My new year’s resolution in 2016 was to have a sober year.
I’d done a Dry January, and found it boring and fulfilling in equal measure. Two wholesome and productive fortnights of not drinking made me curious: what would life be like if I gave up for a year?
It didn’t go how I expected, but I learned a lot. Maybe you can learn from my experience. Here are the three most important lessons.
1. I cannot just choose not to drink and stick to it
My plan was to begin on the first of January, and I was excited. I knew, deep down, that drinking held me back, that I would be better off without it.
My boyfriend and I were in L.A., cat-sitting, and we’d had a comparatively sober time. There had been a few rows about drinking/not drinking/ behavour while drunk, but compared to some of the doozies of our life together, it was a peaceful and relaxing holiday.
January 1st was fine — we walked in the canyons. January 2nd, January 3rd — I was smashing it! My sober year was underway!
Then our host returned. Emily was a writer, director and producer who had lived in L.A. for years. She knew all the best haunts and wanted to show us the best of her city.
Emily made vodka milkshake cocktails and talked about her Christmas in New York and when she handed me a long glass full of frothy alcohol, I couldn’t resist. 1. It seemed too special an occasion — I never got to drink with Emily! And 2, refusing seemed rude.
After the cocktails, we went to a bar, and I ordered a soft drink, but I couldn’t handle it. There was a voice in my head roaring at me to get a proper drink, to get a proper drink right now, and so I ordered a beer and that alarming voice quietened, and I felt my stresses slip away.
The decision I had made had been rock solid, and yet here I was drinking beer again. I didn’t understand.
2. A break from drinking does not improve my drinking longterm
By the time we arrived back in Bristol, my drinking was as bad as it had been before we left.
It was better than it had been at earlier times in my life — fewer blackouts or vomiting — but the effort that I had to put into maintaining a vestige of control meant that I no longer enjoyed drinking.
I had so much resistance and internal struggle around drinking that even having two gin and tonics — moderate drinking, by definition, felt painful.
I was desperate to be a different sort of woman, the kind I could respect, and the way I acted when I drank* prevented that from being possible. But still, I kept drinking.
After a night staying up and drinking beer after I’d promised myself not to drink any, I swore off again. This time I meant it. Under no circumstances would I drink.
I had booked a new therapist, determined to work out, once and for all, what the hell was wrong with me, and sitting in her office, I finally said it aloud.
“I think that there is something around alcohol…”
When I returned home, feeling emptied out and bewildered as you often do after therapy, my boyfriend had laid out a Scrabble board, a bottle of wine and two glasses.
It was a sweet gesture. He was trying to connect. I didn’t have the heart to refuse him. But somewhere a part of me thought, WTF? Don’t you see me here, trying to stop drinking?
That night, I behaved like a jealous, insecure woman with low self-esteem, which was exactly what I was. But for the first time, I recognized that I had nobody to blame but myself for this.
Yet again, I had started the day with absolutely no intention to drink.
Correction: I’d started the day with a strong intention not to drink.
And here I was drunk AGAIN. Not only drunk but acting pathetic.
The next day I went to my second AA meeting.
3. I finally understood that this problem was not going anywhere.
Reading memoirs about women getting sober had educated and inspired me, but it hadn’t stopped me from drinking.
Going to yoga had given me a bit of peace, but it hadn’t stopped me drinking.
Exploring spirituality had given me hope, but it hadn’t stopped me drinking.
So I went to a place that helped people to stop drinking.
I met other non-drinkers, who supported and encouraged and taught me how to get through life without drinking. They nudged me to call other people and see how I could be useful, instead of hiding away or feeling sorry for myself.
They told me I was doing great and encouraged me to keep going. They said it would get easier and promised it was worth it, and sometimes I actually believed them. They taught me to play the tape forward.
I made plans to do activities that didn’t feature booze and grew to understand the point of cake and coffee. I created space for a new narrative around alcohol to bloom inside my psyche.
Instead of thinking fuck it, one won’t hurt when a free glass of Prosecco was offered on entering a fancy restaurant, I ran outside to call a sober friend half-crying with anger and embarrassment. Why TF couldn’t I just drink it?
Because it is never just one. Because you are trying something different.
4. I acted as if one would hurt, long before I believed it.
I began every day with the decision not to drink today. After all, it was just for a year.
And by taking it one day at a time, by engaging with a support group, by doing things differently, I finally managed a year without booze.
After one year of sobriety, my life looked different. The drinking partner boyfriend was gone and I was embarking on a health quest which made me feel happier and more confident than I ever had.
In twelve months my spirit and self-esteem had improved so much that I knew I needed to keep doing what I was doing. It was time to quit alcohol for good.
In April this year, I will be four years sober.
5. My year sober was so positive that I knew I had to keep going.
Don’t get me wrong, it was painful too. There were losses, and it was hard.
But looking back, I can see I was lucky to quit when I did. Nobody suggested I stop drinking. I didn’t lose a job. In fact, the negative consequences of my drinking were largely invisible to anybody outside of my relationship.
The message simply rose up from within me that life would be better without the financial, emotional and psychological cost of this destructive, unhealthy, limiting habit. And without the terrible decisions that it allowed me to keep making.
My first year was the easiest because I never thought it would stick. I still partly thought sobriety was just a phase. An experiment that I’d write about.
I had to experience life in a different way before I could really understand to what extent my drinking was a problem.
6. Stop trying to do it on your own.
Find people who will help you stick with your decision not to drink, because, if you’re anything like me, you likely forget two or three hours/days/weeks after you’ve taken it.
Practice observing or sharing your alcohol-seeking thoughts rather than acting on them, and over time another internal voice will become prominent. Mine had been calling to me for years about yoga and gardening and kindness and climbing and true love and nature.
When I stopped allowing it to drive me to drink, I got to discover all of those other things.
Tell those closest to you what you are doing so they can support you, then find a sober community and ask for help.
*mostly in relationships
If you’re struggling to quit drinking, you’re not alone.
Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
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Chelsey Flood is a novelist, lecturer and truth-seeker. She writes stories about freedom, nature and love.