Last January I decided to give up alcohol for good. I’ve written about this subject a couple of times here on the blog and I realised I’m due an update. It was a difficult choice that I’d put off for years, but it had finally become clear that if I was serious about managing my bipolar disorder, booze had to go. After a long depressive episode, I experienced heightened anxiety for anything up to a week after consuming even a moderate amount of alcohol. This was not always the case and I before then I could drink like a sailor. The relative ease with which I gave up suggests I am not an alcoholic, however I certainly have an addictive personality. There is a restless, itchy, anxious part of my psyche that’s constantly scrabbling around in search of a substance or behaviour to sooth and numb and unbearable void – a painful emptiness. My psychiatrist says that treating addicts is a bit like playing a game of whac-a-mole; when one problem is dealt with another addictive pattern rears its ugly head.
Although I don’t qualify as an alcoholic, my relationship with drink has often been very unhealthy and out of control. I’ve avoided full blown addiction thanks to a good support network and a very loving, patient partner. Going sober was undoubtedly the right choice but I really miss drinking. I used to love going out and I was always first to the bar and last to go home. This year has been challenging at times when I needed an emotional crutch and I couldn’t return to my old friend alcohol. There were social gatherings when I’ve felt uneasy and self-conscious and I really wanted something stronger than an elderflower and tonic. The promise of a mollifying glass of wine after a difficult day was always seductive. Of course, a full bodied Malbec was never the solution and ultimately made things worse, but I enjoyed slipping into gentle, cosy numbness.
Despite my attachment to alcohol, I’ve managed to cut drinking out of my life because I was desperate to be well. However, sobriety was not the silver bullet I had hoped for. My eating disorder, which had been dormant for years, relapsed soon after I gave up in January and I didn’t get better until May. The aforementioned game of whac-a-mole is very tiresome. Nonetheless, when I eventually came out of that dark period, I was grateful and glad for my sobriety. One of the things I was most anxious about was being able to socialise; my friendships are very important to me and I hated the idea of not being able to participate in the social rituals that revolve around drinking. Going to the pub on a Friday night, raising a glass of champagne at a wedding or celebrating a friend’s birthday with cocktails; I miss it all. I had built a lot of my identity around my capacity to party and I went through a phase of re-evaluating who I was without it. But after a period of adjustment, I realised that I can still socialise with people who are drinking. I thought I’d find it impossible to go out without a drink; I imagined boring, isolated evenings where I’d have to watch everyone else have a roaring good time while I stood by with a glass of flat lemonade. I’ve realised that I can still be with my friends and enjoy their company, it just took time to adjust my expectations.
If you’ve just quit and you’re wondering how you will socialise without the alcohol, you may find the first few occasions strange and awkward. I was nervous and initially jealous of people enjoying a drink. However, when you are sober you’ll be in a position to observe the behaviour of your peers. You’ll notice that most people are also worried about their appearance, saying the wrong thing and keen to be funny and engaging. I’ve found that being sober has actually allowed me to be more open and honest with people I hang out with. My confidence grew after each social gathering and I noticed that my intention is different. Rather than just getting wasted, I’m more interested in making personal connections. People tend to open up when they’ve had a few and I often end up having deep conversations about what’s really going on in their lives. I like being there for someone, even in a small, seemingly insignificant way. Of course, there comes a time in the night when my fellow revellers stop making sense, slurring their words and telling me that they love me – this is my cue to make a swift exit. The ultimate challenge to my sobriety was going out on New Year’s Eve, a night that I could have never imagined without copious amounts of gin and champagne. I saw in 2020 at Shoreditch House and I had a great time; I laughed till my ribs hurt and I loved celebrating with some of my best friends.
If cutting down, taking a break or stopping altogether is what you need to take care of your mental health, it is absolutely possible. I have always considered the decision a commitment to self-care, rather than something puritanical and punitive. Although my sobriety got off to a bumpy start, I’m relieved that I gave up because I’ve eliminated a whole mess of complications that make my bipolar more difficult to manage. You will need the support of your loved ones and your wider peer group; it will be difficult if you’re around people who urge you to drink with them. You don’t have to alienate yourself from your friends but perhaps meet them individually for coffee rather than going out as a group in the evening. Once you have a few sober social events under your belt, you will feel more confident in your choice and less vulnerable to peer pressure. Your real friends will support your decision and when you start to feel a bit better, it will be worth it.
Feature image from Pixabay.