I turn 41 today. This also marks the end of the first year since I was a teenager where I haven’t had any alcoholic drinks.
Alcohol has always been a big part of family life. The British are well-known for drinking and this has been no different in my family. My lovely mum spent her formative years growing up in a pub and was living there when she met my dad. I remember many a Sunday visit to see my grandparents on my dad’s side where we spent time down the Royal British Legion, clutching my crisps and lemonade whilst being mesmerised by my dad’s pint of lager, watching the bubbles form from their little invisible factories, expand, reach critical mass and rise to the top. My parents both have lots of siblings and everyone has always loved a big family party, so my childhood memories are filled with tables of buffet food and well-stocked drinks tables for everyone to help themselves to. One of my uncles even had a brick-built corner bar in his lounge, Del-Boy style, and I fondly remember one event where I was given the job of manning this bar, serving drinks to everyone all night long. I thought it was brilliant.
When I was a young teenager, I read somewhere that alcohol destroys brain cells so I decided at that point that I was going to abstain. This decision resulted in regular ribbing and ridicule from my aunts every time we got together. Of course, my sobriety didn’t hold out forever. I probably started drinking regularly when I was 17 or so along with a lot of my friends. It felt grown up, it was what everyone was doing and it was fun. Hilarity, hurling and hangovers ensued, with the first outweighing the other two for the most part.
From the start, I was never consistently great at holding my drink. My personality was such that I tended to get louder, more overbearing and sweary the more I drank, sometimes to a point where all the energy I exuded would collapse back in on itself and I would fall asleep.
Over the next couple of years I started drinking with my friends on a regular basis. I love strong tastes and quickly moved from lager to real ale as well as red wine. On my first day at university I instigated an early visit to the Students’ Union, playing pool and taking advantage of the low prices in the Union bar all afternoon.
At first I couldn’t recognise when drinking became a problem. At uni I felt that everyone around me were managing to get all of their work done whilst still going out and partying most evenings and therefore I should be able to as well. I couldn’t recognise that it wasn’t doing me any good. I wasn’t eating well, was in a destructive relationship and was getting paranoid. Drinking was now a big part of my life, but if viewed from the outside the choices I was making wouldn’t have looked any different to that of any other university student and I don’t think anyone was worried about me. Things came to a head in my relationship and I ended up seeking help for depression. Nobody said anything about drinking but in a moment of clarity I realised that even though alcohol wasn’t the root cause, it was another obstacle to getting myself sorted out, so I decided to a break from it completely. Six months of no drinking felt like a long time, but I also knew I was looking after myself and it was a big help to be clear-headed as I slowly found my feet again.
After that, drinking slowly crept back into my life. It wasn’t a problem per se. For the most part I had learned to pace things a little better and was strong-willed enough to say “no” when on a night out someone decided to get in a round of shots even though they might persistently cajole me to join in. For the next 15 years I followed a pattern of drinking a little, then increasing amounts over the next few days/weeks/months until eventually I would be drinking every night or have a big night out where something would happen such as saying the wrong thing to someone, having an argument, vomiting or waking up the next day and forgetting all of the details of an important conversation with a friend etc. I would then ‘put the brakes on’ and the cycle would start all over again.
In December 2014 we were invited to a friends’ house for a Christmas meal along with a number of other families that we hadn’t previously met. Dinner was excellent and the wine was flowing; I spent a lot of time laughing with one of the guests while we worked our way through a bottle of vintage port. At some point later in the evening I remember filling some of the silences (which might not have even been there in the first place) with making jokes at someone else’s expense — someone who wasn’t at the dinner and whom I barely knew. Around 3am I started to get droopy-eyed and was encouraged by the hosts to have a coffee and a walk around their vast garden so that I could come back in and carry on drinking. I got to bed at 4am … and the kids woke up at 6am. As I stood in the kitchen my pounding heart would not stop racing and felt as though it was going to pop out of my chest. Somehow my wife and I had to hold it together and get through to the kids’ bedtime that evening. Later that day I took my five-year-old out to the fields behind our house with a camera on the pretence that he could photograph some wildlife when in actual fact I was trying to get some fresh air and feel a little less horrendous. I kept recalling and wincing at things I had said the day before and was filled with regret; this wasn’t the person that I wanted to be.
At work the following day I could still feel the effects, mainly in finding it very difficult to string together sentences in my speech — not great when you are running an important programme and chairing a workshop with twenty people in the room. I decided there and then that I had to stop drinking for a bit. Again. I told myself that this wasn’t forever, it was just for a while. We were a week or two away from Christmas but I felt that this was as good a time as any; giving up early in December meant that I could avoid all of the stress around deciding which of the zillions of parties and social functions I would drink at whilst trying to still be great at my job, being a good dad, a good school governor etc. Deciding to not drink suddenly untangled the weeks ahead and made everything much more simple. At first, saying no to alcohol at dinners and events felt a bit awkward but I soon found a familiar pattern of getting through the first hour of curiosity and questioning before people started to get tipsy all around me and they became more interested in something else.
2015 — new year, new start. In the first week of January I signed up for both the London Revolution and Ride 999 long-distance cycling events. Training for these gave me the perfect excuse to continue my sobriety. In truth, whenever I went out on my bike I kept recalling the St John Ambulance First Aid at Work course I’d attended the previous month where the trainer had said that heart attacks are statistically much more likely the day after a drinking session. Given that I needed to get fit and had lots of training rides to get up early for I didn’t think that drinking would be a good idea. I felt very happy and content about the lifestyle choice I had made — right up until a few days into Ride 999 in June, where all the riders finished off each day with a lovely cold lager and my alcohol-free alternatives didn’t seem to cut it. I joined the team for the odd beer and by the time July and August rolled around I was back into my old routines.
Throughout 2015 and 2016 I had been feeling more and more as though alcohol was something I would give up eventually. I was just a whole lot happier when I had decided not to drink. I started looking for positive reinforcement and found articles, books and other resources that helped clarify my thinking. (Yes, I know this is confirmation bias!) Friends and relatives had also had time off in the past ranging from a month (the famous ‘dry January’) to six, and every single time they have said to me that they were happier and healthier when they did it. If everyone who has tried it knows it, why do we keep going back? I think that the social norms around alcohol are so strong that even though people realise they are more content when not drinking it is very easy to get pulled back into having one or two. And then, why stop there?
I knew that I wasn’t an alcoholic as I had easily given up or abstained many times in the past. It was more a question of mental commitment to what I wanted to do for the long term. Could I really give it up completely, forever? What about all of the great ‘special’ bottles of champagne, port etc. we had accumulated in the house? Would I miss out on them?
I kept thinking about my children and the interest they were taking in what the adults did, asking me questions about different types of alcohol. I thought back to my school days before I started drinking regularly — wasn’t I happy enough then without it? If so, why is it different when you’re an adult?
Some of my close friends and family had said that the best thing to do would be to live a lifestyle where I ‘just have one or two’. I had tried this many times before and it hadn’t worked out; I had always fallen back into the habit of ramping it up over time. This passage in The Sober Revolution really helped me in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who found moderation difficult:
“for a multitude of reasons people often toy with the notion that they can terminate their problematic drinking behaviour by simply imposing a few rules here and there and without actually committing to full time sobriety. In my experience, these efforts to control or moderate alcohol consumption do not work for people who have persistently displayed an inability to drink within reasonable limits.”
As we headed towards New Year’s Eve 2016, and my 40th birthday, I felt ever more strongly that the best present I could give myself would be to give up drinking completely. My friends hosted a brilliant party, but getting drunk on New Year’s Eve felt a little bit like going through the motions for the final time. It served as a useful reminder of one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it anymore; my seven-year-old boy wasn’t feeling too well and instead of looking after him I had left my wife to it while I selfishly indulged and danced the night away. I knew that even though I barely ever drank to excess anymore it was still taking more away from me than I was getting out of it, and it was time to stop.
“If one embarks on alcohol-free living with the deep-seated belief that they’ve given up something of worth then they are heading for a resounding fall from the wagon. To conquer alcohol-dependency, it is crucial never to consider one’s self to be ‘on the wagon’ in the first place; this expression is loaded with connotations of temporariness, a short-term quiescence from normal life. In order to walk away from booze for good, it is essential that upon reaching this incredibly positive and empowering decision, you recognise that it is a step which will lead you to great things, the beginning of an exciting adventure and a whole new way of life.”
Positive and empowering. This is exactly how it felt on New Year’s Day when I knew in my head that I was done with it completely. This year I have felt a lot like when I decided to stop eating meat nearly 20 years ago. One day I just decided that it wasn’t something that I did anymore. Once I had accepted it, really accepted it, everything else has been unbelievably easy. I am no longer clinging onto the ‘special’ bottles of champagne and other fancy drinks in our house and am happy to give them away to people who will enjoy them. They are of no use and have no value to me.
This year has been brilliant. Through the various nights out, including a weekend away in a big country house with all my close school friends to celebrate us all turning 40, I have realised that any ‘need’ to have a drink is a complete illusion. I have been able to have a laugh as well as being able to read a bit when I get into bed (and remember what I read!), have a good night’s sleep and be hangover-free the next day. Drinking adds nothing to who I am. My two young boys are aware that I don’t drink anymore and talking to them about alcohol and drugs no longer feels hypocritical. I’m more productive, less grumpy and a better dad and husband. There is no hardship or martyrdom, I’m just happier, and won’t be going back this time.