Choosing sobriety. The final taboo?

“I learnt pretty quickly that alcohol was not only brilliant for lowering your inhibitions in social situations and allowing you to dance just like Britney Spears (I genuinely can remember times I was her living embodiment), it was also a brilliant way to ‘take the edge off’ the difficult things.”

Today I told one of my bestest pals that I was thinking of giving up alcohol. I’d strongly considered not saying anything to anyone and just quietly one day stopping, so nobody noticed, because I predicted that people might not enjoy my choice. Her reaction went along the lines of ‘No, you don’t want to do that. You’d miss out on the fun. Just drink in moderation. You don’t want to stop doing something you enjoy forever.’ Our conversation was jovial and when I suggested that maybe I didn’t always use alcohol in the healthiest of ways, she was kind and listened. Her reaction just got me thinking that I might have reacted similarly in her shoes in the not so distant past. What is it about the fact that someone was thinking of stopping drinking, that would initiate this reaction and trigger us to convince the person contemplating sobriety, an health creating action, that it was a bad idea to abstain? On the face of it the choice wouldn’t really impact anyone else. It’s really culturally interesting. 

I suppose I’ve thought about the role alcohol plays in my life for a long time. I sit here, at 41, with the healthiest relationship I have ever had with it since my teenage years. I started drinking in my late teens when we started ‘going out on the town’. A typical night began with getting ready at a friend’s house where the lubrication started early, with vodka and whatever mixer could be pilfered from the kitchen. Then in some salubrious venue, Toyko Joe’s in Preston was a favourite, drinking was the main event. We drank to experiment, we drank because our friends did, we drank to dance, we drank to look cool, hell we just drank to drink. I’m sure the aforementioned Tokyo Joe’s, sold us pints of something beige and fizzy for no more than 10p served up in plastic neon glasses – we were living the 90s dream. 

Since those first drinking experiments back then, I think it would be accurate to say that most social events I have attended over the last 20 years have had alcohol involved to a lesser or greater extent. Certainly at university, it was to a greater extent. I feel slightly itchy when I think of the amount of alcohol we used to drink back then and wonder how we got into so little trouble because of it. Alcohol became a feature of most days and the college bar became my second home. It is where we all met every day to chew the fat. Proudly back then, I and most of my close friends were also members of the college drinking society. A female only group whose singular purpose was to go out and get sloshed. We existed in some self-congratulatory alcoholic stupor for many an evening and we enjoyed it.

I learnt pretty quickly that alcohol was not only brilliant for lowering your inhibitions in social situations and allowing you to dance just like Britney Spears (I genuinely can remember times I was her living embodiment), it was also a brilliant way to ‘take the edge off’ the difficult things. Alcohol’s wonderous ability to allow you a short period of disconnection from yourself and reality was horribly enticing. As a young adult, working through the confusion of my parent’s divorce and family relationships, the ability to switch off and forget albeit temporarily was divine. It didn’t always work quite that way though. I’m sure anyone who has sat with enough dopey drunks will attest to their propensity to share the complicated ins and outs of all the things causing them anguish over and over again ad infinitum. Thank you to all those people who sat and listened. You know who you are. 

Into my early working years as a junior doctor, alcohol was still very much the flavour of the month and although now I, and my friends, could encyclopaedically list the possible harms we were inflicting on our bodies, nobody adjusted their intake accordingly. I suppose we were the very epitome of working hard and playing hard. It helped us relax at the end of a 60 hour working week and push down the wounds of working on the front line with humans in need. Alcohol found its place in the rhythm of our lives and bottles of wine were omnipresent in the evening and we embraced bingeing at weekends as we socialised and partied hard.

Through the years, I can remember many times when I have drunk or have looked forward to drinking for the very purpose of forgetting whatever uncomfortable situation had faced me that day. In some more difficult periods of my life and certainly during some of the episodes of depression I have faced, I confess that I have turned to alcohol with the express wish to find oblivion. Numbing is never too far away with a stiff gin in hand. Despite these truths, it is also true that alcohol has never become externally problematic for me. It has never impacted directly on my responsibilities. No one has ever told me I need to drink less or that they were worried about my consumption. I have worried at times and then swiftly chosen to move on from that uneasy thought. It is worrying that I think for most of the ten years before my first children were born (not a typo, there were two) I had at least one hangover most weekends. How much life did I miss holding my head, gulping down water and wishing the earth would consume me? 

Pregnancy was a revelation. For the first time ever, I stopped drinking overnight. I found weekends were possible without the alcoholic haze I’d know for such a long time. I was bright and breezy and had more time for life. Baby twins in my life turned out to be a successful barrier to taking back up drinking with such fervour. After a few false starts, I soon realised there was nothing worse than being up in the night after a couple of drinks too many and I needed all my wits about me to look after the new additions to our family. Moderation became my middle name with the occasional splurge which served only to confirm that my new middle name was in fact the way forward. 

As the children grew and another came along, I stayed pretty sensible. The truth is though that my sensible approach has now reached a steady state. This steady state has slightly deteriorated through COVID times for all the obvious reasons. Honestly, I find myself drinking most nights. I would profess, not heavily, but I will have one or two drinks of something. Which in accumulation over the course of a week would easily far out strip the suggested healthy alcohol intake recommendations. My ‘steady sensible’ is probably in reality ‘steady heavy’ which is a lot ‘steady less’ than it used to be! I find that these days, I know in the morning I’ve had a drink. I’m not hungover as such, just a bit dull and yet I continue with my evening drinks. Writing things down is infinitely useful. I’m writing this thinking ‘What on earth are you up to?!’. 

The thing that has prompted this self reflection, is reading Clare Pooley’s book ‘The Sober Diaries. How one woman stopped drinking and started living.’ It was recommended. It’s an easy read, a romping ride through how a life which once was punctuated by alcohol was transformed by stopping drinking. It deeply resonated. Maybe now’s the time I thought. 

It’s interesting to think about what triggers reactivity in others when the suggestion of sobriety turns up. After consideration, I think I can guess at why it causes people to be triggered, because I can hear my ego striking up the band every time I think about making my decision to stop drinking. I presume everyone else’s ego is ramping up when the suggestion enters its sphere too. Over the past few years, I’ve learnt for certain that our reactions to things have nothing to do with the things themselves and everything to do with our inner worlds. This situation is no different. My ego, my ‘Wine Witch’ Clare Pooley would say, is telling me that without alcohol life would be very different. ‘You would be boring. You would not be able to cope. You wouldn’t fit in at social occasions. You would miss the lovely feeling you get after one drink at the end of a hard day. You would miss out on the amazing wines of the world you could enjoy. And on…’ My ego, is a fickle friend, serving only to try to maintain the status quo. It knows me with alcohol and not without and it chooses known over unknown everytime. I know I need to follow that little voice of knowing deep inside and ignore the chatter. I just might need to get through this current COVID lockdown first….watch this space.

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