What I Have Learned Five Years Sober

If you’re in the same boat I was, give sobriety a go. I don’t think you’ll regret it
Wenjie Dong via Getty Images

If you’re one of the three people who read my previous blogs, you’ll know that my quest for sobriety has generally been a success. Life is better in almost every way, and it probably remains my proudest achievement. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing, and staying sober in an alcohol-infused world has served up many challenges. ‘Five years ago me’ would have loved to have known what these challenges were, so I’ve decided to share some of the main lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope I can help some people in a similar boat.

1. Some people don’t (or won’t) get it

In the films, everyone knows the problem drinker has a problem - any denial and resistance usually comes from the drinker him or herself. When they do give up drinking, their decision is greeted with support and sympathy from friends – hugs, tears, apologies, heart to hearts, cups of tea, digestive biscuits etc. etc.

But my experience has been slightly different. The vast majority of people have been incredibly supportive and accepting, but a minority have refused to accept it. For them, the problem drinker has a very strict definition – one which I don’t fit. Their problem drinker is someone who drinks high strength cider from dawn until dusk, on the streets, from a brown paper bag, heckling people as they pass by. He (it’s almost always a he) is unwashed and unkempt, penniless and homeless. He no longer has friends and his family have long since disowned him.

I admit that their stereotype is, indeed, a problem drinker. But on the addiction scale this person is a 10 out of 10. In my opinion – and the opinion of just about anyone in the sobriety movement - problem drinking also exists at 9, 8 and 7 out of 10.

The 7 out of 10 is the sort who is utterly incapable of moderation. He reluctantly attends ‘quiet drinks’ on a Monday and is the last person standing at 3am. His inability to moderate has damaged every part of his life – his finances, his relationships, his career and his health. Because of alcohol he has failed to show up to work, cancelled dates and slept through important family events. He’s broken all sorts of promises and even broken the law. He has burst capillaries in his face and suffered near life-threatening injuries. He regularly runs out of cash a week before payday, or half way through a holiday. He’s begged, borrowed, emptied the penny jar, and sold DVDs at pawn shops, and then used the money to buy alcohol.

The 7 out of 10 will wake up the night after a drinking session wracked with anxiety and depression. He will refuse to leave the house, answer the phone, or even open the curtains. Waves of sadness and sometimes tears will come unbidden. When he does venture out, he will suffer panic attacks which can include a potluck of an imploding head, hyper ventilation or pins and needles up both arms. On day one of his hangover he’ll go to sleep wondering if he’ll ever wake, and hours later find himself out of bed on his knees doused in sweat, gasping for breath, shaking and heart pounding. The anxiety, depression and night terrors won’t subside for at least 3-4 days.

He’ll promise never to drink again, but days later he will - again and again. There’s something about his psychology or physiology that stops him from drinking every waking hour like the 10 out of 10, but the days he does drink land devastating blows to the life he wants to lead, and the lives of the people he loves. He wants nothing more in life than to stop drinking, apart from perhaps, one more drink.

The 7 out of 10 I just described was me from around 2005 to 2012. All of the above used to happen regularly and yet, there remain some in my inner circle who fail to accept that there was a problem. They dismiss the anxiety as ‘a bad hangover’ and the life destruction as ‘high-jinx’. They suggest I just try to have a few – as if someone, who used to love ale, wine and lager, hadn’t tried that already.

I’m not going to analyse the psychology that goes into their assessment. Perhaps my drinking was so close to their own, that admitting addiction would suggest they have one themselves. Perhaps they just really miss the fun-loving me they used to drink with. Maybe it’s just really difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Who knows.

But either way my lesson to the wannabe teetotaler is not to waste time or emotion trying to convince people, and certainly not to take their counsel over your own. You know yourself better than anyone, and sometimes you have to accept that people see things differently.

2. You can never stop learning

It’s probably no exaggeration to say I researched myself sober. I digested articles, books and blogs by the dozen. I watched documentaries and attended groups.

When I successfully gave up alcohol, I felt I knew everything I needed to know. But one key lesson I’ve picked up is that there is always more to learn. I recently read Catherine Gray’s book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober and it was a treasure trove of lessons. Not just the many resources she provides but also the wonderful telling of a story that was almost identical to mine. Experiencing her journey somehow validated my own and gave me renewed strength.

With each new lesson or discovery of a like-minded person, the journey becomes that much easier, so even if you have a firm handle of things, keep learning.

3. We need a tribe

It’s become a bit of cliché in sober circles, but it really is worth mentioning again. We humans are highly social animals, and we gain our direction and strength from the people we surround ourselves with. If you want to go sober but know nobody else in the same boat, it will be much more difficult – particularly if you have disbelieving friends in your midst!

About 2 years ago I stumbled across the Facebook group One Year No Beer which has really helped me. There are many other online and face-to-face groups, not least AA, all of which provide that much needed support. I can’t recommend finding a tribe enough!

4. Alcohol is a keystone habit

I first heard this from Andy Ramage of One Year No Beer at a conference. I didn’t really know what he meant at the time, but a couple of years on I think I finally get it.

Giving up alcohol taught me two key lessons I can apply to other undesirable habits. First, you have to identify a trigger– this could be an occasion (a wedding), time-based (Friday night), an emotion (happiness), or any other typical moment in your life. .

The second – and game-changing- lesson was that you cannot break a habit using will-power alone. If you rely solely on will-power, you will inevitably get caught out when you are feeling weak, or a particularly compelling trigger comes your way. One way I reduced the burden on will power was by finding a replacement for whatever need the alcohol was fulfilling. So for example, if I ever get a surge of desire on a Friday night (I still do), it’s usually the need for human company or indulgence after a tough week. I’ll get in touch with someone I’m close to or indulge in something else (like chocolate) instead. When I’m on an all-day drinking session with mates, I’ll make sure I indulge in lots of great food, sport or interesting non-alcoholic drinks. There’s no need to sit drinking tap water in the corner.

I’ve applied these rules to other areas in my life. When I gave up meat, I made sure I had access to other tasty meals. When I knocked my daily morning coffee from Pret on the head, I did it by taking a flask of coffee into work. I’m still working on how to replace my Smartphone in bed – maybe Sooty, my childhood teddy bear will be making a comeback.

5. Life really is better without alcohol

With the way I started off this article, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that sober life has been a challenge. But the odd diluted friendship aside, it really isn’t. Like anyone, I still have my problems, and the temptation to dull emotional pain still exists. But all in all, life is many times better.

I often get asked if I miss the pleasure-high of drinking, the fun of a Friday or Saturday night. But what the questioner fails to understand is that when you don’t drink, every single day is a pleasure. The world becomes so much more beautiful without alcohol and not just because it’s free of crippling hangovers. When you no longer think that happiness can only be found at the bottom of a pint on the weekend, you are able to experience joy every day of the week. There is beauty everywhere you look – in nature, in people, even in chamomile tea. This might sound boring, but the cumulative wellbeing far exceeds the pockets of fun I previously experienced. So what’s boring about that? And guess what? You can still go to the pub and enjoy the company of your friends. It turns out that most of the enjoyment you experience, comes from spending time with people you like.

Elsewhere in life, success comes more often – momentum towards your goals does not come to a grinding halt after a three day bender. Anger is less quick to show – although it does still make an occasional appearance. Problems tend to be faced and dealt with, rather than temporarily washed away by seven pints of ale. You rarely let people down, and that penny jar still has some pennies in it. Finally, whatever tragedy the future holds, you know you’re better equipped to handle it.

I guess what I’m saying, is that if you’re in the same boat I was five years ago, give sobriety a go. I don’t think you’ll regret it. Thanks for reading.

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