“Will you go back to drinking?” It's a question I've faced a lot lately.
I don't blame people for asking; after almost 12 months of publicly not consuming a drop, the question of “What next?” has just as frequently crossed my own mind — especially as we hurtled through the festive season and into early 2020.
The answer? Right now I'm still leaning towards… probably not? Highly unlikely? I doubt it? It's not quite a hard no — but definitely not a yes.
At times, I have had a sense that some people think I've white-knuckled my way through this year, stubbornly refusing all offers of alcohol to prove a point, looking forward eagerly to the day I can pick up a shot glass and knock it back.
But reaching my original goal now feels more like an important milestone or marker in an ongoing journey of discovery than a line in the sand to step neatly over.
Sure, a tiny part of me still wishes I could participate in the rituals of drinking, especially at this summery time of year. My brain remembers well the relaxing blur of cold drinks poured into balmy evenings with friends.
But — more sharply — my brain also remembers the unpleasant results of “one too many”: pounding headaches, stomach aches, with regret and anxiety laden on top.
I know rationally that “just one drink” won't trigger that level of malaise, but when I think “is one drink worth it?” the answer is usually no, as I no longer need it to imbue my life with a sense of pleasure, relaxation or mental release.
Where I came from
Thanks to pages of notes scratched out early last year, as I slowly came to terms with what felt at the time like a monumental, life-limiting choice, I can now see how central a role I wrongly believed alcohol had to play in my life.
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Back then, I was persistently troubled by a gnawing feeling that the way I used alcohol wasn't really healthy and worried by what I felt was a lack of control over weekend binge-drinking.
Because excessive alcohol consumption is so normalised for many of us in Australia, no-one had ever said anything to me about the way I was drinking or raised it as an issue, even though for me it felt like a problem to fix.
I was drinking at least a couple of times a week — at least four standard units of alcohol disguised as two wines at networking functions on weekdays to upwards of eight units on nights out at weekends.
I had over time put on weight from all the extra calories, compounded by snacks I definitely wouldn't have eaten in a sober state.
Also routine were 3am wake-ups, to chew over things I worried I'd said or done after a few drinks.
I was not alone in these nights of obliterated memory. But often, my friends' and my regrets at drunken behaviour and crippling hangovers eventually morphed into funny punchlines, were downplayed or disappeared.
How I changed
When I first stepped off this hamster wheel, others were surprised or even a bit sceptical — but over time, many friends and strangers (mostly women) quietly started to reach out, letting me know they were inspired and had followed suit, or asked me how it was done.
How? For me, it started with a genuine desire for change. Then came commitment, made stronger by telling other people. Then persistence, dredging up a belief I could do it, staying focused on the positives. Reading what experts had to say. Talking to professionals if needed.
I also felt it critical to maintain a busy, active social life that included dancing, networking, parties and events and travelling; I needed other forms of joy and abandon in my life to stave off becoming bored and resentful.
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Early in the year I chatted to a counsellor, who advised that writing down and reflecting on clear goals was important.
She reminded me that change was a long process and to do it properly you need to have both a reason and the ability.
If you need help:
- Alcoholics Anonymous: 1300 222 222
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
I had both, she told me — others who wanted to stop drinking weren't so nearly privileged. I had choices — so what kind of life did I want to choose?
Her advice to consider how drinking fit into life goals was echoed by Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning, along with being aware of alcohol's relationship to stress.
“Whether they are health, relationship or career [goals], it can be helpful to look at whether your alcohol use is impacting any of these, and if so, how the impact can be reduced or removed,” he told me.
“Many people find that alcohol is an ingrained coping mechanism and so can feel very necessary in order to deal with stress or help wind down after a challenging day.”
Writing down why I drank, why I no longer wanted to and what it was like dealing with stress and anxiety without an artificial crutch became extraordinarily useful.
What are the results?
A few months in, I experienced improved sleep, increased energy, less spiky blood sugar, better mental health, fewer bouts of anxiety.
These days, I have fewer headaches and my whole digestive system, in general, feels less irritated and inflamed, with a growing sense of general wellbeing.
Recently, when I've posted photos of myself online, friends will often get in touch to comment on how much healthier I look.
We celebrate the fact I have dropped exactly 10 kilograms since December last year — a direct result of zero extra calorie intake from alcohol, less unhealthy snacking and the exercise routine I've managed to keep up in fits and starts.
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Having an encouraging GP like Dr Davis has been incredibly useful to staying on track; fortunately, his kind of support should become more widely available soon.
He tells me that in 2020 he's been given the opportunity to train more GPs across Australia to deliver his home-based program for mild-to-moderate alcohol dependency through the Royal College of GPs.
Where to from here?
While cravings may flare briefly at the edge of my consciousness from time to time, my alcohol habit is dead and gone; I can sit comfortably with friends watching them drink wine or champagne as I nurse a kombucha or sparkling water.
More importantly, my sense of what is “normal” drinking has shifted on its axis.
When I think back to the amount of booze I used to consume in one sitting I find it a little bit horrifying and not at all appealing.
I now also recognise and think frequently about the fact that alcohol is carcinogenic — the less you drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm.
The newly revised-downwards National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines now say people should drink “no more than 10 standard drinks per week” to reduce the health risks from alcohol, down from 14 — I'm happy to take that even further.
“Your life is in your control — you can have a drink whenever you want — but it's important to reflect and remember where you were a year ago,” Dr Davis says.
“You've done all that work, you've got rid of all those triggers and associations and your brain no longer equates fun with alcohol — why would you want to go back to drinking poison? It makes no sense.
“Just think about where you were and who you are now — who would you rather be?”
Right now? It's the stone-cold sober version of me.