of others joined us and, after a short while, we ran out of cigarettes. The owner of the car said he was too drunk to drive. Despite hours of drinking, I swore I was sober and volunteered to ferry us to the local petrol station. We changed seats. I started the engine. Put the car into what I believed to be reverse gear and drove us, headfirst, into a dry-stone wall.
No one was hurt, thankfully. The horror and shock I felt when I thought about how much worse it could have been – what might have happened if I hadn’t driven us into that wall and had, instead, managed to get us onto a public highway – was compounded by the fact that I was so ashamed I couldn’t bear to confide in my parents or my friends. I emptied my bank account of the money I had been saving for university so the guy could get a new bumper and vowed I would never drink again.
But I did. Again and again. And this is what I find so fascinating about alcohol: its power, the way it can persuade a person to ditch the pledge they made to themselves at the beginning of the day and sink litres of a liquid that is quite literally poisoning them from the inside out. We know the reasons we shouldn’t drink. It is bad for us, physically and emotionally. Long-term, it can cause organ damage, a higher risk of cancer, strokes, liver failure and heart attacks. It has been linked to depression, infertility, weight gain, divorce. We know it makes us feel sad and scared and sick and yet, for some reason, we keep on drinking.
Dopamine. That’s why. Read any article about alcohol addiction and this is the word you will see on repeat. Public Enemy Number One for people trying to get sober, which is a shame, because it is actually pretty amazing stuff. When we hear a song we love, or see a person we fancy, or take that first, glorious, ice-hard-chocolate mouthful of Magnum Almond, our brain is flooded with dopamine. It is the chemical messenger that tells our brain we have experienced something pleasurable and its function is to teach us how to access the things we need to survive, such as food or water, motivating us to repeat a behaviour again and again on the principle that what makes us feel good is what we need. And herein lies the problem…
Studies have shown that alcohol is capable of increasing dopamine levels by 40-360 per cent. When we drink, our brain receives a mega-load of dopamine; this tells it we are experiencing something good, something we need more of. It is the dopamine-surging properties of alcohol that make it one of the five most addictive substances on the planet, along with heroin, cocaine, nicotine and barbiturates. It’s this that makes us go back to the bottle time and time again, even when we have promised ourselves we won’t, even though we are sure we don’t want to drink, that we never want to drink again. We are not weak or lacking in self-control. We are up against one of the most devious and dangerous substances of all time, one that is able to convince our brains that it’s what we really need, that it’s what’s good for us, that it’s a true friend. No big surprise, then, that so many of us are stuck on this merry-go-round, this nightmare ride we can’t seem to ever get off.
This leads us to another problem around the effects of alcohol on dopamine. Over time, the brain adapts to the heightened levels of dopamine caused by drinking and it produces less. This results in a drop in dopamine levels, which, combined with the depressive effects of alcohol and the damage regular drinking can cause to our levels of serotonin, the brain chemical that helps to regulate your moods, can make us feel really low. So what do we do? We search for something our brain has learnt will make us feel a whole lot better…
And round and round we go. The more we drink, the more we need to drink. The worse it makes us feel, the more we need it because we have taught our brains to believe it is what will make us feel great again.
So how do we break the cycle? How do we internalise the undisputed truth that alcohol is bad for us?
We don’t drink.
I know. It sounds stupid – if only it was that easy, right – but abstaining from alcohol for a significant period of time is the way to teach our brains a new truth, that being sober is good for us, that it is something we want and need, that – and, for me, this is the big one – being sober is more pleasurable than being drunk.
It was a big challenge, my first sober New Year’s Eve. I was tempted to skip it completely – stay at home, get a takeaway, have an embarrassingly early night – but friends asked us to their house for dinner and I wasn’t quick enough to think of an excuse. Plus, I thought I was ready for it. Still blazing from a completely booze-free Christmas, I was eager to take it to the next level. We booked a babysitter. I wore a new dress, took time over my make-up. As we left the house, I was confident I wouldn’t drink but apprehensive about how it might make me feel. I clutched the twenty-four pack of sparklers I had bought our host in a bid to prove I was still up for a party and hoped it wouldn’t be too awkward.
There’s something funny about New Year’s Eve, something in the air that makes everyone a bit giddy, a bit kamikaze. Perhaps it’s the promise of a clean slate, our last chance to do the things we shouldn’t before the start of a brand-new year and the resolutions it brings with it.
This year was no different. The drinks flowed. I drank three glasses of tonic water, the ice jingling against the side of the glass like I was drinking a proper drink, and tried to get comfortable. People were getting drunk around me, the talk was getting louder and looser, but instead of feeling excluded, I was feeling strangely buzzed. I knew I wasn’t going to drink; that whatever might happen that night, nothing would be able to make me drink. It was incredibly empowering. There I was, sipping soft drinks when everyone else was knocking back the fizz, and it was fine. A little awkward, sure, but fine.
And there was something weirdly great about being fully present, aware of the feeling of my shoes pinching ever so slightly against the back of my heels, and the brightness of the lights in the sitting room, and the gentle, hungry grumble in my stomach. I realised I was actually talking to people, not just standing near them, making noise and drinking. I was listening, responding, remembering, and this was novel for me, the freedom to hold a conversation without the interruption of the voice in my head, demanding a top-up of wine, or the newly poured glass in my friend’s hand, or the bottle on the side that I just wish the hosts would bloody get on and open.
Between the main course and pudding, we played a game. In the past, this is exactly the sort of activity that would have made me want to swift-exit a party. In truth, I probably baulked at any activity that wasn’t drinking, or didn’t at least involve alcoholic penalities or rewards. I didn’t see the point. For me, a party was for getting smashed, not trying to guess which celebrity’s name I was wearing as a sticker on my head.
But this time, and in the spirit of trying new things to keep me away from old things, I was happy to give it a go. And it was fun, surprisingly so. I even won a few rounds, enjoying my ability, at ten pm on one of the biggest drinking nights in the global calendar, to contribute. Enjoying the feeling of being involved. Because, as I am beginning to discover, one of the oddest things about being sober at a party is the realisation that it is you that creates a connection with people and with the event, not the alcohol. I always thought it was wine that helped me to bond, wine that made me funnier, stronger, calmer, bolder and more socially fluent. As a sober person, I realise how, in fact, the opposite was true. Alcohol might have made me braver for the first five minutes of a party but I would soon retreat into my own head, ignoring the people around me, engaging only with the voice that told me to follow the booze.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the next day, the first day of the new year, but I suppose that in itself is what made it remarkable. There was no hangover, no shame, no shunting feelings of panic. I didn’t need to check my sent Whatsapps or gear myself up to send a grovelling text to our hosts. We took the dog for a walk, went to Pizza Express for lunch, messed around at home in the afternoon. At some point afterwards, I received a message from one of the girls who had been at the party with us, which said:
It was really lovely to see you. I hope you revelled in how un-hungover you felt!
It’s been a while since it’s been really lovely to see me at any event where there also happens to be a lot of wine. And, yes, I did revel in it. It was a thoroughly nice feeling and one that is becoming increasingly familiar to me. Every time I don’t drink, I believe in Sober Me a little more. It is starting to feel more natural, more authentic, more lasting. And what is so strange about this process is that Sober Me feels a lot more like Real Me than Drunk Me ever did.
When sober, I am kind, considerate, sometimes mildly funny. When drunk, I am self-interested, destructive, irrational. Sure, I still say silly things and pick at the skin around my nails when I am nervous and doubt myself when I am feeling tired or down but I don’t do things that are out of character anymore. And over the last year or so I have found that there is huge comfort and security in the knowledge that you’re not going to do something that, however many times you try to make sense of it the next day, you can’t begin to understand why the hell you did whatever it was you did. Like that time I ran away from a party without my heels or handbag and had to borrow a pair of shoes from a man in a Thai Takeaway restaurant and a fiver for the night bus, which I then spent on a ten pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. I had to walk home, in a pair of size eleven rubber clogs, eventually getting to bed at 3am. On a school night.
Not drinking is what stops you drinking. I really believe this. It’s incredibly hard and some days will be harder than others but the positive sober experiences you have will inform the decision you’ll make when you are next offered a drink. Slowly but surely, you are re-wiring your brain, teaching it to understand that being sober, not drunk, is good. And I really, truly believe that it is good. I am happier sober than I ever was as a drinker, and I thought I loved, loved, loved drinking. I am happier, calmer, more balanced. Because the sober life is a life less complicated. It’s a life more ordinary, only better than ever before.