Half a year without a drop of alcohol today. I couldn’t have imagined that this time last year.
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.
Time has really flown over the last few weeks. It’s strange to think I’ve managed another month of sobriety already.
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 Instead, it’s been replaced by a calmer, more logical thought – a thought that goes along the lines of ‘yes, I really want that cider, but it would be a very bad idea for me to have it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.
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.
I can’t believe how much my mental health has calmed down over thelastfewmonths. 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.
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 firstcouple 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I have a can of Flat Tyre in the fridge for tonight.
This would be a normal aspect of a Saturday night for me, so normal that it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t even bother mentioning on my blog, not usually.
But it’s not a normal can of Flat Tyre, not to me. It’s the very last Flat Tyre, the very last cider, and the very last alcoholic drink that I will ever have. I’m going to explain why.
As such, this is going to be a long one. But then, it’s a long story.
It was late summer 2004 when someone first told me I had an alcohol problem.
A few weeks earlier, I had suffered a complicated nervous breakdown due to a year of undiagnosed mental health problems coming to a head. The end result was that my parents sent me to the GP, and I walked out with a clinical depression diagnosis and a list of referrals to more specialised mental health services.
There were so many specialists I went to see that it’s difficult to remember them all now, but they were all adamant that I couldn’t be treated unless I also got help for this alcohol problem I apparently had. As you might guess, I didn’t see myself as having a ‘problem’ at all.
I had been a messy teenage drunk for several years – I had discovered the buzz that drinking too much gives you when I was about thirteen, and as my friends and I started to look old enough to get served in pubs, it became routine to spend the weekends binge-drinking, often to the point we would vomit and black out. But that was normal, right? All teenagers did that, or so it seemed. I’m sure this particular brand of teenage idiocy was ubiquitous at the time, but it was especially prevalent in Scotland, where the culture normalised it so much. We were Scots, and Scots were notorious for being able to drink all those other nations under the table. (We were no cop at team sports, so we had to take pride in something.)
When I started university at seventeen in 2002, the binge-drinking weekends became binge-drinking weeks. University culture involves societies, and societies do all their business on weekday evenings, and all of that business is done in the pub. Being a shy person, and finding myself in a position of having to make new friends by myself for the first time since I’d started primary school in 1989, I felt I needed the extra Dutch courage. Furthermore, being wholly in charge of keeping myself fed and watered for the first time, I found I was running out of money earlier in the month than I would have liked, and so I got into the habit of eating less so I could drink more. I had enough energy that I was just about making it to classes – most of the time – but it became normal to me to feel constantly ill due to the drunk/hungover cycle.
However, I was still immersed in a hybrid of cultures that normalised this kind of drinking, and so when my psychotherapist referred me to the Alcohol Problems Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, neither I nor anyone I knew really took it seriously. I’d fallen into a comfortable role as ‘the drunk one’ in every friend group, and so I was used to treating the whole thing as a joke. I vaguely tried to follow the advice I was given – which was to alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks – but as soon as I had one alcoholic drink, I wanted another, and soft drinks just seemed like a waste of time. I attended the APU (sporadically – I would often miss appointments due to being hungover) between late 2004 and early 2006, and yet my 2005 diary, where I recorded my daily intake (the Bridget Jones influence was strong with me at that point) is frightening. Almost half of my entries are written in my drunk handwriting, and I was averaging about 100 units a week.
After I got together with Geth in late 2005, things didn’t improve. He liked a drink as much as I did, and he was also fond of big weekends – Six Nations rugby weekends, weekends away in London, music festivals. All of these basically constituted hardcore weekend benders – there are many festivals and rugby days that I don’t actually have any memory of, and my memory is really good – and that was our lifestyle for a good decade plus.
Furthermore, when I graduated from university in 2008, I quit smoking (meaning alcohol became my only stress-relieving drug), stopped having a reason to walk anywhere, and so started piling on weight. This just meant that I had a greater tolerance for alcohol, so I ended up drinking more, and putting on more weight, and the cycle continued.
Coupled with the weight gain, my becoming more of a hermit – I couldn’t find a traditional job after graduation and so I ended up gradually building my own business, meaning I’ve mostly worked from home since then – meant that I became even more shy, and so unfamiliar social situations felt impossible. Whenever I had to face one of these – such as a job interview, or joining a new exercise class – I would down a few ciders before I left the house to get rid of the nerves. This was probably the one aspect of my drinking that I knew wasn’t ‘normal’, and so I would hide the bottles in order that Geth wouldn’t realise what I was doing. When he was away at work conferences, I would switch to vodka so that I could drink late into the early hours by myself without having to worry about running out of alcohol. On these occasions, I would often get through two-thirds of a bottle per night.
I still didn’t see myself as having a problem. In 2010, I gave up alcohol for Lent, and I thought that managing not to drink for six weeks proved that I had a healthy relationship with booze. But every time I had to tell a counsellor or a doctor what my average weekly intake was (which I always deliberately underestimated), they would look at me with absolute horror. I’m not sure why this never bothered me. I suppose in your twenties, you’re still hanging onto a sliver of that youthful feeling of immortality that caused you to pick up bad habits in the first place. Either way, I had no desire or plan to cut down on my drinking at that point.
But in 2015, the year I turned thirty, three things happened.
First of all, after I moved to Newcastle, I (obviously) had a new GP. I don’t always like going to see my GP in Newcastle, as he doesn’t sugarcoat things. He’s the first GP I’ve ever had who I think may actually be my age if not younger than me (one of those signs that you’re getting old), and he really makes me work hard to explain why I still need my antidepressants at my annual review, which can be distressing. The first time I went for one of these reviews and had to estimate how many units I was getting through per week, rather than doing the usual doctorly ‘you know, you should really think about cutting down’, he flatly told me that I’d end up with liver disease within fifteen years if I kept drinking the way I was. While I still believed that genetics were on my side with that one – my mum has a fairly frequent wine intake and a very healthy liver – it was the first doctor’s comment on the subject that ever stuck with me.
Secondly, I started running. I run in the mornings, and you can’t run with a bad hangover (well, you can, but it’s not pleasant), so heavy drinking nights before run days were out.
Thirdly, the running – much to my surprise and disgruntlement – was not causing me to lose weight. I ran (very slowly, due to my near-constant joint pain) all through the second half of 2015, then all through 2016, culminating in my first half marathon in September 2016. Despite this, in the autumn of 2016 I was back up to my highest weight, and so I decided to join Slimming World in the new year.
Slimming World is the most manageable way of healthy eating I’ve ever tried, which is why I’m still doing it two years later, but it is fairly strict about the amount of syns you’re allowed to have, and alcohol contains a lot of syns. It quickly became apparent that I couldn’t keep drinking the way I had been if I was going to follow the plan properly – my weekly alcohol intake pre-Slimming World probably amounted to about 400 syns by itself, and you’re only supposed to have 105 in a week.
As such, I immediately cut down a lot. I saved up syns for special occasions like weddings and festivals where I would ‘need’ to drink a lot of alcohol, and if I planned a weekend evening where I was going to have a couple of ciders at home, I made sure to time the start of drinking so that I would only have time for two drinks before bed. If I mistimed it, I would end up having more. It simply didn’t occur to me to stop drinking after finishing the two ciders that I’d planned. It’s kind of awkward to explain, sitting here typing this out while sober, but when I’m a couple of drinks down, it feels like the most imperative, important thing in the world that I have another one.
(This is another thing that I just never saw as a problem for many years, simply because it’s so normalised – Geth always refers to the state of having had a couple of drinks and wanting to continue drinking as being ‘warmed up’, and so that’s how I always thought of it.)
As I lost the weight, while I felt healthier than I had done in years, I also found that alcohol was starting to affect me more strongly as my body mass went down and my tolerance with it. Since I’d started taking antidepressants in 2004, I’d been told by doctors that I shouldn’t drink with them because it would negate the effect of the pills, but again, this was just something that went straight over my head. After I hit target in May 2018, I found that even one or two drinks would often lower my mood to near-suicidal levels. It’s very hit and miss – sometimes I’m fine, sometimes I’m really not – and throughout the second half of the year, as my mental health declined for unrelated reasons and the bad experiences became more frequent than the times it was okay, I realised that I would have to stop. Not ‘for now’, not for Dry January, not for a few months or even a year, but for good.
As such, I spent Christmas finishing all the cider that Mum and Dad had kept for me at their house, and observing the way it was affecting me in a safe environment with lots of people around. I had a lot of unhappy, melancholy thoughts over the holidays, just like I always do, but for the first time, I was able to understand how alcohol was contributing to that.
I love cider. But my health is more important, and I’ve finally realised that due to mental health issues I’m not capable of functional, healthy alcohol use.
I’m terrified of giving up in some ways. I’m scared about how it will affect my relationships with people with whom I will no longer be ‘drinking buddies’. I’m scared about how I will feel the first time I catch sight of a new cider that I never got to try. I’m scared about all the things I want to do in my life that I’ve always believed I would never be able to attempt without a few drinks in me.
But, because I’ve made this decision, I’m also feeling more positive about things than I have in years. I’m looking forward to disengaging with all the stress around timing my drinking and worrying about what I said and did when I was drunk. I’m looking forward to being able to focus in the evenings. I’m excited about being able to use my syns for other things.
Tomorrow is my first day as a sober person. I am hopeful that it will be the start of a more peaceful existence.
I’ve been trying out the Smirnoff fruit ciders recently. This is the first of them!
This cider is very sweet and a bit alcopop-tasting – it takes me right back to the sugary Hooches and Bacardi Breezers that I used to drink with friends circa 1999! The taste does dry out a little as you get through the bottle. Interesting, but not likely to become a favourite.