What I Learnt After Quitting Alcohol For A Year
Illustration by Mr Andrey Kasay
I don’t have children and I won’t bake, so all that was left for me to do with the yawning chasm of lockdown quasi-time was casually ask some earth-shattering questions of myself. Some might call it self-reflection, personal growth or self-work. Others, desperate early-life crisis. Whichever, I realised that alcohol had no role to play in whatever I had to do.
About two months into this alien pursuit, I found myself pacing around my flat wondering who I, and what my purpose in life, was. An unprecedented amount of solitary confinement and the threat of virus-induced respiratory problems and death will inspire an existential crisis in the best of us. But this was different. It was compounded by me contemplating the removal of something relatively fundamental to my life. If there was a future where I couldn’t go to the pub and drink with my friends, what was that future and how did I fit into it? This was fun and what was life without fun? What unit could my joy be measured in if not pints?
I didn’t drink every day – on average about two or three times a week – but I objectively drank too much. What’s too much? Well, the bad outcomes competed with the good ones. Alcohol had the capacity to make me do things outside my moral compass, the hangovers were getting longer and it had negatively impacted some of my relationships (including the one with myself). I later realised I was to some extent using it to manage unresolved trauma and my mental health. I did my drinking out, in restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs.
Sometimes I’d be home before last orders, on other occasions, nearer to sunrise. An enthusiastic drinker in their twenties has an uncanny knack for finding people with whom to continue a night out. Even if it means losing all your friends, only to be found in the small hours contentedly watching snooker and drinking cans in peaceful silence in a Hackney council block with a gentleman of the road, his friend and her boxer dog.
“People in this country get weirdly affronted when you tell them you’re not drinking. They misinterpret your sobriety as a value judgement on them”
In September, at the age of 33, I passed a year of not drinking and, in the month that has been marketed to us as Stoptober, perhaps you are considering something similar. In my experience, if you embark on an extended fast from booze, there are three types of people you are faced with. Most people do not care. Then there is the person who says something like, “Good for you! I wish I could do that.” (They do not wish they could do that, but it is what they think they should say.) And there is the person who says, “What happened?”
What happened, indeed. Well, since you ask, the essential circuitry in my brain that compelled me to drink was dislodged and I am now fundamentally redundant. “Are you OK?” this person might also say. No, I am not OK. I am of no use to you or wider society. I am broken.
I know these questions well because I used to ask them. Things are changing. About 20 per cent of the UK population don’t drink at all and the no/low-alcohol market is set to grow 34 per cent by 2024, but British culture still compels us to drink. People in the UK drink to get drunk more than anywhere else in the world, according to a survey published in The Lancet in 2019. Not drinking is usually something you do to get through a thing, isn’t it? A necessary stop gap, so the obligation – maybe a course of medication or a marathon – can pass and you can get back on it, get back to normal and start waking up feeling like you’ve been in a mild road traffic accident again.
Mr Ruari Fairbairns, founder of One Year No Beer (a challenge I haven’t signed up to, but to which more than 80,000 others have), sees how entrenched drinking is in our culture, despite changing behaviours. “You realise how brainwashed we are by marketing and social conditioning – ‘booze is amazing!’” he says. Guardian writer and liker of drinks Mr Joel Golby has also been considering the effects of alcohol and recently tweeted about his experience when he chose not to booze at a party. What has he discovered while cutting back? “People in this country get weirdly affronted when you tell them you’re not drinking,” he says. “They misinterpret your sobriety as a value judgement on them, so if you’re going to a bar and ordering a Coke and someone asks you about it, just say, ‘Oh, I’m not drinking at the moment.’ Those three words really soften the blow. They can imagine a future where, one day, you might have a beer again.”
If I feel unsettled by someone else not drinking, it’s because I’m worried about who I am without a drink and why I drink. I’m worried about what drinking means, because I’ve never thought to investigate it, or I secretly have, but I’m scared what the answers might be, so I’ll just take another sip of my beer and enjoy the fuzz, thank you very much. There is eternity and comfort and safety here, in this pint glass, and in this never-ending, boundless, glorious night. Everything is funny. Nothing matters.
“It’s stitched into your identity that you’re a drinker,” says Ms Catherine Gray, author of the Times bestselling book The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober, explaining why it can seem unconscionable to stop. “I was a party girl. I got some negative feedback about it, but also lots of positive feedback. ‘I love going out with you.’ That kept me chugging along for years.”
Fairbairns, a former oil broker and excessive drinker who stopped to improve his mental health and now drinks very occasionally, agrees. “Most of our identities are very wrapped up in alcohol – if I’m meeting the boys, I have to have a beer,” he says. “And by the way, I’m a Kronenbourg drinker. This is intertwined with my identity as much as I like yellow shoes.”
Maybe you have never drunk like me. Perhaps you have never missed a flight, betrayed a partner or forgotten what happened the night before. But maybe you have. Blackouts (“Did we go to a club last night? How did I spend so much money?”) aren’t uncommon in some of the circles I hang out in.
Maybe the results of your drinking are wholly positive. If so, crack on, enjoy yourself and open a bottle of something special to celebrate. Perhaps you can moderate perfectly well, but are tired of drinking because, quite simply, it is becoming what experts are calling “a pain in the arse”. The mild hangover that makes you put off your plans, the low thrum of anxiety that you try and combat with acupuncture and monastic chanting, the money and the time spent, the sleep interrupted.
“I compare it to being in a toxic relationship. We cannot see the truth while we’re in it”
Whatever your relationship with alcohol, it can be difficult to assess its true effects – until you stop. “For most people, it’s the source of all happiness in life – fun, success,” says Fairbairns. “If you come along and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you stop drinking for 90 days?’ they say, ‘Why?’ But I know if I could just extract them and take them 90 days forward, they would then consciously choose not to drink.”
He says that 87 per cent of One Year No Beer members choose to carry on alcohol-free after their challenge, which is for anyone who has questioned their relationship with alcohol. “Everyone has woken up and gone, ‘Fucking hell, I wish I hadn’t drunk so much last night.’”
Whatever your tipple or the amount you drink, Fairbairns suggests most people who give it up for a period come to the same conclusion. “From people who drink three glasses of wine a week right up to heavy drinkers, every single one of them says, ‘I wish I’d done this sooner.’ The next thing they say is, ‘I never realised what impact alcohol was having until I took a break. All the ways it was eating into my time and relationships.’ I compare it to being in a toxic relationship. We cannot see the truth while we’re in it.”
So, what is that truth? A good place to start might be to ask yourself why you drink. “I would encourage people to analyse how it really is affecting their lives and the only way you can do that is by taking a sabbatical,” says Gray.
Once you’ve put down your pint, you might then be able to ask yourself some sobering questions. Is it a social crutch? Is it hiding anxiety or low self-esteem? “People start to drink in this country when they’re at their most awkward and hormonal, which is when they’re teenagers,” says Gray. “You pick up alcohol when you should be learning real self-esteem and confidence. No wonder people become attached to it. People who wouldn’t be considered addicted go to great lengths to take a cab to and from a party because they can’t imagine themselves in social situations without alcohol. People, in general, drink because of social anxiety.”
An extended break may also give you time to realise that your relationship with booze, however healthy, is in some way influenced by more far-reaching issues. It was only until I stopped and started actively engaging with therapy that I could identify and start to tackle childhood trauma that was negatively affecting pretty much every area of my life. We’re all damaged in some way, and that’s fine. Few of us are entirely happy with who we are, so we use stuff outside ourselves – booze, sex, social media, chocolate – to soothe us, to varying degrees and with different outcomes.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the first active step I took towards reevaluating my drinking was downloading an app that monitored my intake. When I took the time to check properly, I was surprised to see how much I was knocking back and that it might be impacting my health. Without the buffer of booze, I have been better able to find out who I am, what I really feel, what scares me and why. I interviewed the lead singer of a rock band earlier in the year about his sobriety and he said, “It’s not like you stop drinking and all your problems go away. You’re able to start working on your problems.”
To begin with, it was difficult relearning behaviours and rewriting some well-paved neural pathways, but now everything is, overall, notably better without alcohol (including going to the pub and parties). I feel more connected to people and my relationships have improved. I have the time and inclination to do acts of service in my community. I’m more confident and happier. I have been able to save up to do psychotherapy training. I’m more loving and sociable. I’m healthier. I sleep better and I’m less anxious. I hope I have not become more insufferable.
“There is a big difference between not drinking and changing your relationship with alcohol”
Other than unit-counting apps, Gray has other suggestions if you fancy cutting down or stopping. “The number one tip is exercise,” she says. “It acted as my new anxiety relief. I read dozens of books, academic papers about neuroscience, listened to every podcast I could find. Guided meditation really helped me. You’re overwhelmed by all these emotions you’re used to numbing, but then your dopamine system starts working properly and you feel euphoria. Also, spend the money you’ve saved on alcohol on treats.”
Golby finds that a more laissez-faire approach works for him. “I drink a little less when I feel the residual effects of alcohol building up,” he says. “The end of August was a bit excessive for me, so I’m taking a month off so I can survive Halloween party season. Thankfully, there are lots more interesting-tasting and real-tasting non-alcoholic beers now. Infinite Session is one of my favourite like-for-like cans.”
Fairbairns stresses the importance of community and connection. “You want to start meeting people who are in a community who are helping each other,” he says. “Connection, meaning and purpose, having alignment with your environment. These things are core to living a happy life. But also, go to the pub, have an alcohol-free beer. Prove to your brain that you can go to the pub and have a good time without drinking.”
Before now, the longest I had gone without drinking since the age of about 19 was probably a month. Dry January and the like invite me to endure a boring, abstemious period and then get back on it feeling refreshed with a sense of achievement. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it can seed some damaging ideas. “Shorter alcohol-free stints tend to be done in a spirit of deprivation,” says Gray. “Take on a longer period. I signed up to a 100-day challenge. In month three and four I started enjoying it.”
Fairbairns is of a similar opinion. “There is a big difference between not drinking and changing your relationship with alcohol,” he says. “A lot of people try not drinking. They abstain from alcohol for a month, they avoid their social circles and they count down the days. But all this does is reaffirm the belief that you need booze to have a good time. Everything I thought about taking a break from booze – I’m going to have no social circle and I’m going to be bored – actually, it was all these benefits. Do you want to be healthier, less depressed, less anxious, more productive? Do you want to sleep better? Do you want to have a more relaxed relationship with your kids, more patience, more energy, more clarity?”
It can be fun to get drunk, especially when so many around us are doing the same thing, but perhaps the most significant thing about many people’s long-term relationship with alcohol is simply that it is accepted as a foregone conclusion. “I understand why people drink,” says Gray. “But why would you do something for your entire life without once analysing it to see if it serves you more than it disserves you?”