This morning, I woke up with a sense of achievement: I’ve now been one year alcohol free.
What began as a planned “month off” somehow evolved into three. Then I decided to see what an alcohol free Christmas would be like and – well – here we are another eight months later.
It’s certainly been an eye-opening and (largely) positive experience. In this article, I’m going to talk openly about what brought me here, and hopefully provide some inspiration for anybody feeling “sober curious.”
First, a little background:
Introducing “Drinking Me”
I should make clear that I didn’t quit drinking because I’d reached “rock bottom alcoholic” level of drinking.
But I had reached a “maybe-this-is-getting-a-little-out-of-hand-this-can’t-be-doing-me-any-good-wow-I’m-really-putting-on-a-quite-a-bit-of-weight-I’m sure-the-hangovers-are-getting-worse-ouch-I-maybe-shouldn’t-have-Tweeted-that-last-night” level of drinking.
I’ve always liked a drink. Like many people with anxiety, I also found it a (let’s be honest) effective crutch in uncomfortable situations. 99% of the time I was a “happy” drinker, so thankfully it had never landed me with much in the way of trouble or repercussions.
But like 48% of people, my alcohol intake had increased during the first lockdown. And as we began to stare down the barrel of another one, I quickly concluded that it was a pretty bad idea to do the same thing again.
So I resolved to take a month off alcohol. The fact that it ended up being a much more long term – and perhaps even permanent – thing, was as much of a shock to me as it was to those who know me well.
So How Did It Go?
In a moment, I’m going to run through how my one year alcohol free has impacted my life in various ways. But first I will kick off with the obligatory “before and after” photos.
Let’s look at how stopping drinking for a year has changed my life in various ways.
Life in General
If I had to sum up the experience of one year alcohol free, I’d say something extremely contradictory: it’s been perhaps the most exciting AND the most boring year of my adult life!
In many ways, alcohol does “work.” It does “take the edge off” stress and anxiety, and it can turn an otherwise dreary day into something random, spontaneous and fun.
When you’re not drinking, you have to find the fun and stress relief in more imaginative ways. The good news is that it’s very much possible, and infinitely more rewarding.
For several months during this year off alcohol, I experienced a feeling often described as the “pink cloud” in sobriety circles. I was on top of the world, productive, inspired, firing on all cylinders, and perhaps more authentically happy than I had been in a long time.
It’s well documented that the “pink cloud” feeling doesn’t last forever, and it didn’t for me either. Anyone thinking that quitting drinking is going to solve all of their problems is going to be bitterly disappointed. But does it make them all a LOT easier to deal with? Yes. Unquestionably.
When I stopped drinking, I also started doing Weight Watchers (check out my WW tips here). Combined with not drinking, I found it relatively easy to lose a significant amount of weight.
In total, I lost over 35lbs, and I can tell you that people saying “wow, you’re looking trim,” and (my personal favourite) “you look at least ten years younger,” never gets old.
But, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that at the time of writing I have put seven of those pounds back on. In part this is because since giving up drinking, I have become somewhat obsessed with chocolate and cake!
Even so, it’s still some pretty gratifying weight loss that’s undoubtedly done my overall health a lot of good. Once summer is out the way and I go on another weight loss mission, I expect to lose those seven pounds and more.
So overall, weight loss is a HUGE plus of quitting drinking – and the chances are that you can lose some pounds effortlessly, simply by ceasing to consume all of those empty calories.
The impact on my physical health has been more of a mixed bag. It can feel like you’re being short-changed when doing something like quitting drinking doesn’t instantly result in feeling 110% every single day!
I’ve still had a couple of bugs I’ve had to shake off; I still have allergies that give me sinus pain; I still get outbreaks of eczema when my stress levels are high.
But there are some plusses: My energy levels are high, more often than not. And without painting too much of a picture, my digestion works exactly as it should!
While I was drinking alcohol I had anxiety, spells of depression, and OCD.
Now I don’t drink, I still have anxiety, spells of depression, and OCD.
It seems a little unfair really, but just goes to prove that quitting drinking isn’t a magic bullet.
That said, the true picture is more nuanced than that. I’ve had several episodes of depression in the past year, and they’re as horrendous as ever, BUT I seem able to shake them off more readily (typically within 5-10 days, whereas before, a spell of six weeks wasn’t unusual).
The anxiety is much better too. It’s still a constant irritation and something I’d dearly love to be rid off, but it’s manageable. Much of the time I seem more able to merely observe it as a thing, rather than be consumed by it.
It’s also gratifying to know that you’re learning to deal with (or live with) these conditions without relying on any crutch to help you along.
An analogy often used on the sobriety groups is that living life as a drinker is like playing life on “hard mode.” I think when mental health issues strike, it’s more the other way around. Dealing with depression and anxiety without a crutch is more like playing life on “hard mode.” But the trade-off seems to be that it passes quicker, and that you’re learning much healthier coping strategies.
To sum up, my mental health is better when I don’t drink. But I’m still me.
Thankfully, drinking alcohol wasn’t something that drastically hit my productivity levels.
Or so I thought.
While I would always get my work done, and never missed deadlines as a result of a night of overdoing it, I can’t deny that I now get much more done.
Within just a couple of months of my quit day, I completed and launched a freelancing course, something that had been percolating at the “planning stages” for far too long. I now have around 100 students, and a healthy additional passive income from selling the course. I have another two courses in the works.
Like the mental health, the productivity thing isn’t some cure-all solution. I still have days when I’m overwhelmed, and when I struggle to make decisions. I’m still badly in need of a proper “post pandemic” holiday, and know that an even better level of productivity is possible. But there’s no doubt – as a non drinker I am way more productive.
Hobbies and Leisure
Something many people ask when they stop drinking is how to not be bored…how to “fill the evenings.”
I certainly felt like this – to BEGIN with. The evenings felt long, and it was strange not to punctuate those long lockdown days by cracking a can or a bottle when switching from work mode to night mode.
That bored-and-unsure-what-to-do-with-myself feeling did NOT last. I can honestly say I’ve not felt “bored” for months. My life is now packed with hobbies that I’d previously convinced myself I didn’t have time for.
On Sunday nights, I find myself in a frenzy of what to do with those last remaining “free” hours. Should I work on another DJ mix, play some Nintendo games, do some music production, work on one of the courses I’ve started, or read something on my ever-growing book pile? (When I pop into town these days I tend to go to the book shop instead of the pub).
As you can see from the photo above, my office now doubles as a DJ-streaming studio. Some of the money I’ve saved in the past year has gone on a DDJ 1000 mixing console, and the thought that I can fire that up when I’ve finished work on a Friday gets me way more excited that the prospect of opening the first of several beers.
There’s a real parallel here with what I said about productivity. In my “drinking days” I used to think endlessly about putting music mixes together. Sometimes when I had a week off, I’d think how I’d really like to get something recorded.
I think I managed it once.
If I had to name one thing that’s both a benefit of stopping drinking, and something to help you through it, it’s the fact that you can absorb yourself in hobbies and creativity.
Socialising is another area where my one year alcohol free has been both good and bad.
Starting with the good, the sober socialising has been just fine. I’ve had some great times with friends, including friends who I’d previously drink heavily with. Any feeling that events were somehow “lacking” something quickly passed. (A good selection of “grown-up” alcohol free drinks really helps with this, and I say a little more on that below).
I do find that socialising seems more…draining now. I’ve gone from being the “last man standing” to being the one who says “hmm, time’s getting on.” But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing!
One thing that I can’t deny is that there are some lonelier moments. Social occasions where drinking is going to be front and centre hold no appeal now, and that can make your circle feel much smaller. I do sometimes feel I’d now be much better suited to living in Venice Beach, surrounded by kombucha bars and yoga studios, rather than the UK, where binge drinking is a national sport. Perhaps I should just move to Shoreditch?
But I feel more positive about all of this in the long term. One thing you do notice when you stop drinking is that there are actually a lot of people out there who don’t drink, or who really don’t drink very much. I’m sure that in time I will get to meet more of them.
Although my family and friends tell me I’m a great dad, I still don’t have quite enough self esteem to believe it.
But I can at least believe that I am a better dad for not drinking – if only because I’m clearly doing more to protect my health and therefore increase my chances of being there for my children in the long term!
I’m still neurotic, anxious, and terrified one of them will fall or choke; I still struggle with the sheer cacophony of noise that a seven and a three year old can produce, and I probably still can’t identify quite as many Pokémon as they’d like me to be able to! But I do feel more present with them, and more patient. And I’ve never promised them anything and not delivered.
Perhaps I should be more proud of that than I allow myself to be.
Is This Permanent?
As I’ve already explained, I never intended to go alcohol free for a year, let alone permanently.
As such, that raises the question of whether this is a permanent lifestyle change.
The one thing I’m certainly not going to do is say that this is forever. There’s a reason that “one day at a time” is a mantra in sobriety groups, because it’s a way less daunting prospect than never drinking again.
I’m relatively confident that I could begin to drink again in moderation, but right now I have no desire to. I also can’t quite shake the possibility that my alcohol intake would gradually rise again.
I really don’t want to find myself in a bar one day, back to having as many chins as I had before, chatting to some stranger I’ve found some affinity with but will never see again, saying “oh yes, I took a year off once.”
There’s very little alcohol that I miss. Alcohol free beer is fabulous now, so there would be zero reason to drink the calorific, boozy stuff. I DO miss red wine, and can visualise a time where I treat myself to a glass with a good steak or a cheese board.
But will I be celebrating my year off alcohol with a bottle of good Malbec? Nah. It doesn’t seem worth the effort. I’m going to cycle into town in a bit and have a Mocha Frappucino. Yes, I have got a bit of a taste for caffeine nowadays, but that’s for another article!
Things That Have Helped
Just before I sign off, I’m going to type up a quick list of things that have really helped me along the way.
I should emphasise that while this year has been challenging, it wasn’t unduly hard after the first few weeks. However, without some of the things on the list below, it would have been much harder.
I was helped by:
- A wonderful, supportive wife, and two beautiful children.
- The StopDrinking thread on Reddit – one of the best online communities I’ve ever come across.
- The Alcohol Explained book (review here). This completely changed my mindset around alcohol and is – hands down – the best quit lit book I’ve ever read.
- A wide selection of good quality non-alcoholic drinks. These really are invaluable in eliminating the “missing out” feeling. Some particular recommendations include Three Spirit, Juke’s Cordialities, and Lucky Saint.
- DJs on Twitch. A music community that’s been a saviour for so many people through lockdown and beyond.
So that concludes my round up of one year alcohol free. Just before I go, I really must point out that anybody who even suspects they may have a physical dependence on alcohol should consult a doctor prior to quitting. That aside – I recommend it!
I’ve written a few other articles on this topic. If you’re interested, here they are:
- If you’re planning a period of abstinence, check out my tips for Sober October and Dry January.
- 15 Benefits of Quitting Alcohol
- 7 Valuable Lessons from Giving Up Alcohol
- 7 Things to Help You Stop Drinking