Why I stopped drinking (but you don’t have to)
Four years ago I had my last drink.
I’d always enjoyed drinking socially. I didn’t drink during the week, but I loved going out for a few drinks on the weekend and if it ended up being a big night, that was fine by me.
I’d been nervously thinking about taking a break from alcohol since my sister had joined ‘Hello Sunday Morning’ (HSM) a few months earlier. When she first told me she was not going to drink for three months, I felt betrayed. Why would she want to do that?! It’s stupid. Who was I going to socialize with now? What did this mean for my drinking?
“See you in three months then.” I’d (half-jokingly) said.
But it stuck in my mind. As a psychotherapist, I’m super interested (understatement) in what makes me tick. Having observed my reaction, I knew that I was scared, I was threatened by this idea. And I know that that’s where the gold is, on the other side of fear. In gestalt, we move towards our uncomfortable feelings, not away from them, so I knew I had to do it.
I went away for a weekend at the beach thinking that maybe I’d start my own three month hiatus that day. We sat down to lunch in the sun, and within seconds of someone mentioning having a drink I was back from the bar with two bottles of champagne. I didn’t think about it, it was automatic. I woke up the next morning and realized that over the course of the night, I’d upset one of my dearest friends and had prioritized booze over quality time with my oldest mates. The shame, guilt and anxiety were consuming. This was a familiar feeling. Even after a really great night I would often wake up and frantically run through my memories of the previous night to make sure I hadn’t done or said anything ridiculous. I usually hadn’t done anything too cringe-worthy, but I was over having to second guess myself. I decided there and then that I REALLY would do this three month HSM.
When I made this decision, I faced a similar reaction from my friends to the one I had given my sister. “But you can have ONE!” “How long for?” “But why? You don’t have a problem with alcohol!” I was nervous about telling people, about socializing without it, about people thinking I was an alcoholic. I expected my usual pre-party anxiety to increase, but as time went on I realized that I was less anxious than ever. I started to understand that my anxiety had been related to the uncertainty of where my night might lead - where booze might lead me. Now that I wasn’t drinking, I KNEW how my night would go: I’d drive there, socialize, then drive home whenever I felt like it. Simple. Not anxiety inducing. Borderline boring actually. I found I had more time on my hands. I hadn’t realized that alcohol was so time consuming. Life became more predictable, less exciting in some ways.
I still went to all the same social engagements. I went to festivals, weddings, the cricket, the races and parties, and had a great time. At first I didn’t know how to be. I needed a drink in my hand and ended up drinking so much soda water that I got a pain in the stomach. I eventually got used to not always holding something or being in shouts. There would inevitably come a time in the night when the disparity between my sobriety and others inebriation became too great a gap to bridge. At this point, conversations became impossible and I’d either leave, or sit back and become a spectator. At first I found this slightly uncomfortable and I’d cringe a little at the myriad of faux pas being committed by those around me. Once I realized that I was actually judging my old self - the one who had done all of these things when drunk, I forgave myself and my judgement of others relaxed. My friends relaxed too. They saw that I was still coming out, still laughing and having fun, and not judging them. Dancing was interesting. I’ve always loved dancing and I still danced when sober, if a little stiff and self consciously. One night I realized: everyone else is drinking, they can’t see me, they’re not looking at me, AND they most likely won’t remember tomorrow anyway. My body immediately relaxed and I could dance freely. They were losing my inhibitions for me.
I started to appreciate my downtime more. Where I’d once thought that staying in on a Friday or Saturday night was sad and loser-ish, I began to covet quiet nights at home alone or with friends, and waking up feeling fresh and well. Weekend greasy breakfasts and Bloody Marys were replaced with early yoga and a smoothie. The further away my last drink got, the better I felt. After two weeks I felt really fresh, after two months I felt amazing. I just kept feeling better and better for months on end. I lost weight. My skin cleared and became brighter. Wrinkles disappeared. My health improved. I had way more energy than ever before.
I noticed how much my life had revolved around drinking. I’d never socialized without alcohol. I’d rarely seen anyone socialize without alcohol. For a while there, I was at a bit of a loss as to how to maintain my friendships without it. I wondered if some friendship would fall away. To my delight, they didn’t. They adapted and we started catching up in new ways like brunch, hiking, exercise classes and dog walks. These friendship deepened and became even more valuable to me. Three friendships that previously revolved around alcohol are now my most treasured and precious of all.
Now I know not everyone is keen for this kind of experiment, and the good news is, if you don’t want to stop drinking, you don’t have to! If the thought of taking a break from alcohol doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, then maybe you have a healthier relationship with it than I did. It could still be worth doing, just in case you’re kidding yourself 😂. If the thought gives you a bit of anxiety or strikes fear in your heart (as it did in mine), maybe there’s something to be gained from facing the fear and taking a break. The three month break isn’t about quitting for good, it’s about redefining your relationship with alcohol. Experiencing life without it for a while and seeing what it’s like. Then returning to drinking if you choose, and perhaps seeing it with fresh eyes, engaging with it in a new way. I remember when I first realized that my HSM was going to include my birthday, Christmas and New Year. I caught myself thinking “I CAN’T do it now, I’ll do it when I’ve got nothing on, in winter or something.” Not only will you never not have something on for three months, but this defeats the purpose entirely!
So by the time my three month HSM was drawing to a close, I knew that I had gained a huge amount from sobriety. I wondered what I would do next. Would I become a ‘one standard drinker’ as so many HSM graduates were? Would I drink at all? On my last weekend of enforced sobriety I was planning a delightfully quiet night in when my sister sent me a text:
Have you seen Andrew’s wedding photos?
Your ex Andrew
I shrugged and opened Instagram. We had had a beautiful relationship but had broken up a few years earlier. It was my decision, but it was truly heartbreaking. I’d worked on this a lot and was completely fine when he met someone else and got engaged. I’d made the right decision. I loved him and I was happy for him.
But when I saw the first image of him and his beautiful wife on their wedding day, I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I was stunned. Why was I reacting like this? Tears streamed down my face. I was devastated. I cried all night. Amid the grief I wondered what was happening, why was I so upset? I actually didn’t want to marry him! But there was a deep sadness that I had been unaware of until now. I let myself feel it, knowing that when I woke up the next day, I’d be ok. Except I wasn’t. I woke up with the same grief and devastation in my heart, and again I cried. All morning I kept thinking “I’M SO BORED!”.
I didn’t understand why it was happening. And then I realized: I’d resolved as much of my grief as I knew existed, but there had been a little pocket of sadness hiding away, deep inside. If I’d seen those photos when I was someone who drank, I would have just inhaled sharply and thought “Oh well, I’m going out tonight and have a few drinks and I’m going to have so much fun and I don’t need to worry about that.” The next morning I would’ve been hungover and preoccupied with making myself feel better and I would’ve carried on through my life, never realizing that there was a little box of sadness stuffed way down deep, never to be opened. I also realized that my intense boredom the next morning was just being completely unable to tolerate my feelings and desperately needing a distraction.
As I’ve previously mentioned, my main hobby is personal development, and when I realized that I’d almost missed some gold, I wondered what else might be buried down there, which alcohol had been kindly helping me avoid. It was then that I decided to extend my HSM to one year with the aim of uncovering more of who I was and gaining a new level of self-awareness. I learnt more about myself in that year than in all of my gestalt training and workshops combined. One of the biggest things I learnt is that I’m actually an introvert. I literally didn’t know that alone time could rejuvenate me. I learnt that I get drained by being around a lot of people, and that when I’m around drunk people, I actually feel a little drunk. Mirror neurons are amazing! I learnt about so many feelings that I’d been avoiding, and was able to sit with them with open hearted curiosity and include them, rather than rejecting them.
After a few months I realized that as my life was becoming more predictable and stable, so were my moods. Less up, less down, more middle. I experienced less drama and more calm.
The greatest thing I learnt in this time was to listen to my body. I used to override my body’s signals and do what my mind wanted. Over the course of that year I truly started listening, not just to aches and pains, but to the subtle cues and responses my magnificent energy system was giving me. When I sat at a cafe I’d choose my meal by imagining eating one option, and feeling my body’s reaction. The bagel? A slight contraction and discomfort. The chia pudding? A release and opening. Chia it is.
I experienced so many things that we usually are not sober for: first dates, first kisses, first time sleeping with someone new. It was a whole new world. I felt like I was actually showing up. I was actually there, present. Everything happened more slowly, in living colour. With no anesthetic, time slowed down, everything was heightened. The simple, subtle things that I’d previously missed were now rich experiences. It was all an absolute delight.
When the year was over, I felt as though I’d done everything that I thought I’d never be able to do without booze. When I thought about drinking again I felt nothing. No desire, no excitement, there was no pull toward it anymore. When I sat and looked at a beer (my previous drink of choice), and imagined drinking it, I felt my body gently retract and pull away as if it was saying ‘no thanks’. So I just continued. I didn’t sign up for another HSM. This was just my lifestyle now.
I’m often asked whether I miss it. The truth is, I sometimes do. There have been a handful of times, maybe four over four years, where something has gone wrong in my life and I’ve had a feeling I don’t want to sit with and my mind says “It would be nice to be drunk right now.” But again, when I check in with my body, I don’t actually want to drink. So I go inward instead. What is this feeling? What triggered it? Where is it in my body? What am I believing about myself/the world right now? Can I tolerate it, or even embrace it?
Four years later I rarely think about drinking. Most of my friends still drink. Some have done a HSM, some haven’t and either way is fine with me. They all live healthy and fulfilled lives. I still love socializing and often suggest “going out for a few drinks” - though my friends know that I’ll be having soda water.
I’m not writing this as advice or even a suggestion. You can take it that way if that suits you. But it’s just my story.
My life now revolves around the things that I love.
I’m not saying I’ll never drink again. I don’t have a rule about it. If I want to, I will. But I’ll always check with my body and follow it’s wisdom.
Check out hellosundaymorning.org
Suggested reading: High Sobriety by Jill Stark