This week I’m celebrating ten years without alcohol. I’m going to put my modesty aside for a second – I think this is a phenomenal achievement and I’m looking back in awe of my past-self who took that first courageous step. It was without doubt my single most enlightened decision in this life – the catalyst for many further boundary pushing decisions since. Alcohol – I didn’t need it, in fact I never did, but somehow society told me, tells us, that we do. And so we just sort of do it, and then before long we might even believe it.How and why did I get here?
When I finally decided to stop drinking I was just about to start a Masters course. I was a little wild back then – in spite of trying very hard I never could quite present my best self when I drank. I wasn’t really aware that this wasn’t my best self at the time though as I was plagued with my fair share of anxieties that I wasn’t equipped to deal with. I found being in large groups extremely painful, speaking to new people was nearly always unnerving, relationships were generally difficult, and my thoughts when I sat alone were sometimes rather dark – I often thought there was something wrong with me. But with a drink in hand these things seemed to matter much less and I had felt, although misguidedly, that I was in fact presenting a much better self. Problems solved? No, problems covered up.
I never used to consider alcohol as a “drug” – let alone one of the most dangerous and harmful – as it featured so heavily in my environment growing up. There was always drink around the house, relatives got drunk at parties, and advertisement for alcohol back then was everywhere. What was this mysterious potion that resulted in people acting out of character and being kind of weird but sometimes also seemingly funny? I can fondly remember drinking ginger beer with my brother and play acting that we were both drunk. It seemed fun at the time and I assumed that the adults knew what they were doing and must know what was best. When I was young I welcomed the opportunity to take a little sip of someone’s beer or have a weak shandy at Christmas. I didn’t really understand but I was curious.
Just a social drink?
I’m not sure when I had my first drink “socially” with friends but I remember a particularly eye-opening experience when I must have been 14 or 15. I had gone to a friend’s house whilst his parents were away. We drank vodka – it didn’t taste great but I knew enough even then that taste wasn’t the real reason why people drink. I couldn’t remember much of what happened that night but in my sorry state the next day my friends were more than happy to remind me. Although it was more than a little bit embarrassing I must admit that it did feel good hearing people recount stories about me to others – I felt like I was a bit like everyone else, I felt interesting and that I had a place. In all honesty it was hearing people recount my “drunken heroics” of the night before that perhaps brought the most pleasure from alcohol for me. I wasn’t much aware of that at the time though and even if I was I certainly didn’t know how, or hadn’t been taught or encouraged, to find other ways of getting my needs met.I did my fair share of underage drinking but as I looked around and compared my drinking with others it didn’t seem like there was anything unusual to worry about. If I had a problem then everyone had a problem! As I got older and had my first attempt at university (I only managed one term on this attempt) it became apparent that not everyone drank like my friends and I back home. Added to this I felt like I didn’t really belong at university and so those insecurities opened up again – I didn’t fit in and I’d feel awkward in social situations and I’d sit there with little to say to people. It felt worse than when I was a young teenager. And so I drank harder than before and when I drank I became much more social, but very quickly I was just loud and obnoxious. To some people, however, it was good entertainment as they’d report the next day.
Is alcohol good for anything?
Children have this uncanny ability to run around free and uninhibited but those natural insecurities and inhibitions as adolescence approaches are sometimes difficult to deal with. We don’t do a good job teaching our children how to deal with them – perhaps because we’ve never learnt ourselves – and so they look at the things we use to help us cope. Alcohol is ubiquitous in our societies and whilst it might help people like me break free of insecurities and inhibitions eventually it can become a bind and one may come to think that alcohol is necessary to deal with these issues. It isn’t. Alcohol might even become an excuse for those things that one might have wished they’d never done, but still actually did. It isn’t. I eventually learnt that there is no excuse – when I drank things happened and they had consequences, sometimes good and possibly funny, but often bad, and responsibility had to be taken by someone at some point. That person had to be me and it was in taking responsibility for those consequences that made me realise that stopping was a good option for me.
Time to stop
But how do you stop drinking when alcohol is pretty much available everywhere all of the time at low cost. At first I tried just drinking less and it would be OK for a couple of nights out but quite quickly I found myself getting into some sort of trouble. When I tried to explain to people that I wanted to drink less I would be told “don’t worry about it everyone drinks too much and does silly stuff sometimes”. But I was worried that “sometimes” felt like nearly every time to me and some of the things I got up to weren’t just silly. However, after one night out in particular I thought it was time I experimented with not drinking in the summer of 2004 for 2 months. I just wanted to see what happened, how it felt, whether I could do it – I didn’t want to be someone who says they can do something if they wanted to but it just so happened didn’t want to right now. But it was really difficult – it was football season and everyone was in the pub watching matches. I joined my friends but it was hard. I wanted to be like everyone else – I wanted to fit in. Everyone else wanted me to be like them too and drink – who was this weird guy who didn’t drink? Even I didn’t really know him back then.
I managed 2 months though, but throughout I have to admit I felt like I was depriving myself and was itching for it to be over so I could return to “normal”. I thought I’d learn something about myself – perhaps how to moderate my drinking a bit. I didn’t learn – very quickly I ran into trouble again.
I had gone back to university by now and by the time I reached my final year I recognised that I wanted to take my studies seriously. It was pretty much the only thing I had going for me at the time. So a couple of months into my final year I decided I would not drink until after my finals. This time it was for six months and I have to admit it was a pretty miserable time. I wasn’t very happy then – I didn’t really know how to be happy – I was reliant on things going well outside of me and had never taken the time to cultivate my insides – back then I didn’t even realise I could. I thought I was who I was and that I couldn’t change that. And so once the finals were over I went back to drinking. Moderately?!? Well I wished! My first two nights back drinking were tragic to say the least. After 6 months I hadn’t seemed to have learnt anything – I still wanted to drink, and to drink just as hard as before.
A last drink
Fortunately though I had at least done well in my exams and I had a place on a Masters course at a new university. Could I have done that had I been drinking? I will never know. But I remember the anxiety I had at the time – what would I do at this new university far away from old friends? How would I socialise, how would I make friends? How would I cope with those insecurities? But I was a bit older by then and so I was a little more aware of my-self and my “weaknesses”. The strategy would be to start afresh – have a few drinks at first to get to know people and then I would stop as needed. I wouldn’t get into old patterns. Definitely not! This was the plan and I was convinced it would work but then I had a particularly intense drinking session with a good friend of mine and I started to doubt my plan. Could I be trusted? But the nail in the coffin for the plan was when I went to see some other friends for a catch up just before I left. I didn’t do anything crazy but just drank a little bit more than I would have otherwise liked to have done on a casual evening out. It dawned on me afterwards that if I started life out in a new environment as a drinker then I would only ever meet drinkers and probably that wouldn’t help me later at all.
That was the last time I ever drank. It always felt a bit different to the other times. I was in a completely new environment and I had a chance to present a completely different self – expectations from others, from myself, were less. I also remember saying to myself “I’ve got enough drinking stories to compete with the best of them and if I keep drinking it’s just going to be more of the same and I can’t see what I’m going to learn about myself”. But it has not been an easy road – I had to really face up to some difficult issues I had been holding for many years. Who in fact was I? Up until then drink had been such a huge part of my life and stopping left a big hole that I really didn’t know how to fill. I had never been interested in much else – I didn’t know how to be interested in other things and so I began learning. About all the different ways I might be able to meet my needs. And I’m thankful I did.
The first year was the most difficult…
That first year was hard though. At first I’d find myself still trying to do the same things but without drink – I’d go out with drinking circles and I realised how much I relied on my drinking stories just to bond with people. I really didn’t have much else to say at times. But after some time I found other things. First it was triathlon. I won’t deny that it acted as a substitute for a bit – it filled the hole and there were so many parallels to the relationship I had with drink except that it was on the surface at least much healthier. At first it certainly was. I’d go out with friends cycling struggling to keep up with them but I got stronger and healthier. But I admit I did get a bit obsessed and after a race how I felt the next day wasn’t too dissimilar from how I felt after a heavy session drinking. A body feeling battered and bruised. How healthy is it running marathons or cycling for hours on end? I managed an Ironman even and afterwards I was put on a drip…for a week I could barely move. But at least I was conscious of this and could remember what I was doing and why I was doing it. I stopped racing after that experience but my body felt empowered. I could do anything and I’d fallen in love with life.
…but it got easier and easier
And so that is how I got here and it feels better than ever. I’m more in touch with me and so many new things have entered my life that would have not been possible had I not stepped away all those years ago. I still look back in awe of that life-changing decision and I’m thankful for the courage that came from deep. It is sad to say that in a society where drinking culture is so pronounced too many people just think you’re a bit weird when you don’t drink. This makes the support that you do get so valuable and there were certainly key people – a now ex-girlfriend who supported me all the way and in a key moment convinced me not to have a drink at my sister’s wedding – thank you so much; my family who in spite of drinking issues of their own have always been there; really truly good friends that have known me at my worst yet still stood by – thank you for accepting me as I moved to a new way of being. And then there is appreciation for all the new friends that I’ve since met who didn’t even know this me existed and have accepted me nonetheless. I value and love you all.
*** Thank you for reading. If you like any of my posts then I’m happy to have them shared or commented upon. Also if you don’t like anything then I’d be grateful to hear that too.