We’ve all been there. You go for a quiet drink with friends and the next thing you know, you’re waking up half-dressed with telltale red wine stains on the inner edge of your lips. You scan the room for clues before grabbing your phone to repeatedly check every messaging and social media app for further evidence of what happened – and what you did.
I’d done this more times than I care to remember, or even could remember, but on this occasion my godawful hangover was putting a significant work event in jeopardy. I’d spent months planning and promoting a workshop, only to find myself still in bed two hours beforehand, reeking of alcohol and contemplating feigning illness.
That morning, I vowed to never drink again.
It was the biggest commitment I’d ever made. At that point, I didn’t depend on a drink to get me through the day, but I did rely on alcohol to get me through life. I’d get tetchy if I didn’t know when the next opportunity for a session was going to be, and I always found excuses to pop a cork or buy a last round when possible.
I doubt my family or friends would have classed me as an alcoholic but, deep down, I’d long feared that booze was my most significant relationship – and it wasn’t one that I was in control of.
Three years later, not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips (aside from the time I accidently swigged my aunt’s prosecco instead of my elderflower cordial, and nearly choked in fear of a full-blown relapse). I’ve done weddings, Christmases, birthdays, depression, triumph, holidays, countless nights out, a fancy ball complete with champagne reception and even toasted the decision to get married with nothing stronger than Old Jamaica Ginger Beer.
And it turns out I’m part of a trend.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 21% of adults in the UK say that they don’t drink at all – the lowest level on record. A surprising number of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West, Blake Lively, Jada Pinkett Smith and Kristen Davis, shun alcohol too.
Moreover, sobriety is losing its association with polystyrene cups in church basements. As well as stylish booze-free hangouts like Redemption Bar in Notting Hill and Shoreditch, online communities such as Club Soda and Soberistas are supporting the growing numbers of women from all walks of life who are deciding to get on the wagon.
These groups offer much needed advice and encouragement as cutting alcohol out of your life isn’t easy – even if, like me, you believe that it is most definitely for the best. I was constantly having to defend my decision, particularly in the early days, with questions ranging from the inevitable ‘Are you pregnant?’ to the more baffled or even hostile ‘Why?’
Despite being blessed with a rare genetic willingness to dance when sober, childhood fears of being left out returned to haunt me whenever conversations turned to sharing a bottle or trying out a new drinks festival. One colleague openly sneered when I ordered sparkling water at a work event, and while my opinion of her immediately went down, resisting peer pressure can be tough whatever your age.
This sense of exclusion has lessened with time, although I know there are still a few in my social circle who think I’m boring for no longer wanting to get s**tfaced. Sometimes I wonder if I am more dull now – but then I spend a Saturday evening listening to a mate tell the same story for the fifth time because they’re on their fifth pint.
Along with realising that drinking disguises all the mediocre nights out that happen between the amazing ones, I also know that when you quit alcohol, there is no hiding from the reasons that made you drink too much of it in the first place.
If it’s simply a habit that has crept up, you may be able to just cut back. I am not one of those people.
I have tried to moderate my drinking numerous times, to no avail. What began as a youthful folly soon became a convenient and socially acceptable way to avoid acknowledging deep-rooted emotional issues – until eventually alcohol was a problem in itself, affecting my mental health as well as personal relationships.
After the initial euphoria of ditching drink faded, I was left to confront the underlying emotions that I was trying to dodge in the first place. Getting to grips with the forces that drove my love of drinking has been the hardest part of sobriety, and I’m not there yet. At the same time, this is by far the most rewarding aspect of being teetotal.
The relentless clarity that comes with not chemically altering my mood on a regular basis, or even taking the edge off after a tough week at work, was terrifying to begin with. Yet with each drink not taken, I’ve become better at facing my feelings. Three years in, I see this relentless clarity as a strength that I’m not willing to compromise on.
If that weren’t enough, there are huge lifestyle benefits that come hand-in-hand with reducing your consumption of booze, even if not abstaining altogether. My eyes are brighter and my complexion is clear. I don’t worry about my physical health when I read that alcohol is linked to brain damage, along with cancers of the stomach, bowel, mouth and throat and more well-known side effects such as liver cirrhosis.
With my bubbles now only coming from San Pellegrino, I feel the benefits of sobriety in my wallet too. Budgets stretch further when you’re such a cheap date, which is definitely useful at this time of year.
This Christmas, like last, I’ll enjoy spending time with my partner’s grandparents at their annual 24 December buffet, where the strongest thing on offer is the sherry trifle, rather than clockwatching to get to the pub as I’ve done at innumerable family occasions in the past.
I relish knowing that the high-pitched excitement of my nieces and nephews won’t make me clutch my head and need a lie down instead of playing with them. There won’t be a Christmas Day row with my mum over how much red wine I’ve necked before dinner and the thought of Boxing Day bubble and squeak won’t make me retch, although I guess that partly comes down to liking Brussel sprouts in the first place.
Best of all, I’ll wake up on New Year’s Day with a clear head, hydrated skin and, most importantly, no reaching for my phone with a hazy sense of self-recrimination.
How to have an alcohol-free social life
Offer to drive
If possible, declare yourself the designated driver of your group. If it saves your friends from paying for the cab fare, especially in the run-up to Christmas, they are less likely to try and cajole you into ditching the car.
Do some research
Most supermarkets now stock a wide range of alcohol-free choices, so spend some time browsing those sections of the wine, spirits and beer aisles. There’s a huge low- and no-alcohol craft drink scene online too; check out the line-up from Club Soda’s recent Mindful Drinking Festival for options. Stock up when you need to bring a bottle.
Be thirsty when you arrive
Getting past the first drink is always the hardest part. Showing up to parties and pubs genuinely thirsty helps make it easier to order a soft drink rather than your usual tipple.
Focus on the alternatives
What would you love to do if you knew there was no chance of a hangover? Make the 8.30am yoga class? Cook pancakes for breakfast with your partner? Reframe not drinking as a positive choice.