About 18 months ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I stopped not because I was drinking very often or because I had cravings, but because the negatives far outweighed the positives. The morning hangovers of my university years had grown into days of headaches and confusion. Weddings, stag-dos or Christmas parties would lead to days struck off the calendar. Even social drinks after work produced hangovers from hell.
Giving up was not easy. The biggest challenge was the impact on my social life. I didn't lose any friends, but it was no longer possible to spend time with them in the same way. Being the only one in the group not drinking sets you apart, particularly when it represents a significant departure from your previous role. By not drinking you are rejecting a defining feature of the occasion. Dinner parties (bring your own bottle), stag dos (downing shots) or weddings (toasting the happy couple) all have alcohol at their centre. Conversation can also be difficult. Responding to a friend saying they love you or they hate someone else is tricky when you know they will regret (or forget) saying it in the morning. As is nodding sagely to someone repeating themselves less than an inch from your face.
The hardest challenge of giving up is correcting people's perception of what it's like. When I tell people about my sobriety I often receive looks of sympathy. The assumption is that there is something wrong with me, and that my life is worse off as a result. By not drinking alcohol, they think I am missing out on fun and relaxation. But the reality is that life is a lot better without alcohol. It was this realisation that gave me the strength to stop in the first place. And I don't mean better in the sense of 'I am free from an addiction' or in a way that is particularly unique to my situation. I just mean that life is better without it, just like it is without any recreational drug. I've explained why below:
1. Alcohol relaxes: A common reason for drinking alcohol is that it is a relaxant. It's true that alcohol numbs the senses and relaxes the muscles in our body. But in the process, it also reduces our reflexes, our ability to think clearly, to see clearly and to talk coherently. Is this really 'relaxation'? For me, true relaxation is dissolving your stresses, but remaining in control of your senses and fully present in your environment. Lying in the park on a warm summer's day, feeling the sun on your body and the breeze on your face is relaxing. Dinner with the family, a trip to a museum, reading a book, meditation or watching a musical is relaxing. Taking a mind-altering drug that robs you of your faculties is not.
2. Alcohol is fun: The idea that drinking alcohol makes you happy is also a favourite. Of course, alcohol does give you a high, and I have been known to enjoy myself in its presence. But I believe this is a case of mistaken identity. Whether at weddings, stag-dos, birthdays, dinner parties or work-dos, we tend to drink when we are celebrating or spending time with like-minded people. The 'fun times' almost always occur on occasions that are inherently fun anyway. It's good to meet up with our friends (it's why they are our friends), it's normal to be happy in a wedding (we are celebrating love of people we like). Socialising, celebrating, singing, dancing are not the preserve of alcohol. They are part of our evolution and are fun with or without it. Do non-drinking cultures have less fun?
Alcohol has hi-jacked situations that automatically give us what we need. It's the squeaky clean boss who claims the credit for all the work done by the rest of the team. Or the goal-hanging striker who gets the plaudits for scoring the winning goal. The more the striker scores the goals, the more we believe he is invaluable to the team. The more we drink, the more we believe the drink is the reason we can relax or can have fun. IN both cases we are wrong. But is this a problem? Well, I can only speak for myself. And I can assure you it very much was. As long as alcohol was a crutch for fun, relaxation or escape, it was preventing me from being able to properly understand myself. It was a weak solution to emotional problems (big or small) and stood in the way of solutions. Giving up alcohol is just the beginning of course, but it does make the journey a lot easier. I recommend it to anyone.