As I write this in early February, the majority of New Year's Resolutions will have long been broken, the confidence of January 1st a fading memory. For most people, this won't be a big deal. But for some, the failure will be one in a long line of unsuccessful attempts to remove a destructive habit. Around three years ago, I was firmly defined as the latter. My habit was an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and for years I was trapped in a cycle of failed resolutions. But as I write this today, I haven't touched an alcoholic drink for over three years, and in that time, I haven't had the remotest desire to. What's more, I can honestly say (without a trace of delusion), that I've never been happier. I've decided to share my story about how I got here, in the hope it may help others in a similar position.
I was never an alcoholic (at least not in the 'classic' sense) - I didn't down a vodka every morning, wander the streets with a brown paper bag, nor did I sneak whiskey into my daily flask of coffee. I only drunk on weekends and by most definitions I was 'fully functioning' - job, relationships, finances, legs, arms all in place. But from the age of about 28, drinking would incorporate an all-inclusive package of five day hangovers, depression, panic attacks, poor motivation and fatigue. My productivity, health, relationships and bank balance would all take a hit (even if they continued to function).
Despite alcohol's drag on my quality of life, moderation was always elusive. Each drinking session would be preceded by a schizophrenic internal battle - one sensible voice counselling me to only have one or two (or none), the other urging me to have three or four (or ten) with a Jager Bomb for good measure. Invariably the second voice would win the debate.
Having spectacularly failed at moderation, I had several attempts to knock the booze on the head. But despite periods of abstinence they would inevitably end in boozy self-loathing. Central to this failure was my belief that life without alcohol would be (to put it bluntly) a bit shit. I was convinced I would have less fun, fewer friends, and would be unable to escape from life's stresses. I envisaged a future of withdrawn solitude, observing fellow drinkers with envy. I imagined stag dos and weddings where I was timidly sat in the corner, wanting to be anywhere else. These fears often became self-fulfilling.
Of course, eventually I would succeed, and far from the life downgrade I feared, the opposite happened. My success wasn't a fluke, it didn't happen overnight, it wasn't a result of willpower nor did I live in a hut in the woods for two years. In fact, there were three deliberate stages to it and I've shared them below.
Each person's journey is unique to them, but I hope anyone aiming for the same destination will be able to take something from mine.
Step 1: I did some research: As I've mentioned, my many false starts were shaped by various pre-conceptions about what alcohol gave me. I believed alcohol was essential to relax, to have fun, to socialise and to calm nerves (I coined the phrase 'the four can plan' to describe my preparation for a first date (lucky lucky ladies!)). But by taking a step back and investing some time to understand my relationship with alcohol, each of these pre-conceptions began to unravel.
A number of resources and influences helped with the unravelling, but two really stand out. The first was Allen Carr (not the chatty man) and his Easyway book and seminars. You may have heard of him through his smoking programme of the same name. Through the lens of his own self-discovery, Carr helped destroy all of the pre-conceptions I previously held so close. Most notably, he argues that our beliefs around alcohol are a result of social conditioning, be it through the example set by adults as we grow up or the marketing that permeates our everyday lives. He argues that all of the things we believe alcohol helps us with, we can do better without it - in fact we already do in other situations, we certainly did as children, and other cultures manage to quite easily.
The second key influence was Annie Grace and her book, This Naked Mind, based on her experience as a marketing executive who broke free from a boozy corporate culture. Her book and website builds on Allen Carr's Easyway, unravelling the many myths but with a more scientific grounding. I challenge anyone to read her book and not see alcohol in a new light!
Step 2: I found an alternative tribe. Even armed with the knowledge that I didn't need 4 cans of lager to speak to another human, there were still some social barriers that made abstinence difficult. For one, there was the persistent questioning and cajoling from hardened drinker associates. "Can't you just have one?" "You have to drink tonight, it's my birthday/stag-do/leaving party/anniversary/bar mitzvah!", and many more of that ilk. Although well-meaning the peer pressure was often a strain on my will-power, particularly when I was tired. Add to this the general unpleasantness of being with very drunk people (note: mildly drunk or merry people are fine) - due to their constant repetition, lack of spatial awareness or noise control, beer breath(!) or extremes of emotion - and you crave an alternative social experience with like-minded people.
Aside from avoiding beer breath, I also learned of the deeper benefits to spending time with non-drinkers. Studies show that we are far more likely to achieve something (be it a challenge or kicking a habit) if we surround ourselves with others doing the same. They give us social accountability, a sense of belonging and support when we hit a road block.
Of course, finding a group of non-drinkers in a society dominated by alcohol is tough. I didn't really fancy the Brentford knitting group (particularly when I found out Thursday is wine night) nor was I keen on AA (although I know people for whom it has been effective). Fortunately, I stumbled across a brilliant initiative called One Year No Beer, an online community set-up by two City brokers (Ruari and Andy) who, like me, were just fed up of their alcohol consumption. Their community is a virtual alcohol free sanctuary, complete with a private Facebook group for discussion and support, emails with the latest psychology and life hacks, and weekly podcasts from some of the world's greatest thought-leaders . You can either join the Facebook group for free, or pay for a more comprehensive programme. The Facebook group was instrumental in providing that alternative tribe I needed - it gave me the validation that the journey I was on was the right one. It also meant I could spend time with my drinker friends without that perpetual strain and pressure.
Step 3: I found another focus. Many of us struggle to drink in moderation because we give 110% to everything we do - good or bad! (I'm avoiding the term addictive personality because it suggests this tendency is negative - it's not). I am definitely one of these people! So when I gave up the booze it was vital I filled this beer keg sized hole in my life with something else. I chose to double up on my exercise, with a particular focus on running. Since giving up alcohol I have completed 10ks, half marathons and a marathon (see picture below). I was able to correlate each completed challenge with giving up alcohol, further validating my decision.
Of course, the challenge could be anything you choose depending on what interests you, but it's worth considering exercise because of its health benefits - in particular its ability to help with concentration and the free endorphins it gives!
So those are the three main areas that shaped my journey to alcohol free utopia. If I had to give an elevator pitch to any budding teetotaller, I'd say "Read This Naked Mind, join One Year No Beer's Facebook group and embark on a challenge (preferably a physical one)." Each will make the journey that much easier and more rewarding.
I hope this helps. Any comments and questions welcome!