Doing Dry January this year? One New Year’s Day, Ally Sinyard solemnly swore to never touch another drink or drug again. This is what she learned about herself after five years…
To save us all some time, I’ll give you the long story short of how I got here. The majority of my drinking years were unremarkable. From age 14 (let’s be honest) to 24, I was absolutely fine 95% of the time. Nothing but mild hangovers and, with the help of dozens of Facebook albums, happy memories. The 5% would be my own silly overindulgence, and a couple of question-marked blackouts. Not bad numbers, really.
Around the age of 24, I suddenly lost my grip on it and the overindulgence and black-outs became more frequent, as did my experimentation with drugs. There was no single life-changing and catastrophic incident, you might be disappointed to read; just a handful of big nights that spelled the beginning of something that would never have a happy ending.
I have borderline personality disorder, where symptoms include excessive behaviours and chronic periods of emptiness and, while I’m not suggesting this diagnosis is entirely responsible for my behaviour, it did make me consider the potential paths that lay ahead of me.
They largely looked like mayhem (the bad kind), destruction and death (arguably the worst kind). While I struggled to stabilise my mental health, I decided the risk just wasn’t worth it. So I called it quits after one last messy New Year’s Eve. Last year, I celebrated five years of sobriety, and reflected on what I learned in that time…
Drinking is one of my triggers
I’ve come to realise that alcohol exacerbates the dark and empty feelings I can be susceptible to. It numbs me out, and then I get bored, and then I get sad. As my mental health declined, those three stages of emotion became routine, where the end result was some form of self-harm.
In my younger years, alcohol went in and fun did indeed come out. I was full of energy and brilliant, stupid ideas. But as I got older, a few drinks would fill my head with white noise. In an attempt to feel something again, my solutions would include more drinks, infinite drinks, punching walls and banging my wrists until they turned purple.
Because I went to group therapy for my BPD before I gave up drinking, I never really hashed out the deeper reasons why I did this. So to momentarily sit across from myself and pretend to be my own therapist, let’s say that drinking made the symptoms of my borderline personality disorder flare up, like cold weather does to bad knees. And I have the attention span and tolerance for boredom of a fuzzball pup.
Some doors close, but others open
I miss the madness, I won’t lie. I miss the stories that come from day-to-night drinking, like that St Patrick’s Day where we spent the whole day in O’Neill’s by Leicester Square and sang Irish folk songs in the smoking area with the actual Maverick Sabre.
And then I kissed someone who will forever be known as Not Matt Damon, because I was convinced he looked like Matt Damon and my friends knew full well that he didn’t. Not even a little. And because I couldn’t remember his actual name.
These might not be epic, life-changing experiences but they’re nights out and stories that me and my friends will reminisce about and giggle at forever. I believe one of the best things in life is sharing experiences with other people, and I wouldn’t change that Paddy’s Day for anything.
Sadly, stories like that don’t really happen once you get sober. I mean, they absolutely can, but the probability significantly decreases, and nobody wants forced fun.
On the other hand, I’ve transformed into a more active person, a morning person, and now have new stories I could never have dreamed of. I became a British Champion in savate kickboxing in 2019, and have represented Team GB at European and World Championships. As a previously unsporty person, writing that out and reading it over will never not feel bananas.
Could I have done this while still being a drinker? Sure, probably. But did I get into kickboxing as something to do instead of drinking, and fell in love with the sport, and got quite good at it, and had the time and energy and saved pennies to train and fight around the world? Yes. So goodbye Matt Damon, hello Ally The Destroyer.
Nobody cares, really
I mean obviously people care. My friends and family have been very supportive, and I don’t mind the regular congratulations that I feel thoroughly undeserving of. I’m more talking about the people who haven’t signed up to adore me: acquaintances, former colleagues, Facebook friends. Once you tell people you don’t drink, they only want to know why.
They want you to tell them it all came crashing down after one last decadent night, where you danced naked in a fountain with the Duke of Hastings from Bridgerton. They want the ludicrous, juicy, gory, sexy details.
Once they’ve satisfied their curiosity (and remained entirely unsatisfied by your answer), you’re not that interesting to them anymore. And actually, unless you have something really insightful to share from it, like sobriety has given you a sixth sense or a third eye, they’ve already stopped listening to you forever. So don’t do it for other people. Do it for yourself.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
I’m not actually talking about boozing here, although it’s also true. I’m talking about late ones. Pre-pandemic, of course. When I first started going out sober, I worried about getting tired before everyone else and having to duck out early. I’d drink energy drinks or even coffee at 1am if it were available, and dance furiously into the night. ‘I. Am. Fun… Sober. Isn’t. Boring.”
After a couple of years, I stopped the furious caffeine intake because obviously that was madness and I’d get home and lie in bed with the shakes of my vodka-red-bull university years. I soon let go of the “peaking too soon” fear.
I discovered that, without caffeine, I hit a tiredness wall at about 11pm. But once I push through it, I’m unstoppable. If I wanted to, I could stay up until 8am, or something. That discovery was really liberating, until of course, you realise you’re 31 and a morning person now, and you’re ruined the next day. So just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.
A friend recently asked me how I push through it, how I stay sociable and have fun when everyone else is “getting on it.” My answer is simple, really: Practice. Fake it til you make it. Sobriety has brought me courage and self-confidence, and now I have no qualms about going up and chatting to strangers. I love meeting new people (and lots of dancing helps too).
The idea of walking into a room full of people I don’t know would have been terrifying years ago, but at a house party pre-pandemic where I only knew the host, I had a great time, made new friends and left at a respectable 1am.
I’m in control, no matter what
I’ve changed a lot in five years. Giving up drinking has calmed me down, given me more self-confidence, made me a morning person and put me largely back in control of my mental health. Sobriety, and the boxing that came along with it, also taught me to let go of things that I can’t control. In retrospect, it probably prepared me quite well for 2020.
Even though I obviously haven’t been able to box, I’ve turned my energy to other new interests, more writing and volunteer work, and have been lucky to get through 2020 with only a couple of BPD episodes… and still teetotal.
I also count myself lucky to have never had a wobble; I’ve never been tempted to crack open a bottle or pinch a cigarette. For me, the negatives outweigh the positives, and even if I’m feeling really stressed, I know a wine or smoke will only help temporarily; the cause of my stress will still be waiting on the other side. It’s done me better in the long run to figure out how to work through my problems.
I’m not preachy about it. Have a glass, have a bottle, if you like. Sometimes I wish dates would have one, rather than politely sticking to water, just to relax a little bit. But I would encourage everyone to have a go at a Dry January or Stoptober, just to see what you learn about yourself too.
If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from alcohol addiction, you can find support on the We Are With You website.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main image Ally Sinyard by Greer McNally, others via Instagram, Getty