I lurched into the bathroom like a shambling zombie hungry for brains. It was a Wednesday morning, and I’d been out for a “few quiet drinks” the night before. Glazed and bloodshot eyes stared back at me in the mirror, set deep in a pale moon face sheened with cold sweat. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
As I stared at my pallid reflection, I remember thinking: “I’ve literally poisoned my body. I am 30 years old. Why am I still doing this to myself?”
We know instinctively that alcohol is terrible for our health. Never is this more keenly felt than in the first throes of an especially vicious hangover.
As the body works to break down alcohol, it produces a chemical called acetaldehyde. Last week a new study by Cambridge University revealed for the first time exactly how this substance can trigger cancer, by permanently changing the genetic code of your stem cells. Alcohol is a factor in more than 12,000 cancer cases a year in Britain, and now we understand why.
But knowing the damage it causes isn’t enough to stop most people drinking again once the memory of the last hangover fades.
I never woke up in a police station or a hospital bed. I didn’t lose my partner, job or home because of my drinking. I was considered a “normal”, socially acceptable drinker. But my consumption had been creeping up insidiously over the years. I often woke up dehydrated and anxious at 3 am, my heart racing, reliving an argument I had with someone five years ago. I had a spare tyre around my middle, a bloated red face, I frequently lost my purse, ate takeaways and overspent. Drinking was draining my time, money and energy in exchange for supposed fun I could barely remember, and I didn’t like the person I had become.
I must not be the only one who’s had enough, because the latest official figures show that the UK has a growing teetotal population. About 21 per cent of UK adults surveyed in 2016 said they don’t drink, and that figure rises to 27 per cent for 16 to 24 year olds, up from 19 per cent a decade ago.
I started by doing what everyone does when they don’t really want to stop drinking. I tried moderation. I made up arbitrary rules – no drinking in the week, only beer, no more than two glasses of wine, no spirits – and then I broke them all because after one drink I didn’t care about the rules anymore. I once read on a sober blog: “if you need to moderate, you can’t moderate.” The suggestion that it might be easier to have none rather than trying to manage it all the time was a revelation. So I tried that. But at the first sign of trouble, I was straight back to my only coping mechanism. It wasn’t until I found better ways to deal with stress that my periods of abstinence began to get longer.
I cared a lot about what other people thought in the early days, and it was tough. I began to experience the stigma around sobriety and the assumption, sometimes unspoken and, incredibly, sometimes not, that I must have A Drink Problem.
At a family party, I explained that I wanted to feel better and get more done, holding my sparkling water white-knuckled. A relative eyed me suspiciously over her fruit cider and asked loudly in front of everyone: “But what’s the REAL reason?” I doubt she would have asked me the REAL reason I’d quit smoking. Our society venerates an addictive substance, and then pillories you if there’s even a hint you may have become addicted to it. I had been ashamed of my drinking and now I was being made to feel ashamed of my sobriety.
Sometimes other people think you not drinking is about them, and they feel threatened and judged. The ones who behave worst are those who have a reason to feel defensive about the spotlight shining on their own consumption. At a wedding, a sozzled guest sneered nastily, straight to my face, “I don’t trust non-drinkers.”
Not drinking feels lonely at first, because alcohol greases the wheels of every social occasion. You’re celebrating – drink. You’re commiserating – drink. You’re going to a gig, a movie, a restaurant – drink. Every birthday card in the shop makes a joke about gin.
But there are strategies you can use to get through those early days, until your confidence grows and you work out who you are as a sober person. Yes, you’ll probably spend less time in bars, but you’ll still have fun.
Stopping drinking in my 30s is the nicest thing I have ever done for myself. The self-respect I reclaimed was a powerful antidote to the chronic shame that came with drinking more than I wanted to. I’m now two years alcohol free, and what I thought would be a plain old boring life is actually not boring at all: it’s peaceful. When you remove the alcohol, space opens up for better things to come in.