The Surprising Side Effects of Sobriety
I was 14 the first time I got drunk. Me and a friend shared a bottle of vodka in a field at 2pm on a day off school.
As the saying goes, “Start as you mean to go on.” And I most certainly did.
I quickly gained a reputation as a slightly crazed, lovable mess. When I was told, “Your so much fun when you’re drunk,” it was like I’d found my calling in life.
All the emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, and loneliness I carried around as a teenager would disappear instantly every weekend (and the occasional weekday). I stopped self-harming, mostly. I was well-liked, and most of my friends were just as bored and fucked up as me.
As the years rolled by, I graduated from school to university to emigrating from Ireland, aged 21 — eventually travelling to over 40 countries.
However, it became increasingly difficult to keep a grip. On my drinking, and everything else.
Blackouts were just a part of life. Waking up at home — or in a random doorway — and not knowing how I got there. Strange bruises and cuts. Hospital visits were not uncommon. My speech started to slur — even when I wasn’t drinking.
And I’ve pissed myself in more countries than most people will visit in their lifetime.
Was I an alcoholic? Probably.
Did I ever say “I’m never drinking again”? Nope.
Until One Morning…
A few months shy of my 28th birthday, I woke up in Kampala, Uganda, hungover, fed up, depressed. As usual. But something about this morning was different. Deep in the booze-addled recesses of my brain, something clicked.
As I write this, it's now 3 years since I last drank any booze.
Don’t ask me how I did it, because I have no idea. It just happened.
But what I can tell you is the difference it’s made in my life.
Much has been written about the many benefits of sobriety and teetotal living. I’m only gonna share the one that had the most personal impacts it had on my life. And the most fun.
Why? I’m not sure.
But I always knew, deep down, I had a drinking problem, and it would probably kill me. But I didn’t know there was any other way. I’m Irish. We’re the ‘lovable drunks of the world’.
So, maybe this is the blog post I wish I had read when I was 17. Or 25. As Matt Haig writes “the bottom of the valley rarely provides the clearest view.”
Sometimes you need somebody standing at the top to tell you what’s waiting for you when you get there.
Saving Over $5,000 a Year
Let’s get the most straight forward benefit out of the way first.
That figure probably surprises you — who the fuck spends $5,000 on booze in a year? But guess what? That’s a conservative guess.
Let me break it down: Say I spent on average $50 on alcohol in a night out. In Cambodia, that’s a lot. In Australia, it’s two pints of piss. And let’s pretend I only went out 2 nights per week.
With 52 weeks in a year, that’s $2,600. So my math is wrong, right?
Well, first of all, I drank A LOT more than twice a week.
Also, that figure doesn’t include taxis, drinks for friends, late-night fast food, early morning fast food when I was too hung to make a bowl of cereal, 2 packs of cigarettes a day, crashed scooters, hospital visits — the list goes on.
So let’s just keep it at a nice round $5,000.
What have I done with the $15,000 saved in the last 3 years? I bought an apartment, mortgage-free.
Also, sneakers. Lots of sneakers.
A Physical Transformation
Quitting alcohol has many, well-documented physical benefits, and I experienced them all:
~ I lost a lot of weight
~ The condition of my skin improved, while most of my eczema, psoriasis, and acne all cleared up
~ I no longer smelled like a “Sweaty European”
~ Eventually, the yellow tinge on my teeth and fingers went away
But this goes way beyond just a slimmer waistline, better skin, and more palatable scent.
My entire physicality and presence changed.
When I was 23, a close friend wrote in her journal that I looked “dead behind the eyes”. Everyone who knew me well knew I was pretty much broken inside.
These days, people are more likely to comment on how happy I seem within moments of meeting, with a mischievous shimmer in my “boisterous” blue eyes.
I immediately started dressing better, because I knew my clothes would last — now they wouldn’t end up covered in cigarette holes and wine stains.
People noticed. Women noticed.
Friends who only know me from the last three years can’t associate the stories I tell them about my 20s with the person they know today.
Friends from my twenties and back in Ireland don’t recognise the person I’ve become.
It’s not hard to see why.
Overwhelming Waves of Inexplicable Joy
There’s a little known phenomenon that occurs when binge drinkers and alcoholics go cold turkey, and deserves a lot more attention. Because if more people knew about, I think they’d find it a lot easier to quit.
A few weeks after your last drink, as your body expunges the final traces of alcohol, one day, you might experience a sudden wave of pure, ecstatic happiness. It will be unlike anything you’ve ever felt before.
Like, not even on the best molly love buzz of your life.
Why does this happen?
Alcohol is a toxic depressant. It wrecks the natural balance of chemicals in your brain, limiting those associated with feeling good. At the same time, your brain has to work overtime just to process the alcohol flowing through your system, thus impairing its other regular functions.
Have you ever tried multitasking when you’re pissed or hungover? Imagine that your brain is having the same problems.
And if you’re drinking heavily 2–4 times a week, your brain never gets back to the right chemical balance. So, you just become a bit numb.
Consider that I started drinking when I was 14 and only stopped when I was just shy of 28.
For fourteen years, I had chemically castrated the part of my brain responsible for producing happiness. What happened when it was finally allowed to do its job?
All the pent up joy just burst out and hit me at once.
No GIF can do that feeling justice.
For me, this wave of euphoria took 6 weeks to hit, and I had no idea it was coming. Newly teetotal friends have told me they only had to wait 2 weeks.
Even better, there isn’t really a comedown. More like a levelling off.
My contentment with life, in general, has remained high ever since. And those waves of inexplicable joy still wash over me from time to time.
Don’t get me wrong, I still live with depression and anxiety. All the exercise, yoga, healthy eating, and disco music in the world isn’t gonna change that. Bad days happen, but at least now they’re not all-consuming and I know they’ll pass.
Degrees of Happiness
I like to think of my overall day-to-day happiness levels on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Pre-sobriety”, most days I probably averaged 5 out of 10. So on a good day, the best I could hope for was maybe 7. On a bad day, I was wallowing in the 2s and 3s.
Nowadays, I’d put my daily average at 7 out of 10. Sure, I still drop back down to the occasional 4 or 5. But on a good day? I’m hitting 9 or 10.
Maybe even 11…
The morning I started writing this, for example, I was dancing around my apartment blasting “Spirit in The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum for no reason.
An atheist dancing alone… to a song celebrating Jesus… written by a Jew.
And I hadn’t even drank any coffee at that point.
Everything About Sex Got 100x Better
One night a week after my 22nd birthday I was drinking with some friends in a backpacker hostel in Australia.
Suddenly, an older Italian lady took my hand, brought me around the back of the hostel, and had her way with me. An hour later, she got on a bus and drove away, taking the last piece of my innocence with her.
Yup, that’s how I lost my virginity. Drunk in a field of solar panels, behind a hostel, in the Australian Outback.
“Drunkenly fooling around with an older woman in a backpacker hostel” basically became the theme of my sex life for the next 12 months until, at 23, I settled into my first relationship. With someone 8 years older than me. Whom I met in a hostel. While drunk.
In fact, until Tinder came along, I don’t think there was a single woman I first approached sober. Dating was unheard of in the Ireland I grew up in. And when I left, my insecurities and intense fears of rejection and abandonment continued to hold me back.
This meant for 5 years, my sex life was defined by sloppy, drunken one night stands that occasionally evolved into relationships.
Once I took booze out of the equation, this all changed. First I had to start actually, like, y’ know, approach women IRL… and sober. Something I still suck at.
But when I did work up the courage that first time, I had no idea what awaited me.
The overwhelming ecstatic joy I described earlier… imagine that feeling in the form of an orgasm.
The first time I had sex after the final drops of alcohol has left my body… I fell off the bed. I couldn’t stand up. I went crossed eye.
I was stumbling to the bathroom like a baby giraffe learning to walk for the first time.
How did this happen? Again, alcohol is a chemical depressant. It dulls every positive, feel-good sensation in your brain… and your body.
For 14 years, I had numbed myself completely — emotionally, physically, neurologically.
Once I finally climbed out of the boozy haze, I became more attuned to my body and the full range of sensations that come with great fucking sex.
Not to mention, I was sweating less, lasting longer, and had a greater awareness of the person with whom I was sharing this mind-blowing experience was feeling.
Back to that night in the Outback….
You might be wondering what losing my virginity has got to do with any of this.
Well, growing up in Ireland, imagining ‘meeting beautiful women and having incredible sex’ without ‘going out every week getting wrecked’ was inconceivable.
That night in the Outback did much to reinforce this idea.
For years, I truly believed that quitting alcohol would condemn me to a lonely, sexless life.
If only I knew that the opposite was true.
Hindsight’s a bitch.
Friendships Lost, Friendships Gained
Man, drunk people are fucking annoying.
This quickly becomes an issue when your entire social life is based around booze and you stop drinking.
Leaving alcohol behind has fundamentally changed how I live.
Unfortunately, that’s meant leaving some people behind. Growing up in a male culture where you rarely see your friends outside of a pub, it’s difficult for some people to imagine crazy notions like ‘going for coffee’ and ‘catching a movie together’.
Others resented me for finally getting my shit together while they were unable to do so. Even my family couldn’t compute me turning down a beer.
But out of the ashes of my former life emerged something much more…. wholesome?
I may have fewer friends now, spend a lot more time at home, and occasionally I’m accused of being boring. I’m cool with that. Because the relationships I enjoy now last longer, are more meaningful, and based on genuine compatibility, rather than who can keep up with me on a night out.
And my life is far from boring.
Life Became More Interesting
It’s a question I get asked often: “So, what do you do for fun now?”
And for the longest time, I couldn’t give a good answer.
Eh…. reading books?
Life without alcohol seemed thoroughly unexciting — even to me, who was living it.
But I eventually realised what I was actually being asked: “What do you do for fun, if you don’t drink? How do you spend all that free time?”
And then it dawned on me. I couldn’t give an answer because my free time isn’t spent doing just one thing over and over again. Or two. Or three.
Without noticing, since quitting booze, life had become more varied, unpredictable, and spontaneous.
Dance classes, art shows, festivals, fancy restaurants, house parties, concerts, good coffee, hiking, last-minute picnics, hanging out with activists, dinners with politicians….
None of it planned in advance, all of it far more exciting than spending every weekend getting shitfaced in the same 3 bars with the same 5 people.
Admittedly, sobriety has also made me incredibly bougie. But… I fucking love it.
I’ve also had a lot more time — and money — to spend on more adventurous pursuits.
I’ve travelled. Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Jordan, The Balkans — just some of the places I’ve visited in the last 3 years.
Many of my most treasured memories have happened in the relatively short time since that fateful morning in Uganda.
And I wouldn’t trade them for a million Big Nights Out.
I Became… Exceptional
“But….. you’re Iiiiiiiriiiiiishhhhhh?!?!?”
Yeah, I get that a lot, too.
As I said, we’re the lovable drunks of the world.
Wherever I go, from fucking Khartoum, Sudan to Bansko, Bulgaria, I cannot escape my nation’s reputation.
And for years, I very much lived up to that reputation. I was once so hungover in Bangkok, I caused a small bomb scare. But that’s a story for another day.
So what happens when you start turning down drinks, step out of the stereotype, and break free from centuries of inherited trauma and societal self-harm?
People take notice. They stop and stare. They’re intrigued.
They say stupid things like, “So… are you one of those… what’s it called… VEGANS?”
Dates move in closer.
They want to know more about the strange man in front of them, who, within two minutes of meeting, has already defied expectations.
Of course, it’s easier to surprise people with your sensitivity and hidden depths when you have too many tattoos and look like a drug dealer.
Regardless, when you come from a culture defined by — and proud of — its mass alcoholism, sobriety makes you instantly more interesting.
Sobriety may only be one part of my new, fascinating persona. But it’s easily the most noteworthy to people I meet.
At least, until they get to know me better.
Thriving at Work
It’s no coincidence my first hospitality job without alcohol was my last.
Once I sobered up, I quickly grew disillusioned with perpetuating a system of neo-colonial white privilege and tired of the toxic bullshit that plagues the service industries.
With my brain no longer floating in a lake of stale whiskey, and my nerve endings slowly repairing themselves, I could finally pursue something I’d been attempting for half a decade: transitioning to remote work.
3 years later, and here we are. What do I do for a living now?
I’m a ghostwriter for ethical hackers. We don’t have time for me to explain what that actually means. Just know that it pays really well, and I’ve probably read your porn history.
Just kidding! (but not really)
Could I have successfully transitioned to rewarding, meaningful, and occasionally fascinating remote work without giving up alcohol?
Possibly, but not likely.
Through sobriety, I’ve finally achieved the most essential qualities for working remotely:
~ Clarity of mind
~ Emotional stability
~ The ability to just sit still, with zero supervision, for hours on end
It’s not always easy, but it’s better than scraping someone’s crusty shit off a bathroom floor at 7am on a Monday morning.
Even better, I’ve broken free from an endless cycle of different versions of the same crap job. I can be optimistic about the future and certain that in a couple of years, I’ll be doing even better.
So…. Will I Ever Drink Again?
Maybe, I don’t know.
I don’t even know why (or how) I stopped drinking in the first place. It just happened.
When I look back on the 3 short years since I quit, and all the crazy depressing shit that happened while I was still drinking, booze holds very little appeal.
Sure, some people can drink without it holding them back from a rewarding life. I have a feeling I’m not one of those people.
But honestly, the real reason is probably much simpler:
Life is just more fun without alcohol — for me, at least.