Reader discretion advised, there is some swearing below!
(I am aware that my experience outlined below is based on chosen abstinence; I know that it must be completely different when you have to abstain and have such admiration for those who manage to stay clean with the constant pressure - from all aspects of our society, as well as their internal compulsions – to drink.)
And so I decided not to drink for October; despite my grumpily contrary aversion of branded months (Dry January, Movember...though it’s worth googling Fanuary), I was taking part of Stoptober. Predominantly to raise awareness of Sweet Cavanagh, Florence Norman’s charity that provides aftercare for women coming out of rehab for addictions and eating disorders, there were also less gallant reasons (losing weight, getting healthy, proving my husband wrong, etc). And I was going to do it properly; not the early-bedtimes and no-socialising that often characterises such abstinence (try organising a dinner in January) but out and about, fine-dining, partying, celebrating, work dos, the lot. I wanted a challenge and fuck me, I got one.
I’ve “given up” alcohol before. A few years ago, when I had become slightly concerned that my drinking habits weren’t healthy, I decided to abstain for a month and ended up tee-total for half a year. And although the beginning was difficult, I loved the way I felt I had taken back control – as well as the way I physically felt – and it was only a positive desire for the taste, as opposed to the effect, of wine that got me back off the wagon. In addition, this time I had the tricks that I developed last time: drinking something exotic looking (even if it is just a cranberry and soda) or putting it in a wine glass, which helps with both feeling satisfied and with fitting in with everyone else. So I was quite blasé about trying again this time round, especially as I now have a much more healthy and relaxed relationship with alcohol.
But it turned out to be a completely different experience. Perhaps, paradoxically, because my relationship with alcohol is so much better.
The first difference was that everyone was completely understanding. While last time round I had to field a lot of “but you’ll be so boring!”, “just have one!”, “but why?!” and people filling up my glass “accidentally”, this time the responses ranged from friendly disinterest to admiring “wow, that’s great!”. I wonder how much of this is because of “Stoptober” making it socially unacceptable to berate me. But I think more it was that I am – and my friends are – older and a bit more grown up about these things. Whereas before people seemed to take my not drinking as a commentary on their own drinking, no one seemed that threatened by it this time round. And no one implied that I would be less fun. So the big social evenings – dinner parties, etc – that last time proved a challenge were... easy! And even incredibly enjoyable. There was no pressure to drink and no reproach for not “taking part”. I stayed out late and joined in the dancing and talking shit and debates. It made me realise that no one questions whether it’ll be fun if you meet for breakfast or chill all day or have an alcohol-free lunch; of course it will! My friends are my friends because I find them all interesting and funny and enjoyable to be with. Alcohol can make things different through the slight removal of inhibitions – in vino veritas and all that – but that isn’t always a good thing. It was such a positive experience that I’m tempted to never again drink on big social occasions, and not be a social pariah despite that.
On the flip-side, quiet social drinking was much more difficult. This was the second difference from last time, when I found it easy and enjoyable not drinking on my own and hardly noticed when out with just one or two others. But now... A romantic meal for two in Paris just didn’t have the same feel to it with one of us on water (though this might have been that the non-alcoholic options there were water or orange juice – orange juice with dinner? A treat when I was 7 years old). And a congratulatory dinner with two friends lost its sparkle while they were quaffing prosecco and me..water again (albeit fizzy water in a champagne glass). Perhaps this is circumstantial (last time I was living alone). Or perhaps linked to the older and wiser factor that made big social gatherings easier, I now drink for the enjoyable taste, not to get wasted. Last time I gave up, my boyfriend of the time drank more than me – more than anyone I knew – and it was so extreme that I didn’t feel the temptation to join him during my abstinence (and indeed it contributed to our breaking up). This time, I have my husband who has the exact opposite approach – only drinking when he wants to, stopping when he’s done, indulging occasionally and merrily, and only drinking the “good stuff” (no Wray & Nephews for him). And as he cracked open a beautiful-smelling Amarone to have a glass with supper, I nearly cried.
The final difference, miserably, was that this time it hasn’t had the wonderful physical effects I experienced before, though this is based on a couple of reasons, I think; firstly, I haven’t been drinking so much that stopping is a drastic change and secondly, other aspects of my life have been pretty stressful. So whilst I wake feeling a bit perkier in the mornings, this is undermined five days a week by my instant feeling of dread of the day. And whilst apparently in general my skin is “glowing” and eyes “clear”, I’ve had stress spots and dry skin. Hrumph. Also, I appear to still get hangovers after a late night (NOT fair! I guess it’s just dehydration). However, I’m guessing that I would just feel even worse if I had been drinking as well...
So in all, I’ve found this a struggle. While friends and my husband have been understanding and supportive, the wider society is still angled towards the idea that drinking = fun, drinking = enjoyable, drinking = celebratory and drinking = social. Plus, I know that this is true in some measure; with a healthy attitude to alcohol – to drink for the taste not to get hammered (the process rather than the effect) – it can be fun, enjoyable, celebratory and social. But they are not interdependent. And in fact, a lot of the time they are quite the opposite. Whilst last time the extremity of my actions – from overdrinking to no drinking – made it simpler, black and white, this time, the restriction was less severe and thus, ironically I suppose, it was much more difficult to keep within the limits.
The temptation has been great and regular and if I hadn’t had the knowledge that I was doing this for Sweet Cavanagh and its girls, who have suffered so much more, I would have crumbled. So while I know my experience isn’t comparable, I raise a glass of elderflower cordial to you all who don’t have any choice and yet resist this temptation every day and wish you good luck.