The chances are that if you’re a big drinker, then your friends are too.
We tend to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. But what do you do when you want to change… and the people around you don’t? If you feel nobody understands why you’re trying to stop, then this post is for you.
Here’s how to stay sober – and motivated – when all your friends drink:
Be prepared to say no.
If you think that going out for your regular Friday night drinks might be your undoing, then don’t go. People won’t be offended for long – and it won’t always be like this. In the early days, when you’re trying to build some sober momentum, sometimes you have to turn things down. This doesn’t mean you need to sit at home feeling lonely. You can be proactive and organise something you want to do, like going out for lunch or a trip to the cinema. If you do decide to go to the pub, think about what you’ll say if someone offers you a drink. Remember: you’re in control. This is your decision.
When you’re tempted to drink, ask yourself why.
Alcohol has become so integrated into our daily lives that it’s hard to think of an occasion where booze can’t be justified. We drink when we’re happy and when we’re sad. We drink because it’s Friday or payday or someone’s birthday or just because the weather’s nice. Whatever the reason, most of us are in the habit of using alcohol as a shortcut to feeling another way. So rather than just trying to stop yourself drinking, try and figure out why you want to drink. What is it you’re really feeling? Are you angry, sad, lonely, stressed? Is there another way you can manage your emotions? Do you really want to drink or are you turning to it out of habit?
List your reasons.
Sometimes, when you’re caught off guard or you’re being pressured to drink, it can be hard to remember why on earth you’re doing this. So make a list. Keep it in your purse, on your phone – somewhere you can access it easily. Only you know why you’re trying to stop drinking. Don’t let yourself be derailed by a friend who only knows half the story.
Get some perspective.
We live in a very boozy world. So many people are convinced that alcohol is sexy, glamorous and sophisticated; everything you need if you want to express yourself and live life to the full. That’s total nonsense, of course. Being sober does not mean you have to spend the rest of your days living like a nun, drinking cocoa and going to bed early (unless you want to, that is). If you look carefully, you’ll see there are loads of people out there leading full and happy lives without alcohol. Just look at Eva Mendes, Kristin Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Davina McCall, Bradley Cooper or Gerard Butler. They’re all sober. And are they boring? No!
I’d love to know…
How, specifically, have you handled people who were uncomfortable with your sobriety? What worked and what didn’t? Please share your ideas and stories below.
Imagine you could counsel your younger self: what words of advice would you offer? I’m reading a book at the moment in which numerous celebrities write letters to their teenage selves. From the hilarious to the heartfelt, there are some little nuggets of wisdom: don’t do drugs, listen to your mother, buy shares in Google – and my personal favourite – stop hating your thighs!
It got me thinking about hindsight and our fantastic ability to understand a situation after it’s happened. Hindsight can make things look so completely, utterly different. I’ve often thought that if I could go back in time to when I was struggling to stop drinking, there would be about a hundred things I’d want to tell myself.
For example, it would’ve been handy to know that alcohol-free living was not going to be hell on earth (despite first impressions). I was convinced that drinking was the only way to have fun and relax. If I’d known that eventually I’d feel a million times happier without alcohol, then perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted so much time trying to get booze to fit into my life. They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome; looking back, this sums up my behaviour exactly.
It goes without saying that we can learn a lot from other people’s experiences. So, I asked a few graduates from my Getting Unstuck course to reflect on what they’d love to have known, back when they were still drinking. What would they have told themselves, if only they’d listen? The results are funny, touching – and straight from the heart.
“If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would tell myself that once you aren’t drinking anymore and you observe how people behave at parties, you will feel so grateful that you are not behaving that way. Asking the same questions over and over, crying about something that’s not even a big deal, making the ‘sexy face’ (even though it’s really the drunk, train wreck face) and having really fake conversations. I wish I could have shown myself how I was acting and coming across. I always thought a core value of mine was being authentic. It’s only now, as a non-drinker, that I feel like I’m really living in line with that. It’s so great. It’s the best way I have ever connected with myself and felt real and genuine.” Jamie
“I’d love to have known that in sobriety, I could have everything – yes, everything – that I was looking for by drinking. Really! Even though it sounds crazy. Everything is within you already – confidence, fun, the ability to heal. In that way, I’d like to tell myself that I can take alcohol down off the pedestal and that it is ok to just be me.” Ruth
“Alcohol gives you nothing, it takes away the joy of life. And you’re making it too hard for yourself because there is no such thing as moderation. Cut it out completely, set yourself free and enjoy your wonderful, hangover-free sober life and all the possibilities it brings! Miranda
I would tell my younger self that I didn’t need alcohol to be a fun and interesting person. I’m much better just the way I am, and much more likely to find my tribe of people by being true to myself than by changing my personality to be more outgoing through booze. It’s a cliché, but it’s true! Juliet
Have you recently stopped drinking? What are the things you’ve learnt, with the benefit of hindsight? I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂
It’s National Stop Smoking Day on Wednesday. The theme for this year is ‘proud to be a quitter’. I love this idea. In life we’re always told to never give up and to keep going – but when it comes to something like smoking, being a quitter is definitely a good thing.
I find most public health campaigns about smoking are very bold. They cut to the chase. Just look at this leaflet I found in my doctor’s surgery, called ‘stop smoking, start living’. Look how happy the man is! Inside, there are action plans and step-by-step guides, all with the goal of getting people to stop completely. The leaflet acknowledges that quitting smoking can be tough, but the message is clear: all the hard work is worth it.
So why don’t we take the same approach with alcohol?
Take a look at this yellow leaflet. (The waiting room at my local surgery must have at least ten different leaflets about smoking, but there’s only one about alcohol and this is it.) At first glance, it looks a bit like a children’s storybook – check out the cartoon characters and the non-confrontational, lower case text. Here’s what it says on the first page:
‘Cutting down doesn’t have to mean giving up. The good news is there’s no need to stop drinking alcohol altogether. All you really need to do is stick within the guidelines below.’
For me, there’s a very big problem here. This statement reinforces the idea that stopping drinking is a negative thing, or that it means missing out. It implies that sobriety is miserable and frankly, rather unnecessary. It’s a strange message to have in a public health leaflet, but I see this advice everywhere. When it comes to booze we’re always telling people to simply cut down. Why is this? With other poisonous substances we don’t tiptoe around the issue. We don’t say to people, “the good news is there’s no need to stop taking heroin completely. Just cut down!” Or “there’s no need to stop smoking altogether!” So why say this about booze? Alcohol is an addictive substance.
According to the leaflet, if you drink above the recommended guidelines, bad stuff will happen. You’re at risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, oesophagus and larynx, breast cancer, stroke, heart disease, reduced fertility … the list goes on. But if you play nicely, stick to the rules and stay within the guidelines then you’ll be ok because there’s only a ‘low risk of harm’.
There are lots of tips about how to ‘get sneaky and cut back’. There’s nothing earth shattering though: the suggestions include drinking out of a smaller glass, starting your first drink later in the day or taking less cash with you. My favourite (not at all patronising) suggestion is, ‘When you get the urge to pour yourself a glass, put the kettle on and enjoy a cuppa instead’ (!)
At no point do the cuddly cartoon characters suggest that moderating your drinking is just one option.
There is no mention of stopping drinking completely. There’s no advice about what to do if cutting back doesn’t work. Nowhere does it point out that if you’re trying to control your drinking, then on some level, alcohol is already controlling you.
Don’t get me wrong, I think moderation is a good starting point. It’s definitely worth trying and it works for some people. But I think we should be more accepting of the fact that it doesn’t work for everyone. And when you think about it, why should it? If your preference is to drink more, why would you feel content with less? And what makes us think we can exercise willpower after consuming a mind-altering drug? We’re not superhuman.
Trying to moderate your intake means you’re constantly having to make decisions and bargain with yourself. Will you drink tonight? How much? When? Where? There is this idea that ‘a little of what you fancy does you good, but with booze, science is against us. When we drink, we build up a tolerance to the effects of alcohol. So over time, that moderate glass of wine doesn’t create the same buzz that it used to, so you’re left wanting more.
If things are going to change, we really need to get past this idea that alcohol-free living is some kind of painful, uncool, boring existence.
Every time a public health leaflet says ‘there’s no need to stop drinking altogether!’ it reinforces the idea that alcohol brings us some kind of joy that we cannot get elsewhere. If sobriety really was that dire, then I – and many others – would have gone back to drinking.
Now I know that telling people they need to stop drinking may not go down well. I get that. Perhaps it would seem too bossy. Maybe it would backfire. But just think about what we’ve done with cigarettes. Fags are well and truly out of fashion; they’ve had a serious make-under. Smoking is no longer the social norm – in the UK just 18% of adults smoke. It’s incredible, especially when you consider that not so long ago, smoking was the epitome of cool and glamour; cigarettes were endorsed by Hollywood icons and people could light up anywhere. So surely, if we can change public attitudes to one toxic, poisonous substance, then we can do the same with another?
I get lots of questions about sugar.
Alcohol has tons of sugar in it and when you take the booze away, our bodies can really miss the sweet stuff. People who’ve spent years skipping dessert can suddenly find they want to inhale pints of ice cream or steal sweets from children. Everyone wants to know if sugar cravings are ‘normal’. Is it ok to indulge a sweet tooth? How long for? And at what point do you risk turning into some kind of crazy, sugar-and-carb monster?
Now I’m no nutritionist, dietician or doctor. And I do not have a perfect diet. But over the past few years, through my own trial and error, I have learnt a couple of things about sugar and sobriety.
So, if you suspect you’re single-handedly keeping Haribo in business, here are a few points you might like to consider:
Eating healthily will reduce your cravings for sugar and alcohol
I’m not talking about dieting – I mean nourishing meals at regular intervals. You should be aiming to keep your blood sugar levels stable. When they spike or crash it makes us feel lousy and we’re more likely to reach outside of ourselves for something to ease the discomfort (hello wine, hello pizza). It’s no coincidence that wine o’clock is around 5pm – the time of day when you’re the most hungry, tired and thirsty. So, eat enough to fuel yourself properly. Don’t skip breakfast thinking you can save the calories for a muffin later. It’s not worth it.
A little of what you fancy does you good
If you get to the end of the day and you’re feeling knackered – and wine seems really tempting – then a sugar fix is not necessarily a bad thing. If it stops you drinking, then it’s fine in my book. It takes what it takes. Besides, eating sweets on your commute home or having dessert after dinner is quite different to starting your day with a chocolate croissant and caramel latte. A sugar explosion in the morning is not a good idea.
Think long term, not short term
You are not going to turn into a perfect person overnight, so if you do end up eating a lot of sugar, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to replace one addiction with another. If you’re still mainlining ice cream in five or six months’ time then fine – you might need to do some work around that. But worry about it then, when you’re stronger and healthier, rather than now.
Look at the bigger picture
Sugar and alcohol give many of us a hard time, but they are just two pieces of the puzzle that is your life. There are other things that you can do to make yourself feel better right now. Top of the list is get more sleep. This has to be one of the cheapest and easiest routes to feeling good. Take a multivitamin. Drink more water. If you’re in the mood for it, get some exercise. Most of all, be patient. Now more than ever, you need to be kind to yourself and manage your expectations. We love our quick fixes; alcohol and sugar certainly act fast. But sobriety is about the long game. You’re doing a really amazing thing right now, so hang on in there!
What are your tips for staying in control of your sugar intake? I’d love to hear them.
Do I need to stop?
It’s a question many of us have wrestled with. You know what it’s like; alcohol is making you feel crap, you’re pretty sure you’re drinking too much and yet, stopping forever seems just… well, impossible.
In fact, stopping anything forever is pretty intimidating. But stopping for six weeks? Or two months? Or 100 days? It’s definitely more doable.
The trick is to get some decent space between you and your last drink. You need some clear-headed thinking time, so choose a target that will stretch you. (One week is not going to cut it.)
Once you’ve decided on your goal, commit to not drinking during that time. Don’t think about the future and don’t worry about what you’ll do in the long term. Instead, concentrate on the here and now. Give it everything you’ve got; read and learn as much as you can and get help if you need it.
Once you’ve hit your target, then – and only then – should you decide what to do next. You can always go back to drinking if you want. You always have that option, but many people decide to carry on for a bit longer. They set another goal. They do a bit more and see how it feels. Honestly, it works. In 2013 I set out to stop drinking for 100 days. Now I’m well over 1,000 days.
Still not sure if you really need to take a break? Are you wondering if your drinking is ‘bad enough’?
It’s really tempting to insert some cheesy, magazine-style quiz here. If someone at BuzzFeed can dream up a test called Which Cookie Matches Your Personality? (I’m a ginger snap, by the way) then I’m pretty sure I could create one called Should I Take A Break From Alcohol? (Maybe I’d need to weave in something about your star sign, or your favourite member of One Direction, for extra authenticity.)
It seems we like to be categorised. Or maybe we just like the decision to be taken out of our hands. Either way, when it comes to booze, you don’t really need any kind of complicated algorithm to work out if you’re drinking too much. It all comes down this: if you’re repeatedly drinking more than you intend to – and it’s making you miserable – then you probably should stop for a while. And if you’re staying up late, googling, “do I have a drinking problem” then yeah, you probably have got one.
Let me put this all another way. If you thought you had a gluten intolerance, and it made you feel bloated, lethargic and ill, would you carry on buying sandwiches at lunchtime? I doubt it. Would you try eating sandwiches every other day or just at the weekend? Maybe you would, to start with. But if that didn’t work, and you still felt awful, then I suspect you’d try and cut out gluten completely. Wouldn’t you want to experiment and find out if a gluten-free diet made you feel better?
It’s exactly the same principle with alcohol. Some of us are just allergic to it. And guess what? Alcohol is not essential to life! Alcohol is not the same as air, food or water. You can have a perfectly full and fabulous life without a drop of booze passing your lips. I know some people will try and convince you otherwise, but I promise it is possible. Go on – try it.
So apparently today is Blue Monday. It’s officially the ‘most depressing day of the year’. I’m not quite sure how they work that out, but it’s something to do with the lousy weather, our post-Christmas credit card bills and the fact that most of us have abandoned our New Year’s resolutions.
Now I can’t do much about the weather. Or your bank balance. But if you’re trying to change your drinking this year and things haven’t gone to plan, then I have something for you because it’s never too late to get things back on track. All you need is a giant dose of motivation from people who have been there and done that.
Last week I asked my sober readers to let me know about some of the amazing and surprising things that have happened to them since they stopped drinking. The results? An incredibly honest, inspiring and uplifting read.
I hope you enjoy reading their responses as much as I did. And many thanks to everyone who contributed.
“Here’s what would’ve never happened to me if I hadn’t quit drinking, which I did August 1, 2015. I would have never gotten serious about my writing, because I would have been too busy recovering from hangovers, feeling tired, feeling bad about myself, and feeling like I was ready for a drink and then rationalizing having one at lunch, then one at 2 o’clock, 5 o’clock, and so on. Now I’ve taken a travel writing class, hired a writing coach, written ten travel blog posts, and am enrolled in a ten-week nonfiction writers bootcamp – plus I’m taking Spanish lessons. I’d also like to say that quitting drinking is the best possible thing I could have done for my marriage (just married in June after 4 yrs together). My husband is entirely supportive of my decision to quit alcohol and says he likes the new me! These are someone else’s words, but they fit me too: Sobriety has given me everything that alcohol promised!”
“I’ve been sober for 18 months and since then have found my dream job; teaching crafts to adults recovering from mental health issues. Had I still been drinking I’d never have had the energy for the interview, never mind turning up for work on time, Monday to Friday, feeling well and able to support people and think of crafts to make. It’s the best job in the world and totally impossible had I not quit binge drinking.”
“The best thing for me personally was the day my son said, ‘Mummy, you don’t look half asleep anymore. And you remember everything I say now.’ Those words are what keeps me on track, six months sober in February.”
“I stopped drinking just over a year ago. With no morning hangovers, I could workout. When I wanted a drink, I did pushups (one pushup, 15 pushups, 5 pushups… whatever I could do to not go to the pantry). Then I started boxing and now I help train people by working at a boxing club. My daughters say I’m less cranky, have fewer headaches and smile more.”
“I stopped drinking alcohol on May 28th 2014. Since then I’ve lost nearly 5 stone in weight and I am now a Personal Trainer. My life has changed beyond all recognition and I have never looked back.”
“I’ve been sober for almost 2 years. Since I stopped drinking I’ve been able to leave a violent relationship and get a new job. I now work for a drug and alcohol organisation so I can help others. I was a peer mentor first and I’m now a full time key worker.”
“Something amazing that happened since I stopped drinking is I had the best New Year ever! I chose to stay in with family and was fast asleep before 12. I didn’t feel I missed out at all. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I woke up on New Year’s Day feeling happy, confident and positive. Normally I’d be full of self loathing and memory loss and it was amazing to realise I actually enjoyed Christmas and New Year more sans alcohol.”
“My hubby and I have both started exercising after work. Only a 20 minute walk/jog of just over a mile but we are doing it. Before we would have come in and had a glass of wine, game over. Now we are getting outside. We are full of enthusiasm, energy and actually feel quite smug!”
“Things that make life better? No more covering up, delusions or lies to myself or those I love. Ever. Freedom from the constant worry of when/if/how much to drink and its availability. Slowly, slowly, becoming comfortable as me. Hitting my target weight and staying there – I couldn’t have done it with significant calorie expenditure on alcohol.”
Felicity, Northern Ireland
“The best thing so far is being a better mum and having more patience and clarity. I have been able to help with all the little (but big to them) problems in their lives, instead of just falling asleep on the sofa every evening and feeling rubbish the next morning. This has made our relationships so much better.”
“Having a genuine sober laugh has been a revelation. In fact [at a recent party] my aunt thought I was drunk because I was having so much fun! I have also been able to maintain a positive mind set, which is new to me. I have no hangovers, no guilt, no sinus, nausea or IBS issues that I am usually plagued with when drinking. I am alert and sleeping really well.”
Del, County Antrim