But, after a week I was ready to quit. 2020 wasn’t the year for abstaining, I reasoned. I’d given it a go. I’d shown myself that I could go 7 days sober. That was a lot of days. I’d done myself proud. I’d done my country proud. I’d stop, and I’d raise a glass to me.
I don’t remember exactly when I agreed to go a month without drinking. I know that I must have been hungover. Not drinking is at its most appealing when your head is on backwards and the sight of a plain slice of toast turns your stomach. I felt great about it at first; I’d give up drinking and I’d feel amazing.
My skin would clear, my energy would skyrocket, my hair would look permanently blown out. I’d probably write a book and it would probably win all the awards. And then after the 31 days were up I’d have a pint. It would be temporary and life would carry on as normal.
I’ve learned that heavy drinking doesn’t ease anxiety, it simply defers it.
But I didn’t stop. Stubbornness and curiosity won out. I wanted a beer, but more than that wanted to know I could stop drinking at any point without feeling as though the wheels were coming off. So I stayed sober. I looked at my drinking without judgment, and saw that it wasn’t out of control, but wasn’t really working either. It was serving a purpose. It was a way to reliably curb my anxiety and keep me from thinking about infection rates and death tolls. It was something to look forward to through the fog of mundane, repetitive days. I think that’s been true for a lot of us, and isn’t necessarily an indicator of anything other than life being harder, smaller and scarier than it’s ever been.
Relapsing, or realising that your drinking seems a necessity instead of a treat, isn’t a moral failing. It is simply a problem that requires your attention.
But it’s also okay if there is something else to this, if your relationship to drinking has changed, if it does take a lot more from you than it used to. According to research done by Alcohol Change UK, around 21% of drinkers increased the frequency of their drinking during the first lockdown, with 15% drinking more in a typical session. Relapsing, or realising that your drinking seems a necessity instead of a treat, isn’t a moral failing. It is simply a problem that requires your attention.
Problems have solutions. Problems can be caught early. Problems don’t have to become savage, many-headed monsters before you address them. But sometimes they do have sharp teeth by the time you realise there’s something to be done, and it can take time and real effort to correct. If that’s the case, you’re far from alone, and there will be helpful links at the bottom if you’d like to learn more.
December is a festive and important month for a lot of us, and even without raucous office parties or big family feasts, there are still going to be lots of opportunities to drink heavily under the guise of jollity. And there is a lot of fun to be had, but there are also many ways we can compromise our stability and mental wellness in the pursuit of one good night. So get some delicious soft drinks in now. Learn how to make a banging virgin cocktail. Show yourself that you can celebrate and connect without having to write off weekend after weekend to scary thoughts and depression naps.
Because I’ve learned that heavy drinking doesn’t ease anxiety, it simply defers it. I’ve learned that you can have some cans, a whole bottle of wine, and you can feel light and unburdened, and for a while, your problems can seem distant, as though they don’t belong to you and never did. But then you’ll wake up sober, and your heart will beat hard, and a hot shame will wash across you and you will be closer than ever to what hurts.
I’ve learned that looking at your drinking through a lens of curiosity instead of shame or self-scolding gives you a better chance of finding a way forward. I’ve learned that ‘just one glass’ can actually mean just one glass. I’ve learned that examining your relationship with drinking is incredibly worthwhile, that the best time is now, that my life looks different in so many small and miraculous ways because of it. I’ve also learned that alcohol-free beer tastes a lot less like piss than you expect.
I won’t presume to know what testing your own sobriety would feel like, whether it would confirm that you have it under control and have nothing to worry about, or whether it would take a great chunk out of the foundations of a lie you’ve been telling yourself for a long, long time. Whatever’s on the other side, trust that you don’t have to feel perfectly ready to do this, that actually you can do it now, that it’s alright, that there’s an abundance of help and support and that going without can actually leave you with so, so much more. Cheers to that.