What I’ve Learned Since Giving Up Drinking

giving up drinking

On 1st January 2017, I quit drinking. Which is 16 months ago now. Some months before then, I had consciously been cutting down on my alcohol consumption, as I wasn’t enjoying getting drunk that much anymore – and the hangovers had become severe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of being poisoned and that horrible, dirty, shaky feeling throughout my body.

My mental state during hangovers became far more unpleasant than the physical aspect. I found myself more prone to anxiety and depressive thinking. This may have been related to the fact that I was coming out of a depressive episode, and so the alcohol was exacerbating the anxiety and depressive symptoms that were still present. (As a depressant, alcohol can deepen dark moods.) However, poor mental health following a night of drinking can also affect people without pre-existing mental health issues.

As I significantly cut down on how much I drank, and my frequency of drinking, my tolerance plummeted. Now it took only a couple drinks to get drunk, instead of several. I also stopped binge-drinking, so I wouldn’t end up getting sloppy drunk or having those ‘I think I’ve been poisoned’ hangovers. But to my frustration, my mental health would still be noticeably impacted.

I was seriously questioning why I was even drinking anymore. I wasn’t enjoying being drunk; it didn’t make my nights any better. It seemed like the elation, relaxation, social lubrication, and inhibitory effects had disappeared. I didn’t mind this as I felt pretty comfortable not drinking in social settings.

New Year’s Eve 2016 was my last night of drinking. On the first day of 2017, I understood the truth of the matter: the downsides of drinking were far outweighing the benefits (which were pretty much non-existent). I asked myself: is this really worth it? The honest answer was a resounding no. And so I decided to give up drinking. I didn’t plan on how long I should be teetotal for; I just knew I didn’t want alcohol in my life. If I didn’t have my mental health, then I had nothing. And to habitually chip away at my well-being for no apparent reason – other than social convention – seemed irrational and self-destructive.

I didn’t imagine that I would still be teetotal 16 months on. I was also surprised to discover that, in a nation infamous for its binge-drinking, 21% of Brits don’t drink alcohol at all, with almost half the population turning away from regular drinking. It felt reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone in my decision to prioritise my physical and mental health over drinking.

Rejecting alcohol as a 20-something has involved challenges that go beyond the fact of giving up a particular drug. On the other hand, I have also noticed immense benefits to giving up drinking.

I’ve definitely learned a lot since going teetotal.

A Lot of People Have a Hard Time Accepting the Decision

The hardest thing about giving up drinking hasn’t actually been resisting alcohol; it’s the quizzical reaction and questioning that follows when I tell people I don’t drink. In British culture, where binge drinking is glorified, the idea of enjoying a night without a drink is viewed as strange, boring or antisocial. Some of the more unpleasant effects of binge drinking – such as blackouts, bad accidents, alcohol poisoning, violence, and actual antisocial behaviour – don’t seem to change the fact that heavy drinking is more easily accepted than teetotalism. However, as previously mentioned, levels of binge drinking are falling, so attitudes about alcohol are certainly changing.

I’m aware of the dangers here of sounding preachy, judgemental or as if I’m going on an anti-alcohol tirade. That’s not my aim. I’ve just been noticing more and more the curious ways in which culture is linked to how people use and perceive certain drugs.

When people find out I don’t drink, I’m often met with shocked and interrogative responses. People will say something like, “Really? You don’t drink at all?” or “Do you think you will ever drink again?” Or someone might try to persuade me to just have one drink. I guess being the one person in a group not drinking can make people feel slightly uncomfortable or disappointed. Moreover, elaborating on my reasons for quitting, which is what some people seem to be fishing for, can definitely bring down the mood. And who wants to be that guy? Luckily, though (and actually, to my surprise), most people have been respectful, understanding and supportive of the decision, saying, “I wish I could do the same”.

Nonetheless, it’s still tiring constantly explaining to others why you don’t drink in order to resolve their bemusement. It’s as if you can only give up drinking or refuse to drink if you have a drinking problem. In some people’s eyes, there must be something major that happened in my life – like converting to a religion – that made me decide to become a social pariah. It can be hard, I think, for some people to accept or understand that going teetotal in order to look after one’s physical or mental health is enough justification for the lifestyle choice. I certainly never used to view alcohol in this negative light. But this is because my relationship to the drug – and the way it has affected me – has changed over the years.

It’s undeniable that we as a general population ignore, underappreciate, disregard, and discount the negative effects of alcohol. This can be demonstrated by the following example. If a group of people were smoking a joint and someone was passed it and said, “No thanks” or “I don’t smoke weed anymore”, I think most people wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. You would say, “Oh ok” or “fair enough” and pass it on. If instead people started questioning that person about their decision not to smoke weed, this could come across as prying or disrespectful. We can accept that there are valid reasons for giving up weed, as with any drug, habitual or heavy use can be problematic. But as a society, we struggle to treat alcohol in the same way, which is no doubt due to its legal status and the way in which it is so ingrained in our culture. Indeed, the very fact we separate ‘drugs’ from ‘alcohol’ creates this kind of cognitive dissonance. (Which reminds me of this brilliant clip from Brass Eye.)

The Glory of a Life Without Hangovers

I haven’t had a hangover in 16 months. This is nothing short of glorious. Unless I’m actually ill, I no longer wake up in the morning in pain, with throbbing headaches or racked with guilt and negative thoughts. It’s common knowledge that hangovers get worse with age. You can, of course, take steps to reduce the hangover symptoms; but there’s also only so much you can do. The most reliable way to avoid a hangover is to not drink. And for me personally, the severity of the hangovers outweighed the feeling of being drunk, which, to be honest, I was rapidly losing interest in.

David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has developed two drugs, the first of which allows you to get drunk while eliminating the hangover. This drug, called ‘alcosynth’, is a non-toxic inebriant drink that doesn’t carry the manifold downsides of alcohol, such as the hangover, aggression, and lack of control. The second drug, ‘chaperone’, is a pill that can be taken before drinking, making it impossible to get drunk “to the point of incapacitation”. Nutt claims ‘hangover-free alcohol’ will replace alcohol by 2050.

Whenever alcosynth is commercially available, I would definitely be keen to try it.

Spending Time Differently

Not being hungover means that I don’t have to spend the whole day recovering (the hangovers were lingering for much longer than they used to). Rather than feel the need to fester in my bed, I can wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and be active the whole day. When I gave up drinking, I gained more energy and motivation to explore the city in the day, and could spend time doing what I enjoy – going to markets, trying new food, spending time in nature, visiting museums and galleries, doing day trips, and just generally walking a lot, seeing what I might come across.

I will still sometimes go to pubs, bars, and clubs with friends on a night out. And I’ve definitely enjoyed some nights as much as I did when I was drunk. But being sober does make being in these places, around so many drunk people, less tolerable. I’ll still have a good time because I’m with friends. But I’ve realised that, without alcohol coursing through my system, noisy and busy bars and clubs are rarely the kinds of places I enjoy. It’s not an antisocial preference – I would much rather be at a house gathering or party, where talking to people isn’t a shouting match against a deafening sound system and a cacophony of chatter. Jesus, maybe I really am turning into an old man. I think being as introverted as I am, I will always tend to choose a night in with friends than a big night out in the town.

Feeling Comfortable Without Alcohol

While being reserved and repressed is a stereotype of British people, it’s a stereotype that has an undeniable basis in reality. I felt like I’ve encapsulated that stereotype at times, thinking and acting like Mark Corrigan, the painfully awkward character in the British sitcom Peep Show. Like many people – not just British people seeking disinhibition – getting drunk became my way of feeling comfortable in social situations, and it became inextricably tied up with ‘having a good time’.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enhancing experiences with drugs (including alcohol). But when a drug is used as a crutch in order to feel comfortable in social situations, then I feel it becomes a hindrance to self-development. I have sometimes wondered if the UK’s binge-drinking culture is, in part, a reflection of many people’s reliance on alcohol as a way to combat social anxiety (it is the third most common mental health condition after depression and substance abuse).

Being drunk can convincingly mask the painful feeling of disconnection and discomfort in social situations. However, it is a very risky pattern of behaviour because, before you know it, you could be developing alcohol dependence or addiction. Drinking is not a long-term solution or a healthy coping strategy for this mental health issue. The social anxiety can persist, resurface in full force, and severely impact one’s quality of life. As the famous psychologist Carl Jung put it, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” This is why it’s necessary to have the appropriate resources, tools, and methods at one’s disposal in order to tackle the problem when it rears its ugly head. There must also be a willingness to confront one’s own issues – whether they’re related to one’s mental health or not – and challenge the closely guarded and limiting idea of who we think we are.

In terms of my own personal experience, travelling solo was something that forced me to get used to meeting new people all the time (not just when I was drunk), and I feel like giving up alcohol has had similar benefits. Now it’s often just as easy and enjoyable to hang out with people (both familiar and unfamiliar) as it was when I relied on alcohol as a social lubricant. This doesn’t mean I think drinking is always a crutch. I just felt like it was important to feel confident and comfortable in social situations, regardless of whether my mental state was altered or not.

Sometimes I will feel uncomfortable for not drinking around others who are, thinking of myself as an outsider, boring or an old man. But more often than not, I have felt self-assured about the lifestyle choice I’ve made. There’s no ulterior motive to ‘prove a point’ or gain a holier-than-thou status by shunning alcohol; it’s a personal choice that feels true to myself, and ultimately beneficial.

You Save A Lot of Money

Another major benefit of going teetotal is that you save tons of money. The average Brit spends nearly £50,000 on alcohol during their lifetime, with Londoners spending the most, an average of £886 per year. This means I can spend money on experiences that are more valuable to me, especially trying new food and travelling to new places. Frugality means spending money on the things that really matter.

Giving up alcohol has made me think long and hard about what my priorities are, and after a decade of getting drunk at least every weekend, I started to see less and less value in the experience. Getting drunk became mundane instead of fun, something habitual, a way to get buzzed; a means of burning off the stress and tension accumulated during the work week. Yet living for the weekend – and the drinking that went along with it – increasingly felt empty and numbing. Since opting out of an office 9-to-5 job in favour of a more fulfilling career path, I no longer feel like I’m just waiting for the weekend to roll around. I’m still stressed because of work (in fact, being a freelance writer can be extremely stressful at times), yet I don’t feel antsy on a Friday, consumed by this urge to start drinking as soon as possible.

Quitting alcohol has made me feel slightly alienated from British culture, as I started to see binge drinking in a new light, as a phenomenon that is deeply concerning and embarrassing, instead of something I could just accept as a distinctively funny thing that British people do. I know that drinking is tied up with one’s social life, but luckily I haven’t become the outcast I feared I would be, despite sometimes feeling out of place even in my group of friends. Giving up drinking has proven to be challenging in many ways, yet I believe that is has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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