If you look for it, there is a deluge of confessional articles on the internet about the dark tarnished glamour of alcoholism. You know – the good bit? The bit before it all falls apart, the bit about being Kate Moss and a rock star and not caring. Euphoric, dazed, crashing headlong into the end. All I can really offer of my own experience is that I woke up hungover at 4pm one New Year’s Day with toast stuck to my face.
In other words, I did not excel at drinking. Neither did I hit rock bottom before I gave it up. I had a library card and was trusted to babysit other people’s children. There was no problem. Imagine me belligerently slurring that last bit (sno poblem!) as I opened the sixth bottle of beer.
There was no problem until there was. Hangovers stretched like shadows at the end of summer, so that by my late twenties, a night out on Friday made the weekend a complete write-off. I was always a bit anxious and could never truly relax unless I’d had a drink. I was scared of everything and had a terrible time making any sense of my own feelings. My gut instinct had been so thoroughly doused in gin that it had almost dissolved.
There was no rock bottom, and yet, I knew. Perhaps my gut instinct wasn’t entirely defunct. It made one last valiant effort to get my attention, and thank goodness, for once in my life, I listened. The game was up. I was always tired and angry and stuck in mild, unending, daily angst. I finally realised, alcohol was not helping me to cope with any of this. It was the cause of it all.
Even though I had identified that the one big obstacle in the way of the life I wanted was that clinking glass of something rather nice with ice – even so – I felt really, really sad about giving it up. I was sure the future would be as flat and boring and depressing as plain pancakes. Not even any Nutella. ‘That’s it’, I thought, full to the brim with self-pity. ‘Nothing exciting will ever happen to me again’.
This is the story of what happened next.
- The internet will help
The internet may be 50% cat videos, 40% twitter abuse and 9% hardcore pornography (that’s my guess anyway), but there’s a final 1% which means everything: that’s the 1% which is people being brave, sharing stories and saying, ‘you too? I thought I was the only one’. It’s a tender, caring, non-judgemental and lovely place to find, that 1%. It changed everything for me. I read blogs and articles from those who did not have a ‘visible’ problem – those who couldn’t moderate, those who had never been on a date sober, and all the working parents out there who threw two bottles of wine over themselves every night after the kids had gone to bed. If you are thinking of giving up the booze for a little while, or a long while, I’d highly recommend checking out some of these (I’ve added a reading list at the end). I stayed in bed every evening and scrolled through it all, thinking, ‘you too?’ with everything I read.
- The first few weeks
I learned from that 1% of the internet that the first few weeks are the bit where you might find yourself ‘white-knuckling’ it. My mantra at the time was protect and distract. I shouted it like I was on some kind of spying mission, involving wearing night-goggles and doing lots of ducking and rolling. I had to protect myself from being persuaded to drink again, so (sadly) I had to dump my whole social life for a little while. Then I embarked on a distraction project. I consumed a vat of peanut M&Ms, watched every episode of Parks and Recreation, and lost myself in really trashy romantic comedies. I hoovered up Netflix. I wore a woolly hat with a pompom every night. (It went fabulously well with everything in my pyjama collection). I bought so many pyjamas I had a veritable collection. I wrote blog posts about nice things. All I could handle at that time were nice things. Nice, gentle, utterly benign and unsurprising things. I got heavily into Chai Lattes. This is what it means to ‘white-knuckle’ it. You just hold on. You focus and you hold on. Sugar, all the sugar, and no guilt at all.
- The next few months
I finished everything I could possibly watch on Netflix, except for the Christmas-themed romantic comedies starring Some Guy from 1998 that show up if you scroll for a really long time. Then I found myself training for a half-marathon. I’d call this the bit where not-drinking starts to make a lot more sense. I had stopped because I didn’t know what else to do about my anxiety and how much time I was wasting hungover. I stayed stopped because I realised that my body could be strong and I could feel young again – sort of more stretchy and limber, able to get up early and do things, able to make thing happen. There were suddenly a lot more hours in the day and a lot more daylight in my life, and if anyone wanted to meet me for coffee at ten am, I would love them for it, instead of raising a horrified brow and promptly blocking them on facebook so they could never make such a disgusting request again.
- You will suddenly have more money
Funny that. After I stopped drinking, I was able to get through the last big stretch of saving money toward a house deposit. I have no doubt that continuing to drink would have delayed this by about a year. As a very special treat (please see point 2: no guilt at all) I stayed one magical snowy winter day in a five star hotel with a bathtub perched in a window surrounded by velvety curtains. There was an espresso machine. Haters gonna hate, but I’m just saying, it would never have happened during the drinking days. I would have instead turned the cash into liquor, drank it all, and finally, through that painful alchemy, converted it into a grotty hangover. And then no doubt I would have declared that five star hotels are a waste of money.
- You will care about absolutely everything
Feelings arrived like a well-trained, superbly equipped army and laid siege to me. I cried at a lot of videos of adorable animals that I saw on the internet. I cried about my stupid twenties, all the Sunday mornings I wouldn’t get back, and finally found my way to the agonising guilt and sadness that I carried around about some of the really awful and thoughtless things I’d said and done when drunk. I mourned for the past and the future – you name it, I cried about it. It was an expansive misery which I somehow managed to extend to include pretty much the whole world. I guess I was feeling rather grandiose about it all (another feeling to add to the list).
- Then you will forget
Once you’re through the white-knuckling weeks at the start, and then the Great Sugar Rush, have battled with the invasion of feelings, and finally found yourself in a new kind of life in which not-drinking is normal – you will eventually find yourself forgetting about alcohol altogether. It has been about fifteen months since I stopped drinking, and now and then I completely forget that alcohol is even a thing that exists. I turn up to dinners and parties without any itching desire to grab a beer. I never ‘prep’ by drinking at home before I go out. I just go out. I trust myself again – a feeling I had lost for such a long time. I trust myself to be able to handle pretty much anything. (Earthquakes, or finding a sad lost dog, I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure I could handle).
A wise women once pointed out to me that alcohol is, above all else, an anaesthetic. I drank whenever anything became too scary or difficult. I chose to be numb instead of brave. When I stopped I wondered how on earth I was going to handle life. I mean, I self-identified as a complete scaredy-cat. Yet confidence somehow arrived, unassuming, with no struggle at all, and reclaimed its rightful place. This was the part that felt quite miraculous. I’d been used to thinking of confidence as something that you worked at. Then it became apparent and I realised it had always been there within me. It was quiet but it was there. It had just been squashed for a while.
- The downsides
As my brother said: ‘are you sure you’re ok with being the designated driver? For everyone? Forever?’
Also, a lot of social events are not particularly soup-friendly. It’s a problem.
- Oh more feelings
A lot of us feel a bit embarrassed about being playful, and don’t like looking silly in front of others, so before we can let loose, we have to imbibe enough alcohol to tranquilize an elephant. When I gave up boozing, I lost the keys to the playground of life.
I had something else, though – an extremely good support network. There were some damn good friends who accepted me just as I was, sober or drunk, and invited me to all kinds of antics, boozy or not. There was my long-suffering family, who listened to me wailing and crying about stuff, and gave me hugs in return. There was my boyfriend, who not only accepted without any qualms my new sobriety, but crucially, is the kind of man who knows the value of a good bit of nonsense. One summer afternoon, I was tired and frazzled and very sober, in the middle of moving house, with the shards of an Ikea flat-pack disaster littering my empty flat, a sore back, and a very large springy mattress, freshly delivered, dumped on the floor because there was no bed frame. I was on the phone, waiting on hold to speak to customer service at Ikea, lying on the floor, getting myself quite comfortably mired in first-world despair, when I realised the music on the phone was a gem of 1980s hair-rock. So without even discussing it, me and my man put the phone on speaker and proceeded to dance around on the mattress, trampolening and doing very energetic air-guitar solos. We held hands and danced around in a circle for a while, for no reason. It was ridiculous. We looked ridiculous. And it made everything ok. I thought, this is what I’ve been missing. So I now know that there needs to be a little sprinkling of silliness every day.
That’s a summary – to go into it any further would involve a feelings-post of grievous extravagance. I wanted to write about this because I kept my soberness under wraps for quite a long time, but finally wanted to share this positive, surprising experience. I tried not to sound too evangelical or judgemental about alcohol (although I’m sure I failed, because being evangelical and judgmental are two of my main hobbies). I know that drinking is just fine for a great many people. It’s a nice extra, a treat, a bonus in life. I wouldn’t dream of imposing abstinence on anyone. Drinking is just great for a lot of people – it just wasn’t great for me.
I also know that a lot of people give up drinking without writing a blog post about it like they’re a special snowflake. However, if you’ve got this far, I hope you found it sort of interesting and maybe helpful. For a much more acerbic and rage-filled take on the whole thing, this article is pretty wonderful. And here’s that reading list:
Soberistas – a fairly comprehensive site, mainly directed at women but there are luckily a few less gender-specific articles. Useful for some feel-good buzz about sobriety.
Mummy was a Secret Drinker – one of my favourite finds. This woman is so funny and writes beautifully about the ups and downs of her sober life, as well as some glimpses into her rather glamorous big-city-ad-agency-1990s-champagne-n-celebs past life.
The Sober School – this developed from a blog and the ‘about’ bit is a really great read. It’s a great place for newbies as it offers hope and reassurance, and looks very glam and polished and breezy and fun. Again, like so many other sober resources, it’s very female-oriented. Sorry menfolk. Let me know of any good general resources I’m missing out on!
Rachel’s Holiday – this is one of my favourite novels. It pretends to be your bog-standard chick-lit, with it’s frilly, fluffy cover art, but is in fact an extremely well-written, beautifully paced story of addiction and recovery. Marian Keyes is a master of the art of the slow reveal. The character of Rachel is so prickly and mean and hard on the outside, and so soft and vulnerable on the inside, that I would dare anyone to read this and not weep a little bit. Go on.
On that note, Marian Keyes’ brilliant essay on her own experience of alcoholism and recovery (you can find it tucked away in her collection of writing, Under the Duvet) is a fascinating and enlightening read.
Occasionally over at Captain Awkward there is mention of sobriety, but more generally, confidence, dating, boundaries, trusting oneself, and all other feelings are covered. It’s a great place to find out some great things.
Edited to add: I’ve realised that, as WordPress digs up ‘related’ posts as handy suggestions if you’re looking to read more – it has chosen to highlight below a post I wrote a few years back when I gave up alcohol for 6 months (called ‘I Gave Up Everything Good for 6 Months: The End Point’.) Reading this post again made me feel rueful (all the feelings of rue), for past Amy. I had an absolutely brilliant time when I gave up the booze for those 6 month, and that post pleases me as it reminds me of a really lovely window into sobriety that I tested out for a while. My plan at the time was to start drinking again, but in moderation, and sadly, the ensuing failure was how I learned that I am not able to drink in moderation. So that old blog post was but one step in a very long, difficult process of learning that I couldn’t really handle drink. Ah, past Amy. Your hair was better but your plans were doomed.