Stress And Alcohol – A Very Bad Cocktail

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. 

Neon lighting depicts a pink question mark at the end of a dark passage
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

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.  

Seven Soulful Ways To Survive a Booze-Free Bank Holiday

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. 

Be Prepared

“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.

Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

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. 

Black framed Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses on top of a pile of books, with beach scene in the background
Photo by Link Hoang on Unsplash

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

Woman sitting on top of grey rock overlooking mountain during daytime
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

The Drunk One

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. 

White heart decorations pouring out of a red bucket
Photo by Johnny Brown on Unsplash

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.

Person wearing costume panda head sits on the pavement with bottles of alcohol
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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. 

Not Drinking To Stop Drinking

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. 

Why?

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.

Lighted ride-on carousel
Photo by heni noviyanti on Unsplash

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.

Champagne cork with foil on a white background

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. 

Green trees with the light of the sun shining through
Photo by D. Jameson RAGE on Unsplash

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. 

Desperately Seeking Sober

So here I am. 429 days since that hangover and I am finally sober. 

I’ll be honest with you. There have been slip-ups, quite a few actually, but today is a sober-landmark. 200 days since my last sip of alcohol and, hand-on-heart, I wouldn’t go back for all the tea in China. Or, for that matter, the rosé in Provence.

I can’t tell you why that hangover was any different, why that particular cocktail of shame and self-pity and wine-soaked sadness was the one that did it, but for some reason a door opened that day and I have found since I can’t push it shut. Not that I haven’t tried. There have been days in the last year when I have wanted to pretend I am like those lucky, one-glass-is-enough drinkers, when I have longed to get my head into a giant bucket of wine and turn off, for a few hours at least, the thoughts and feelings that alcohol is so effective at quietening, when I have sat at a table with friends, salivating over their glasses of wine so violently I haven’t been able to taste what I am eating.

And on several occasions I have listened to the voice in my head that wants me to drink, that tells me I am only fun if I do, that my friends won’t want to be my friend anymore if I don’t, that I’m dull, dull, dull if I’m drinking tonic water and can’t make myself last beyond midnight. I have given into that voice and, sacrificing long stretches of sobriety, I have drunk and I have regretted it. 

Pouring water into a glass at lunch with friends

There was the cosy lunch with friends in April – they’d just welcomed a new baby into the world and there were four full glasses of champagne on the table when we arrived. I told myself I would only have one. One turned into two and then into five. I tripped over our daughter on my way back from the loo. Then – after a solid sixty or so days sober – there was the weekend in Oxfordshire in June, a family party. Outwardly, I held myself together but inwardly, I knew. The voice was all I could hear, telling me to drink more and more, to get away from the woman I was sitting next to who wanted to talk about my father’s military career and find someone who would make sure my glass was never empty. 

And then there was July, my friend’s son’s christening. It had been a good stint. I was feeling strong, empowered, free. I didn’t think I needed to prepare myself mentally for a big party – to don my special sober armour – because I thought I had finally kicked this whole alcohol issue for good. 

It was a steaming hot day. Because of the timing of the service, we’d had to cut our daughter’s morning nap short and now she was tired and grumpy. I had a spot coming in the middle of my forehead and wasn’t sure I was wearing the right thing. My shoes were too tight and we were late and there was nowhere to park the car. 

At first, it was so small I barely noticed it. I was watching my friend at the front of the church and they were praying for her son and a single thought – the tiniest hint of a suggestion – dropped into my mind. A drink would make this better, it said. I looked to the altar again, tried to focus on my friend, her son, the pretty stained window. I could have one. Just something to take the edge off, to smooth away the nerves. It’s a daytime thing. I won’t get drunk. I’ve got my daughter to look after. I’ll have one glass of wine and that will be it.

I didn’t just have one. Or two. Or three. Or ten. I drank as if my life depended on it. 

As our daughter slept upstairs in the travel cot we had brought with us, I hoovered up whatever I could find on the tables they had laid out under the trees. Champagne, sparkling wine, white wine, beer. They ran out of chilled wine so I moved to warm white, never waiting for my too-small plastic cup to get below the half-way line. There were lots of people I had wanted to catch up with but I didn’t stay too long with anyone, spend too long with a single person and they might notice how much I was drinking. I drifted from group to group, never settling, avoiding anyone brandishing a paper plate who might, God forbid, suggest we get ourselves some food. At some point, our baby woke and my husband fetched her. I avoided them both, terrified that he would tell me it was time to go and I would have to stop drinking. If it wasn’t so awful, it might have been funny. Him popping up next to me and me disappearing again, chasing each other around the party like some goofy, old-fashioned comedy sketch.

The sun went in. The garden started to empty. My daughter was hungry and crying. I planted myself next to my friend as I knew my husband wouldn’t be able to demand we leave in front of the party’s hostess. I tried to fill her glass, spilling wine all over her dress. She suggested we switch to spritzers and I felt as if I had been slapped. I found my husband, told him we were leaving, left the party without saying thank you or goodbye.

Seven empty wine bottles on the grass

My memory of the rest of the day is hazy. Slopping pasta sauce over the kitchen floor as I tried to prepare my daughter’s supper. Drinking champagne on the terrace with my parents to celebrate their anniversary and feeling wonderful, alive again, as the afternoon hangover that had developed on the way home in the car began to dissipate with a new injection of alcohol. Happiness turning to sadness as I realised I was drunk and weary. Feeling no one understood me. Hating them for drinking slowly, for not topping up my wine. 

My husband had to put me to bed. 

The shame the next day was torrential. I didn’t get up, choosing instead to let my husband look after my daughter, while I cowered under my duvet. The headache was so bad, I wondered if I had fallen and cracked my skull on the edge of some piece of furniture. 

Funnily enough, this wasn’t the turning point for me (I didn’t learn anything from this hangover that I didn’t already know), but, crucially, it was the turning point for my husband. For years we have been drinking buddies, companions in shame, helping each other through the day after the night before, but he told me afterwards that he had watched me at the party and realised, for the first time, that I was right. I did have a problem with alcohol.

It was a relief to hear him say it. I think he had been struggling with my pledge to sobriety. He had seen me break it enough, to wonder if I was serious. He thought we were just the same – drinking to excess every now and then, far less than we did when we were students, or in our twenties. I had never told him about the voice, about the hunger I get, the thumping, all-body urge to drink until I can’t see or speak or feel. He watched me that day, the only person with a glass of wine still in her hand, as he tried to calm our increasingly discomforted toddler, and it occurred to him that our marriage might be better, not worse, if I decided to become sober for good. That his wife might actually be happier without wine, her favourite happy juice. 

So that’s what I did. And that’s where I am now. And that’s why I am writing this blog. Because it is hard and it is daunting and I have the sense that if I write it all down, if I put my feelings into words on a page, it will be less easy for me to wriggle out of the promise I have made to myself, to my husband, and to my daughter. And who knows, there might be someone out there like me, who feels that something has to change but is scared of what a life without alcohol might be like. Will it be boring? Will it be lonely? Will it be worth living at all? 

And if that’s you and you are reading this, then let me tell you – it is worth it. 100%. It is not easy, there will be days when you question it all, but if my experience is anything to go by, then I can promise you will not regret the decision to give up alcohol. Sure, there are all the reasons pumped out by the media during Dry January – you will lose weight, you will sleep better, you will have more money, your risk of life-limiting illnesses will dramatically shorten – but there are other reasons too. Reasons that go deeper than your waistline or your wallet. You will be free. 

Some days, I wake up smiling. I might have had a dream that I was drunk, stumbling about, hurting myself and others, being rude and strange and careless, or else I am just so relieved I didn’t drink the night before, that my head doesn’t hurt, that there isn’t make-up all over my face and pillow, that I had a nice time at a party and left when I was supposed to, that I am overcome with the joy of being free to get up and get on with my day. For the first time in my life, I understand what people mean when they say they have a spring in their step. It’s how you feel when you are sober. 

The words 'I AM FREE' are written in the sand

The Hangover That Saved My Life

It was 22nd January, a week before my 34th birthday. It was cold and I was hungover. Again. Tired, unhappy, ashamed. Again. Swinging haphazardly between gut-punching panic and weary acceptance as I tried, for the millionth time that day, to find some sense in the events of the night before.

From where I was standing in our kitchen, I could see a mug on the brick ledge in the garden. My daughter, six months old at the time, was on a mat on the floor, sucking her fingers crossly. I unlocked the door and stepped out into the garden. I still remember how it felt, the cold hitting my face. It was like a smack, a smack that I deserved. I retrieved the mug from the ledge. Floating in an inch of red wine, there was an unfinished cigarette. There were several others in the flower bed, sticking out of the soil. I collected them up. Took the mug inside, emptied the wine down the sink and dropped the soggy butts into the bin. I did my best to avoid looking in the recycling sack but, try as I might, I couldn’t ignore the sound of empty bottles as, a little too hard, I pushed the bin shut.

I looked at the clock on the wall. My husband wouldn’t be home for hours. He was driving back from the country, where he had been staying with friends for the night. I desperately wanted to call him, to unburden myself and have him make me feel better, but I couldn’t. He was giving a friend of ours a lift and there was no way I was about to broadcast my shame over the Bluetooth system, however much I longed to be told that it was all right, that I was all right.

The minutes crawled by. I did what I had to – walked the dog, fed the baby, changed her nappy, put her down for a nap. She was fussier than usual, clinging to me as I tried to lay her down in her cot. I hugged her tight but held my head to the side in case she could smell it on me. The rational part of my brain told me it was the tooth she had coming through but, as I took myself downstairs, the sound of her cries still ringing in my ears, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, she knew.

I tried to be stern with myself. This was just another hangover. Just another day. In a few hours I would go to bed and it would all be better in the morning. And even if it wasn’t completely better, even if I was hit by one of the two-to-three-day hangovers that had become a feature of my thirties, then it would be over soon enough. By the weekend, I would be fine again. Back to my normal self.

Glass Of White Wine on Dark Background

I slunk around the house. Picking things up, putting them away, meticulously hiding the evidence. As I did this, I should have started to feel better. After all, the signs pointed to a standard recovery. Physically, it was no different to any other medium-to-large hangover. My head hurt, the skin on my hands and face was rough as sandpaper, my eyeballs felt as if they were too dry to move about as they normally should in my head. I was tired – the kind of bone-sore tired that comes when you’ve denied your body over half its required sleep – and there was that sinister, lurking pain on my side that Dr Google had confirmed long ago was the symptom of an overworked liver. Pretty standard, then.

Emotionally too, it was par for the course. There was worry and fear and a healthy dose of anxiety. Shame too, lots of shame. Recollections from the previous evening jumped out at me with no warning whatsoever. There was the text message I had sent to the school friend who hadn’t invited me to her recent wedding. I was sure I had meant the message to be friendly, breezy congratulations from an old pal who was mature enough to understand that numbers at weddings are limited. But re-reading the message in the sober light of day, I realised I’d sounded how I actually felt, wounded, sour, accusing. There was the phone call I had spontaneously made to a friend from back home. She was staying with her parents and, at one point during the call, she had passed me over to her mum, a close friend of my own mother. I couldn’t remember much of what I had said but I was able to recall that I’d had trouble not slurring my words. There was the pack of twenty Camel Lights that had arrived on a scooter from a company called Booze-Up. I couldn’t decide what was worse – the fact that I had only remembered I had a baby sleeping upstairs as I was pulling on my trainers to head out to the newsagent or that, afterwards, I had repeatedly congratulated myself for making the responsible, adult decision to remain at home with my child, ordering two and a half litres of vodka online at a cost of £49 to secure home delivery for a pack of fags. And then there was the bin. When I managed to pluck up the courage to change the sack (I needed to hide it before my husband came home, obviously. I would only be honest with him to a degree), I couldn’t believe that there were four empty bottles. Four. That’s forty units of alcohol, twenty-six units more than the national recommended weekly average, which, by the way, they suggest is spread over three days, not a single afternoon.

What was wrong with me? Over and over, I asked myself this question. But again, this was standard hangover territory. Somehow, this hangover felt worse than any other but, hey, doesn’t any hangover feel like the worst ever? Why else would I say, each time, that I am never, ever going to drink again?

Anyway, it wasn’t as if I had even done anything that bad. I didn’t neglect my daughter, or my dog. I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done in front of my husband, or anything he hadn’t seen before. And I’ve done worse. Much worse. I’ve weed myself outside a railway station pub while sharing a cigarette with a friend, I’ve deliberately urinated on the street after having to leave a wedding early, I’ve eaten a chicken leg out of a bin, I’ve snogged people who were not my boyfriend, snogged people who were other people’s boyfriends, told lies, fallen over in front of dozens of people I know, thrown up over myself, thrown up over other people, left belongings all over London and been too embarrassed the next day to return to the scene of crime to retrieve them. So this latest episode was nothing, right? Sure, I’d made a few silly phone calls, sent a couple of messages, smoked a few fags. I’m the mother of a little girl. I’m sleep-deprived, emotional, adapting to a strange, new life as a stay-at-home mum. Why didn’t I deserve a bit of me-time, a bit of let-your-hair down fun?

But was it fun? I know I played a lot of Take That. Shaking my daughter’s rattle to Never Forget while she watched me pour another glass of wine.

Perhaps – and this is what I kept coming back to, that cold, dark day in January last year – perhaps it was just a bit sad? Drinking four bottles of wine on your own, drinking until there wasn’t any wine left in the rack (as I am being completely honest, I might as well tell you that if there had been, I would have certainly drunk it), drinking until I was jelly-legged, wine-lipped, squinty-eyed, tearful.

These are the two voices that fought it out in my head that night. My drinking brain, my old mate, my partner-in-crime, told me I needed to stop giving myself a hard time and sleep it off. Then the other side, that quiet but doggedly persistent voice, the one that had been getting louder and more insistent, was telling me that perhaps there was something not quite right about the way I drank. That perhaps the other voice in my head wasn’t such a good friend, after all. That perhaps, just maybe, something in me needed to change.