Next month, it will be 5 years since I gave up alcohol.
This isn't a self congratulatory look-at-me-and-how-virtuous-I-am statement. It's simply a statement, but one that does give me good reason to reflect.
July 2018, and it was the morning after my 40th birthday. My husband and I had spent the evening 'celebrating' this milestone birthday. The inverted commas are there because it felt the opposite of celebratory. For the previous few weeks I'd been experiencing a horrendous episode of anxiety that was fuelling the OCD I had suffered from in the past, which in turn was fuelling the anxiety, and so on and so forth, until a wonderful cycle had developed. I was a perfect ball of anxiety, my waking hours filled with repetitive thoughts, rumination, worry and reassurance seeking from my husband.
I'd had a few drinks that evening and woke up sad and anxious. I'd already begun to make the connection between alcohol and feeling rubbish and, as I lay in bed in this fancy hotel room that I'd been treated to, it dawned on me that if I wanted to help myself feel better, I just couldn't drink anymore. I was on medication for the anxiety and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that for it to do its job I needed to play my part too.
I've never been a heavy drinker and there was no rock bottom where alcohol was concerned. I didn't binge drink, I didn't go out and get crazily drunk.
But I drank enough, regularly, to know that it was working against me.
So that was it, I decided to quit.
The interim period actually saw me slip deeper into an even more anxious state, resulting in being put under the care of an acute mental health team. But, with the help of different medication and therapy, I pulled myself out the other side. I just know that consuming alcohol would have made that recovery even harder than it already was.
Staying away from drink hasn't always been easy. Celebratory occasions, when the bubbly is flowing, can set me on the back foot and I feel I'm missing out. At a wedding last year I decided to treat myself to a couple of glasses of wine. I woke the next morning with that familiar sad feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach. The treat had been double edged and it was a reminder that drinking really wasn't for me.
By and large though, it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made so I thought I'd share with you what I've discovered along the way, as well as tips on going alcohol-free or reducing your intake if you're curious, along with some tasty non-alcoholic drinks recommendations for you.
Here's what I've learnt...
No one is really bothered
I used to worry about what people would think if I told them that I didn't drink.
But guess what? No one really cares.
Seriously, people are too interested in themselves - we're human, it's natural, it's what we do - to really spend much time thinking about someone else and what they do or don't put into their body.
And on the very rare occasion that people seem ruffled by it, I know that has nothing to do with me. This is because, culturally, we're conditioned, from our teenage years up, to think that to have a good time socially we need alcohol.
It's what many of us grew into adulthood believing.
But I've tested out this theory for the past half a decade and found it not to be true.
Yes, I do sometimes miss that tipsy feeling when a night is getting going, but for the most part, take alcohol out of the equation and I'm actually left with the ability to make better decisions, more energy to dance and a clearer head the following morning. Oh, and less chance of making a tit of myself.
I know this is a sweeping generalisation, but I do think it's easier for women to not drink socially. A sober stag night? The two seem at odds with each other and I can only imagine the cajoling and derision that might ensue if one of the party announced they wouldn't be drinking. I think it's probably harder for men to go sober in social situations and I don't really have an answer.
However, a younger me would worry that it wasn't cool to choose to remain sober the whole night through, but growing older has seemingly had an inverse effect on my interest in being cool. As the brilliant Matt Haig (author of Reasons To Stay Alive and The Midnight Library) said "Never be cool. Never try to be cool. Never worry what the cool people think. Head for the warm people. Life is warmth. You'll be cool when you're dead"
It's improved my self confidence
Making these types of decisions in life takes a certain amount of motivation, determination and confidence.
Why confidence? Well, to say out loud to a group of people "No thanks, I don't drink" has left me feeling exposed on occasion. I've been the odd one out. But the more I said it, the easier it became. And now I don't even really think about it.
It can take confidence to do something different to everyone else. But here's the great thing about taking the first steps into anything new; the more you do it, the easier it becomes! Our brains build up a tolerance to that which scares us and begins to learn that it's really not so bad after all.
It helped me realise I can do hard things, especially when no one else is asking me to do them. Throughout life, it would be easy to just not bother sometimes, but it's given me the quiet confidence to tackle hard stuff off my own back.
It's something I learnt during therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, when I would be asked to expose myself to situations that caused me to feel anxious and uncomfortable (OCD being an anxiety driven disorder). It's an understatement to say that it felt incredibly counterintuitive. Put myself in situations that make me want to run in the opposite direction? No thanks! However, I committed to doing it because I desperately wanted to get better. And the more I did what I was asked to do by my therapist, the less bothered I became in each situation. Now, the same situations barely even register as something that I would deem stressful. I didn't believe it would, but it worked.
It's given me back more time
No more written-off mornings, trying to get through to the end of the day so that I could start afresh tomorrow. An early start with kids is hard enough, without dehydration, headache and nausea thrown into the mix. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a knackered mum about approximately 68% of the time, but slightly less so, now and it makes it all the more manageable to keep my cool when things start to get stressful at home, as they invariably do with a 10 and 13 year old.
It's one less decision to make
Although not an extreme person, I can have a tendency to either really do something or just not do it at all. Half measures - if you'll excuse the pun - don't often work for me (oh hello there, perfectionism). But when it comes to not drinking, this trait works in my favour. There is non of the questions 'Should I drive? Will I feel ok for work tomorrow if I go out tonight? How many should I have before it becomes too many? '
Not drinking at all takes away those decisions to be made and makes it easier for my brain. And at 45, my brain likes to do less heavy lifting than it did a few years back.
Put simply, it has simplified my evenings out.
My anxiety has reduced and my mood is improved
These were my main reason for giving up...and it worked
Even if it wasn't a full-blown hangover, the tiredness and low-level anxiety that I'd wake up with after drinking would impact my day and make it increasingly likely that I'd cry, even at the smallest of things. This was made all the worse if I was pre-menstrual; the two together were not good bedfellows.
Of course, there are a myriad of stressors in our lives and I hardly waft around on a cloud of calm each day just because I don't drink, but removing one of the factors that can aggravate the effect of those stressors feels like a good choice.
Relationships feel more genuine
I'm talking about both relationships with friends as well as the relationship I have with myself.
Being sober tends to remove a social filter that drinking creates. It removes the bullsh*t and fakery. And rather than finding it hard to be around tipsy people, the ability to see through any aforementioned bullsh*t is refreshing.
And if it sounds like judgement is creeping in, it isn't, because here's the thing; I think it also gives others the genuine Kate to spend time with. Drink didn't alter me, but I know I'm more myself without it.
Tips on cutting down/going alcohol-free:
Work out what your why is.
The why you decide to reduce or give up alcohol will be individual to you, but it's critical that you identify what that reason is. If it's a number of reasons, get really clear on one of them.
Maybe it's because you would like to lose weight, spend less money, improve your skin, improve your mood, lessen anxiety, be more present...
Identifying exactly why you're doing it will help you to re-focus and remember the whole point of it, if and when you have a wobble. I'd even suggest writing your why down on paper to glance at. This is because although it's easy to tap into your reasons when you're feeling good, well rested, about your decision, it's not so easy when you're feeling less motivated, more stressed.
Write it from the perspective of a kind, supportive friend helping you maintain what you've set out to do.
I knew giving up alcohol wouldn't be the complete answer, but I also knew it was something concrete I could do that was absolutely going to help me feel less stressed and anxious. This would help reduce the OCD I was experiencing and, at the time, I would have sold a kidney to feel just 5% better than I did.
Even though I feel much more balanced now, I know that not drinking will help me remain that way. I often need to remind myself of why I made the decision in the first place, which is why writing it down has helped.
Do something different instead
For the times that you would usually be enjoying a drink on the sofa at the end of the day, either have an alternative drink lined up instead (see below) or occupy yourself doing something different while you're getting used to the change. Just make sure it's enjoyable and/or relaxing so you feel rewarded and not deprived!
Reading a new book, doing a jigsaw, getting outside (easier in the summer, I know), trying a hobby you've always promised yourself you'd do. Anything that changes up your routine so you're not just sitting there, thinking 'but where's my glass of wine that I'd usually be enjoying now?'
Find drinks you love so you don't feel like you're missing out
This has been absolutely integral for me.
I'm not really into soft fizzy drinks - cups of tea and wine are two of my favourite things!
I had to find alternatives that hinted at the act of drinking alcohol, for when I'm both on my sofa and out with friends. I'll drink non-alco beer from the bottle, make a non-alco G&T in a nice glass with ice to create the same ritual and make sure the 0.0% prosecco is served in the correct glass.
Just a few years back, Becks Blue or Kaliber were about the only drinks to choose from. Fortunately, there are so many more good non-alcoholic options on the market today, both in the supermarkets and increasingly in pubs and restaurants.
The recommendations below are drinks that my husband, my followers and I have tried. We have quite different tastes when it came to alcohol, so luckily for you, it's quite a varied list!
Lucky Saint Alcohol-Free Lager - this has even fooled my husband's real beer drinking friends. Probably the most real tasting out of this list.
Erdinger Non-Alcoholic Wheat Beer - More of a refreshing drink and nothing else like it to compare it too.
Peroni 0.0% - Light and crisp. A good BBQ and sunshine beer,
San Miguel 0.0% - A personal favourite
Heineken 0.0% - Lighter and slightly sweeter tasting
Guinness Draught 0.0% - Very close to the real thing! It has the same depth and creaminess as it's alcoholic counterpart.
This is a short list in the real sense of the word because I've yet to discover a non-alcoholic wine that actually tastes like wine! My absolute favourite drink used to be Chardonnay (yep, uncool and I'm ok with that), so if anyone has tasted one that remotely resembles a Chardonnay....or a Pinot or Sauvignon for that matter, please let me know in the comments below and I will give them a try.
Aldi Zerosecco - This is a winner for me. It has the definite feel of a real prosecco and is verging towards the dry end of the scale.
Tesco Nozeco - A little sweeter than Aldi, but still pretty good.
Freixenet 0.0% Prosecco - Another great alternative that I've noticed is available in some pubs.
Strykk - Not Gin. As the name suggests, this isn't Gin and nor does it taste like it. However, it has an unusual and unique depth of flavour that feels alcoholic in some strange way.
Tanqueray - This is the best non-gin gin - It actually tastes like it!
Gordon's 0.0% - Slightly sweeter than the alcoholic version, but the taste comes through more strongly than the Tanqueray equivalent, so this is the one I buy regularly.
Seedlip Non-Alcoholic Spirit - I haven't tried many from this range so I can't really review, it's the price tag that has put me off committing to a bottle at an average cost of £22. However, one of my followers did recommend Seedlip Spice 94.
Pentire - Botanical Non-Alcoholic Spirits - Recommended by one of my clients. It sounds so good that I've just ordered a taster bundle package, so I'll report back!
San Pellegrino Sparkling Blood Orange
M&S Sicilian Lemon & Mexican Lime Cordial with Soda
Thorncroft Wild Nettle Cordial & soda
So to wrap things up, embracing non-alcoholic drinks can be a flavourful journey for those curious about quitting alcohol or just cutting back a little and nurturing their mental well-being.
Cheers to a healthier and happier path!