Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I’m Surprised How Happy I Am After Giving Up Alcohol

It wasn’t only the health risk that made me go teetotal. But now that I am, my family and friends like me a lot more
Last week brought dark news for enthusiastic drinkers, in the shape of a damning global report that concluded “the safest level of drinking is none”, and urged health chiefs worldwide to consider recommending total abstinence. Cue millions of drinkers choking with horror on their sauvignon blanc.

As one of the thirstiest nations in the world, the British have long clung to the received wisdom that moderate drinking brings some health benefits. But it’s now become impossible to ignore that the health benefits of alcohol are utterly dwarfed by the drawbacks.

Almost five years ago, I realised that my bottle-of-wine a night habit was stamping all over my relationships, career and wellbeing in the manner of King Kong crashing through a city. So I quit, completely. Not without absolute dread, mind. I felt like I was pawning a bejewelled party dress to get money to pay the gas bill, or selling a Porsche to put into a pension. I knew it was sensible for me to stop, but did I want to do it? Hell no.

So I was astonished to discover how much happier I became, and how much more my family and friends liked me. Sobriety is portrayed as social suicide. We are told – we tell each other – that alcohol is the bottle-shaped root of all fun, bonding, romance and relaxation. Phrases like “stone-cold sober” and “sober as a judge” hammer home the stern, preachy reputation of sobriety. But sober really doesn’t feel like that.

Drinking is not socially essential. I am living proof, as are millions of others, that you can be 100% teetotal and have an infinitely more interesting social life. My going-out money no longer gets snaffled by endless bottles of house white at the pub, so I can explore other pursuits.

I no longer stay out until 3am shouting at people I barely know, repeating myself, before getting stuck into some questionable chicken like a coyote. I don’t have terrifying rips in my memory where the end of the night should be, nor do I drag myself through the next day fantasising about being hit by a bus so that I can go where I feel like going – hospital.

Drinking has a beautiful side, as well as a beastly one, of course. But then every drug has positives. MDMA made me dance like a lunatic for five hours straight and told me I loved everyone; I did acid once and had a fascinating conversation with a hand towel; when I did cocaine I felt like the hot damn Mistress of the Universe.

Recreational drugs drop a veil over reality, they do a sexy belly dance in your brain; you do mad, spontaneous things, then in the morning you pick up the agonising tab. The flipside of MDMA was a week-long serotonin ennui, microdots convinced me that a woman on the nightbus was an assassin, and I may have felt silken and charming on coke, but everyone else thought I was an arrogant wazzock. None of those drugs were worth the price tag. They were too expensive, both psychologically and physically, for me.

Alcohol is no different. It has its pros and it has its crashing lows. Alcohol allows you to segue swiftly from clenched to chilled, by sliding down the fast-route wine waterslide. Whoosh. You’re there. But are the lows worth the highs? For me, they weren’t. And a fifth of British adults think similarily, since they’re also teetotal, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures.

Drinking alcohol for health benefits is like eating burgers for the gherkins. Anyone still imbibing under this delusion needs to remove their head from the sandpit in the pub garden.

Surely we already knew this, on an atomic level, that even a small amount of alcohol screws with our body and mental health? Even when I managed to keep my pub tab to just two drinks, the next day I still felt the smudge of tiredness, the scratch of anxiety, the roil of nausea, the ghost of sadness. Our body tells us that it hates even titchy amounts of booze, if we would only listen; we don’t really need a report to tell us.

As a nation, we are terrified to loosen our grip on alcohol as our social lubricant. I get it. 

But there truly is nothing to lose other than the crucifying hangovers; the ability to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny; propensity to pull people you don’t fancy; and the inclination to stay out beyond 1am (after which nothing good happens, I promise, having done my research on 16,807 occasions). The only – yes, only! – social skill I have lost is the ability to do karaoke.

And believe me, the world can live without that. 

Catherine Gray is the author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

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