In 2018 I slept badly. I was awake for 2-3 hours every night. On many of those nights, I would lie in the dark with my phone in my hand, googling, “am I an alcoholic?” and taking online quizzes to try and convince myself I was fine.
I did “dry January” and “sober for October” a couple of times between 2016 and 2018 and it always felt like I was dragging myself through treacle! Those months felt soooo long! I’d usually have a mimosa at 11am the day after I finished. I was no poster girl for tee-totalling!
If you’d have told me I’d take a year off alcohol in 2020, I’d have laughed.
It took two rounds of 100 days in 2019 – after which time I returned to drinking as though I had never quit. In fact, because I had been able to quit for relatively long periods of time, I got a little cocky and I actually ended up drinking a little more than usual for a while.
I decided to take a year of alcohol because I realised it was going to take longer to truly break my relationship with it. I’ve developed a healthy respect for alcohol now and realise I’ll always need to be weary of it but now it no longer occupies my thoughts when I’m stressed or holds my attention when it’s on the dinner table and I’m not partaking. It has become easy to ignore.
I’m aware that, since lockdown, many people have noticed an escalation in alcohol consumption and I imagine quite a few people will have chosen new year as the time to make a change. I hope this post goes some way to help in those efforts.
These tips are based on my experience and what I learned along the way.
Start small and count every win
I saw my dry January and sober for October attempts as only a partial success because I found them so tough. If anything, they illustrated to me that I did, indeed, have a problem. What I failed to see was that they were stepping stones in a much longer journey.
If you’re at the start of cutting down or quitting, my advice would be to recognise the success of reaching your goal, no matter what length of time you commit to. Every time you complete a ‘challenge’, you’re chalking up another win and they add up. Rather than focusing on how tough it feels, focus on the fact that you’re doing it.
Have a mantra
“A thought can’t make you drink”
Every time my thoughts threatened to overwhelm me, I repeated this mantra silently. For a long time it helped and by the time it was wearing thin, I already had several weeks under my belt.
See yourself as you want to be not as you used to be
I didn’t know about the role of identity when I did the dry months – and to be fair, I think the shorter stints can make this part more difficult to achieve.
I saw myself as “a drinker trying not to drink”. I didn’t realise how much harder this thought process made things for me. It kept the feelings of deprivation alive the entire time. It was excruciating! Every time I had an opportunity to drink, I had to fight twice as hard to resist.
By the time I did my first 100 days, my mindset had shifted. I had started this blog and was testing some of my theories about habit change. I was really curious to find out what would work and what didn’t. From that mindset, it was less about the alcohol and more about my development and the development of my ideas. When faced with opportunities to drink, I was no longer the deprived person gritting her teeth to resist. I was the blogger, writing about habits that worked well and made her feel stronger.
If you’re going alcohol-free for a period of time, I think it’s essential to be clear about how you see yourself. If your identity leads you to feel deprived, the whole process will feel much tougher and will likely stay that way for a lot longer.
Get ready to feel all the feelings
This was the toughest part.
I had no idea how many roles alcohol played in my life. It was entertainer, comforter, support system, relaxer, party provider and so much more. It papered over the cracks, provided the reward at the end of a long day and gave me confidence in social situations. It basically did all the things I had never learned to do for myself.
Or at least I thought it did all those things – that was another reason I felt so deprived in those early days.
If you decide to go dry, I think you have to be ready to experience all the feelings you previously numbed out – possibly without even realising you were doing it. Dry January/ October weren’t long enough for me to get the hang of this. I did better on my first 100 days and even better on my second 100 days. By the time I committed to 1 year, I was less afraid of the feelings I couldn’t mask – although I still had sugar to lean on so I still have some way to go and am therefore preparing to quit sugar for 100 days.
If you know you use alcohol as a numbing strategy, and need to strengthen your ability to manage uncomfortable emotions, these two things made a big difference for me:
- Wim Hof Method – a breathing technique followed by a cold shower. I did this every day for over a year and have not experienced anything quite as powerful either before or since.
- Meditation – I learned Transcendental Meditation and now practice meditation every day. These days, my difficult feelings are far less intense and they pass far more easily.
I had SO MANY false starts. I can’t even count the number of times I said I was going to cut down or quit drinking and I lasted less than a day or two.
I took those attempts to be a sign that I’d never be able to do it. Now I realise they were signs that I hadn’t done enough to shape my identity and my mindset so they worked for me rather than against me. Now, I try to meet my ‘failures’ with this in mind. I figure out how to bolster myself and I start again.
As someone who battled bulimia for over 25 years, I’m more apprehensive about giving up sugar than I was about quitting alcohol because now I really have nowhere to hide. The truth is, I wrote this post tonight because I needed to feel a little stronger and more ready for what lies ahead. I needed to remind myself that I can keep going and I have what it takes.
I hope it helps you see that you have what it takes too.
Oh, and one last thing – Enjoy feeling better!
It took about 2-3 weeks for me to start feeling the effects. I slept better, my skin looked better and I had more energy. After about 6-7 weeks, my hair felt softer and looked shinier and people started commenting that I looked younger and healthier. I was less grumpy and more even tempered and I woke up in the mornings feeling ready to get out of bed.
These were all things I came to really enjoy and, after a while became things I didn’t want to give up.
I wish you well on your journey and hope you enjoy all these benefits too!