A Year Without Booze
How quitting drinking for 12 months (to raise money for Charity: Water) changed my life.
At the time of writing, there are only a couple of days left until what I’ve been calling my ‘Year of Clarity’ or perhaps more accurately — ‘Year of Sobriety’, comes to an end.
I plan on celebrating with my ‘first beer for a year’ live on the internet.
But before then, I thought I’d share how the year has gone.
Why I Decided to Quit Booze for a Year
As well as having the privilege of meeting a whole bunch of wonderful people from across the globe, the conference itself was life-changing.
It opened with a mind-blowing double-whammy of talks that was to set the tone for the year to come — Brene Brown speaking on the topic of Daring Greatly, and challenging us to be ‘uncool’, vulnerable, and live a whole-hearted life — followed by Scott Harrison of Charity: Water,who shared the horrifying illnesses and deaths he had witnessed when volunteering as part of the Mercy Corps, the majority of which were caused by a lack of access clean water, something most people reading this will take completely for granted.
He also shared his tale of redemption — how he went from a drugged-up, selfish nightclub promoter to the founder of a groundbreaking charity that breaks all the ‘rules’ that charities normally follow — (e.g. every penny/cent raised is used to build water wells etc, because their admin costs are provided by companies such as Google and Twitter.) His mission is to ensure everyone on earth has access to clean water.
At the end of his talk he asked us to pledge our birthdays, and many of the 1000 strong audience stood up and committed to do so.
I was even sat beside someone whose birthday it was that very day, and she immediately went and started her campaign on the Charity: Water website.
As my birthday is 1st October (and this isn’t a lame attempt to get people to wish me happy birthday on Facebook, I promise) I had a little time to plan what I would do.
The Devil’s Buttermilk
A very religious neighbour once told my dad that alcohol was the devil’s buttermilk (I went on to use the name for a spoof horror film trailer).
Now I do not think alcohol is evil incarnate. I have had a lot of fun over the years whilst happily inebriated, but there is definitely a darker side to drinking too.
Whilst I could happily have a couple of beers or glasses of wine with a meal, at other times I would get carried away and keep on drinking until the drink ran out.
To put it bluntly, I’ve acted like an arsehole when drunk on more than one occasion — and done, and said some things I regret. It’s been part of my lifestyle since I was at school, and whilst I had cut down massively in recent years, as a music fan and supporter of local bands I still always had an excuse to drink. I would end up at various gigs, clubs and festivals with friends and invariably end up blind drunk. Mostly, the worst result was a bad hangover.
But as I got older, the worse the hangovers became.
I did not only have a sore head and nausea to contend with, but it would affect my gut badly and have a negative effect on my mood. I have had a tendency towards ‘low moods’ all my life, and whilst in general this had improved in recent years, after a big night out I would feel shitty for several days after.
At WDS in Portland, I drank very little and still had a great time. I also saw from the examples all around me,that personal change was really possible. I felt it was time for a change myself.
I knew I wanted to be healthier and do more exercise, plus there was the small matter of having left my job and needing to make an income as a newbie freelancer. All of this would be easier if I wasn’t in the pub, or hungover.
So, to summarise, I wanted to feel better. Which is why we do most things in life, I suppose. If I could also raise some money for a great cause, then all the better.
Clean Water for 23 People
I pledged to give up booze for 12 months — giving up on my birthday on 1st October 2012 (when I turned 35). I asked friends, family and readers of my blog to donate instead of buying me a birthday present, or a pint. Blog readers were offered a free ‘clarity and strategy session’ if they donated $35, with a few people taking me up on the offer.
I was blown away by people’s generosity. My initial target was $650 and thanks to everyone’s donations, we more than doubled that, raising $1,525 which Charity: Water estimated would provide 23 people with access to clean water.
I was delighted, and later found out that I edged into the top 30 of all the fundraisers from WDS2012. Given that the top 30 raised over $116,000 between us, I think its clear that my contribution was fairly minor. For example, Sarah Peck swam naked from Alcatraz to San Francisco and raised $29,000 in the process.
Of course, the ‘hard work’ was yet to begin.
Being Quiet is OK
Drinking has always been a part of my social life, and to a large extent I’ve relied on it as a way of coming ‘out of my shell’. I’m most definitely an introvert, and therefore being with people tires me out and I need plenty of time alone to recharge. Drink has perhaps subconsciously been a way to ‘fake being extroverted’.
Sober, I didn’t have the same urge to go out to gigs and to the pub. I have found that I much prefer meeting someone one-on-one for a coffee and in-depth chat. When I was out, I would be much quieter than normal, which was disconcerting for me, and my friends no doubt. Instead of talking nonsense, I was more likely to be quiet. But I began to grow more comfortable with that.
Reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (who also appeared at WDS2012) helped massively when it came to accepting the fact I’m an introvert, as she explains brilliantly what it really means to be introverted or extroverted, and that being an introvert is not a bad thing, although we are often made to think that it is by a society that values extroverted behavior more highly.
So, I socialised a lot less over the last year than ever before in my adult life. I have to admit though that at times, I spent too long alone which isn’t good for anyone. A few times I got to the point where I didn’t want to go out at all. However I was also going through a lot of doubts and worries concerning how I was going to make a living now that I no longer had a secure full-time job.
I’m proud that I attended several weddings and other parties and events and had a good time, without needing a drink. I danced, and had a good laugh on a number of occasions. Anyone who thinks you need to drink alcohol to have a good time has been hoodwinked by a limiting belief.
Spoiler Alert: Being Sober Didn’t Solve All My Problems
Perhaps I thought not drinking would mean I felt amazing all day, every day. I soon learnt that wasn’t the case. I would still wake up feeling unmotivated. I would still get low moods. I would still eat too many biscuits and ice-cream.
I was however on a more even keel. There were less of the dramatic ups and downs that characterise the binge-drinking lifestyle. Yes, I’ll admit, it was less fun. But there was also less days spent feeling like death warmed up. For one thing, I haven’t had a single cold or flu during the entire 12 months.
Stopping drinking however, was only the beginning. It was the first step I needed to take in order to make some more significant changes in my life. Clearly, rather than spend my evenings thinking about what I was missing out on down the pub, I needed to replace drinking with a more positive habit.
The Verge writer Paul Miller gave up the internet for a year but concluded that it made little positive difference to his life. After reading about his experience I couldn’t help feeling he missed an opportunity though. He didn’t really replace the old behavior with a positive one. Instead he just replaced his compulsive internet habit with a compulsive video gaming habit.
I think Paul and I (and many others) have a similar characteristic — an addictive personality. Maybe this is just a lack of discipline, but I know I have a tendency to ‘overdo’ things, and also a tendency to seek out escapist activities. Drinking is one of course, as is video games. My internet use can also be compulsive at times, especially when it comes to checking my smartphone for emails, tweets or whatever else.
The ‘bad habit’ that replaced drinking for me though, wasn’t video games, it was watching Netflix. I have watched countless hours via my iPad since I gave up drink, whether it was Breaking Bad, Fringe, Justified or whatever else. This has definitely become my new go-to procrastination tool and escapist activity.
I think if you have an addictive personality maybe going cold turkey on one addiction isn’t the answer, as it will only be replaced by something else. Maybe the answer is learning ways to manage your compulsive behavior. This is something I’d like to focus on in the future.
Thankfully, I did manage to replace drinking with some new positive habits too.
Introducing More Positive Habits
As a regular reader of personal development blogs such as Zen Habits, I knew that the worst thing I could do was to try and make multiple changes at once. Instead, I decided to follow the example of J.D. Roth, whose talk at WDS also had a profound impact on me. He shared how he made changes in his life slowly, over a longer period of time, the result being that each change had time to integrate with his life, and he could then build on each new habit.
I started with meditation, using the wonderful Headspace app. I decided this would be a ‘non-negotiable’ daily habit, and for the most part I stuck to this, doing it every day without fail for the most part of 8 months (so far).
The meditation helped with my discipline, and I decided getting fitter was my next priority. My wife and I signed up for a half-marathon, and we started seriously training for it. The need to train most days was quite intense for someone who has never been very sporty, but running has the positive by-product of making you feel great. It’s been said that it is in fact the opposite of drinking — you don’t want to do it, don’t always enjoy it, but you feel fantastic once you’ve done it. Whereas with drinking.. well you know the drill.
In April, we completed the Edinburgh Rock n Roll half-marathon (despite miserable weather conditions) and I managed it in 2 hours and five minutes.
My next mission was to improve my working habits and establish a better routine for getting my freelance writing done. This is still something I find difficult, but I’ve definitely made some significant improvements over the last few months, and am proud to be able to survive as a freelancer, 19 months after leaving full-time employment.
People have been asking me what I plan to do now the year is almost over. Some seem to expect me to go back to my old ways as if nothing has changed. They are looking forward to me being my old, more entertaining self. Others say they wouldn’t be surprised if I never drink again.
The honest truth is, I don’t know. The few times I missed having a drink were special occasions, like New Year’s Eve and at weddings when everyone raised a glass of champagne to honor the bride and groom. There’s no doubt that sharing a drink does have a special social significance.
I most definitely don’t miss the hangovers and low moods though. I also can’t afford to drink like I used to — as a freelancer who is still only just getting by each month, there is no extra budget for a big night out.
So I’m going to take it one day at a time, in good AA tradition. I’ll be having my first beer for a year live on Google Hangouts on 1st October, and would love it if you joined me.
After that, I will probably have one or two drinks to celebrate a friend’s wedding.
Beyond that, I’m not sure. Maybe it all depends on how bad that first hangover is. Honestly though, it wouldn’t take much for me to give it up again, perhaps permanently.
One thing I’ve learnt is — I don’t need alcohol in my life, and given the downsides of boozing, If I do let it back into my life long-term, I’ll be treating it with a lot more caution than I used to.
2019 Update: I went back on the booze temporarily but have now been sober for over 4years.