There is a degree of bravado and openness demonstrated by many of those taking part in Alcohol Concern’s Dry January and Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon, the latter promoting their particular take on a sober start to 2014 with a cast of desperate mock athletes straining to reach a pint of the forbidden fruit (lager) on their Facebook page (in a jokey way, of course).
I suspect, however, that there are many people who feel terribly (and secretly) worried about their relationship with alcohol, and who sign up to these charity dry months because they provide a way of addressing a stigmatised problem without drawing unwanted attention to it. At any other time of the year, should you be so bold as to admit to the world that you have quit drinking alcohol, the reaction would probably be less than congratulatory.
“Why? Are you pregnant?” or “What – forever? Are you an alcoholic then?” being common reactions, although not as common as the response which is mere silence followed by an awkward change of subject.
In the UK and much of the Western world, we do not hold in high regard the notion of teetotalism. And yet with alcohol being the direct cause of 12,500 cancers in the UK each year (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/alcohol/), 290 people being killed in drink-driving incidents in 2012, 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in England in 2011-12 and estimates indicating that alcohol-related harm overall costs the NHS in England £3.5bn a year (http://www.nta.nhs.uk/uploads/alcohol2012-13.pdf), a non-drinking lifestyle may not be such a bad idea.
Of course, drinking moderately by sticking within government guidelines is how many people approach the business of drinking. For those people there is no real issue with booze, and certainly charity fundraising events such as Dry January would pose no major challenge.
However, there is a (substantial and largely hidden) proportion of the UK population who are unable to drink moderately but who struggle to come to terms with the notion of living alcohol-free. I was, for twenty years, one of those people. Deeply in love with Chablis, Pinot Grigio and a good, oaky Chardonnay, I was caught in an endless cycle where I believed I was treating myself each evening when I popped yet another cork, but in reality I was only deepening my ongoing depression, anxiety issues, lack of self-esteem and self-confidence, and the feelings of shame and guilt associated with the amount I drank.
Yet the thought of living alcohol-free as a lifestyle choice never entered my consciousness, from the age when I very first became aware of alcohol (probably about five or six), to when I began to experience the more detrimental effects of alcohol consumption in my early thirties. And then I toyed with the idea; a six-week dry period here, a health-giving detox there, but never fully wrapped my head around the concept of sobriety.
There were many reasons behind this, the two most obvious being that a) I was frightened of living without the crutch I had relied on for all of my teenage years and adult life, and b) I thought people who didn’t drink were boring.
When I eventually arrived (aged 35) at the conclusion that my lack of ability to recognise when I’d had enough was such that I would most likely die prematurely should I choose to continue to drink, I actually discovered that life without booze is rather fantastic. I love waking up full of energy and with a glowing complexion every morning. I love the fact that I never have to scroll through my phone to establish just who I contacted in the early hours and exactly what embarrassing sentiment I texted or emailed to them. I love the fact that I am now a patient and tolerant person, who always sees the bright side of life and rarely feels down. And I love the fact that I am no longer hiding behind a façade, but am the real me without pretence. I love the freedom that being a non-drinker brings.
I also enjoy how my creativity and productivity have exploded during the last three years I have spent sober, and during that time I have achieved more that I am proud of than I did in all my drinking years put together.
But I notice within our society that teetotallers are frequently regarded with suspicion, and their motives for wishing to exist minus the falsity of alcohol are questioned. I am the founder of a website which offers peer support to those with alcohol dependency problems (Soberistas.com) and therefore I spend an awful lot of time reading about the experiences of those who struggle with the same issues that I did for many years. With 22,000 members, it is clear there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy with living in the booze trap but who have not easily been able to extricate themselves from it – partly because we live in such a booze-obsessed world.
As Dry January and the Dryathlon draw to a close and those who have so candidly taken part return to join the rest of the drinking population, I can’t help thinking about how many people there are who have enjoyed a society-approved respite from an endless cycle of heavy drinking followed by depression and regrets the morning after, but who now feel obliged to climb back on board the booze bus in order to not feel left out; for many, it’s a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
If we, as a society, ceased to perceive those who opt out of the madness of heavy drinking as oddities, and instead viewed their decision as a sensible choice for anyone who is not in control of their alcohol consumption, perhaps more people would feel motivated to live alcohol-free. For people who have managed to beat their smoking addiction, we give a collective pat on the back. Why not afford the same respect to those for whom alcohol causes only misery, and who therefore choose to live without it?
Maybe we should think in reverse when it comes to the old saying, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” I, for one, am a hundred per cent more trustworthy (and more fun, pleasant to be around, a better parent, and less selfish) as a non-drinker than I ever was as a boozer.