Life without alcohol: one year sober

It’s been a whole year tonight since I had my last drink.

Jesmond Dene in the winter

It’s been such a strange, strange year. It feels like ten days and ten years at the same time. Most days have been difficult in some way. Some have been easy – too easy – and have blindsided me a bit and made me complacent.

I’ve achieved a lot of stuff in my first year of sobriety, though a lot of that was out of sheer manic panic. Some things in my life have become a lot clearer, and others still need a bit of thinking about. I’ve got a plan for the next year ahead, but only a vague one.

I’ve tried a lot of support groups and podcasts and quit lit and meetings and all sorts. Some have been helpful and feel like the right thing for me; others I’m still a bit unsure about. I’m keeping an open mind about everything, though, because this process seems to have so many phases that change all the time.

I’ve also tried a lot of alcohol-free drinks. Some didn’t work for me, but I did find a lot of new favourites that I would never have looked twice at before I quit drinking.

I expected to feel ecstatic at hitting this milestone, but my first sober Christmas period has been a bit rough mentally and so I’m feeling pretty drained at the moment. Still, I remember how nervous I was feeling a year ago, and how impossible sobriety seemed at the time. Things are so much better now. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I (sort of) know where I’m going.

The only thing that has remained constant and strong over the last year is the fact that I never want to drink again. Not ever. Most days I want *a* drink, but I don’t want *to* drink. I want the sweet taste of cider and the ability to forget things for a few hours, but I don’t want to get drunk and out of control, I don’t want to feel suicidal when I’m in a state where I might actually do something about that, and I don’t want to wake up hungover and panicked and full of regret. The two lists go hand-in-hand, and that – so far – has provided me with enough willpower not to pick up.

I won’t be doing monthly sobriety updates anymore, as things have stabilised a bit, but I will keep reviewing booze alternatives and will do another update a year from today. Life is a lot more peaceful than it used to be, and I’m hopeful that things will continue to improve in that respect.

Life without alcohol: ten months sober

I’m more than 300 days sober now (304 to be precise), which is very nearly the bulk of a year. So far it’s been one of the strangest years of my life, but I won’t go into that until the year is properly over.

Hallowe'en lantern

Ten months in, I’m sort of newly realising that I’m still actually fairly early on in my journey, and there are still things that are tripping me up, and things that I’m encountering sober for the first time. I haven’t done a music festival this year, and I don’t think I’ll be ready to do one next year either. I still don’t feel fully comfortable in pubs and clubs, and in fact I’m going to them less and less frequently.

I won’t be playing the ‘election drinking game’ this December. This was something that I did for every general election for years and years – I made huge jugs of cocktail with crappy old alcohol from the back of the cupboard to ‘use it up’, and then put food colouring in the jugs to match the political party colours. The game was very simple – ‘sip for a hold, glug for a gain’ – so when Labour held a seat in Newcastle, you’d take a sip of the red cocktail, and when the SNP gained a seat in Scotland, you’d take a big glug of the yellow cocktail (2015 required a LOT of yellow cocktail). Geth and I would be sick for days afterwards, but it was a tradition. I didn’t do it in 2017 because it was too soon after the 2015 election, but this is the first general election for which it’s no longer an option, and strangely, I feel a bit bereft as a result.

(I’ve also realised, in my wiser sober state, that following politics is not actually good for my mental health at the moment, and while I’ll obviously be voting, I will be getting an early night on election day instead of watching the results.)

I’ve also not navigated the Christmas period sober yet. While I will have had nearly a year to prepare for it, I’m still feeling quite a bit of trepidation about the whole thing. I’m already a bit sad that I won’t ever again have mulled wine, or Christmas cake made with whisky, or Christmas pudding with brandy poured over it for the flambé effect. I am, however, excited about doing the extra parkruns over the Christmas period, and Geth has promised to have a quiet Hogmanay with me so that we can do the New Year’s Day double parkrun.

I had a fairly ridiculous moment at the A-ha gig in Leeds on Saturday night when I went to the bar to get drinks for myself and Geth. Because of avoiding bars for the most part over the last few months, as well as the fact that it’s usually Geth who buys the drinks, I hadn’t actually been in a situation since I got sober where I was carrying a pint of beer for someone else. When I was still drinking, if I was collecting a pint for Geth, I would always take a big sip of it before carrying it back to the table so that I wouldn’t spill it while carrying it (the extra beer would be lost either way, so it wasn’t like I was stealing his beer – just preventing the excess from dripping all over my hand and the floor!). It wasn’t until I had the beer in my hand on Saturday night that I realised that was no longer an option.

Cue an extremely slow walk back into the main arena in an attempt not to spill the beer (which was ultimately unsuccessful as there was a door in my way), and then a further realisation that I couldn’t even lick my own hand clean, and…it just all felt a bit ludicrous, really. Maybe I should start carrying protective plastic gloves.

I’ve not reviewed any booze alternatives this month as I’ve been a bit too busy for non-diary blogging most days. I will try and do some over this next month, though, as I’ve got a bit of a backlog.

Mental health improvement plans are still quietly trucking along in the background. Hopefully next month I’ll have a bit more of an update on that.

Life without alcohol: nine months sober

Three-quarters of a year sober today. For most of my life, that would have seemed utterly impossible.

Autumn trees

Every month, it becomes marginally easier, and marginally more normal. I still think about drinking a lot, and every time I plan a night out, my first instinctive thought is that I will be drinking, before I remember that I don’t anymore. It’s just one of the many ways in which I haven’t managed to detach my brain from drinking culture yet – for instance, I still automatically assume that I’ll have to wait a while before I set off if I’m planning to drive in the morning (despite the fact that I only properly got back into driving this year, after I got sober!) and when I’m offered a booze alternative like Nosecco or even ginger beer earlier in the day, my first instinct is that it’s a bit too early to start yet – when in actual fact, it would be perfectly fine to drink Nosecco all day long, as I would still be stone cold sober at midnight!

Drink is also showing up in my dreams a lot, usually in tandem with the strange reappearance of my recurring nightmares about my late cat, José, which have started happening a lot again after a few years of respite. As I expected, they usually take the form of ‘oops I forgot I was sober and had a drink’, similar to the ones I have about vegetarianism. Thankfully I’ve not recently dreamt about actually being drunk, which I always found to be a horrible dream even when I was still drinking.

I’ve reviewed one booze alternative this month:

I’ve got a slight backlog of booze alternatives to review, but hopefully I’ll catch up before the end of the year.

It’s been a very busy month and I’ve not really been looking after myself mental health-wise. I’ve already set a few things in place to make sure this is less of a problem throughout October.

Life without alcohol: eight months sober

I didn’t do a seven-month update because things were so busy last month. I think that shows that sobriety is starting to feel more normal to me and I’m not as obsessed with counting the days as I was at the start of the year.

Sky and trees

I suppose my main preoccupation on the subject over the last couple of months has been the double-headed discomfort that (1) drinking is so normalised in society – while I do make use of various sober support groups, I find that in my ‘real life’, I’m the only one who doesn’t drink – and (2) problematic habits around drinking are not taken seriously and seen as a bit of a laugh by a lot of people who still drink. I obviously used to have this attitude too – it’s the way I grew up, because it’s the way we all grow up – and now that I’ve been detached from it for a few months, I find it quite scary how insidious the whole thing is. Whether it’s my Slimming World group endlessly joking about how really we should be called an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or a favourite podcast of mine doing a special episode where the participants are drunk, I find that at the moment I’m just really uncomfortable with alcohol use being treated in such a lighthearted way. Maybe I’ll never be comfortable with it again. I don’t know.

I also ran into a lot of difficulty on the synthwave night out last week. Being stone cold sober when other people there were really, really drunk (too drunk even to stand up or hold a conversation in some cases) was really quite unnerving and a bit upsetting. I didn’t feel comfortable at all – I had been looking forward to enjoying the music, but I found that it wasn’t really a space where I could do that.

I’ve started to encounter things that make me sad and nostalgic about drinking itself. It’s taken longer than expected, but it is occasionally happening now. This week, I’ve been playing pirate video games – pirates are one of my favourite themes, to the extent that the novel I’m querying at the moment (and have been working on since 2011) is set on a pirate island – and of course they’re all full of rum and drinking games, and I’ve just been feeling sad about the fact that I can’t identify with all of that anymore. Maybe I should watch a few recovering alcoholic cop shows for good measure. Bergerac was always a favourite.

Two minutes is my current limit when standing in the alcohol aisle at the supermarket before I have to get out of there. I discovered this today when Geth and I were hunting for Nosecco in Sainsbury’s. Still, it’s an improvement on early sobriety, when I couldn’t go near the place.

I’ve reviewed a grand total of one booze alternative over the last two months:

This is mainly because I’ve been a bit too busy for non-diary blogging lately, but also partly because, as I mentioned in my last update, I know what I like now.

I’ve also been a bit too busy to keep up with my recovery support as much as I would like, but I have been working on it here and there. It needs to be more of a priority over the next month.

Life without alcohol update: six months sober

Half a year without a drop of alcohol today. I couldn’t have imagined that this time last year.

Flowers and gravel

On the whole, the trend over the last six months is that things have gradually become easier. But it’s not a straight trajectory by any means – I’ve found the last fortnight to be really difficult with the nice weather, because every time I’m outside, I find myself walking past beer gardens and people having drinks at barbecues. Summer, in my younger days, was always just one long, hazy, booze-soaked non-memory. It was the season of all-day drinking at weddings and on holidays. It was the best season for cider, and the only season when it was acceptable to sit on the grass in the park and crack open that first can at 11am. It was the season of a hundred outdoor music gigs and festivals of which I have absolutely no memory of the bands but could still find my way to the bar tent in my sleep. Without alcohol, I have to admit that I am finding summer a bit anxiety-inducing.

This is one of the reasons that I am giving music festivals a miss this year for the first time in adulthood. I’ll be ready to give them a go again next year – there’s an ’80s/industrial long weekender in Belgium and a synthwave festival in London that I’d really love to try – but it’d just be a bit too much this summer.

I’ve not been trying as many booze alternatives over the last couple of months, because I feel like I’ve found the favourites that work for me (Sainsbury’s Fiery Ginger Beer is my go-to on evenings in the house, because it’s calorie-free, while Fentimans Rose Lemonade is nice for a treat when I’m out, and for a proper celebratory-feeling drink I like Nosecco), but I’ve still got a few to review from earlier in the year.

Booze alternatives I’ve reviewed over the last month:

I’ve been listening to sobriety podcasts again over the last month, and they’ve been really helpful – I’ve also been finding online and offline support groups to be an important anchor. It’s hard when I’m so busy, but I really am trying to make time for things that are more therapeutic at the moment.

Life without alcohol: five months sober

Time has really flown over the last few weeks. It’s strange to think I’ve managed another month of sobriety already.

Daisies

I think my mindset has shifted a little this month. When I’m at the bar ordering a ginger beer instead of a cider, I’m no longer looking at the cider tap and feeling that desperate pang for something I can’t have, with my brain railing against the unfairness of it all. Instead, it’s been replaced by a calmer, more logical thought – a thought that goes along the lines of ‘yes, I really want that cider, but it would be a very bad idea for me to have it because of the way my brain works’ – and in some ways I’m becoming more able to detach from the emotional side of it.

If I think about the taste of alcohol, I still feel very upset. So I don’t think about it. This is becoming easier than it was.

Social situations are still difficult. I realised this past weekend that something like boardgaming is fine, even if everyone else is drinking alcohol – the focus is not the drinking, it’s the gaming, so I can forget that other people are drinking and I’m not. Just hanging around in the pub or club for hours is a different matter. It’s an issue that I think I will struggle with for a long time and that I think about a lot – I even covered it in one of the poems I performed last time I was at poetry night. I just find these situations to be very intense. First of all, everyone else is getting drunk, and it turns out that I don’t have the patience to deal with drunk people when I’m stone cold sober. Watching other people’s mental faculties failing in front of my eyes is alarming, distressing, and frustrating, and I find it very upsetting and unpleasant to be around. It’s a horrible reminder of what I was like when I was drinking, and at the moment I just can’t reconcile it with the celebratory thing it’s supposed to be. Secondly, I’ve found in the last few months that being around drinkers as they get louder and louder and less cognisant of the way that conversation is supposed to work is bringing up problems related to my underlying mental health issues. This is something that I think I need outside help for, and so I will be looking into that in the near future.

I was discussing my sobriety via text with my brother recently, and one of the things I said to him was that it’s been very strange getting to grips with not having the available mental crutch of ‘getting drunk’ anymore. Every so often it just hits me that it’s no longer an option for me, and the realisation leaves me feeling quite stunned. It’s partly because I’ve spent 2019 so far doing a lot of things that have been out of my comfort zone – getting back into pitching my books to agents, performing my poetry in public, performing with my ukulele class, getting back into driving, buying my car – and every single time I am scared and nervous because I’m about to do one of those things, my automatic thought is still ‘I need a few drinks to make this thing less scary’. And I can’t have those few drinks, and that is something that I just can’t get used to yet. There’s still a long way to go.

Booze alternatives I’ve reviewed over the last month:

Because I’ve been very busy this last month, I’ve not spent as much time utilising the online and offline resources (books, podcasts, talks, etc.) that have been helpful for me so far in recovery. I need to prioritise those a bit more over the next month while things are quieter, because I don’t want to take my eye off the ball – I’ve noticed a few insidious ‘just the one, no one will know’ type thoughts creeping in, and I need to be a bit more proactive in looking after myself.

Life without alcohol: four months sober

I find I’m settling into sobriety now. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss cider like a missing limb, but at the same time I’m now completely in the habit of having a ginger beer instead. It’s become routine not to drink alcohol, which is all I can ask for, really.

Plants in May

I can’t believe how much my mental health has calmed down over the last few months. I still have depressed days, obviously, but they feel manageable in a way that they never did when I was drinking, and most importantly, they don’t have as much of an effect on my ability to get on with work and other important things.

Anxiety dream wise: I’ve noticed something very odd. I expected what would happen would be similar to the vegetarianism anxiety dreams I’ve been having for twenty years, where I suddenly realise halfway through my dream that I’ve accidentally been eating tuna fish (it’s ALWAYS tuna fish. I do not know why this is). I presumed that I would have similar ‘oops, I’m accidentally drunk!’ dreams. I haven’t yet, which I’m really glad about, because I expect they would be really upsetting.

However, what I am dreaming about – every night, which is just bizarre – is taking up smoking again. I quit smoking in 2008, which is eleven years ago now, and I’ve not had a craving for nicotine in waking life in…probably seven or eight years? I find the smell gross and offputting nowadays, and I would never want to jeopardise my running fitness by damaging my lungs again. I am the total stereotype of an ex-smoker. But I’m dreaming about it every single night. Maybe it’s my brain’s way of telling me it misses having a chemical stress release. I don’t know.

In the waking world, I’m still finding the range of sobriety resources available online and offline really helpful – it makes me feel a bit less alone with this thing.

Booze alternatives I’ve reviewed over the last month:

Things haven’t been totally plain sailing in recent weeks – I’ve realised that I need to plan better for events where everyone else is drinking, because at the moment it makes me feel a bit outside of things – but on the whole, I’m doing better, and learning to manage it better, and I’m hopeful that this will get even easier over the next few months.

Life without alcohol update: three months sober

It’s taken a while, but life without alcohol is gradually starting to feel like it could, sometime soon, be the new normal. During the first couple of months of sobriety I felt absolutely manic – I would swing between being absolutely delighted about the benefits I was already noticing and utterly devastated at the thought that I could never drink again, sometimes within the space of about thirty seconds or so. Things have slowly calmed down over the last few weeks, and I’m beginning to feel a bit more serene on good days and at least stable on not-so-good ones.

Flowers

It’s still not easy, and I don’t think it ever will be. I’ve not gone a day without thinking about a drink yet. But I’m getting better at being in situations where I would have drunk in the past – the brief moment at bars when my mind goes straight to cider is getting shorter and less upsetting, and thinking of myself as an ex-drinker and saying to people ‘I don’t drink anymore’ is feeling less alien now. I’m starting to be okay with my glass of ginger beer, even when everyone else is having something alcoholic.

When I was drinking, I relied utterly on alcohol to deal with what felt like impossible situations due to my social anxiety. Three months into sobriety, this is still the most strange and confusing thing for me. The excess nervous energy I’ve had since I stopped drinking has resulted in an attitude of ‘must do absolutely everything I’ve been procrastinating about for my entire adult life IN THE SPACE OF FOUR MONTHS’, and so my life at the moment is non-stop with work, writing, pitching, playing music, marathon training, driving practice, and getting all those niggly annoying jobs done that have been put off for years and years. It’s great to feel like I’m actually achieving things – I would have been thrilled at Christmas if I’d known how much I would actually get done in the first quarter of 2019 – but it does mean I’m pretty much constantly out of my comfort zone, often in a social-anxiety-related way. I am hoping that this will calm down as the year goes on.

Booze alternatives I’ve reviewed over the last month:

My ginger beer obsession continues unabated, as you can probably tell!

I’m still listening to my podcasts and making use of online and offline support resources. I’ve also been reading a few helpful books on my Kindle, though I don’t have as much time as I would like for reading at the moment.

It feels for the first time like sobriety really could be something that’s manageable over the long term. I’m hopeful that month four will continue to feel relatively calm and stable.

Life without alcohol update: two months sober

Two months sober today. This is easily the longest period of time I’ve spent without a drop of alcohol since…well, probably since I was a small child. It’s been a strange month since my last sobriety update.

Daffodil

Early sobriety is a bit of a confusing rollercoaster, and I’ve found that if I don’t keep myself busy, I spend a lot of time reflecting and just turning things over in my brain. I also spend a lot of time thinking about drink, which is why I’ve been trying so hard to keep my brain occupied by getting on with work. Unfortunately, spending every waking hour working has been playing havoc with my stress levels, and so this week I’ve had to dial it back so I can try and relax in the evenings. I’ve not been very successful so far, but it has meant my brain’s not still racing when I go to bed, which is probably a good thing.

Sleep-wise, I’m not getting the bizarre vivid dreams every single night anymore, but they are still showing up occasionally. On the whole, though, I’m sleeping better than I ever have in my life. I go to bed at half past ten, read for half an hour or so, drop off as soon as my head hits the pillow, and tend to wake up naturally about ten minutes before my alarm goes off at seven. I only ever feel tired in a kind of satisfying way, after going for a long run.

I’ve reviewed a few more booze alternatives over the last month:

I’m still finding them a good alternative for that Friday ‘celebratory’ feeling, but the novelty of trying different things is starting to wear off a bit. I’ve found the second month to be tougher than the first in terms of cravings for alcohol, strangely.

On the whole, I’m finding it a bit difficult with everything churning over in my brain all the time, which is also making the process feel kind of insular and lonely. As such, I’m currently finding various strategies for feeling a bit less like I’m on my own with this thing – I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts on the subject, I’ve put a few recommended books on my Amazon wishlist, and I’m tentatively exploring online and offline community options. All of this is going to be a real focus over the next month, along with my mental health in general.

I want to say a huge ‘thanks’ to everyone who has got in touch over the last couple of months with messages of support, helpful suggestions, and links to resources. I appreciate it more than I can express.

Life without alcohol update: one month sober

Time, as ever, is flying, and in some ways it’s difficult to believe it’s been a month since I got sober. In other ways, it’s felt like a very long month indeed.

Sunshine

Mental health wise I’ve been keeping myself very busy during the day so that I don’t dwell on things too much, and I’ve got lots of things to do in the evening as well that help me to avoid thinking about missing drinking. I’m definitely not having the extreme mood swings that I always had when I was still drinking – things feel a lot more sedate in that respect – but I’m still experiencing generally low mood and depression most days, despite being on my full dose of antidepressants at the moment. The obvious next step is going back to therapy (it’s been tried in the past with mixed results), which I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years. I’m very nervous about it, which is why I keep putting it off.

Sleep has been the biggest change. I’ve got into a new routine where I’m up early every morning so that I can work a roughly nine-to-five day, and this extends to weekends because my marathon training plan includes runs on both Saturdays and Sundays. I never used to be able to get up for anything unless I had an appointment or work deadline that I absolutely couldn’t miss, but I’m finding that, with my improved sober sleep, once my alarm’s gone I’m able to wake up quite briskly. This new pattern has also meant that I’m falling asleep straight away at nighttime, whereas I used to toss and turn for hours if I hadn’t had a drink and pass out into unrestful drunk sleep if I had.

While it’s nice to be sleeping a lot more efficiently, the dreams that go along with it are mental, and not in a good way just yet. I’m having a lot of vivid nightmares that wake me up in the middle of the night. The strange thing is that I go straight back to sleep. It used to be that when I got woken up by dreams, I wasn’t able to sleep again for several hours.

As for the day-to-day experience of not drinking, it’s mostly been evenings in the house where I’ve had to find alternatives. I’ve tried quite a few, some of which I’ve reviewed already:

Ginger beer, I think, will be my new go-to in the long term. It’s tasty, sweet, and spicy, and it feels special and celebratory without reminding me too much of alcohol (I’ve been finding that some non-alcoholic drinks are not a good idea for me as they set off the mental compulsions and behaviours I always had around actual booze).

I’ve not socialised much in the last month, as January is always quiet once Christmas is over. I went out to a restaurant with Geth, and the large array of non-alcoholic options on the menu was exciting enough that I didn’t feel as though I was missing out (so long as I kept my eyes off other people’s tables!). I also spent a weekend in Lancashire for a family gathering, where there were plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives (and several people doing Dry January), and although it was strange to sit in the bar of the inn where we were staying without having a drink, there were plenty more dry options to try, including more ginger beers.

The Six Nations also started this last weekend. I was a bit worried about it, because the Six Nations used to be synonymous with weekend benders (it’s a lot easier to deal with Scotland getting the wooden spoon YET AGAIN if you’re ten pints down). However, as Geth was just watching the games in the house (we’ve never really developed a rugby drinking cohort in Newcastle), I found it was manageable to pay semi-attention and keep myself busy on my laptop without reminiscing too much about the sweet, sweet crate of cider I always used to get through on rugby days.

The next month will include a few firsts – first gig since going sober (but not my first sober gig, ’cause I did actually go without drinking at the Culture Club gig in November due to having to run a half marathon the next day!), first sober weekend with parents in Newcastle (I hope their hotel bar, where we always spend a lot of time, has ginger beer), first sober visit to the in-laws, and maybe, possibly – if I’m brave enough – first sober club night. We’ll see.

I’ll do another sobriety update in a month’s time!