Clarity: why it’s so hard to give up drinking

Lost in translation: Soberano liquor || Clarity: why it is so hard to give up drinking || raeritchie.com
Lost in translation: Soberano liquor

Now that those who attempted Dry January are facing a decision about what to do with their drinking habits, I wanted to return to what seems to be a burning question: why is it so hard to give up drinking?

This question has been much on mind this last month as I’ve written a series of posts about sobriety.  To be honest, it’s something I’ve pondered a lot in the two years since I’ve quit drinking – and it also haunted me for well over a decade before that.

For some people it simply isn’t hard to do.  They can go for weeks or months without touching a drop and don’t think of it.  For those of us with a more complicated relationship to the bottle this kind of laissez faire attitude is incomprehensible.  When I was drinking, booze was all too often at the front of my mind: when I’d have it next followed by what had I done when I’d had it, over and over, an endlessly repeating drama.

Now I don’t drink, that drama has gone.  That noise has subsided.  There’s no furtive planning for the next occasion nor are there any pieces to pick up afterwards.  No fog of forgetfulness, no blackouts where memories should be.

I look back at last weekend and the one before and the one before that…I can recall Friday night and Saturday night clearly.  Thursday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday too.

This weekend will be the same.  No fuzziness around the edges, not even the slightest lapse in recollection.  It will all be as clear as it is now as I write at three in the afternoon.

Those strange people who’ve never liked getting drunk hold this up as a positive effect.  Many reformed drinkers do too.  You’ll never have that loss of control again!  Isn’t it marvellous?!

No.  No it isn’t.  I’ll tell you the truth.  Knowing that you’ll never again experience that fuzziness around the edges, the lapse in memory, the loss of control is not marvellous, it’s terrifying.

The long deep outbreath that comes with the first sip?  It vanishes forever and you’re left wondering what the f*ck you’re going to do without it.

What will life be like without the release valve that we’ve come to rely on?  What will life be like without having the edge taken off?  What will like be like without the endless drama of planning/drinking/patching up?

What’s it like?

Clear.

Your mind becomes like a glass of freshly drawn tap water.  It’s refreshing in a way but you can’t hide anything in it.  You see all the things that you drank to forget right there, now unavoidable.  Whatever you tried to cover up will be exposed.  Whatever you tried to drown will rise to the surface.

This, my friends, is why it is so hard to give up drinking.  Facing this clarity, embracing it even, is one of the hardest challenges that we can take on.  It’s the archetypal hero’s journey, treacherous but noble.  Many will fall by the wayside, unable or unwilling to continue.

Living with this clarity, sitting with it night after night, week after week, will test us in every way it can.

Is it worth the fight?  Everyone answers that question for themselves.  I can see clearly what the right response is for me.

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Tuesday Reviews Day 10-01-2017: Alcohol Alternatives

Alcohol Alternatives || Tuesday Reviews Day 10-01-2017
I’ve had many a good night out on Old Jamaica Ginger Beer – here’s me & my partner with two cans toasting our decision to get married. Seriously. Ginger beer. It’s that good.

With Tuesday Reviews Day, I bring you a round-up of recommendations of some form or another: one week it might be lipsticks, the next, books on a particular theme.  Today, I’ve turned my attention to alternatives to alcohol.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I thought that throughout January, I’d draw on my experience of two years’ sobriety to (hopefully) help others who are doing Dry January, looking to cut back on the booze a bit or even thinking about quitting altogether.

Today weekly recommendations focus on alternatives to alcohol.  I know this is a massive stumbling block for many people, myself included.  Even if you like Diet Coke, there’s only so much of it that you want to drink.  But what else is there?  Considering your options before you get to the bar can help in your resolve as you’re less likely to blurt out ‘Dry white wine and soda’ (or whatever your particular tipple) in a state of panic (why can ordering a drink feel so stressful?!  You. Have. To. Choose. Quickly).

I’m assuming here that you’re in a bar but obviously you can drink these choices at home too.  I’ve found that having something AF (alcohol free) and lovely in the fridge on a Friday night is a great morale boost and again helps with any temptation you might be experiencing.

I’m not a fan of AF alcoholic drinks, i.e. zero or low percent proof beers and wines.  For some people they are a good option but I believe that if you’re trying actually quit drinking, they fan the feeling that you’re missing out – a state of mind that makes long term abstinence pretty difficult.

One final word before I get on to the suggestions: I’ve resisted naming specific brands or varieties here because of availability issues.  I’ve found that selections can be quite niche (six suggestions that are only available in three bars in the Midlands aren’t much use) but most places have something good on offer.

Here are five ideas:

  • Ask the bar staff

Okay, so this isn’t a specific recommendation at all but simply advice.  Particularly if it’s your first non-drinking visit to a bar, ask those stood behind the counter what non-alcoholic options they have available as they may not all be listed on the menu.  In some venues you will just have the stuff they use for mixers and cordials available but increasingly places are stocking more eclectic choices too, with the craft beer phenomena spawning a craft soda trend as well.  This tactic also makes staff more aware that there are customers searching for a decent AF choice so could end up in some positive changes being made if they haven’t already been more inventive with their inventory.

  • Bitter lemon

This has echoes of the 1970s for many older drinkers but this is now often my default choice when I’m on a ‘proper’ night out.  Usually served in a low ball glass neat over ice, it’s particularly on point when those around you are drinking shorts or if you feel a bit self-conscious about being booze free.  A nice digestif too.

  • Mocktails

If a place serves cocktails then they can whip you up an AF alternative.  Challenge them to craft something unique or check out their menu as there’ nearly always a few listed anyway.

  • Ginger

I’ve yet to ask for a ginger-based soft drink in a bar and not been served one, ginger tonic if not ginger beer.  A bit of zing for your palate!

  • Hot drinks

In continental Europe you see patrons ordering an espresso at a bar and think nothing of it but somehow asking for a brew in a British pub feels different.  Why is that?  However so many bars, pubs and clubs now serve hot drinks that it shouldn’t feel weird.  Annoyingly, some staff seem resistant to serving them, turning the machines off or saying ‘Sorry we don’t have any milk’ (I actually was told that one recently.  I take my coffee black.  Hah!  That felt like a victory for the wagonistas!).  You can always ask them to put the machine back.

  • Water

A strange mindset that still seems to surround not drinking is that if you’re not having alcohol then somehow you don’t warrant getting an actually decent drink (hence so many just going for badly mixed syrupy soda from the tap).  Down with this attitude!  Serving a pint of beer or making a cocktail is a skill and you deserve that same level of effort so don’t feel that if you want water then it has to be ‘just tap water’.  Of course it can be, or it can be bottled or sparkling.  Whichever, you don’t have to settle for a half or pint glass.  Ask for a high ball tumbler, ice and a slice as well, perhaps a straw.  You don’t have to feel like a second class citizen because you’re not boozing!

Tell me readers what are your favourite AF choices?  What do you like?

If you enjoyed this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it on social media using the buttons below.  And if you find yourself regularly coming back here, how about signing up to my mailing list?  You get a monthly letter from that comes complete with links to all my writing (blog posts, Sunday Suggestions and articles elsewhere) as well as a creativity prompt for you to try.  

740 days sober: 12 tips for Dry January & beyond

An espresso martini without the martini: 12 tips for Dry January & beyond
An espresso martini without the martini

Whilst losing weight and getting fit top the list, there’s no doubt that giving up or cutting down on alcohol is usually amongst the most popular new year’s resolutions.  It’s not surprising given the increased consumption of booze during December, although many people – myself included – may have had concerns about their drinking habits long before the festive season.

On 28th December 2014, I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether.  Not for a month, or a year, but for good.  I didn’t even wait for the new year to start afresh; my pledge started then and there, lying in bed with yet another hangover alongside a whole raft of other emotions: guilt, regret, foreboding,                                                                                                           disappointment, fear, boredom.

Yes, boredom.  After innumerable failed attempts to regulate my drinking, cut it down, manage it, even giving up for varying lengths of time, I had grown weary of going round in the same circles.  The pattern was always the same: I’d vow to change my relationship with alcohol, would succeed for a day, week, month, but would inevitably slip back into the same old drink-until-I-blackout habits.  I’m ashamed to admit but I have no recollection of how countless nights out ended during my late teens, twenties and early thirties.

And now here we are at the beginning of a month that many will label Dry January.  Throughout the coming weeks, I’ll be posting on my blog about not drinking, from practical tips to deeper issues.  I want to use my experiences to help people get through this period successfully.

For some, it won’t be an issue – giving up booze for thirty-one days will just be a way of getting back to better health.  They won’t think too much about it.  Others, however, will know deep down that Dry January is a far harder challenge than it ought to be.  Four weeks of abstention should not be as hard as it is but it is difficult because too many of us have a complicated relationship with the bottle (or the pint glass).  I hope that what I share here will help you to press a pause button and explore what is going on inside of you when you choose to pick up a drink.

I want to begin by talking about this weekend as it tends to be the first hurdle that new soberistas face.  If you can get through this forty-eight hour period then you’ll have a good foundation for next Friday, and the one after, and the one after that.  Here are my twelve top tips:

If you’re going out

If you’re going out, basically make it as awkward as possible for yourself to drink.  Don’t worry too much about the desire you probably will have to ditch the whole no drinking effort; don’t beat yourself up for not embracing the challenge with open arms.  Just focus on practicalities and ways to trick yourself out of drinking.

  • Offer to drive other people or simply drive yourself. Obviously this isn’t an option for everyone but if you have access to a car then drive.  It rules out alcohol as a choice and gets other people off your back as to why you’re not drinking.
  • Schedule an appointment for early the next morning. Hairdresser, dentist, doctor, whatever: make an arrangement for the morning after you’re gone out.  Social plans can work but you have to be sure that whatever you’re committed to cannot be easily cancelled or re-arranged.
  • Try to be thirsty when you arrive. This is difficult to plan but I’ve found that rocking up to an event genuinely thirsty is a great teetotal hack: somehow it’s easier to say ‘Jeez I’m parched, can I get a glass of water?’ than ‘I don’t drink, can I get a glass of water?’.
  • Linked to #3 is plan your first drink. Know what you’re going to ask for when you arrive at the bar or are asked by the host.  Whether water, soda or a hot drink, practice your line as if you’re taking part in a micro play.  Honestly the first drink is always the hardest; once you’ve nailed that then it’s easier to stick to your guns.
  • Do something healthy for yourself before you go out. Often quitting booze for a while is part of a wider effort to improve one’s health, but even if it isn’t then try to load up on feeling virtuous before the night begins, be it doing some exercise or having a healthy meal.  Like when you’re doing well at sticking to a diet, this will make you a bit more resistant to breaking your good habits.

 

If you’re staying in

If you’re staying in, you need to focus on having an alternative plan to the usual open-a-drink-and-sit-on-the-sofa.  Again, don’t fret about the desire you probably will have to ditch the whole no drinking effort; instead focus on practical ways to stop yourself drinking.

  • Buy an alternative treat. Cake, sweets, chocolate, cheese: make sure that you have something to hand that can fill the ‘It’s the end of the week and I deserve a treat’ feeling.  You may be swapping one vice for another but don’t worry about that at this stage.
  • Plan your evening: a film, catching up on a TV show, playing a game. Pick an activity that you’ll look forward to avoid the temptations that come with boredom.  Occupy your mind and, if possible, also your hands.
  • Go to bed early. This can be for positive or negative reasons.  You may look at it as a treat, doing some good for yourself by getting a decent night’s kip, or you may just resort to this as a way of staying sober – you can’t drink when you’re asleep.  The latter may seem depressing but it works.
  • Ask those around you to be supportive. Whether friends, housemates, family or a partner, ask those you’re spending the evening with to help you out by not drinking either.  If necessary, reassure them that you won’t always make this request, but at the start of habit change this can really make a difference.
  • Get a decent alcohol alternative in. Personally I’m not a fan of alcohol free substitutes, but there are lots of zero percent wines and beers available now.  Explore soft drink options too; I’m definitely on Team Root Beer.  What takes your fancy?  It’s much easier to go without booze when you enjoy what you’re drinking instead.

 

Top two tips

  • Think about what you most regret about drinking. What’s the worse incident you can recall?  Write it on a Post-it note (in code if needs be) and stick it somewhere that you’ll see it.
  • What do you dream you’ll do if you don’t drink? Maybe you’ve always wanted to go to the 8.30 yoga class at your gym.  Maybe you’ve wished that you could stand on the sidelines cheering your kids’ football team on rather than wincing whenever anybody shouts encouragement.  Do it this weekend.  Start creating your alternative life.

 

Bonus tip

This suggestion may not suit everyone but if you’re really committed to a long term change then get rid of all the booze in your house.  Every. Single. Dreg.  Give it to friends or, more cathartically, pour it down the sink.  If you’re horrified at the amount of money you think you’ll be losing, calculate the value of what you have: is you’re health and sanity only worth that much?  Living in an alcohol free home makes not drinking more straightforward.  It also sets an intention, declaring that intoxication is not the norm.

 If you enjoyed this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it on social media using the buttons below.  And if you find yourself regularly coming back here, how about signing up to my mailing list?  You get a monthly letter from that comes complete with links to all my writing (blog posts, Sunday Suggestions and articles elsewhere) as well as a creativity prompt for you to try.