Christmas Eve 2018 was the last time I drank alcohol.
Maybe you’re expecting a ceremonial moment of significance as I savoured every last drop of the Mexican Craft Beer I had been handed by our host (I was in Oaxaca, Mexico), but I’m not even sure if I finished the whole thing.
For one, I’d been in bed for 36 hours with travel sickness so I wasn’t really feeling it, and secondly I knew enough about myself from previous diets, periods of abstinence, giving up sugar, or going vegetarian or vegan to know that the bigger deal I made of quitting alcohol, the more front-of-mind it would be, and the harder that would make it for me.
No, better for me to slip into this new lifestyle without a great fanfare.
It definitely helped being a long way from home and from all the usual festive temptations and routines. Plus I knew that I would be spending the next five days, including New Year’s Eve, at a yoga resort in Tulum. It wasn’t that alcohol wouldn’t be readily available. It would. New Year’s Eve in Mexico is still New Year’s Eve. But more that I would be occupying myself with other things so alcohol wouldn’t be a primary focus.
Probably my top tip for anybody looking to make a lifestyle change like this is to do so in such a scenario when you are removed from your usual life situation. Spend a weekend in the country, visit some relatives, or friends with children. Or piggy-back off of a rejuvenating holiday like I did. Then bring your new positive habits back to your regular life. Rather than going cold turkey or attempting a big change in the middle of your regular routine.
So that’s how it began for me. What works for you might be different. Each to their own. Twelve months on, here is what I’ve learned:
Lesson 1: Not drinking isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be
When you’re raised in the UK where, at least in the world I grew up in, alcohol is an ever-present at pretty much every social gathering from the age of 14, it becomes hard to imagine a life without booze.
“What will I do at weekends?” “What will I do at parties?” “Can I even still go to parties?” Are all questions that crossed my mind. None of which, it turns out, were worth worrying about.
As with anything unfamiliar it can feel daunting at first. But in my experience at least, the thought of giving up alcohol was much worse than actually giving up.
Lesson 2: Alcohol doesn’t actually add to my experience of anything.
I don’t think this is unique to me, but at some point in my life I learned to equate drinking alcohol with having a better time.
This belief grew so strong that it would override evidence to the contrary. Like when I was 16 and went to watch one of my favourite bands, but drank so much that I missed half of the gig. During the half I did see, I was probably a nightmare nuisance for those around me, stumbling into them, shouting slurred lyrics at the top of my voice.
For sure, there have been countless equivalent examples over the years, but rather than these being valuable learning experiences, never to be repeated, in UK Lad Culture at least, they instead tend to become immortalised as ‘classic nights’ – great stories. It’s nonsense really. And over the course of the past year I’ve disproved a number of other accepted truths about alcohol.
For example, it doesn’t make me more social. I’m not a natural extrovert. Conversation doesn’t come easy to me. So it was tempting to believe the tale that alcohol would make me more sociable, more lively and fun. Sometimes it would seem to do so. But equally, other times it would make me feel more uncomfortable and anxious than usual.
By taking alcohol completely out of the equation I have been able to identify what other factors actually play a bigger role in determining how much life and soul I have to give to a party. Like, “How well rested am I?” “How calm and present is my mind?” “Do I actually want to be here?” Or the kicker: “Do I simply not have much in common with the person I’m talking to, and would we both be better off calling it quits and talking to someone else?”
When, “Have I had the optimal amount of alcohol to be sociable?” Is the only question we’re considering, we miss all of these potential contributing factors.
One thing I can say with 100% honesty is that having now gone a year without drinking, there isn’t a single event or evening that I can look back on and think, “That evening would have been better if I was drinking.”
That, for me, says an awful lot.
Lesson 3: I’m more aware of my emotions
When I was a drinker, booze became my go-to to take the edge off any negative emotions I was experiencing.
Feeling anxious? Have a drink. Feeling sad? Have a drink. Feeling empty? Have a drink. Feeling stressed? Have a drink. Of course, it worked as a tactic to take my mind off the emotion. If I drank enough, I could probably blast it out of mind for the best part of a week. But it rarely helped me understand why I was feeling that way, or solved the underlying cause.
Taking alcohol out of the equation has allowed me to sit with uncomfortable feelings more often and consider what they are, where they are coming from and what they are trying to tell me.
Lesson 4: There’s so much more to life than what happens in bars and pubs
When your entire social life revolves around the question of, “Which pub will we meet in this weekend?” I hate to break it to you, but you’re missing out on a lot of life.
And the great news is that it will involve a lot of experimentation and fun to find new hobbies that you enjoy. This is empowering and exciting. It could be a life changing catalyst to help you discover a new passion.
I wrote a section in The Power Up Your Life Workbook on discovering new hobbies and building new habits, but to give you the top-line news, with apps like Meetup and Facebook Local, as well as local community forums, it’s never been easier to find a wide array of new things to try and new people to meet, in your local community.
When your life revolves around every social occasion taking place in a bar, it’s hard to imagine what else there is to do. But simply taking proactive steps to explore other options is a real eye-opener, and one of the most liberating benefits of kicking the booze.
And now for the very welcome benefits…
As well as those important lessons, quitting alcohol has brought a host of unexpected but very welcome benefits.
Benefit 1: I have more time
Alcohol is a stimulant which means that, whilst drinking, we’re less likely to feel tired or notice when we’re ready for bed. To compound this, I was one of those drunks that never wanted the party to end (I think this is a reflection of growing up as an only child), subconsciously trying every trick in the book to persuade friends to stay for “one more drink” so that I wouldn’t be alone again.
Now I’m no longer drinking I’m less likely to still be awake into the early hours of the morning, building up to a hangover that will also write off the entire next day. And probably more.
No, instead I’m more likely to be in bed by 12pm, even at weekends, which means waking by 8 or 9am with a beautifully fresh head, ready for a full day of whatever I want to spend it doing. It certainly beats sleeping in ’til lunchtime and even then feeling too rough to do anything useful.
Benefit 2: I feel vibrant, have a clearer head & sharper thoughts
In the days that used to follow a drinking session I would feel like I was operating in spite of a handicap.
Whether it be my efforts in the gym, on the football pitch or tennis court, my mental acuity at work, or even simply socialising with friends and colleagues, I had a constant awareness that I wasn’t at my best. Happily that is no longer the case. If I’m feeling sub par these days it’s usually easy to pinpoint the cause to being a poor night’s sleep or eating too much sugar the previous night. Those things aside I’m happy to report that I feel consistently pretty amazing.
And this personal observation is backed by science. Alcohol does damage brain cells, but the good news is that they can regenerate during long periods of abstinence. So not only do I feel smarter since not drinking for 12 months, I probably actually am smarter and sharper too.
Benefit 3: I actually remember events
I’ve been to five music gigs this past year and I can honestly say that they have been amongst the best gigs I’ve ever been to – in a lifetime of concerts being a big part of my life. Is this a happy coincidence? Maybe. But more likely I have been more present and focused on the performance and the atmosphere, rather than swaying and stumbling into people, whilst feeling anxiety about whether it is my turn to get the next round of drinks in, and which songs I might miss whist queuing at the bar.
Better still, the next day I remember everything that happened very clearly. It actually makes me pretty sad to think of all of the amazing bands and artists I’ve seen in my lifetime, but have little to no recollection of.
And also a little mortified to think about how I may have impacted other more sober people’s enjoyment of said gigs.
Benefit 4: I spend less money
This may be an obvious one, but especially since my drinking had become about fancy cocktail bars and nice wines, I’m saving a lot of money now that I’ve decreased the amount of nights I spend out in bars.
And when I do find myself in them, it’s easy to stop after two or three non-alcoholic drinks, which in the past would have been just when the party was getting started.
So, all in all, giving up alcohol 12 months ago was one of the best decisions I have ever made. And I shan’t be drinking again anytime soon.
There are moments when I ponder, “Could I loosen the rules and have the odd beer or glass of wine every now and then?” But right now I don’t know why I would do that. As I explain in my article My tips for quitting alcohol, there are now many alcohol-free alternatives that make an excellent placebo. Meanwhile, as explained above, some of the benefits I’m experiencing are cumulative over time.
What’s more, I know myself well enough to understand that an all-or-nothing mentality is what works best for me.
If you’re thinking of giving up alcohol and would like any advice, I’d be happy to share more details of my experience. Feel free to find Man Body Spirit on facebook and send me a facebook Message.