A good friend of mine, Damian Fisher, recently decided to give up alcohol for a year. I’m really excited for him, I get a little buzz when people decide to make big positive changes in their lives. I have little doubt removing booze from his life will result in huge benefits. Why so sure? Because I recently took a year off booze myself, and in doing so transformed my relationship with alcohol, improving my life immeasurably. It has been nine months since I finished my year, and with Damo just starting his, I thought it an opportune time to write about my experience.

The tipping point

It took me a long, long time to step away from booze. I was finally compelled to do so while looking back over old journals, many of the entries highlighting my struggles with the drug. The example is below, taken from my entry for Monday 13th November 2017:

“Woke up with a migraine behind my eye that prevented me from going to work and lingered all day long. How much does alcohol have to cost you before you give it up? Over the last month alone it has cost you several days, if not in bed vomiting, making you a shit dad and husband. How much of life are you prepared to throw away to the throbs of headaches, the pounding behind your eyes? The loss of time is becoming too great a consequence to endure, significantly outweighing the benefits/pleasure that alcohol gives you.”

Reading this is quite profound for me. It makes be proud of how far I’ve come.

Some background context… I suffered more than most with hangovers. I used to get migraines that would wipe out my day. Pain would set in behind my eyes, forcing me to keep my head buried in the pillow to keep the light from penetrating in. The pain was bad enough to keep me throwing up until there was nothing left but green bile. By early evening I would feel well enough to stomach some food, usually a Zinger burger box meal or similar. Oftentimes these migraines would be self inflicted — I hold my hands up — but as I got older they were increasingly random. As little as a glass or two would trigger one.

I hate to think of the number of days I lost to hangovers and migraines. I missed days that I could have spent with friends that had travelled from the other side of the world. One friend (Army in case you if you ever read this) has experienced his fair share of them, upwards of half a dozen. I remember one time on a work trip, during an all day workshop at a client’s site, sheepishly excusing myself several times to go to the bathroom to throw up. I cringe thinking about it.

If I’m completely honest I wasn’t in control, and by control I don’t mean the quantity I drank in a sitting. I mean control on a psychological, mental, emotional level. Friends would readily agree I was one of the more sensible drinkers; I’ve grown accustomed — attached even — to the terms ‘lightweight’ and ‘pussy’. The control I speak of is when intuition was screaming “Alcohol ain’t for you buddy!”, but time and time again I succumbed to the pressure of friends, social norms and the drinking culture. Fear got the better of me; fear of losing friends, fear of becoming a social outcast. I wasn’t brave enough to say no, to find a way out.

But here I was nearing 40 still paying the price.

Two key things were key to my decision to pull the trigger. First, I dreaded the thought of reaching the end of my life and looking back on 70+ years of drinking. I was nearly at the halfway point and could easily find myself at the end of that well-beaten path. Second, I was curious to see what life of sobriety could be; I’d read about the benefits and I wanted to know more, to experience them for myself.

Life sans alcohol

On January 4th 2018 my family and I boarded a plane in Sydney, destined for London, a sad end to a wonderful Christmas in Australia, and the start of our long journey back to Cardiff. For me it was the start of another long journey: 365 days without alcohol. Normally I enjoy a glass of wine on a long haul flight, but I decided this was as good a day as any to make #1.

To prepare myself for what was to come read a few books: A Happier Hour, The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge (from the co-founders of One Year No Beer), and Kick the Drink… Easily! I garnered many tips and a little wisdom from each, and slowly my trepidation was replaced with optimism. I started to believe it was not only possible, but could be much easier than I had anticipated.

A lot of advice pointed to having a physical challenge to focus on, so I signed up for Nice 70.3. In preparing for the ordeal event I also completed the Cardiff Triathlon (Olympic distance) and Velothon Wales (140km cycle). A tough physical challenge, as the advice suggested, gave me a valid reason to politely excuse myself from many would-be boozy nights out. The hard training and missing calories from alcohol and post-alcohol food saw me in some of the best shape of my life (although admittedly a little too lean).

Gradually I got used to going home early. I stopped worrying about what I might miss out on, or what people might be thinking, and I began to look forward to fresh, clear mornings. Excitement about what the next day might bring soon replaced the common dread of trying to cope with both a banging headache and the kids. I felt clear and energised. And I had so much more time on my hands. It’s amazing how much time and energy drinking sucks out of your life. I filled my weekends with fitness, nice breakfasts, reading, getting things done and spending quality time with my kids, family and friends. I felt amazing because I was being productive instead of wasting days in the fog of yet another hangover.

There’s a stigma associated with sobriety, which is captured well by Adrian Chiles’ quote in the BBC Panorama documentary Drinkers like me:

“Alcohol is the only drug you have to apologise for not taking.”

So I’d be lying if I said it was a total breeze. Yes there were some uncomfortable situations, but they were few and far between. Typically they were caused by some dickhead clown making trying to be funny in front of others. You learn to avoid these people and situations (interestingly, those that make it an issue tend to have problems with their own drinking habits). In general though, as long as you’ve got a glass or bottle in your hand (regardless of what’s in it) people tend to forget that you’re not “drinking.” If you can learn to lower your inhibitions by yourself can have just as good a time, and as a bonus you can remember those good times! Oh, and I grew increasingly wearisome of explaining why I was doing what I was doing. But I guess that’s to be expected.

My fears were unfounded. Like most of our fears, they’re a lot worse in our head than they are in reality. The things I worried about missing out on either didn’t eventuate or turned out not to be as enjoyable as I pictured them to be. The lunchtime and after work drinks, the planned “big nights”… I was happy to forego them. I didn’t lose friends and I still got invited to stuff. I went on a lads ski trip and it was fine. Sure I wasn’t the life of the party, but I did a whole lot more snow boarding than everyone else. As a family we spent the summer in France and Monaco with multiple groups of friends and had a great time. Sure it was different, but that’s a good thing. Being different and making changes is hard… until it becomes normal.

In the first month or two of sobriety I developed a confidence I’ve never known before. Or maybe I had that confidence in my pre-booze youth but alcohol had since robbed me of it. I began to approach social situations knowing that my enjoyment of them was entirely up to me. I could no longer rely on a chemically induced state to help me be funny or entertaining; I’d have to be them on my own. Being forced outside my comfort zone like this helped develop a certain confidence in who I really am that I’d long forgotten.

Lessons and now

I learned a lot during my year without alcohol. Much of what I hoped for in my post on what I wanted to show for it came to fruition, but here are a few of my takeaways…

  • I need to listen to that little voice in my head more; deep down I know what I should be doing.
  • I prefer early mornings over late nights.
  • I’m not a huge fan of beer, or spirits for that matter.
  • I don’t like loud bars and clubs.
  • I prefer dinners with a few close friends over large noisy gatherings.
  • Good friends don’t care whether you’re drinking or not.
  • True confidence comes from within, not from a bottle.
  • You save a tonne of money and have a lot more time without booze.

Although I’m not teetotal, my drinking habits have completely changed. I have the odd glass of red wine on a weekend with my wife or with friends. I love a glass of red around a campfire, or sitting down to a nice meal. When I’m at home in Australia I love having a glass of sherry and knattering with Mum and Dad as we start preparing dinner. But more often than not you’ll see me sipping on soda water and lime. I can take it or leave it.

I enjoy celebrating an occasion with loved ones just as much as anyone else. When you sit down with family and friends at the dinner table, looking around at your loved ones, smiling a huge smile and appreciating you all being together in that moment… a glass of wine can make it feel that much more special. Or when you meet up with friends you haven’t seen in years and you ching your glasses together to celebrate being in each other’s company again… cheers to that! These are the best moments in life and it’s good to feel part of them. Alcohol can enhance that feeling, but it’s not necessary, and certainly not in large quantities.