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?”]

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