Why my short break from drinking made me give it up forever

At the start of 2018, I woke up one morning with my face flaming and a poisonous headache drilling into my temples. Looking in the bathroom mirror, I was horrified to see that my cheeks were crimson. “That’s it,” I called to my partner, Andy. “I’m done with drinking for now.”

My hangover level might have been justified had I spent the previous night chugging bottles of Moët and dancing on tables. But I’d only had three glasses of red at the kitchen table with Andy, as we discussed how to sort our leaky bathroom ceiling. That night, I woke several times with a raging thirst, my heart racing. By the time the alarm went off, I felt as though somebody had banged my head with a claw hammer.

Booze had always made me wildly lively. Sober, I was more considered and probably gave better advice.Credit:Stocksy

At the time I was 47, and for the previous few years my hangovers had been getting steadily worse.
There and then, I decided to quit – not for any set length of time, just for as long as I could. But as the months passed it became easier, and two years on I’m still sober.

At first I didn’t tell my friends, worried that they’d think I’d become boring or turned into a smug, clean-living evangelist. If I’m honest, I also worried that if I fell off the wagon, they’d remind me and say, “But I thought you weren’t drinking.” The only person who knew was Andy, who was supportive, but added pointedly: “You don’t expect me to do it too, do you?” I didn’t.

However, a few weeks after stopping, I announced it on Facebook – and couldn’t believe the response. It was overwhelmingly positive, from both “sober-curious” friends and old party mates who admitted they’d been thinking about cutting down. Nobody accused me of being “dull”. And a short while later, my best friend also stopped drinking.

It seems we’re part of a trend. The number of people drinking less or going sober has snowballed in recent years, with research showing that a significant proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 are shunning alcohol entirely. Kate Moss reportedly quit boozing in 2017, and Anne Hathaway revealed last year that she’d given up alcohol since having her son. Blake Lively, Kim Cattrall, Naomi Campbell and Russell Brand are all teetotal too.

“People are more driven towards wellness now, which has pushed them into examining some of the more negative consequences of drinking,” says psychologist Dr Elena Touroni.

“This might stem from movements like Dry January and Sober October, and the increasing emphasis the media is giving to the benefits of giving up alcohol for health, fitness and performance reasons. Drinking alcohol regularly has become incompatible for health-conscious high achievers.”

I’d always been a social drinker, even during my early career. In my 30s, I’d have white wine after work to calm down, a prosecco before meeting friends to pep up, and at weekends I loved entertaining, so I’d crack open a bottle of bubbles.

Back then I was always out – dancing at parties or gossiping with friends at hotel bars – and on a big night I’d easily sink a whole bottle without noticing. Having suffered from anxiety all my life, I enjoyedthe gentle fuzziness and confidence boost that came with three glasses.

These nights out seldom ended badly for me, and no matter how much I drank, I rarely seemed drunk, unlike some friends who can reel off a string of anecdotes that begin with: “I shamed myself after too many vodka tonics.” I never did anything terrible, didn’t have blackouts and, compared with some people in my circle, my alcohol consumption was pretty average.

But in my mid-40s, I started to get niggling headaches the morning after a couple of glasses of wine, and I’d feel tired all day. My PMS ramped up and my mild anxiety shot up to rattling existential angst even days after I’d been drinking. During a train trip for a work meeting the morning after I’d drunk half a bottle of wine, I was so dizzy with panic that I locked myself in the train toilet and did some Zen deep breathing to calm down.

By the time I quit, that morning in January 2018, my blood pressure had also gone up and I’d realised that alcohol was damaging my health.

I didn’t intend to be teetotal for ever, however, and I worried I’d be bored and feel more socially anxious without the warmth of a glass of merlot in my hands. I had quit for short spells, a month or two, in the past, but this time I fully intended to stick it out for longer than that. It helped that I don’t go out a great deal these days, so it was simply a matter of not opening a bottle in my kitchen.

For the first four or five days it was easy. But a week in, after a frustrating day of missed deadlines and vanishing emails, I longed for a soothing glass. I ran a bath, climbed in with a crime thriller and the urge passed.

Other times when I was tempted, I’d go for a walk with the dog. And when I discovered substitutes like non-alcoholic spirits, de-alcoholised wine and zero-per-cent beer, it was a revelation – it still felt like a ritual.

Three months in, I went out with old friends, and socialising without booze turned out to be less difficult than I’d thought. Instead of an evening out, we went for lunches and dinners, so the focus was on the food. I noticed that I was different, too. Booze had always made me wildly lively and eager to chip into conversations with my own stories and opinions – but sober, I was more considered and probably gave better advice. The whole experience taught me that I didn’t need to drink to share confidences or enjoy a proper laugh.

Eleven months into sobriety came the biggest test: the Christmas season. It was nerve-racking; I simply couldn’t imagine getting through all those parties without alcohol powering me along. I braced myself, but in the end fake alcohol did the trick.

I never set out to go teetotal for ever, but two years on, I feel much better. I sleep more deeply, I’m less moody, the facial flushing has vanished and the headaches have stopped.

More of my friends have started to change their drinking habits too. Our nights out still involve five solid hours of chatting – the main difference is, we remember what we said.

On a recent holiday, I had a tiny taste of Andy’s expensive red wine. We were having dinner in our hotel and he was drinking fleurie – one of my old favourites – while I stuck to elderflower cordial. I asked for a sip, expecting all the old feelings of pleasant relaxation to flood back.

I lifted the glass and … it tasted like nail-polish remover – pure ethanol. I felt horribly disappointed, like a child who’d hoped for some magical elixir and got flat lemonade.

I wasn’t tempted to drink any more of it – and I haven’t been tempted since. These days, even prosecco smells too sweet, like lollies, and I can’t imagine ever enjoying alcohol again. So, despite my very best intentions, I have become that smug, clean-living person after all.

How to Be Sober and Keep Your Friends (Hardie Grant) by Flic Everett is on sale now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 23.

Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

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