Reflections on not drinking (as much)

There’s always one person at a party who doesn’t partake in ‘drinking’.

There are two versions of this persona. The first is the polite, “Pepsi if you’ve got some please” type. These individuals will be slightly self-effacing of the fact they’re not drinking when others are but don’t want to make a thing about it.

The second is the ostentatious stinker who tries to proselytise in manner and tone without actually having the gumption to go the full hog, tables upended and bottles out the window martyr to the cause. This, of course, overlooks that most people are doing precisely what this gentle soul objects to and will be offended anyway by their vain social haughtiness.

In truth, I can say I’ve been both, depending on the company. If you’re in amongst compatriots not partaking it doesn’t have to be an awkward spectacle (even if it might be discussed the first time around). Habit breeds routine and routines tend to eventually knock the wind out of something strange.

That said, if you’re in the presence of boozehounds who’s company is boorish and boring things become tedious. Shenanigans and discourse can only be appreciated if you’re wearing the same beer goggles. Simply, take the first spilt drink or personal slight as a cue to exit stage left with the wisdom of Fitzgerald in tow:

“It’s a great advantage to not to drink among hard drinking people. You can hold your tongue, and moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.”

Having recently gone four months without a drop, and having now opted to return to moderate, social consumption, several things have become clear that the ‘ditch it and stay off it’ guides don’t tell you.

Firstly, only you know if you drink too much. That is to say, you can Google as much as you like or speak to your friends, but unless you are a lazy creature, you will have plans and goals and schemes and plots. Does alcohol advance these or is it, in whatever free time you have, reducing your efficiency with hangovers?

Secondly, when you decide to stop drinking you learn very quickly as to whether or not you’re an actual alcoholic. Even if you’ve asked yourself the question on a dark night, the evidence is cumulative and difficult to avoid and becomes increasingly less hypothetical. Wanting to go out, and missing seeing people and the social side of alcohol is a wholly different beast to needing a drink in the morning, afternoon and night.

Indeed, it’s this point which can be one of the most confusing in the early weeks of abstinence. If so much of your social life has been underpinned by the presence of alcohol then one without the other, early on, will make you pine for the social experience precisely because you’re avoiding it.

In my case, at the beginning, old haunts and friends were avoided because I presumed the temptation would be too great. In fact, it was the acclimatisation and awkwardness that I feared rather than an inability not to drink. Too often you hear stories of people who abstain slipping back into drinking because they take the mood of the social group around them as the sole indicator for their own actions. This line of logic is dangerous, not least as it suggests needing an excuse to break the dry spell which will, of course, eventually occur if you want to.

Thirdly, you will quickly learn your friends from your drinking companions. The latter may be the ones you’ve seen three times a week for the last five years, but it is a telling facet of any relationship as to whether or not they might try to manipulate you into fulfilling their need to justify drinking by being with other people.

Fourthly, the notion that you cannot have a good time without alcohol is backwards and dangerous. It also devalues your relationships to the point of existing purely to drink socially and to justify excess. If you want to go to a pub or a restaurant, do it – not drinking does not deny you your liberty, nor does it deny you companions. You do what you want, they do what they want – any party which cannot respect that is not supporting you and clearly has little interest in helping you achieve your broader goals.

Fifthly, the physical and mental changes from abstinence are very real and deeply unpleasant to realise. Four months off it and I’ve lost two stone. My mood, capricious and temperamental at best, has noticeably stabilised to the point that I am aware of it. You remember things, are more self-aware and ultimately have a greater understanding of what makes you tick; what makes you happy, sad, what you like and don’t like in a fully conscious manner with no opportunity to escape from the truth of your mental state.

Sixthly, alcoholism and social abstinence are two different creatures. The former is a disease, rightly attended to by medical and social professionals with an awareness as to the health and psychology of the individual in question. Pretending that the latter is the former for romantic or grandiose notions is not only false but the equivalent of balding and saying you’re undergoing chemotherapy.

Seventhly, a singular question should be asked honestly. Can alcohol be factored into your life in a way which is occasional, intermittent and with no embarrassment to you?

Personal abstention, for whatever reason, may require medical intervention or simply a realisation that it’s time to cut down or stop. Militant temperance denouncing the whole practice of drinking does not make one a secret alcoholic, but nor does it make one superior. Personal, not collective, awareness must be at the heart of all decision-making.

As a declaration, I had my first glass of wine in four months to accompany my birthday meal with my fiancé. I couldn’t finish the second glass.

Since then I occasionally have a beer or two at the weekend. My tolerance remains starkly non-existent; the idea of a ‘heavy’ evening as in years gone a fantastical notion. Yet, that’s the point and one I’m pleased to have demonstrated to myself. There does, simply, come a point when the penchant for mischief becomes a realism that groggy, foul tempered hangovers are the reality and not the cost. Get a handful of stories under your belt from your twenties and then abandon the myth that the answer to life rests at the bottom of a glass or in the mystery of the night.

The most honest, personal reflection? That changing or removing the factors which make one drink, or drink too much, is easier to accomplish than becoming increasing fearful of losing an accruing tally of days and weeks and months.

In this, I am profoundly grateful for the motivation and encouragement from my fiancé for making the point that time used effectively is time enjoyed; a stunning coup of encouragement and caring from someone who wants me to be the best that I can be.

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