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Sober thoughts, sober words: How to dethrone alcohol.

It seems that alcohol is your best friend until it’s not. Almost every piece of “quit lit” I have ever read starts with a statement of just how impossible sobriety had always seemed to the author until they finally realised alcohol was killing them. There are long deliberations of extremely “fun” stories, high-octane nights (and days) spent inhaling Echo Falls, tales of clubs visited, cheesy chips consumed and hangovers survived only by the grace of Lucozade. There is a presentation of alcohol as so much more than a gateway to fun. For many of us, it is superman juice, a magical substance unleashing our inner powers, helping us realise our fullest potential and become our best and bubbliest selves.

Unsurprisingly, I was exactly the same. I came to think of myself as a drinker, and of alcohol as something that was essential to my everyday life and that helped me to thrive, despite the minor setbacks of an occasional. My drinking had become myth even in my relationship: I met my partner at predrinks, to which I showed up in a dark backless jumpsuit and a £5 bottle of pink Zinfandel, already tipsy from a few G&Ts I had imbibed on the long tube journey to Brixton. What an introduction.

Soon enough, alcohol became synonymous with my name, and so I decided I’d had enough. In her fantastic book, Millie Gooch talks about how she didn’t have a “rock bottom” moment before deciding to quit. She didn’t have a terrible accident, a messy break-up or an intervention put on by worried friends: over time, she simply realised that a booze-filled life was not for her. I felt the same: though I could (and perhaps I will) fill pages and pages with eye-watering tales of what I got up to inebriated, it wasn’t a single isolated incident that got me to stop. Rather, I have a combination of random factors to thank.

I’m now eight weeks sober. My handy app, I Am Sober, tells me I have saved about £400 and gained back an estimated 35 hours of time which I otherwise would have spent recovering from godawful hangovers or eyeing the bar at some work event I didn’t actually want to go to. And sure, it’s nice to have some extra cash in the bank and more time to spend watching TikToks, ahem, I mean, meditating, this is very far from being the most important thing about my sobriety. I have learnt so much, about alcohol and how it shapes the world. A lot has already been said about the industry and the serious harm it has brought to the lives of many, and books like Quit Like a Woman and The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober are good places to start if that is something you’d like to understand more about. This time, I want to focus a little more on the much more approachable topic of a drinker mindset and how it surreptitiously controls your life.

Alcohol splits the world into two rigid categories: non-drinkers and drinkers, and the latter into two further ones - those who can handle it and those who can’t. Over time, I’d also come to appropriate this binary view. Drinkers were my friends, those who understood me and who I could relate to. They were my people, the ones I felt comfortable around, the ones who - I thought - would never judge me. (How could they, after all the messed-up shit we’ve both seen each other do?)

In today’s world, there is a universal understanding that drinking isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. Drinkers are fun, fascinating, and wild; they are the people who make incredible things happen and who incredible things happen to. Drinkers are forever the heart of the party, the first ones to order tequila shots and the last ones to go to bed. They’re never tired and never bored as life coalesces around them in beautiful, fun patterns.

Thinking of life this way leads to a lot of obvious judgment towards the sober amongst us, and a misguided idea of any imbibers as instant pals. But the real issue goes even further. Once we internalise this view, which I certainly did, our days and nights become organised around alcohol, making it really difficult to ever consider the possibility, or the benefits, of going without. If you surround yourself with people who are always drinking, you are much less likely to think about how that drinking is harming you. We might live individual lives, but the power of community still holds strong, and so if your social circles are made up of exclusively heavy drinkers, their affirming noise might drown out whatever doubts are coming up for you about your alcohol consumption.

The binary also harms us by inextricably tying our identity to alcohol, which in turn holds us back from embracing change. After all, it is much harder to change who we are than what we do. This is one of the reasons why sobriety seemed completely unfathomable, and terrifying, in my eyes. I thought, that without alcohol, I wouldn’t be able to do the things I enjoy most, like talking to strangers, dancing my troubles away, staying up too late and laughing so hard my eyes start to water. I thought if I stopped drinking, I would lose myself, as if alcohol was the very foundation of everything I was.

In fact, in sobriety, the opposite has been true. Instead of disorientation, I have found time and space to really understand who I am other than a reckless imbiber of many G&Ts. For instance, I’m much more of an introvert than I had thought. Because I was always seeking opportunities to drink, and that was much easier (and socially acceptable) to do with other people, I had begun to see myself as someone who is energised by the presence of others and loves company. In a much darker way, I had also come to actively dislike being on my own as that often translated to confronting the consequences of my terrible decisions. Being sober has allowed me to see the real reasons behind those behaviours and properly assess my needs.

I realise now that alcohol doesn’t reveal your true identity, but heavily distorts your understanding of it. In her book, Catherine Gray points out that alcohol causes you to lose your inhibitions - inhibitions which were there for a reason, which is to help you stay true to your values as you navigate life. This might explain the complete mortification you feel thinking about the things you did, stuff you said, people you kissed while drunk: none of those were decisions made by your true self and, sober, you see how misaligned they are with your actual moral compass. “Drunk words, sober thoughts” is an entirely flawed concept.

I find this particularly enlightening as a young person brought up and socialised as a woman. From a very young age, we learn to see ourselves as overly emotional (and/or hormonal) and therefore untrustworthy. We are told to disregard our intuitions and gut feelings and follow exterior guidelines or advice instead. Alcohol plays into this dynamic, clouding our judgment and rendering us powerless to make our own decisions. Inebriated, we become the “cool girls” society wants us to be, the ones who can wear tight dresses, walk miles in five-inch heels, party all night, dance on tabletops and say yes to everything.

It is because of a toxic drinking mindset that making bad calls and ignoring red flags is seen as the thing to do. It is this mindset that leads us to places we do not want to be, with people we don’t actually like, spending time and money we don’t have. It is why we think alcohol adds to our lives, while sobriety takes away from it. 

The good thing is, once you understand how this one belief structures your life, you can start taking steps to change it, and the vicious cycle very swiftly turns into a virtuous one. It’s like understanding a magic trick and never falling for it again. Giving up alcohol gives you a realm of opportunity, and the energy and resources to explore it. It might feel impossible, but once you start opening your eyes, you will begin to see many people out there living a full (and very fun) life without the burden of alcohol hanging over them. So grab yourself a Virgin Mojito and dance the night away. Promise, it only gets better.

By Ditta Demeter