What is calling you to change?
One of the most painful parts of my last few years of drinking was the feeling that life was passing me by. Drinking and smoking in a beer garden in the city center again I mourned the alternatives that could have been that weekend.
I could have been out for dinner on Friday night. Woken, feeling fresh the next morning, and met my friend for a walk in the woods. Saturday night I could have gone to the cinema. Sunday I could have lounged around somewhere, reading the news and eating breakfast. In the afternoon I could have baked a carrot cake and have a bath before getting ready for the week.
I knew exactly why I wanted to get sober. What I didn’t know then, was why I drank. And until I understood both whys, I couldn’t achieve my dream of living sober.
Why do you want to drink?
When you know why you drink, you can begin to do the work required not to need to. For the longest time, I thought I drank the way I did ‘because I loved it.’ I didn’t have much more awareness than that. It was only after I tried to quit drinking that I began to understand why I loved it the way I did. Let me tell you a story about how I started to work it out.
A few weeks after I quit drinking I went to stay in the woods to learn bushcraft. It was spring in Wiltshire, UK, and the forest floor was a carpet of bluebells. I built my own lean-to and foraged for wild garlic and pignuts, and ate around a campfire, and it would have been peaceful and relaxing if there wasn’t a toxic dialogue running constantly through my mind.
Walking around the woods, trying to find the perfect roof beam for my shelter, I discovered a loud voice that seemed to hate me and everyone around me. This voice criticized everything I did and told me I shouldn’t have bothered coming out here. Whenever I made a mistake, which I did often seeing as I was learning new skills, it told me I was an idiot who would never amount to anything. Ouch.
When Ryan, an ex-soldier who was also on the course, passed around a bottle of rum one evening, every part of me wanted to drink it. For the first time I understood exactly what I wanted to ‘take the edge off’. That evil voice.
I’d known that I drank to relax, but I’d never dug deeper than that. After my time in the forest, I understood that alcohol silenced that hateful voice. This was useful information. I needed to learn a new method.
I began to practice self-compassion. Talking to myself in a nurturing, encouraging way. I called myself sweetheart and cutie, and let myself off the hook as gently as I would my dearest friend.
It was incredibly difficult at first, but four years later, I’m learning to be kind to myself most of the time.
When you uncover a reason you drink, you can begin to find a non-drinking solution. Drink to be able to dance? Learn to dance without alcohol. Drink to fit in? Develop the courage to stand out (or find new friends). Drink to forget your problems? Commit time and space to finding solutions to your problems.
While you’re still drinking, solving your problems is impossible. You simply solve the bad feeling that your problems cause. In the morning, the problem remains. Only now you have a hangover, less money and a sad liver too.
Why do you want to get sober?
Getting sober is about self-actualization. You build a life that you are excited about, and that you don’t want to miss by drinking. Some people can do this while drinking tons of alcohol, but for me, alcohol always gets in the way.
Beer suggests itself as a good idea, a nice added extra, the cherry on top, then hijacks the plan entirely. Classic frenemy.
This frequent hijacking of my best plans kept me stuck. Frozen in carbonite, like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
Except, the scariest thing — even scarier than being delivered to Jabba the Hutt — was that my stuckness was barely perceptible. My mum called me ‘the eternal student’ and I laughed, but I wondered secretly, in low moments: “Why is it that my real life isn’t starting?”
Once I was sober, I began to make quick progress. My time in the forest revived my dream of knowing about trees and the birds and creatures that live in them. I decided to do something about it.
I started a course in permaculture. Got an allotment. Grew beans, rocket, tomatoes, potatoes and courgettes. I grew hyacinths and gladioli and cyclamen and filled my house with ferns and cacti.
Plants became an anchor that I could rely on. I used them every day to feel connected to the wonder of this world. They rejuvenated my enthusiasm for life and calmed my social anxiety. They made me smile. (Have you seen an unfurling fern recently?)
They didn’t offer the same ‘quick fix’ as alcohol, but I had seen through the illusion of the quick fix. I didn’t just want to feel better, I wanted to be better. I was learning the beauty of slow and lasting improvement.
Make a list of your whys
If you are in the hinterland between heavy drinking and sobriety, consider your whys.
Why do you want to drink?
If you want to know why you do something. Stop doing it.* Dry January helped me get the first pieces of insight into my drinking. I learned that consciousness was uncomfortable and boring and that I drank to change it. (I no longer believe this by the way. Often, consciousness is amazing.)
I learned that days are really long without alcohol and that wine in the evening helped me relax.
Knowing why you drink will help you learn what issues you need to deal with in order to stay sober. You can learn better ways to cope with issues you already know about, as well as discovering new ones. This is not as scary as you might think. In fact it is empowering. When you know the ways you struggle, you can start to find solutions.
And sure, sometimes it will be difficult, but eventually you will find ways to cope with your problems that don’t include lying around feeling nauseous every Saturday (plus some Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.)
Instead, you can make a life that you're excited to live.
Why do you want to get sober?
Rather than thinking about what you stand to lose, focus on what you will gain. This is the easy, fun part. What do you want?
For decades, I wanted a cat, but I never felt settled enough to get one.
Within four months of sobriety, I got a kitten. Clarity, my friend. An almost immediate boost in executive functioning.
I began to take my own wants and needs seriously. To build a life that suited me.
At six months sober I asked my boyfriend to move out. Watching him spin through the alcoholic cycle again and again was just too painful. I couldn’t do it anymore. Decisions felt more simple. Without booze to numb me, there were certain things I just couldn't tolerate.
I began to live my life more consciously, in every area. To fill it with people and activities that made me feel good. After years, decades, of slow progress, one step forward eight steps back, I began to self-actualize. And it felt so good.
Make a list of what you want, and know that these things, this lifestyle, this feeling, will be yours.
You don’t need a rock bottom
Your life sober is the reward you get for doing the work of quitting drinking. I’m the first to admit that it isn’t always easy, but my god, it’s worth it. Four years sober and I’ve crossed a lot of the items off my Why I Want to Get Sober list. Some of them have become part of my regular routine (pre-COVID, obvs.)
The amazing thing is that the world is so various once you stop being blinded by alcohol. When you’ve achieved your first batch of goals and dreams, you can make a list of new ones. Or you can work on appreciating what you have right now.
Without the random chaos bombs of alcohol going off in your life, it’s amazing how easy it becomes to achieve things. You set your sights on something, take steps towards it, and lo and behold you arrive there.
It really is a much more logical way to live.
Nowadays, I think getting sober is the biggest no-brainer in the world. It's hard to connect with the version of me that was willing to suffer so much in order to keep drinking. I’m so glad that I didn’t wait to have a more serious rock bottom. That whole idea is dumb.
One more time, for those at the back. You don’t need a rock bottom!
If you have had one regrettable one-night-stand or are sick of hangovers or want to just spend your money on healthier pursuits, then that is enough. Why wait for your drinking disasters to get any worse than they are right now?
Find a few sober friends who can support and inspire you as you learn how to live in the world without drinking. And focus on all the beautiful stuff you want to do instead. I am so excited for you!
I promise that the hard work of change is worth it.
If you need help to stop drinking you’re not alone.
If you’re ready to try something different, try my alcohol experiment.
Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Read beautiful hangover. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.