As I write this I've just passed the milestone of 500 days since I last drank anything alcoholic.
Depending on who you are and where you’re at in your own journey with alcohol, the idea of that will bring up one of two ideas; either a “Over a year without a drink? Wow!” or a “500 days? That’s not that long.”
And no it isn’t – not when someone I follow on Instagram recently celebrated 14 YEARS sober! But for me those 500 days and counting are a pretty big achievement.
Whenever I tell people I don’t drink, the first question – even from strangers – is always why. And although I’ve thought about concocting some wild and wonderful tale the truth is a lot more boring.
I once read an article from a woman who began by saying “I don’t have a drinking problem, but my relationship with alcohol has definitely been problematic over the years.” At the time that line really stuck with me.
Because while I never felt I “needed” alcohol for any part of my life, I definitely used it in a problematic way…
It’s been a long week and I need to relax – glass of wine it is then!
I’d love to just let my hair down and have some fun – cocktails!
It’s a social situation I’m not 100% comfortable in – I know, a little bit of Dutch courage!
I’ve just celebrated a really big win – someone crack open the bubbly!
Those things don't sound so bad, right? So many of us in the Western world relax, socialise, celebrate and boost ourselves with alcohol. Except that comes with a price...
The decisions we later look back on with varying levels of regret, the “beer fear” the next morning, the hangovers that knock us back for at least a day (or three – it’s true, hangovers really do get worse the older you get); and worst of all for me the crippling anxiety and depressive feelings for an extra day or two after the physical hangover had subsided. Where's the fun in any of that?!
The decision to take a serious break from drinking was pretty random if I’m honest – I’d been drinking smaller amounts less regularly for about 18 months and one day decided to stop altogether; with no pressure or time limits, just to see.
I’d done the odd sober month before – even a three-month stint once upon a time; but this time three months became six, six became a year and I realised more and more how much I didn’t miss drinking.
Yes, there are times I could quite fancy a glass of red wine on a Saturday night, or a pint of cider in the sun, but the impact of not drinking is way too positive to put something so unpleasant back into my body.
My skin is better, I have more energy, sleep better, can relax more easily, feel better in and about myself and always have a full weekend to play with, rather than a few hours on a Saturday when I’m not feeling rough and then a rushed Sunday while I try to catch up on everything I should’ve done the day before but couldn’t get through quite as quickly because I felt so wobbly.
I’m fortunate, I have some great and supportive people in my life – including close family who’ve never been big drinkers and one of my best friends who’s been fully committed to this sober life for a while longer than me. But that’s not to say it’s all been plain sailing, and there are definitely things I wish I’d been prepared for when I first started this sober journey.
So, in case you’re even considering ditching the bottle once and for all, I thought I'd share the top five lessons I’ve learned in my first 500 days of sobriety:
1. The ways you spend your time will change - and you'll have more of it!
I used to spend at least one night a week out eating, and probably drinking, with friends. Even on the smaller nights out I’d often find myself ordering a drink or two and staying out much longer than I’d planned before heading home.
And as for nights in? Well an indulgent solo Saturday wouldn’t be the same without a bottle of wine and a giant take away; and a night in with the girls would usually include us getting through at least one bottle of wine apiece.
The truth is that I don’t go out as much anymore – not in a part of the world where so much of our socialising revolves around booze, but that even when I do those evenings tend to finish earlier.
Actually, I tend to spend more time than expected on my own reading, walking or doing the other things that really fill my energies up, and what I've found is that I suddenly have stacks more time.
You know that old impossible question about what you'd do with an extra hour in the day? Well I can't promise that, but I can tell you that giving up drinking has given me at least an extra couple of hours a week.
In many ways that's awesome... after all, who doesn't want more time to play with? But it does take a little getting used to... especially when a big part of my relationship with booze was about learning to relax when I otherwise struggled with that.
2. You’ll need to start redefining fun
For me, drinking was fun. Because it is, right? The giggling, the fact everything seems less serious, the dancing, the chatting to random strangers, the complete lack of fear… Fun!
Until it’s not.
Because actually if I think of those occasions I found myself alone with a load of strangers, saying or doing something I later regretted, barely able to stand up straight, and back home hugging my toilet until the early hours, those things were not fun.
Yet still, when I stopped drinking so many people told me it was a boring choice and I wouldn’t be “fun” anymore.
I recently talked to a guy who gave up drinking at Christmas. He and his wife decided they were done with booze, and committed to at least a year without… Yet, despite the fact they’d never been big drinkers, a few weeks in they realised their social life was changing and they couldn’t remember how to have fun without booze.
So they committed to trying one new thing every week; ballroom dancing, rollerskating, bingo, you name it! And along the way they’ve remembered what fun means to each of them , and found themselves pulled towards the activities that actually make them feel that way, than the ones they thought should be fun.
For me, that's meant all the things I mentioned before, as well as dancing (something I never thought I'd say) and leaning ever further into my witchy ways and time with Kali... although I'm still very much on the look out for new things to try!
3. Friendships will change
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago I’d have said most of the close friends I had at that point would stay that way for life… And then sobriety kicked in.
In the 500 days since, some friends have shuffled away entirely – I know of at least two events I wasn’t invited to simply because I don’t drink – and others I’ve come to spend less time with because it turns out we didn’t really have that much in common when we weren’t drinking together…
Of course there are other factors too; the friends who didn’t support my decision to be sober because they saw it as a critique of their own alcohol intake or those who didn’t like that I would likely head home earlier than usual (also something I’ve found tends to happen when you’re the sober one in a group of people drinking), the friends whose drunkenness turned them into someone I wasn’t as fond of as I’d thought – something I’d never realised when I was wrapped up in my own drunk bubble, and those friends who held up a mirror to some of the past behaviours I’d never been that comfortable with of proud of in myself.
Of course that’s not to say I’m friendless… some of my best friends have become closer still thanks to the ways they’ve wholly respected my new sober life and I’ve welcomed in stacks of other new friends who can say exactly the same thing.
I guess it's like any big change in life - sobriety will lead to some people moving away, and others moving closer; all mirroring the changes that are going on in your own energy and the ways you approach life.
4. You’ll have to face up to what you were numbing
Why did I drink in the first place? To relax and have fun, right?
No. Like so many of the things we do habitually (so many of which often need us to stop and pause along the way to understanding ourselves better), the reasons I drank were much deeper than I’d ever thought of seriously.
I drank because I would get quite anxious socially and wanted to feel more comfortable; I drank because during the times I was stressed I had no real idea of how to switch off my brain without a little outside help; and I drank because I worried that unless I was letting my hair down and doing the crazy things I’d shake my head at the next day then I’d be one of the worst things it was possible to be… boring. Gasp.
I know, all of that sounds ridiculous when I see it all written down like that, but as I stepped back from booze what I realised was that I really needed to do was to fix all of the things that had led me to drink in the first place.
Turns out that working on that social anxiety, learning to relax, and sacking off all of the old school-time ideas that because I was geeky and liked to read books no one would find me fun? That might not be as easy, but it does make for a much better night – actually no, a much better life – than trying to numb any or all of those things with a glass or five of wine.
5. You’ll start to view your past differently
Hands up, there are memories from my drinking years that I’m really not proud of. But the longer I’m sober and unpack the reasons booze played such a big role in my life, not to mention the experiences I had during the years I drank, the more I start to see those things differently.
I recognise how dangerous some of the situations I found myself in were; I recognise that some of the times I’d most woken up feeling ashamed of the way I’d acted the day before weren’t quite so deeply my fault as I’d first thought (guilt was a biiiig part of my hungover feelings); and I recognised where I’d fallen into habits and patterns of belief that hadn’t been enjoyable, so much as things I’d thought I should do in certain situations.
Sobriety hasn’t just given me the opportunity to unpack the reasons I drank and the things I personally regret from that time, but also the ways I'd allowed myself to be treated and really had to let go of the guilt for.
If I'm honest working through those things hasn't always been easy - at times the things that have come up for me to work through, forgive and let go of have been more challenging than learning to dance sober at a party, changing my social life entirely or being frowned at when I asked for a blackcurrant and soda instead of the free cocktails on offer at a wedding.
But that work has been interesting, and it's also helped me to reach the kind of more regularly fulfilled and at peace place in my life that I'd only ever caught snatches of in the past.
In short, the journey of choosing to stop drinking is, I’ve found, about a lot more than just ordering lemonade on a night out. But you know what? It’s well worth it.
The longer I’m sober, the harder it becomes not to rave about that choice, but I promise I’m not here to talk anyone into what definitely is a personal decision.
That said, if you’re considering sobriety; or if you’ve stopped drinking and want to work through some of that old stuff that comes up as your sober life kicks in, then get in touch.
Soul-Centered Counselling offers a safe environment to work through anything and everything that’s on your mind or holding you back.
Find out more here and get in touch if you’d like to book a free introductory session.
Until then though I’ll just be here, raising my pint of blackcurrant and soda to the beauty of this new outlook on life… Cheers.