In January 2017, at age 34, I ended my longest relationship to date. It wasn’t a romantic break-up or the end of a friendship. I said goodbye to a companion I’d had since my teens: alcohol.
I suspected my relationship with booze wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t think I was an addict. I used alcohol to celebrate, to commiserate, as a reward for getting through a shitty day and to help me relax. But moderation and I weren’t acquainted, and I often drank to the point of blackout. Hangovers brought a sense of crushing dread that was hard to shift.
It was a conversation with my GP about the hangover anxiety that made me realise I was trapped in a vicious cycle. I was drinking to cope with stress, causing chaos while pissed, then boozing to dull the shame of my drunken antics. I hated the person I became when I was drunk – brash, attention-seeking and argumentative – but I didn’t love myself enough to stop. I left the consultation with a referral for therapy and a plan to quit drinking for a month to see if my mental health improved.
The early days of sobriety felt a lot like grief. I was lost without alcohol. My strongest friendships had been formed through drunken nights out, and quitting felt like breaking a social pact. I realised I was surrounded by enablers – the same people who cleaned up my vomit and poured me into cabs when I couldn’t stand would also press a glass of wine into my hand the next time we met. Getting drunk was normal and expected, and any attempts to stick to so drinks were met with cries of, ‘Don’t be so boring.’
Scared of ridicule from my drinking buddies, I turned to the internet for sober inspiration. I found communities of happy humans enjoying life without alcohol. I’d had a very narrow view of what constituted an alcoholic – I imagined someone who’d lost everything and topped up their morning brew with vodka. But addiction looks different on everyone, and I quickly came to understand I had an emotional and physical dependence on alcohol.
When I took my first tentative steps into sober life, I couldn’t imagine going out and enjoying myself while my friends got hammered. I withdrew socially and watched my friends’ lives carry on without me through social media. I only shared my sobriety with a few people at first, and the reactions ranged from surprise to disgust. ‘I’d rather die than not drink,’ was a common response. Some of my friends cut contact when I shared my new teetotal status, scared I would try and recruit them into sobriety like it was a cult, not a lifestyle choice.
Dating has also been tricky – I’ve found that sobriety is a deal-breaker for some potential partners. At first the rejection stung, but I soon saw it as a tool to weed out timewasters. If someone can’t date me because I’m teetotal, they’re not worth getting to know.
On the positive side, I started to notice physical changes almost immediately. I slept better, my clothes were looser and my face changed shape. Remaining friendships strengthened because they came from a place of authenticity, not artifice. I started socialising sober and found that I was able to dance, sing and laugh without booze. I discovered that I’m an empathetic, non-judgemental friend. It turns out that when you’re not making a drunken tit of yourself, you have more time to be a good pal.
And while my mental health didn’t improve overnight, in the first month without alcohol my near-constant anxiety lifted. I now wake up full of energy rather than dread. After years of cynicism and resistance, I took up meditation and now use breathing exercises, not booze, to deal with stressful situations.
Making the decision to get sober was the best thing I’ve ever done, but also one of the hardest – not just because giving up alcohol is tough, but because we live in a society where almost everyone drinks. I am still frequently the odd one out in social situations and face a barrage of questions about my sobriety. Someone will usually try and persuade me to have a drink because, ‘One won’t hurt.’
Instead of bowing to pressure, I hold firm. Every time I resist, I feel stronger. It took a while to realise that sobriety isn’t about deprivation or misery, but is a chance to transform my life for the better. I’ll never go back to drinking – I’ve come too far to throw it all away.
Has giving up alcohol changed your life? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org