Giving up alcohol didn’t happen overnight, although some of my friends would tell you otherwise. No, instead, I’d been peripherally attempting it for years.
It started with a book.
Maybe that’s simplifying it, but let’s start with the book. Blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget by Sarah Heppola was really what kick-started my realisation that my drinking was Not Cool. Throughout university drinking had become somewhat of a vocation for me but of course, it’s fine at university. Right?
While most of my friends could recall the entire night regardless of their consumption levels, my brain stopped recording anything after the fifth drink. Or was it the sixth? Seventh? I didn’t know. I lost huge swathes of time, entire nights only to wake up in the morning not only with a hangover, but with a whole heap of regret.
Reading Heppola’s painfully honest memoir was like reading an account of my own life and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. I knew I had to stop drinking like that. Giving up alcohol was surely a good idea.
Low Alcohol Beer
Around 2014 I started trying out low alcohol beers. These were almost exclusively bad tasting citrusy beers with 2.5% ABV. I would drink them at parties so I could satisfy the urge to drink but still stay ostensibly sober. They tasted so awful back then that I couldn’t drink more than four without feeling slightly nauseous. But bars and pubs didn’t really stock alcohol free beer then so I would inevitably switch to normal alcohol when we left the confines of the party.
But still, the seed was sown.
Alcohol Free Beer
Fast forward a few years which contained nightly wine drinking and a handful of hideous blackout nights and I found myself in Portugal where they’d embraced the low and no-alcohol beer long before we did in the UK.
With brands like Super Bock Sem Alcool (with a 0.5% ABV) and Sagres Sem Alcool it was suddenly easy to drink alcohol free beer in beach bars or buy them in the supermarket. The taste was almost identical to the alcoholic versions and, if different, certainly just as good. I enjoyed drinking them as much as alcohol and figured it was a positive way to start giving up alcohol for good.
Drawing a line under alcohol
Back in England though, there were just too many opportunities to drink. What about wine with dinner? There still wasn’t any alcohol free wine even resembling drinkable so I quickly went back to the night glass or two. Every night.
I slept badly, I had nightmares for years and would always wake up dehydrated, tired and not in a productive frame of mind.
Friday or Saturday nights could easily turn into drunken mayhem or simply quiet evenings steeped in booze. The story was always the same, wasted days spent regretting drinking anything at all. The hangovers were bad but it was the seemingly endless exhaustion that followed that was even worse.
So when, in December 2017 I woke up saying the age old ‘I’m never drinking again’. I realised that it was time to adhere to that. I stopped drinking on Christmas Day – coincidentally to the holiday – and had a sober New Year too.
Dry January was a good time to commit to giving up alcohol. No one questions you further if you say you’ve given up for Dry January, it’s an easy excuse. And it wasn’t hard to stick to either. I felt that I had put my foot down, and to begin drinking again would be hard to explain.
As the days crept into weeks and January moved into February, I got more questions. ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ – ‘When are you going to start drinking again?’ – ‘When are you going to stop being boring and drink?’
It was odd. Plenty of my friends accepted it without query. Others needed a good reason and pushed until I gave up and just shrugged. Others seemed to feel it a personal attack, as if my sobriety was an attack upon them. I never suggested anybody else try it though. But if I learnt one thing, it’s that as much as misery loves company, drunkenness is ratified by drunkenness.
Experimenting with Alcohol again
I’ve drunk alcohol (ignoring beers with under 0.5% ABV) just five times in the past six months. The first time was a night out with my friend. We were celebrating a huge achievement and while we started with one glass of Champagne, it escalated. I hardly slept and woke up wondering why I was celebrating with something that made me feel to fundamentally awful.
The second was a beer with work colleagues. I started on alcohol free Budvar, which is fairly inoffensive as lagers go but eventually the pressure of questions became too great and I accepted the alcoholic version. I regretted it the moment it was put in front of me but it felt rude to not drink it. What was interesting though, was that it tasted no better than the alcohol free version.
The subsequent three times were similar, Why Not? episodes that didn’t lead to me being particularly drunk but also didn’t leave me feeling good. At no point did I think, ‘wow, drinking is fun.’ I just felt tired and annoyed that I had given in, yet again.
Giving up alcohol for good
In spring I committed to giving up alcohol for good. I stopped even entertaining the idea of drinking alcohol and it has become completely natural to ask for non-alcohol beers in bars and pubs. In the rare case they have none at all, I’ll drink San Pellegrino if I want to be punched in the face with sugar or Coke Zero if I don’t. But it’s rare these days that a pub won’t have any non-alcoholic beers at all.
An alcohol free future
I can’t say I’ll never have an alcoholic drink ever again, who knows what will happen. But right now I can’t see myself drinking it in the near future. I’ve just run out of reasons to drink and I feel much more confident not drinking, then the girl who stands at a bar and slurs her words (I’m very small, it doesn’t take much).
I sleep better, I’m stopped caring about the things that people say when I tell them I’m sober and I like skipping paying tax on non-alcoholic beers.
So there you go, that’s how I gave up alcohol. I had an easy ride and I’m thankful for that. There were times when I genuinely didn’t think it would be possible. There were times when I would need to know where the next drink was coming from before I’d finished the last. There were times when I’d count the wine bottles and wonder if there was time to buy more before the shop closed.
But once I made the decision to give up, what I felt wasn’t fear, it was freedom.
–If you feel like you need help with your drinking or are concerned about someone else’s, you can seek support through Alcohol Concern here —