On Boxing Day, it was two years since I’d last had an alcoholic drink. And saying that is scary. Because I love you ladies, you amazing women who read my blog and who support me on Insta, who comment and make me feel we are all in it together. I rely on our connection, personally, and professionally too.
And I don’t want you to feel I’m not in your gang anymore, that I raise my eyebrows at the champagne bottle emojis, the wine o’clock posts and the ‘thank God for gin’ thread that runs through so many of our interactions on social media. The ‘booze is what gets me through the day, it’s Mummy’s little treat’ trope seems to be so integral to our bonding, our shared experience, the way we commiserate with each other (‘you deserve a glass or two of wine tonight’) celebrate each other (‘get the fizz out, you are a star’). And where I would once have joined in, I’m now on the sidelines, happily drinking tea.
Although more Brits than ever are taking part in Dry January, the weekend newspaper mags are all about ‘mindful drinking’, cutting down, not cutting out. That, apparently, is for boring people, the non-sensualists who censure others about their drinking and drone on about their clean diets. So, yes, it’s terrifying to go out a limb and say I don’t drink anymore. Because I am just like you. Except for the booze thing. And that seems, in our female world, one garlanded with everything from greetings cards to jumpers urging us to treat ourselves to a drink, to be a bigger thing than it should be.
So, the not-so-pink elephant in the room. Why I gave up the booze. I’m not an alcoholic and I wasn’t drinking more than three nights a week. I have no idea how it happened really. It wasn’t hard and I didn’t intend to give up for good. Put simply, after a very boozy lead-up to Christmas, I began my Dry January a little early. And then just kept going.
At this point, you’ll be thinking one of two things. I know this because I would have been thinking exactly the same not so long ago. The first is: ‘Yep, and I bet you are as boring hell, Sister. Life without cocktails and fizz and wine sounds very dull indeed’. The second is: ‘I bet you never drank that much anyway. You obviously didn’t love your vino the way I love my vino’. Actually, you’re probably thinking both.
To be fair, I probably am boring. But I doubt I’m more boring than I was when I was drinking. In fact, if you’d heard me going on and on about work and family and life and, well, just about anything, when I was tipsy (read drunk), you would no doubt agree I’m less boring now. I’m sure those of you reading this who drink are sparkly and charming when you’ve had a few. But I really wasn’t. Ask my husband. He was the one who bore the brunt of the…bore.
As for loving the wine. Oh, believe me, I ADORED my wine. Red specifically. I adored it while I was cooking, at the pub for Sunday lunch, at a BBQ, in front of Googlebox on a Friday night, while I was getting read to go out (that cheeky glass was so full of anticipation). I loved a glass or two with friends, alone in the bath after a long day, at top London restaurants and at Byron Burger. I liked a glass pre-theatre, in the interval and back at home before bed. I liked it at Royal Ascot, at Wimbledon, in bars, in hotels and when camping. I liked it on holiday, at festivals, at gigs and at picnics.
Yep, I loved my drink. But drink fell out of love with me. It often seems to happen to women in their 40s and 50s. Especially if all they really want is a glass of red. It started with crushing headaches the morning after. Even one glass (and I rarely drank just one), would do it. Then the nausea. On the train into the office on a Monday morning, I would feel dreadful. Not just hungover, but as if I had been poisoned. And it wouldn’t stop until two days after I’d last drunk. I began to put on more weight. My willpower was destroyed after a glass or two and I’d eat far more than I intended to. The next day, I’d crave carbs and sugar and feel so awful, I’d eat them.
I started to get appaliing hot flushes when I drank – and never at other times. Then there was the low mood. I put it down to my age (I was 49 then, 50 now), my raging hormones. I was stuck in a vicious circle. Usually, I wouldn’t drink in the week, but on Friday all bets were off and I’d drink lots until Monday. Every Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning I’d wake up feeling so ill, despising myself for doing something that was making me feel so desperately unwell. I used to be a nurse, trained as a fitness instructor and worked as a health journalist for goodness sake.
Last January was a few months before my 50th birthday. I couldn’t bare the thought of reaching my half century and not having to have at least tried to make a change. I hadn’t been alcohol free for more than a week since I’d last been pregnant 16 years earlier. Scary thought. So I thought I’d try doing Dry January. After two weeks, I felt much happier. Calmer, more focused. The headaches disappeared. The puffy face was gone. After a month, I’d dropped half a stone with no effort (in total, through a combination of Slimming World and not drinking, I’ve lost almost two and half stone).
I thought I’d carry on for another couple of weeks. I took it a bit more seriously and began to get sober curious. I read some books and looked at some sober websites. I social media stalked people I could relate to. My people. Media people, still glamorous people who seemed to be having a booze-free ball.
The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and now the months have turned into a year. Sometimes, I think about having a drink, but then I remember how awful it made me feel and how much I like waking up early on a Saturday morning, clear-headed and with a lovely day ahead on me. And I have something non-alcholic instead. There has been an explosion of alcohol-free alternatives. There is change in the air.
Since I stopped boozing, I’ve been to two New Year’s Eve parties, celebrated my 50th birthday, been to lots of gigs and a music festival, attended numerous parties and works dos, holidayed at lovely resorts in Thailand, been away with girlfriends, eaten at the Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons and The Savoy Grill and well, lived my very privileged life. All without alcohol. All without missing alcohol. In fact, having enjoyed everything I’ve done all the more because I did them without alcohol.
A little over a year ago, that would have been unthinkable. If you’d told me the same, I would have pitied you, thought you were putting on a brave face. I would have felt awkward around you. Presumed you were judging me. Seriously, I don’t judge. I’m too busy doing my own thing.
Friends say: ‘Oh, you are good, it must be hard.’ In fact, life was much harder before. No more discussion about who drives, no more waiting round for taxis, missing last trains because of ‘one last drink’, wishing the children would be quiet because my head hurts. I still inflict snappiness, bad-temper and impatience on those closest to me, but to a lesser degree. I’m nicer to others. And to myself. After all, I have less to beat myself up and no anxiety about banter that turned into something more hurtful or drunken misunderstandings.
In the interests of full discoloure, I should mention that my mother was an alcoholic and died five years ago of alcohol-related complications. Although I have seen at close quarters how damaging alcohol can be, I honestly don’t think her experience influenced my decision to stop. She had her own demons to cope with and I have never associated the way she managed her emotions or drank with the way I manage my emotions or drank. After all, lots of people whose loved ones are alcoholics still drink alcohol.
I don’t mind at all being around people who drink or people who are drunk (though I do sometimes make my excuses if someone is so drunk they start repeating themselves). My husband drinks and it doesn’t bother me at all (he sleeps in another room after the rugby though). I still dance (badly) and go to the pub and look forward to parties. I laugh and laugh with friends, swear relentlessly and act inappropriately often. I’m adventurous and curious and just as likely as I ever was to behave in ways I shouldn’t.
I might drink again. But I doubt it. I want to always feel as wonderful as I do now. Women don’t seem to like saying that. It sounds smug and holier than thou. It isn’t meant to, but I’m not apologising.
So if you are doing Dry January, just a little warning: It could turn into a habit that makes you feel so amazing, you’ll want to keep it up. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year. Maybe not for years or maybe not ever. Whatever the future holds for you and booze, none of us are solely defined by whether we drink or not. And we are not so very different, you and I.
I realise this piece is quite unlike my usual blog posts and extremely long. Thanks for persevering. If you have any questions about living a sober life, please leave them in the comments box below. I’ll be posting soon about alcohol-free alternatives, where to find sober inspiration and what I love best about being a non-drinker x
Update: Jan 2019. No change from me – I’m still living an alcohol-free life. But what a change there has been around the whole sober issue. It’s more frequently talked about and I feel far less out of place than I did. There are so many alcohol-free alternatives now. Check out the top 5 alcohol-free tipples I rely on.