What Happened When I Gave Up Alcohol
10 lessons learnt from accidental abstinence.
A few years ago, after a particularly bad hangover (after a week I could still smell the gin in my sweat), I decided to stop drinking for a bit. “A bit” turned into several consecutive months, and after a while I thought: why go back now? I haven’t had a drink since.
As “Dry January” comes to a close and millions return to the sauce, some will use this month to reset their relationship with alcohol. Yet, for many, the thought of a life without is unfathomable — what is life like if you just stop?
I was lucky; I didn’t have to stop. I chose to. I drank no more than most of my friends — but there was a history of alcoholism in my family. Maybe I was looking for an excuse to stop and this gin-addled hangover had arrived at just the right time. That’s not to say it was easy, but there were certain things I did along the way that made avoiding alcohol feel like less of a sacrifice and more of a life choice. So here are ten things I’ve learned from not drinking.
(As a disclaimer, I don’t presume to offer prescriptive solutions for everyone trying to stop drinking, particularly those who have struggled with alcoholism — a real addiction that can require professional help and support. This is aimed at the moderate drinker who may be considering a life without, or just wondering what it is like on the other side of that buzz).
1. Expect your partner/friends to hate you for a bit
However understanding they may be, giving up alcohol is a pretty dramatic act. In my experience many people judge it not by how it impacts you, but how it makes them feel. Expect comments from loved ones along the lines of: “I feel like an alcoholic opening a whole bottle of wine just for me”, “So we won’t meet up at the pub anymore” or “Aren’t you worried people will think you have a drinking problem?” They do eventually get used to it (it took about 3 months to ‘normalize’ with my friends and family).
2. Don’t assume you are giving up drinking forever
I treated it like an experiment, taking each week as it came rather than making a firm decision to never drink again. It is fair to say my non-drinking has spiraled out of control since then. It is only now, after nearly three years, I feel confident describing it as something more permanent.
3. Don’t cheat
I’ve taken a hardline view on alcohol consumption: not a sip or a sniff. This isn’t for everyone (and maybe is more a reflection of my personality), but I found this made it easier to keep off the booze and deal with social situations. It helps fight any urges that may come your way and is a great answer to those who may urge you to “just have a bit.”
4. Replace alcohol with another reward
This feels strange at first. You get home from work and feel an aching need for a cold, alcoholic, drink. You try water, sodas, tea, decaf — but nothing feels quite right. The good news is after a few weeks your brain starts to adjust and your natural reward system kicks in. All you need is something to signal the end of one part of the day and the start of another. Sad as it seems, throughout the day I found myself craving my first decaf of the night. And some of the better non-alcoholic beers really help you get through the first ten minutes when you need something dry and fizzy.
5. Talking of non-alcoholic beers — do try them
There are actually some good ones out there. I like O’Douls and Erdinger, but there is a great range now. You can never completely replace the sensation of alcohol, but the best NAs are almost indistinguishable from their stronger cousins (to my palate anyway — I’m sure there are beardy beerbuffs who would disagree). Find one you like and take it to parties. Don’t even bother with non-alcoholic wine. It just doesn’t work.
6. Do some sport
At this point, I accept that I’ve become a cliche. I left London, moved to California, got into running and gave up booze. That aside, the sport really helps. You need something else to focus on and training for a race, or particular time or distance can help fill the gap. You fill your body with endorphins, get in better shape (not drinking obviously helps with that too) and you have something else to think about. You also get to buy loads of stuff with the money you are saving from not drinking. I have four foam leg rollers.
7. Evening socializing can be challenging, especially if you are a shy
But if you enjoy socializing, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. It only becomes a problem when people get really drunk. They get loud. They repeat themselves. Seek out the people at the party nearer your level of sobriety (there are more out there than you think). Dance floors are great as you don’t have to talk to people (you have to be happy to dance sober — treat it like a workout). Sadly, once the tequila shots come out there’s really no point staying any longer.
8. But mornings are great
Actually, they are just the best. No hangover. No sheet-creep. However you feel when you wake up — good or bad — you know that you are unimpeded by the effects of alcohol. This was particularly acute for me, because once I hit 40 my hangovers hit nuclear winter territory. My capacity for indulgence seemed to work in inverse proportion to my capacity to recover. Now — I love Saturday and Sunday mornings.
9. Prepare to become hypersensitized to how pervasive alcohol is in our society
It will feel like it is all people talk about. Facebook and Instagram become an endless stream of photos of cocktails and celebration of “beer o’clock.” Politicians pulling pints will look odd. TV shows and the media seem to make constant reference to people getting drunk or hammered, or even just having a glass of wine to deal with a stressful situation at home. Short-term dry-drinkers moaning about being 2 weeks off the sauce will annoy you. You have to try really hard not to turn into a judgmental wanker.
10. You are not alone
Millions of people are changing their relationship with alcohol and feeling better for it — healthier, fitter and happier. There are more resources than ever before to help people change their drinking habits and more interesting non-alcoholic drinks coming out every week. Everyone is different, but I can honestly say not-drinking gives me intense pleasure every day. Sure, it is a different kind of pleasure, but it is one the best things I’ve ever done.