a few things I’ve learnt from a few months alcohol free

Let’s start with the obvious one – HANGOVERS

I’ve always experienced pretty terrible hangovers, but you know that cliché about hangovers being unbearable once you’re over 30 (looking at the twenty-somethings reading this thinking, ‘yeah yeah, that won’t happen to me’) – well it is so very, very true. I’ve gone from being able to survive a nine-hour shop floor shift on a couple of hours sleep a decade ago, to lying in bed all day staring at my ceiling feeling like a dehydrated prune after a night out as a 31-year-old.

I watched this interview recently for Complex magazine (I really recommend you click through and watch – scroll to just before 8:00 – it’s only a couple of minutes on this topic but there’s so much insight in there) and John Mayer, who hasn’t drunk for two years, says this: “Oh, I have the most amazing last-night-of-my-life-drinking story. It was Drake’s 30th birthday party, and I made quite a fool of myself. It took me weeks to stop doing this *makes an embarrassed face* every morning I woke up. And then I had a conversation with myself. I remember where I was. I was in my sixth day of the hangover. That’s how big the hangover was. I looked out the window and I went, “OK, John, what percentage of your potential would you like to have? Because if you say you’d like 60, and you’d like to spend the other 40 having fun, that’s fine. But what percentage of what is available to you would you like to make happen? There’s no wrong answer. What is it?” I went, “100.””

YES. THIS. I got to the point where I thought to myself, I am a grown ass woman and I am wasting whole days of my life in bed, too hungover to do anything. I’ve had two days off a week my entire career and I am regularly spending 50% of that time doing nothing but puking and ordering take out. I have wasted whole days in Berlin, in Amsterdam and in Bangkok because I couldn’t function. I’ve spent my hard-earned money to fly to these amazing places and lie in hotel beds all day hungover. What kind of absolute madness is that? I don’t want to do that anymore.

Now, if I have a day where I slob around and don’t leave my apartment, I want it to be deliberate and indulgent and entirely through choice. But I don’t want another hangover again.

SLEEP

I’ve never had problems sleeping but now sleep is better, higher quality, more nourishing. I don’t think you’ll find anyone whose sleep hasn’t improved in sobriety. I used to regularly have days where it was a genuine struggle to get through an afternoon at work – I’d have to fight to keep my eyes open. I would have to physically get up and walk around to stop myself from falling asleep at my desk. I honestly cannot recall a single day since I stopped drinking that that has happened.

GUILT

For me, there was (is, still) so much guilt attached to drinking. There’s the guilt for what I put my body through, decisions I made and situations I got myself into. I’d feel guilty for the cigarettes I smoked the night before, for snogging a guy in a club despite having a boyfriend, for the gym session or yoga class I booked onto but consequently missed, for pulling a sickie with the guy I was dating so that we could continue our bender into a third day, for turning up to meet friends or family late, or not fully present, or not at all. Big or small stuff, they all add up, and made me question if this was really the person I wanted to be. That guilt goes away when you start acting in a way that’s respectful, present and aware.

I’ve tried various journaling and goal setting methods over the years and one of the things I’d always state is that I wanted to live a life of balance. That I wanted to party, but also to get up and practice yoga, or that I wanted to have a few drinks on a Friday night, but then cook a wholesome breakfast the next day. What I’ve realised is that I can’t have both. Balance – in the way that I thought I meant – is simply impossible for me. So, when I drank, but then didn’t balance it out with the good stuff, I felt guilty.

Now, I realise when I said balance, I actually meant calmness.

ANXIETY

This is the biggie for me. I have social anxiety, and this will always be the case, drinking or no drinking. But the drinking I did to dull the social anxiety, only served to dial up the anxiety I felt in other areas. It made me cling on for dear life to bad relationships, say yes to invites I had no interest in and just generally not feel all that sure of myself.

There’s this idea that you read about a lot in this space – it’s that you have to learn to sit with your feelings. I don’t think there’s actually a better way that I can put it myself. You learn to feel what you’re feeling, and you have to work out why. You learn what you actually like doing and what you don’t.

You realise the times you really were a dick that you need to apologise for and the times you just need to forgive yourself. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it actually is true. A fog of low-level anxiety that I thought was normal, started to lift.

Like I said, the social anxiety will always be there, but now I know what I can actually deal with. Here’s some things I still like:

  • I still like going out for nice dinners with good friends, even if other people are drinking.
  • I still like watching football (on TV or in person), even if other people are drinking (I went to my first match when I was at Junior School and I don’t think 9-year-old me needed a beer to enjoy myself).
  • I still like going out dancing to music that I love, even if other people are drinking (the problem is now staying awake long enough to do so).
  • I still like going for drinks overlooking a beautiful view or whilst enjoying a stunning sunset, evening if other people are drinking.
  • I still like hanging out at the beach or by the pool all day, even if other people are drinking.
  • I still like sitting in the pub for hours on end, enjoying long conversations with family or friends, even if other people are drinking.

Here’s some things I realise I don’t like:

  • I don’t like going to crowded places where drunk people prop each other up whilst yelling at each other over loud music.

You get the idea. Things aren’t fun because there’s drink involved, they are fun because they just are.

And the one thing I did the most of, was the one thing that actually served me the least, in terms of making me happy and healthy. Just like this quote from Laura McKowen:

And because sobriety isn’t the solution to absolutely everything, here’s some things it hasn’t helped.

EATING

I swing wildly between two opposing states when it comes to eating: I either do a full grocery shop, have a well-stocked fridge, create a thorough meal plan and batch cook for the week ahead… or, I forget to eat. There seems to be no middle ground. I used to think that when I sunk into doing the latter it was because of drinking and then the following hangover, but it’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve almost passed out at 3pm on a Saturday in recent months (i.e. in the months I haven’t touched a drop), because I’ve had a coffee at 8am, then nothing else all day. Something to work on, FOR SURE, but unfortunately something that I can in no way blame on boozing.

SHOPPING, SPENDING, SUGAR

There is a lot of research/theory/general acknowledgment that suggests when you stop doing one ‘problematic’ thing, that energy can transfer into doing something else instead. Or, I just really like buying sunglasses, booking flights and eating chocolate. But either way, I am still doing all of those things with just as much enthusiasm and with just as little concern for the consequences as I have ever done.

MONEY

Whilst half of my salary is no longer being spent on Careem (the Middle Eastern Uber), I don’t think I’ve saved any money on drink. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think it’s more expensive to not drink alcohol, especially when going out just for drinks. Dubai is a city that loves a deal, and it’s possible to drink cheaply, or even for free, almost every night of the week, especially if you’re a woman. Recently, I attended one Ladies Night with three others – they enjoyed unlimited free rosé wine for two hours, whilst I had two mocktails, each costing AED 44.00 (£9.40). Bars and restaurants are notoriously inflexible at allowing a non-alcohol alternative to be taken instead of wine or spirits in these offers, and alcohol free beer is a mystical concept which is yet to reach these shores.

…and finally, DATING

I live in a Muslim country, I very rarely go out to where the drunk people are and I’m no longer zeroing my inhibitions with booze. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion about how much there is to say under this heading…

[For more on this, look up Joanne Bradford – @motherheart – on Instagram. Throughout Dry January, she’s sharing a series of posts where she’s asking people, “what has surprised and delighted you most about living substance-free?”]

a bumper list of booze-free resources for Dry January & beyond

When I started telling friends that I was thinking of giving up alcohol, I was mostly given a green light of approval, but with a caveat: as long as I didn’t get too preachy about it. Over four months since my last drink, I am going to try really hard not to cross that line, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to communicate about something that I have not only spent a lot of 2018 thinking about but that has also improved my life so immensely.

As Dry January begins, I want to encourage as many people reading this as possible to give it a go. But if you do, I’d also ask that instead of seeing a month off the booze as something to endure, as something to ‘get through’, that you instead see it as an opportunity for something else, something different and perhaps something better. I’m going to write more about the benefits I’ve seen from going alcohol-free later this month (so, it’s your choice whether you click on that link or continue to follow me in the meantime!), but to kick things off, I thought I’d put together a bumper list of all the resources I’ve used since I started this exploration back in May (yep, it’s been a long and winding process to get to this point – more on that later too… maybe).

These recommendations span books, blogs, podcasts and Instagram profiles and cross a wide range of alcohol-free thinking and teachings, from alcohol use disorder and 12 step programmes to grey area drinking and general wellbeing. Wherever you find yourself on that spectrum (even if you’re only just a teeny bit sober curious), hopefully there’s something in this list that resonates. I’m presenting this all without comment about mine (or anyone else’s, for that matter) drinking – for now – purely just as a list of stuff I’ve come across, read, looked at, or listened to.

Books I’ve read

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray

This is the book that started it all for me – it’s part memoir, part science and something just changed for me after reading this book. Admittedly, I think it poured water on a seed that was already sprouting within my brain, but this book just spoke to me. I recommend either starting here, or with…

This Naked Mind by Annie Grace

This book takes all of the things you’re taught about alcohol (it helps me loosen up, it helps me relieve stress, it makes me happy etc.) and disproves them. No really, it literally takes each of those points and tells you why and how they are wrong. I read this once I’d already stopped drinking, so for me it was more of a reinforcer than a mind changer, but I know if I had read it earlier it would have been the latter.

I’ve also heard that Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Control Alcohol and Kick the Drink… Easily! by Jason Vale are similar types of brain re-wiring game changers.

ALSO! Both Catherine and Annie have journals/workbooks relating to their books above:

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober Journal by Catherine Gray

The Alcohol Experiment by Annie Grace

Blackout by Sarah Hepola

This is straight up memoir and probably one of my favourite books of all time. It’s already firmly planted on my list to re-read in 2019 due to it being hilarious, honest and relatable. I read this on Kindle and made so many highlights through it that I’m going to buy a paperback version to scribble all over.

Nothing Good Can Come from This by Kristi Coulter

No book has ever seared me with it’s honesty quite like this one. There were passages I had to re-read, I was in awe that a writer had the nerve to publish such frank admissions. There were occasions where it tipped into sounding a tad too privileged, but this collection of essays that covers drinking, careers, relationships, feminism and more and is well worth a read.

Girl Walks Out of a Bar by Lisa Smith

I first discovered Lisa on Instagram – she’s an NYC lawyer who (again) is shockingly honest about the level of her alcohol and cocaine addiction, especially given she still has a corporate job in law. She so graphically describes the daily grimness (for want of a better word) of being perpetually either high or hungover, that you’ll feel a bit icky (in a ‘oh yeh, hangovers are horrible’ way). I learnt a lot from this book.

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston

This was recommended by a friend that’s not drunk for several years, and is another memoir/research mix. I enjoyed this as the writer is a highly successful journalist (showing not all alcoholics live on park benches) and I enjoyed the way she combined personal story with interviews and research. A lot of the reviews I’ve read hoped this would be more factual, given the title, but I love reading memoir so this didn’t bother me.

Other books I’ve read

(which I’d move onto after reading the above, personally)

The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley – would recommend for anyone with children.

The Sober Revolution by Sarah Turner and Lucy Rocca – a good all round staple in this genre.

Recovery by Russell Brand – tackles addiction of all kinds and I somewhat struggle with his writing style (I much prefer to listen to audio of him), but if you’re a fan of his, definitely give this a go.

Books that are on my to-read list

Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety bySacha Z. Scoblic

My Fair Junkie by Amy Dresner

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison

Lit by Mary Karr

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

Podcasts

HOME podcast

This podcast is now defunct, but there’s still an enormous back catalogue to listen to online from two of the pioneers of the online sobriety community.

Happy Place

Fearne Cotton’s interview podcast is by no means only about drinking (although the topic crops up from time to time), but it’s a great listen on all-round wellbeing.

Edit Podcast

Aidan is one of my favourite non-drinking people on Instagram – more on that below – and this podcast is just lovely. Not too heavy chat from two people that never identified as alcoholics, they just think life is better without drink.

Another two podcasts that have launched in recent months are Recovery Rocks and Seltzer Squad – both from NYC-based female duos.

Instagram

I follow *so many* (so, so many) GREAT sober women on Instagram so I’m just going to link to a big ole bunch and you can click through to your heart’s content:

@holly

@thetemper

@bryonygordon

@drybeclub

@laurievmcallister

@unexpectedjoyof

@thisnakedmind

@sobergirlsociety

@tellbetterstories2018

@thesoberglow

@sillylara

@healthy_discoveries

@tawnymlara

@estherperelofficial

@emilykatepope

@seltzersobriety

@mandy_lovesober

@love.sober

@wildlysober_

@bitchin.wisdom

@africabrooke

@sobrieteaparty

@mantrasandmocktails

@weareingoodco

@laura_mckowen

booze and me

The last time I drank, it was a genuine effort on my part to have a ‘sensible’ one. It came at the end of a four week long stint of visitors, leaving dos, ladies’ nights and birthdays. I’d been drunk pretty much every Wednesday night through to Sunday morning for the best part of a month. I was done. I needed a rest. I really wanted to go to this birthday brunch, but I really did not feel like drinking – it was the perfect opportunity to put elusive moderation into practice.

Instead, after easing myself in gently by making two lager shandies last almost two hours (a feat whilst at a brunch, it must be said), I suddenly, out of nowhere, slammed my foot to the floor. From 7pm, memories get hazy. By 8pm, I’d knocked back several vodkas during a short stop-off at my friend’s apartment and I was in a taxi to a bar I barely remember being in. At 9pm, my one remaining sensible thought was that I needed to get myself home. Immediately. I fear that I thought I was being smart by leaving the night well before it got out of hand, but in reality I was already beyond gone.

The next morning, texting from my bed, my body aching with nerves and shame, my friend and I pieced together the rest of the night via time stamps, call logs and taxi change. There was my cab ride home that took 20 minutes longer and cost 30% more than it should have done. There was the call to the man I am still pining after, mere seconds of our six minute long conversation in tact in my mind. There was the text to the (very lovely, but not for me) guy I’d dated last year saying we should hang out again, even though (despite him being very lovely) I don’t really want to hang out again. Then, later that day, there was the last-minute appointment with a doctor to get antibiotics for a UTI – unfortunately that hour is crystal clear and was pretty painful.

It could have been worse. I’ve had worse nights and worse mornings. There was no vomiting. I woke up in my own bed, alone. I had all my belongings and there were no McDonald’s wrappers on my bedroom floor.

But this time, something clicked. Something that said, this is enough now.

Deep down, I’ve felt negatively about alcohol for a while. I always drink that little bit more than everyone else, or am that little bit more hungover, or have the little bit more outrageous tale to tell the next day. I have never been a two-drinks-and-home type. Those people baffle me. If I’m drinking, I am drinking. I’m getting the first round in, I’m getting the bottle because it’s a better deal than two glasses, I’m staying for ‘just one more’, I’m always the last to leave.

And it’s getting in the way of the life I want to lead.

I was asked recently to close my eyes and describe my (idealised) perfect life. The home, the location, the job, the free time. None of my answer included spending my Saturday mornings hiding from the sun whilst my insides recovered from their latest battering.

Similarly, not long ago I reviewed my Dubai bucket list – a list I started shortly after moving here, which I’ve been ticking off and adding to ever since. It’s an interesting mix of day trips, outdoor activities and cultural experiences. Again, ‘get drunk and forget stuff’ does not feature once.

And so, I think I’ve come to the conclusion it’s time to give an alcohol-free life a go. I know moderation does not and will not work for me. I’m not saying I’ll never drink again. But right now, it’s easier for me to say no thanks than I’ll just have one.

calmer waters

I’ve read a piece of writing advice a few times in a few different places recently: you shouldn’t write about something whilst you’re still going through it.

After harbouring a (not so) secret dream of becoming a dating columnist for gosh-knows-how-long, and after spending the last almost five years single and doing a lot of dating, it almost seems stupid that now, at this moment in time, I would decide to start writing about dating, when I am doing precisely… none of it.

Maybe that advice is onto something. Now that I’m not knee deep in it, wading through the bullshit ocean that is dating in 2018, I feel like I can reflect upon it. Really, I should have been writing about it all this time. Since my big heartbreak (I know, yawn), I’ve acquired tales of blind dates, Tinder dates, dating my friend’s friends, dating my own friends. Amazing dates, terrible dates and a whole load of mediocre ones too.

I’m the most single I’ve been in, well forever. You might think that there’s single and there’s in a relationship, but there really are fifty shades of complicated in between, and I’ve been madly trying to find that elusive spark with someone for a long time now. I still haven’t found it – at least not a long lasting one – and I’m kinda tired. I’m tired of the emotional rollercoaster I put myself through. I build up my hopes unattainably high and then struggle to pick myself up from the self-esteem blow when they are inevitably not met. I try to force emotionally unavailable men into an availability that due to location, or timing, or sometimes just their personality, does not exist. I. Am. Tired. Of. It.

I’ve deleted all trace of myself from all dating apps. I’ve stopped asking friends if they have anyone that they can set me up with. I am actively trying (and it’s really, really hard) not to imagine a date, a sleepover, a mini-break, a holiday, a wedding… with every attractive man I come into contact with. Call it crazy if you wish, I call it being a total, and sometimes totally flooring, romantic.

To continue with the (somewhat tenuous) water analogies, I’m starting to sail on calmer waters. I’m not out there surfing, trying to catch my next big wave. I’m sitting on my sun lounger, attempting to be content. Only when I am completely and totally happy being here, being myself, for myself, will I step back out there into the ocean.

single in the sandpit

Last weekend I went for a roast dinner (my first one in Dubai!) with three women I met via a meetup group (more on making friends in a new town another time). We had all met at least one of the group a couple of times before, but this was the first time we’d spent any time together as this combination of four.

Conversation was ticking along pleasantly, and about an hour in, someone asked “so, who out of us is single?” It turned out, three of us were. I was really surprised – a 75% single rate is probably the highest I’ve found in any social situation I’ve been in in nine months. It feels like everyone in Dubai is married, or at least well on their way to be. In my late twenties in London, I was always aware that I was in the minority as a single person, but as a 30 year old woman in Dubai, I feel very much like the odd one out. Women my age don’t move here on their own. They move with their husbands – either following him a few months after he’s set up here or embarking on the adventure together. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me who I’m out here with (I’m old enough not to need parental supervision), who I live with (just myself, and it is WONDERFUL), or even just as blunt as where my husband is (you tell me love, you tell me).

The relationship status question opened the floodgates. The usual topics of ‘why is Tinder so awful’, ‘why is Bumble such hard work’, ‘why are men so terrified of commitment’ (the constant million dollar question of anyone unlucky enough to fling themselves into the dating fire pit) filled the conversation. Turns out there are single men here, they just all sound they should be gracing the pages of Take a Break magazine. I kicked off proceedings with my most recent dating story, but it turns out ‘he was perfectly lovely for two months, then ran for the hills at the slightest whiff of a relationship’ pales into actually being quite pleasant when compared to:

The story of the guy who rescued the woman he was dating from a not-insignificant adventure sport accident, stayed with her in hospital, provided for her in the 2+ months she wasn’t working, persuaded her to visit him in Oman, then the day before her flight, ghosted her. Communication severed – calls unanswered, texts not replied to, just like that. Only to be spotted on Instagram a few weeks later enjoying a helicopter ride with his new beau.

The story of the guy who lied about his nationality, lied about his job… and even lied about the fact that he was going to pay half the rent of the apartment he was sharing with his girlfriend, effectively leaving her homeless at twenty minutes notice.

The story of the guy who entered a UK-UAE long distance relationship with a woman who was living here, introducing her to all his extended family via Skype (including his nephews), eventually leading (after a couple of years) to her being persuaded to quit her job and return home from the Middle East to be with him, only to discover that said nephews were in fact sons, and there was also a wife in the picture.

Wish me luck everyone, dating in 2018 is going to (continue to) be a bumpy ride!