4th February 2019 marks one year since I decided to give up alcohol.
I wanted to be happier, I wanted my self-worth back, I wanted more energy to devote to my passions. Everything I asked of sobriety, I received – and more. That’s not to say that it was an easy journey, but as time went on I realised that there was absolutely nothing that alcohol could bring to my life that would make it better or that would get me closer to the mission I had.
“Slowly you realize that abstinence is only the first requisite for growth. This is how you get ready for the real work: the emotional, mental, and spiritual push-ups essential to gaining some true perspective, some maturity” – Ann Dowsett Johnston
For anyone who’s contemplating extending their dry January, or currently having a wobble in their sobriety (we’ve all been there), I wanted to share parts of my journey: the “most” moments – the most surprising, the most terrifying…you get me. I wanted these to reflect sobriety’s challenges and joys, a balanced reflection of the year. It would be too easy to say that sobriety is amazing and everyone should do it, but that would undermine all the hard work and periodic self-doubt that is involved.
Let’s start on a positive note:
The most delicious experience in sobriety: I know most sober people go on about it, but that pink fluffy cloud of the first 3-6 months really was incredible. I felt invincible. I was bouncing out of bed at 4am, shouting “HELLO WORLD!” The sheer amount of surplus energy is game-changing, and it’s a shame it doesn’t last. I want it back. I recently saw a post on Instagram by @theboywhodranktoo, who called this ‘superman syndrome’, which really does articulate this feeling so well. With all the newly-discovered time and energy, you start to feel that you’re invincible. You add a side-project here, and make commitments to go there, and before you know it you’re snowed under and well on your way to burn out. That’s how I feel right now. That’s how I felt at the end of my MA. I think it’s a broader cyclical issue for me, but the pink fluffy cloud just gave it an injector boost and provided me with the false confidence that I could operate at that level forever – endlessly running from the inevitable crash and burn. It was good whilst it lasted.
The most transformative impact of sobriety: This has to be the clarity that sobriety brings. Whether intentional or not, suddenly one’s perspective is so much clearer. You realise what’s serving you, what’s not. You don’t stand for being mugged off with less than you deserve, be that at work or in relationships. You find your purpose. You regain your self-worth. You realise what’s important. You have the time and energy to investigate, analyse, pursue things and make unclouded judgements. Creativity soars, and you deliver work that’s to the best of your ability. This doesn’t fade but gets stronger with time as you gain more confidence and strength, as you find your most authentic self. Harness it and fulfil your potential.
The most amazing gift of sobriety: Time – hands down. It feels like I’ve been given more time to do what’s meaningful, what’s fulfilling. No more time in bars, no time spent hungover or lethargic. I spend less time on mediocrity and social obligations. I recover from training faster, which means I can train more. Every ounce of time is rung from my day. Maybe this comes from an appreciation of how much time was wasted before, and a desire to make up for it? For me, I think it relates back to the clarity that sobriety brings – I became more mindful and assertive in how I wanted to spend my time and recognised it for the golden resource that it is. Brandon Stanton wrote a piece in Mike Lewis’ When to Jump, about his switch from being a bond trader to a photographer: “in my jump, I wanted to, for the foreseeable part of my life, attempt to make just enough money so that I could control my time. I focused exclusively on how I would spend my days. I would switch priorities and put time above money as the most valuable resource”. Working as a broker myself, I recognise this desire to prize some time back into my hands, and sobriety enabled me to take that first step towards investing in myself.
The most annoying side-effect of sobriety: Sugar. I WANT it. I NEED it. ALL THE TIME. Except it gives me raging acne (lovely). Since giving up alcohol I’ve become a sugar-craving fiend. I’m told that it’s meant to subside but it’s still going strong – possibly because I’m not having any at all. It’s killing me. Maybe in year two this will get easier… please?
The most boring events in sobriety: Bars, clubs, anything similar. I’m not sure I was even a huge fan when I was drinking, but now they hold absolutely zero appeal. Without alcohol to build drunken connections, I’ve got to rely on my genuine personality and conversation. How am I meant to do that when I’ve got some god-awful drum and bass pounding my ears at 5pm on a Thursday evening or midday on a Saturday? I haven’t quite worked that out yet. I’m not actually sure I want to work it out, especially when, three drinks in, most people are operating on a different plane and I’m gradually ballooning like a lime-and-soda-filled puffa fish. ALSO: England is bloody cold – do I want to stand in an air conditioned room holding a glass with ice in it?! NO! I want a hot drink in a cozy arm chair, and ideally scheduled for a pre-6pm start time, because I honestly can’t keep my eyes open past 8.30pm. I’m willing to accept that my take on bars and clubs may be entirely driven by the fact that I’m getting OLD. Regardless, no thank-you.
The biggest surprise of sobriety: In many of the sober memoirs written by women, they address the reluctance to give up drinking in order that they can have champagne at their wedding. This never occurred to me – possibly because I have never dreamed of that big, meringue-like day or pictured myself in it. For me, I envisaged the greatest loss to be the fact that I would no longer be able to drink on holiday. I travel a lot and I travel solo, and I prized those times of peace when I’m sitting in a hot climate, overlooking the water or a piazza, devouring a book and mulling over a glass of red or a cool beer. I thought I would grieve for this, but by the time I travelled to Madrid in 2018 I was already five months sober and easily able to understand the cost/benefit analysis. I supplemented it with coffee, or wandered around for an evening, instead of sitting and nursing a beverage. But I was genuinely surprised that it went ok – it was an achievement, a small win in the grand scheme of things. The first year of sobriety is full of ‘firsts’, as if re-learning how to have these experiences all over again, but I think sometimes the anticipation and pre-event worry is worse than the reality – have faith in yourself. And if travel is a trigger for you, be that the airport, the in-flight service, or the local bars, I’d advise getting some months under your belt before you take that leap.
The most terrifying event in sobriety: Without doubt, it has to be the concept of dating. I could not remember having a first date, since the age of 17, that did not involve a drink. The thought of putting myself out there and not having a relaxant filled me with dread. Then I remembered all the first dates I’d been on where my initial thoughts upon meeting the candidate were: “Definitely not. No”, only to find that two drinks later I’d lowered my judgement to “Ok, maybe they’re not so bad. Yes”. Obviously all those relationships/dates went swimmingly well and we lived happily ever after and reproduced copiously. I joke. In sobriety, I eventually decided that honesty was the best policy: outing myself as a non-drinker before the dating commenced. It drew my line in the sand, avoided the awkward conversation at the bar, and gave the potential suitor an opportunity to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ if they really wanted a pint-chugging date for the evening. The most beautiful, gracious message I received in response to my bombshell: “you really are turning into an interesting person”. I will remain forever grateful.
This naturally leads on to the fumbling first sober sexual encounter: absolutely mortifying, and more distressing that it’s likely that I hadn’t had a ‘first’ sexual experience with someone 100% sober since I was 17. Argh. Reflecting on this, I don’t think that my previous encounters were inauthentic or unfulfilling but they did exhibit a level of confidence that I’m still working on getting back. A year doesn’t mean I’ve got everything figured out just yet.
NB: This topic was discussed on the Soberful podcast this week (Ep.36), and I thought Veronica Valli and Chip Somers pitched it just right: https://soberful.com/episodes/.
The most useful resources that supported my sobriety: The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge by Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns first set me off on my path – their experiences of getting sober whilst working in London’s financial services hub particularly resonated with me and made me think, ‘I can do 28 days – who knows where it will lead?’. During this time, I read This Naked Mind by Annie Grace which consolidated my understanding of alcohol’s impact on our brain function and why it becomes addictive – upon finishing, I knew I didn’t want to go back. But Ann Dowsett Johnston’s masterpiece, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol made it relatable to my experience as a woman which tied together the trends and strands of childhood trauma, self-esteem, eating disorders and perfectionism. The realisation of how duped we’ve become by society (government) was a sucker-punch. But podcasts continue to carry me on my daily sobriety journey with laughs, guidance and insight: HOME podcast, with Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker (ended 2018), and Soberful podcast, with Veronica Valli and Chip Somers, are my favourites. I recently discovered Club Soda to be a supportive group on facebook and also hosts live events (only just begun dipping my toe into this).
The most undecided/unresolved feature of my sobriety: I haven’t quite managed to formulate a standard response to people’s questions as to why I’m not drinking, or why I gave up alcohol. I still have that moment of getting slightly flustered and bashful. I think it’s because there needs to be a nuanced response based on the situation that I’m in: randomers I don’t care about, friends, client dinner, colleagues. I don’t want to come across as brusque and yet I could do without rehashing the whole thing. It’s a balance. In response to a question on this issue at Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival, writer Catherine Gray advised to ‘keep it on a need to know basis’, which is a good starting point. There’s no need to spew everything out to someone you’ve only just met. And so I would recommend just rehearsing a generic opening phrase, which can either open the conversation up if you feel comfortable, or shut it down if you don’t. If someone asks if I’d like a wine/beer, I now just come back lightly with “oh no, I don’t drink, thanks anyway”. I do find that people sort of feel a bit silly that they presumed I did, rather than making me feel silly for the fact that I don’t. I also feel it’s important to hold myself out there as a non-drinker, to take a stand, to make it more normal and offer myself up if anyone wants to take a similar journey. Working in an alcohol-drenched, male environment, I think it’s important to show that there’s an alternative way to live and conduct business. Just remember, you don’t have to justify yourself.
The most nob-ish things said to me in sobriety:
“I know you don’t drink, but you’ve got to drink on holiday – that’s what they’re for”. Errrrrrm….no thanks?
“I’m not against dry January or anything, but it really hurts the pubs and if we want them to stay open we have to support them” I’m not entirely sure that the sober community are too fussed if they go out of business. Replace them with coffee shops?
“That’s because you’re f*cking boring”. Lovely.
My year of sobriety was unwittingly based on Martin Luther King’s wisdom, “you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”. I didn’t apply undue pressure on myself, or make onerous, soul-destroying commitments – I definitely didn’t think I’d make it to one year, that’s for sure. But for a while I made it my “thing”, my project, I lived and breathed it in order to crack it once and for all. An holistic, submersive approach gave my sobriety the best kick start I could devote to it, and when it gets a bit wobbly I reach back for those tools that served me well and have faith that they’ll buoy me and carry me back to firm ground.
Photocredits: C. Davey.