Updated: Nov 10, 2019
Hangovers aren’t the only thing you lose when you quit drinking. Here’s how I learned to focus on what I could gain instead.
It’s easy enough to let go of headaches, nausea and shame, but what about that first pint in a sunny beer garden? What about those daft nights in with friends? What about that heavy drinking boyfriend? When you’re contemplating life without alcohol, the potential losses can seem to outweigh the gains.
This is one of the things that makes it so hard to even consider quitting for good. (This and the fact that it’s the one of the most addictive substances on the planet.)
It’s especially hard to consider when everyone you know loves to drink. Wednesday night catch up, dinner with friends, wedding or funeral, your pals will be on the sauce.
At first, naturally, you want to join them. After all, it’s a social occasion, you feel a bit awkward and everyone is drinking. Because drinking is the best.
This is why it’s important that you find people who understand your particular quandary — i.e. that you love drinking so much you need to stop drinking — and can help you stick to your decision.
People who will hold you accountable when you say things like:
“Oh, it’s not a big deal, I just need to cut down a tad.”
“Pint with a top, please.”
Immediately after swearing off.
If you’re very fortunate, the people immediately surrounding you when you decide to get sober might already be those people. But they might not.
Unhelpful things people say when you stop drinking
My boyfriend Joe was unsettled when it became clear I wasn’t joking about total abstinence. For years I had tried unsuccessfully to help him moderate — You need to choose between me and alcohol — in a dynamic that was boring and painful for both of us.
And now, after a particularly pathetic weeknight of relatively unheavy drinking, I was embarking on a new plan that didn’t involve him at all. It was achingly simple: I wouldn’t drink, no matter what, a day at a time.
I’d failed to quit enough times to know I needed help if I was going to have a chance at succeeding, and so I joined an alcohol support group, determined that this time things would be different.
Joe didn’t think I had enough of a problem to seek help, an opinion that triggered the cripplingly low self-esteem which was inextricably tied to my booze habit.
I’m wasting people’s time, I don’t deserve the attention.
But also made me dig my heels in.
“I want to stop drinking, and I can’t. How isn’t that a problem?” I asked.
He did a facial shrug that incensed me because of everything I read into it. He thinks I’m overreacting, attention-seeking, pathetic.
I was projecting from him what I thought of myself.
Our stances in this arena, which had been a favourite party-site and battleground for years, rearranged and we found ourselves, for the first time, holding new positions. We were, at last, in new territory. It was a holy relief, but it was scary too. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Did I need to?
“But you’re not alcoholic,” he said, seeming confused by this new version of me that was always baking or fiddling with a guitar or heading out to meet new people, non-drinkers, to do who knows what. I screwed up my mouth, unsure what to say. Not drinking had been my aim for years, and for the first time, I was actually achieving it, but was I alcoholic? I didn’t believe it either.
Do you need to identify as an alcoholic to get sober?
It’s a big word to come to terms with, there’s no getting around it.
Especially for a person who grew up in a small British town, in a working-class family, where the only people I’d ever known who had earned the fated title, all gradually, painfully and publicly, drank themselves to death.
Alcoholics drink in the morning and at work. They drink themselves into corners so squalid even their own families want little to do with them. Don’t they?
The ‘big book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous offers a slightly broader definition.
“If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.”
That, without a doubt, described me. But, then, didn’t it describe everyone?
Annie Grace, who wrote This Naked Mind, has this to say.
“I don’t want to criticise AA because before it there was nothing. But it perpetuates the ideas that there are alcoholics who have an incurable long-term illness and there are people who drink normally. This comes entirely from AA, not from the medical or scientific communities who don’t use the term alcoholic.”
It made me wonder. Is there such a thing as ‘a normal drinker’? Annie doesn’t think so.
“Any person with the right level of exposure over time can become addicted.”
Filling the void left by alcohol
“You’re more obsessed with alcohol now than you ever were,” Joe said, on finding me baking and listening to Recovery Elevator yet again, one evening when he arrived home from the pub.
I knew what he meant.
In the last few weeks, I had binge-listened to dozens of episodes, met up with non-drinking friends three or four times a week, and books about quitting booze perched all over our tiny flat.
And it was working. I was still sober, and I felt great.
I couldn’t get enough of the podcasts — the format and content were so comforting and reassuring — the coffee and chat were essential too. It was incredible how many people there were, all over Bristol — all over the world — who had found themselves in precisely my dilemma. For the first time in years, maybe decades, I felt like part of a community, and it was powerful.
Identifying with other ex-drinkers, if not the big label, was empowering me to stay firm in this decision I had previously been incapable of upholding. Not only that, it was making it feel meaningful and positive, instead of punishing and depressing.
Many of my new friends hadn’t drunk in the mornings or gotten sacked, and many struggled to see themselves as ‘alcoholic’ too. But to differing extents, these lovely, sensible, ambitious people had grown exhausted by the way booze sabotaged their lives and decided to take the required action to change.
I turned the podcast off, embarrassed.
Not everybody is capable of helping you quit drinking
Out of pride, and an attempt to make abstinence seem appealing, I had done my best to hide how hard giving up was, but this backfired, and pushed us further apart.
“You haven’t even relapsed,” Joe said, seemingly annoyed by the fact that I was heading out again to meet my mysterious support group.
“And I don’t want to,” I said, feeling self-doubt fill my stomach. Why couldn’t he just be supportive?
I told my women friends what he’d said, and they smiled gently and reminded me to be kind to him.
“He doesn’t understand,” Harry said. “Don’t go to the butcher when you need bread.”
Of course, I understood deep down. I had hoped Joe would see the opportunity to change, and take it for himself. Instead, my transformation was coming between us, the way he’d feared it would.
Still, his unhelpful words set me off course yet again. Maybe I just needed to try harder to moderate… I mean, how bad could my problem be if I had been able to stop so easily?
“How bad does your problem need to be before you’re willing to stop?” Harry asked.
The ‘big book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous has something to say on this predicament.
“Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have the desire to stop while there is still time.”
I was lucky that for some reason, I had sufficient desire to stop while there was still time. I wanted something different so badly that it felt like I was dying. And as my quality of life improved, fast, I knew I’d led myself to something important.
In those early days of abstinence, hope felt like a bird, resting in my ribcage, waiting to take flight. Epiphanies — painfully lacking in recent years — came thick and fast. Many were commonplace but struck me as profound as I realised in a deep way, their essential truth.
Life was too short not to do the things I wanted! I got a kitten and signed up for a course in permaculture and baked and baked and baked.
Find the people who are able to support your new mission
I was shown the way by women who had gone before me. Some had sunk as low as it is possible to go; some had stopped before things got any worse. All had fallen blindly in love with alcohol, had seen its dark side, and found a way to escape.
Together, we celebrated milestones: 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. We laughed at stories we had never dared tell before and felt our shame lifting. We pushed each other to take good care of ourselves, something alcohol had rarely allowed for.
Just before I reached six months sober, Joe and me split.
For years, I had believed he had to choose between me and alcohol, but in the end, I had to choose between sobriety and him.
Letting go of drinking when it’s been central to the way you built your whole life isn’t easy, but it is possible. The key is to find people who are capable of supporting you, throw yourself into to discovering new loves, and learn to live in the present.
There will be things you lose, besides blackouts and hangovers, but you can’t change your life without changing your life.
Transformation is painful, but sometimes, staying the same hurts even more.
If you find my writing helpful or enjoyable, please pass it onto someone else you think it might help. And if you're fed up of the less discussed, dark side of booze, seek out a community that understands: AA, Smart Recovery, Soberistas, Hip Sobriety, This Naked Mind, Recovery Elevator.