It has now been 365 days since I last had an alcoholic drink. I did not stop drinking because my body is a temple, or out of some wholesome hipster celebration of soberness and getting to know the real me. I gave up because I had to; I was heading to a dark and lonely place and I pumped the brakes before it was too late.
It seems strange celebrating not doing something for a year. I also haven’t punched a child in the face, or stolen a meerkat from a zoo, or kicked anybody in the shins. I haven’t overeaten until I puked, I haven’t gambled either, or done drugs. None worthy of celebration. But those things are not important for me, because my relationship with drugs, theft, and children is fine. My relationship with booze is rocky at best, and there came a moment a year ago where I realised I was being dangerously and deliberately in denial about it.
It actually started with a trip to the Cinema. I went to see Mission Impossible. The One With Henry Cavill’s Moustache. My girlfriend and her friends went to see Mama Mia at the same time (drink or not, I’d never pay to watch that). I’d had drinks at home beforehand with Olivia and her friends, over food that I had cooked. I had two large drinks before they arrived whilst cooking; it was a Friday after all. Plus I wanted to be on form during dinner. I had maybe three or four drinks during dinner (I was topping everyone and myself up, the discussion was flowing), and was half cut by the time I arrived for the film. I bought two more drinks to have during the film, it was a Friday after all. I returned to the confectionary stand for two more about 45 minutes in.
Then, around an hour and a half in, I realised I was pretty wasted. I couldn’t remember what had happened a few minutes ago. I was squinting at the screen. I also felt sick. I left the cinema and went home, texting Olivia that I wasn’t feeling well. When she got back, I started crying. I told her I thought I had a problem, and emotion was just pouring out of me. I couldn’t stop it.
It had been a relatively slow slide into a place where I think I was teetering on alcoholism. From the last couple of years of high school, through university, festivals, club nights, to the wild Thursdays and Fridays out of a young professional, through wine tours and boozy brunches of my late twenties.
The amount of time I could happily go without drinking was decreasing (3-days-off 4-days-on was where I ended up) and the number of mildly negative experiences, or mildly positive reasons that counted towards a reason to drink was increasing.
My body was starting to tell me that not only was I not equipped to deal with hangovers, but something more long term and damaging was taking hold. Strange prolonged bodily pains, night cramps, night sweats, day sweats, terrible skin, awful stomach cramps, periodic diarrhea, chronic dehydration, perpetual lethargy and tiredness, poor quality sleep.
For a while I found myself making excuses for each of these and managed to box them off from each other. I was stressed at work so couldn’t sleep well. Maybe I just wasn’t drinking enough water. My stomach must be irritated by some spicy food. It’s hot in here, that’s why I’m sweaty. I would box them off from each other at the same time as knowing in my heart they were connected. I was filled with a dread that I kept burying. The dread of being well on the way down a slippery slope, with a precipice at the bottom.
But I had never missed a day of work, exercised a reasonable amount, had a fulfilling social life and a great group of friends. I didn’t consort with nefarious types or get hospitalised, there was no hint of any sort of intervention. I was a reasonably caring and thoughtful person, people still wanted to hang out with me when I was drinking, so I couldn’t be that bad, right?
I think most people, when they are honest to themselves, probably have a sense of whether or not they should be drinking. Some of my friends are great drinkers. They can let loose, drink, then stop half way through the night, nearly always have a good time, feel a bit rotten but get over it quickly, enjoy it in special moments but don’t turn to it when feeling stressed or vulnerable. I’m not one of those people. Past 3 pints, I’m out for the night, and always looking to squeeze in ‘one more’. It often made me the last person standing, or buying another round for everyone, or grabbing a beer on the way home. Sure I enjoyed being ‘fun’, but it was also a way that I could drink further into oblivion each time. It’s so easy to hide behind fun, because often you’re in those moments of stupor with other people who are also chasing that escape.
Society has a strange relationship with alcohol. It’s a drug, no two ways about it. But it’s one we celebrate, bond over, hold up as something great. It strange how vilified other drugs are in comparison. Some of the best music ever written has been because of weed. Steve Jobs credits LSD to opening his mind. Think Different. Some of the best club and festival experiences owe themselves to other class A drugs.
But those are somehow shameful, degenerate, disgraceful. It shows significant weakness in character to do Molly with friends at a party, but a wine tour in France that ends in being wasted is the epitome of sophistication.
Alcohol is seen as brilliant, hilarious, needed. And everywhere. Britain is built on drinking. Friendships are forged in the depths of tequila shots. Some of the best shared memories between people are made when drunk as hell. You climbed on top of a bus stop and broke your nose when you fell off? Hilarious! You drunkenly stole salt and pepper shakers from a bar? Fucking jokes. That time when we ran from the police when they told us to stop pissing on a statue? Legendary behaviour.
Late into my drinking life, if I spent any more than a few moments reflecting on alcohol and I found that for every ‘legendary’ night out, there would be a dozen ‘meh’ nights (usually at home alone) and a handful of damaging ones — when I argued with friends or loved ones, almost (or fully) got in a fight, lost my keys/phone/wallet, vomited uncontrollably, pissed myself. When I think about my drinking nights, more nights of shame return to me than the great ones.
I can easily remember how I embarrassed myself by blurting out something I shouldn’t have, argued unnecessarily about something that didn’t matter, misjudged a room and looked a fool, fell off a chair or table, or behaved so badly my friends had to cover for me and make excuses to everyone else present. They have bungled me in a cabs, placated bouncers who wanted me out, or apologised on my behalf to a stranger I annoyed. I’ve also said some really fucking mean things to the people I love when drunk. With me, it was probably a 50/50 chance that I was going to be the most fun person around, or argumentative, stubborn, liability. Those aren’t good odds.
None of the aforementioned are particularly damning behaviours — most of us have done some or all of these. We often joke and make light of them, and we’re all human. But they only happen when we’re drinking. If you are currently or have been in a couple, think of just how many huge arguments between the two of you have included alcohol — 50%? 80%? All of them?
Alcohol consumption is also both a symptom and a cause of some of the darker emotions in life. Any drug induced happiness is merely borrowing happiness from tomorrow, and the more you consecutive days you borrow for, the bigger the crunch at the end. Jesus, I hit some really existential dark patches during the worst of my hangovers. I’m sure you have too. Really really horrible, sad, lonely places. And not just in hangovers, my mental state of mind would be off-kilter for days after a session.
I realised I was also starting to push people away from me, especially Olivia, my girlfriend. I knew all of this in that moment where I opened up to her, in that moment of vulnerability when I balled my eyes out. I knew I had to change.
The first days and weeks were extremely hard. I thought about alcohol A LOT. By this point I would usually have nothing to drink on Sunday through Wednesday and then start piling it on through the extended weekend. So came the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday without booze, and I felt consumed by the effort required to not pop to Aldi and buy a couple of bottles of wine for the weekend.
Your mind is difficult to fight against. It’s a persuasive son of a bitch.
Two major mindsets helped me through, The first was to tell myself that I simply didn’t drink any more. Full stop. Not that I was giving it a break, or not drinking at the moment, I simply didn’t drink any more. If it was a temporary thing, my mind has previously found ways to bend to my will back into heading out to the pub. Or to use events to justify it — “I have a wedding next week where I’ll be drinking, so there’s not much point in stopping this week”, or “I’ve been good for a couple of weeks, and it’s X’s birthday, I might as well”. If I told myself “Of course I won’t drink at Sunday dinner, because I don’t drink” I couldn’t weasel my way out of that without admitting I had an even bigger problem than I feared. It also helps in telling others that you don’t drink, because they can’t convince you otherwise. Many have nudged me to have a pint when I wasn’t in the mood before (rare that I wasn’t in the mood anyway), but you can’t convince someone who doesn’t drink to do shots.
The second was breaking things down into daily chunks. There’s a group on Reddit dedicated to stopping drinking (an incredible supportive internet community, if you were worried that none existed any more), and their motto is IWNDWYT — I Will Not Drink With You Today. They cheer each others’ achievements with this toast, but it also speaks to something else. Taking a single 24 hour period at a time, and getting through those. You don’t have to tackle the next 50 years without booze right now in your head, you only have to not drink today. And then tomorrow the same thing applies. And then you’ve had so many ‘todays’ that you find you haven’t drunk in a month. Then a year.
I also bought myself a PS4 and worked my way through some of the best games of the last few years. Red Dead Redemption 2 is as good as they say and more. It’s fucking art. A religious experience. Gaming has been an absolute godsend. It’s so immersive that Friday nights would often fly by and I’d be cheering on Arthur the handsome stoic redemptive cowboy at 3am instead of fumbling drunkenly to take my contact lenses out or puking into a bath.
A word of warning for anyone considering the same though. It won’t fix everything about your life. I wanted giving up alcohol to improve everything in my life that I was unhappy with. I wanted to lose weight instantly, have more money, be more patient, write a book, be less preachy, more caring, less selfish, more successful at work, find new hobbies, be a better human in every way.
None of these happened instantly (or at all), and I got frustrated at why I didn’t have a six pack now I wasn’t consuming thousands of extra calories per week. But positive change started to creep in.
The first big change that was positive was my sleep. After the first two weeks, I started sleeping like a baby. Unbroken, dreamy, restful sleep, every night of the week. It was extraordinary just how much better it got, so quickly. I felt like I started catching up on years of poor quality sleep. I actually got more tired in the short term. That didn’t last though and I looked forward to getting into bed each night. My sleep isn’t always perfect, but it’s never the agitated, topsy turvy sweat-fest that it used to be. I’m told I also don’t make strange, guttural, jerking moans either.
Then slowly, over time, more positive things happened. My bank balance crept up, my long-term mood stabilised a lot and I had far more energy to do the stuff that I actually enjoy. Exercise, designing a board game, cooking, hiking, writing, more PS4…
I see some people less than I did before. Drinking buddies, good time friends. This isn’t to say I like them any less, just that the main activity we did together was drink. I think that’s okay — they haven’t done anything wrong and neither have I, people just change over time and a lot of friendship groups shift over the course of years. I do feel bad about it though.
I do feel more boring.
I’m not exactly sure in what sense. Nights out feel exciting even though they are not particularly novel, and most of them end in a similar ways — home, very late, face down in my bed probably with a lot more clothes on than normal, and a hundred quid poorer. And I do go out still, sober as a judge. I’ve done a lot of sober karaoke this year. But I am definitely not quite as spontaneous.
I don’t get that white-hot rush of euphoria that alcohol can sometimes brings — hands-in-the-air-singing-in-club rush. But that feeling is also a slightly artificial one for me — anything brought about by drugs usually is. I do miss it though. I’ve had to learn how to let loose without the fuel of cocktails and beer driving me there. That takes time.
The lows in life are still lows. Alcohol felt like it often helped, but it doesn’t really. People say it’s a crutch, but crutches are helpful. Alcohol is a crutch in the same was six-day-old donner meat from the fridge is ‘food’. The very short-lived fullness you feel pales in comparison to the puking and shit-storm that swiftly follows. For all the bad things that have happened since giving up booze, they would have been made worse with alcohol.
My friends have been supportive, understanding, generally fantastic. Any of the shame or embarrassment I thought I might have felt by telling them I was giving up disappeared almost immediately. They have been kind, thoughtful, always getting in posh softs (Shloer anyone?) for me when I come over. Olivia has been sensational. Supportive, encouraging, never pushy, caring without being overbearing and never prying too much. I gave up booze for myself more than anyone, but it’s damn rewarding to know that I’m (hopefully) also a better boyfriend for her too because of it. She deserves better than the drunk version of me.
I’m trying not to be preachy (it’s a negative quality of mine I haven’t been able to get rid of) and say that everyone should stop drinking alcohol, or pretend that it fixes everything and makes you a better person. I don’t look down on people who drink at all. It’s been a difficult process to come to terms with that fact I can’t do something that so many others get enjoyment from, but here we are. I can’t. They can. You might be one of those that can enjoy Gin without any qualms. If so, that’s awesome, and I applaud you.
If you’re not one of those people, or suspect you might not have a great relationship with alcohol, giving up is tough, but one of the best things I’ve ever done. I didn’t have to lose my job, get arrested, wake up in a park (though I have done that), or have my girlfriend leave me because of it, but I knew, deep down, I shouldn’t be drinking. Maybe you feel the same way too, and hopefully you won’t wait until one of those things happen.
Studies show that the yoofs aren’t drinking anymore either, so worst case scenario I’ll be able to hang out with people 10 years my junior and talk about Tik Tok, dabbing and Fortnight.
For anyone I ever did anything rotten to when I was drunk, I am truly sorry, There’s probably a lot of you. I can’t take back any of that shite, I can only try and be better from here on out. I won’t be drinking again for the next year either, so let’s go for a brew instead.
Here’s to a year without drinking, or punching a child in the face. Here’s to many more to come.