‘I can’t do Sober October, I’ve got a big party in the middle and then there’s halloween.’
‘I’m thinking of trying Dry January but, y’know, it depends on how my exams go.’
‘I don’t want a hangover on Christmas Eve so I might just not go to the office party on the 23rd.’
These are all things I’ve heard recently. And I get it. Because two years ago, that was me too.
On the face of them, they all sound pretty reasonable. But now I’ve been a non-drinker for almost 24 months, the first half of each of those sentences seem entirely unrelated to the last half.
The problem everyone thinks doesn’t apply to them, is right there in the words they use.
The language of a drinking problem
The NHS defines an addiction as, ‘not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.’
The addiction specialist, Gabor Mate sees addiction as, ‘manifested in any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up. In brief: craving, relief, pleasure, suffering, impaired control.’
When you say, ‘I’m going to try Dry January,’ what is it that you are saying? That you want to succeed in not drinking for a month but that you don’t know if you’ll be able to manage it?
Are you saying that you don’t have control over your choice about whether to drink or not? That you have difficulty giving up despite alcohol’s negative consequences?
It sure sounds like it. If you had control over it, you could do Dry January. But saying you’ll try? That suggest that, perhaps, you don’t have control over it.
And if you don’t want a hangover on Christmas Eve but the office party is on the 23rd, there’s a simple solution. You could go to the party but not drink. That’s it. It’s simple.
Except it’s not, is it? Because you know, by listening to the language you’re using, that you would struggle to go to the party and not drink. You would not be in control and may well head to the free bar, signing yourself up for a hangover you don’t want.
We’re all announcing a problem while denying it.
Acknowledging the problem
It’s hard to spot your own problem with alcohol. Really hard.
Alcohol companies, like cigarette companies before, work hard to convince us all that you’re missing out if you’re not drinking. It’s hardly Christmas without mulled wine, Prosecco, fancy gin or, weirdly, a bottle of Baileys. You’ve worked hard all year guys, ̶r̶u̶i̶n̶ celebrate it with getting tipsy/drunk/obliterated. Go on, you deserve it.
Society as a whole encourages the consumption of alcohol. It’s pushed upon us, advertised to us and lauded as a way to relax. Yet we tell our children it’s bad for them, we’re protecting them by keeping it from them. How are they to believe us when we drink it and billboards advertise it?
The term ‘alcoholic’ is tarnished with the impression you’d be cracking open a beer at 9am. You’d be raving in the street, shouting at lampposts during the day. Few of us do that, so we’re not alcoholics…right?
But go back to the NHS’ definition. Go back to Gabor Mate’s. Go back to how you describe whether or not you think you’ll manage Dry January. As Russell Brand says in his book Recovery, ‘we’re all on the scale of addiction.’
Once upon a time I found myself drinking a glass of wine or two every night with dinner. Not much of a problem, you might think. Except when I decided that I would not drink every evening, I discovered I couldn’t say no to the nightly wine.
Ah, problem. When you can’t say no, even though you want to, you’ve got a problem.
When I would go out drinking, I’d wake up and remember little. I’d be told the things I’d said and done, things I would not do and say as a sober person. I was not in control of the alcohol. The alcohol was in control of me, pushing me back to the bar. Ah, problem.
I thought drinking would help me deal with anything. But if I was drinking to deal with the good and the bad, how could I possibly know if it was helping? I had nothing to compare it to.
When I finally gave up two Christmases ago, it was a leap into the unknown. I’d been drinking, to some extent, for fifteen years. My entire adult life and a good few teenage years had been coddled in alcohol.
I’d never given myself a chance to discover who I was. How I dealt with difficult things. I had consistently turned to the booze. I’d consistently told myself that I was incapable of dealing with anything stressful without an external substance.
When you think about that, it’s pretty strange.
Pulling the plug
I didn’t drink on New Year’s Eve, that first week of sobriety. In fact, I didn’t go out at all. Because, just like that person who said they didn’t want a hangover on Christmas Eve so would have to forego the office party, I knew deep down that I would struggle to say no.
So I removed myself from the situation entirely. I thought I’d be lonely, but I wasn’t. I was taking control, not giving it away. It was liberating.
I woke up on New Year’s Day to a beautiful morning and hangover-free. I felt alive. I could breathe. I had made a responsible choice and it was elating. I’d started the New Year as I intended to go on, free of the destructive impairment of alcohol.
And I kept making that same decision. It wasn’t easy at first. I avoided pubs and bars. I went abroad with friends who drink a lot but luckily for me, one was heavily pregnant. It was easier to be a sober person when there was another sober person present.
But it wasn’t hard for very long. As the months ticked by, I loved the deeper sleep, the greater energy, the clearer conscience, all far more than I had loved the sensation of alcohol.
I realised eventually that I had found my freedom. The desire to drink was gone entirely. I saw the endless merry-go-round of alcohol in my past.
I saw the endless justifications for drinking that I’d spouted. I could hear them echoing around me from everyone else. ‘Just one, why not?’ to which surely the answer is, ‘why?’
I’m happy. I like going out to bars still, I love celebrations, I deal with difficult situations now rather than drown them, alcohol isn’t required for any of it. It never helped me, it hindered.
And it all started with hearing the words I was saying and being honest, ‘I’m going to try giving up,’ and knowing that this sentence defines the problem. If I didn’t have a problem, I wouldn’t have to try, I would just stop.
We’re complex, us humans. But most of the time, the answer has been right in front of us the whole time.