It's Christmas Eve, my absolute favourite part of the holiday season. The anticipation, the glow, the excited faces. The family are gathered together at my mother's house. The fire is blazing, the fairy lights are twinkling, platters of smoked salmon are on the table and the Champagne has just been popped. Tall glasses are filled with golden bubbles and I reach out my hand and take… a Coke.
It's been 100 days since my last drink. My name is Kate Gunn and I am not an alcoholic. So why am I on the dry?
In the summer of last year, my ex-husband stumbled across a website called One Year No Beer. The idea was to publicly sign up to either a 30, 90 or 365-day challenge of going booze-free. The founders of the website, Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns, are two regular British guys who felt that life was passing them by in a series of hazy nights and hungover days. While they weren't 'problem' drinkers, they wanted more from life, and they felt that it might well be the drink that was holding them back. Andy says, "Every day had become a slog and some of the enjoyment was fading out of life. My world felt like one constant hangover. I was tired, anxious, just not right at all. I wasn't depressed or an alcoholic; I was just bored with the booze."
Andy used mindfulness and meditation to break free from alcohol and began researching and studying positive psychology. From that, the One Year No Beer (OYNB) challenge was born.
My ex took the challenge - signing up to 90 days and sharing it as his status on Facebook. If he didn't make it, it would be a very public failing. Within a month, the change in him was apparent. He was calmer, less anxious, happier. He looked better. He now spent his weekends out hiking or doing activities with the kids. Around the same time, my boyfriend was having stomach problems and decided to take a month off alcohol to see if that helped, so I promised to join him on the one condition that after 30 days we would be back to our good old ways - not a day or minute more.
And so, on Monday October 3, 2016, following a perfectly timed long weekend in Amsterdam, we began our 30 days.
I wasn't sure whether my stamina would hold, so I decided to arm myself with everything I could from the start. I read Andy and Ruari's One Year No Beer booklet and signed up to their Facebook group. I bought and devoured books such as Jason Vale's Kick the Drink… Easily!.
The first weekend of the challenge felt a little odd. Friday night in without a glass of wine was tinged with a definite feeling of missing out. Saturday was a repeat performance, sipping on peppermint tea and wondering how long this month would take to pass. But time rolled on and things got easier. Events I thought I wouldn't be able to enjoy without a drink were ticked off - dinners out, a gig, a charity event, a girls' night out, and even a festival. And I wasn't just surviving each one - I was actively enjoying each of them. Perhaps I could do this after all.
I also had more energy than I'd had in years. I began getting up at 6am before the kids woke to work on my flagging diploma course. Within two months, I had finished it with a distinction. At the same time I began training for a 10k and hit sub-50-minutes for the first time ever. My anxiety disappeared, my skin improved, and I felt in control. That most precious of all commodities - time - was given back to me.
Even with all that, no one was more surprised than I was when the 30-day challenge ended and I decided to keep going. If I committed to 90 days, that would mean a dry Christmas and New Year - something I could never have considered before. But if I could do that, I could do anything. Maybe even the 365 challenge would be next.
If this all sounds too little-miss-perfect, I can safely say I never thought I'd be writing this article. I loved alcohol. Red wine by the fire, a creamy pint of Guinness after a Sunday stroll, the tingle of a glass of Champagne, a cold beer on a summer's day - I've spent the past 25 years deeply enjoying each of them. In fact, like most of us, I've spent my entire adult life drinking.
This is the first time I've stepped completely outside of its spell for a longer than a month. That month was Dry January just a few years ago, the end of which saw me swearing I would never put myself through the agony and boredom of it ever again. I even went on national radio to warn others not to do it to themselves.
So what changed? Two things - the mentality and the support. While Dry January is about depriving yourself of something, OYNB is about all the things you are gaining: the glowing skin, the boundless energy, the convenience, the improved mental health, the productivity, the savings and the untold health benefits. There's also endless support on tap via the Facebook group of almost 3,000 members. Whatever challenge you are facing, there'll be someone in there who has faced it already and is ready to share their wisdom. The members are a cross-section of society, from those who have tried doing it on their own and failed, to those on the 30, 90 and 365 challenges, or who haven't touched a drop in 20 years.
"The major difference is the change in mindset - that taking a break from alcohol is not something you're giving up but a chance to gain a clear advantage in so many areas of life," says Andy. "The conventional wisdom that yells 'we need alcohol to have fun, be a success and live a full life' is wrong. It is the members that provide the inspiration though their stories and transformations."
The group offers supports to those who sign up. "We offer a plan and training, if you like - because we know that trying to wing it doesn't work," Andy says. "To create lasting positive habit change, you need guidance, and our daily supports tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. This support is a combination of neurolinguistic programming, positive psychology, mindfulness, sports psychology, our experience and the science of habit change."
Of course, it hasn't all been plain sailing for me. There have been times when that juicy steak was crying out for a nice glass of red, and going to Dingle for a festival that revolved around pubs could very well have been the height of stupidity. And did I mention the Moët?
I also found that I automatically associated drink with reward. End of a hard week: you deserve a drink. Kids finally in bed: you deserve a drink. You finished the long slog of your diploma: you deserve a drink. You've done 30 days without alcohol: you deserve a drink.
However possibly the biggest challenge isn't resisting the temptations, or reconditioning the reward system in your head, it's actually dealing with the reactions of friends and family. Whilst many are impressed, and some curious enough to wonder if they could do it too, there are a few who are definitely not happy. Possibly even threatened by it. After all, who trusts someone who doesn't drink?
And I understand this implicitly. Before this experience, I would have felt exactly the same - I mean, who wants to socialise with someone who is silently judging their drinking habits? But, looking in from the other side, I can now assure you that there's no judgement happening. When things start getting messy, I'll simply slip out the door and into my waiting car outside - ready to wake up refreshed the next day knowing I've still had a great night out. Smug factor: high.
Andy says that putting the extra energy you find yourself with during the OYNB challenge is one of the keys to its success. "We wrap the alcohol-free challenge around a physical challenge. From day one, we encourage our members to book a physical challenge beyond their current capabilities. This could be a 1k walk, 5k park run or a marathon. This is part of the magic of OYNB - we get people doing stuff - this is not about locking yourself away; it's about getting out there and living life to the full. We want our members to become even more social that they were before.
"All of this is designed to bust those long-held myths around alcohol and prove to people that they can love life alcohol-free. At this point, they can then decide in 'full control' if they want to have a drink every now and then, in full control, extend the challenge or never drink again. Also we always say the magic happens between 30 and 90 days, so we encourage people to try 90 days alcohol-free. It is during this period that the members unlock so many well-being advantages - from more time to improved diets, exercise routines, improved mental well-being and a boost in productivity, to name a few."
With a book deal just signed, a new website, an ever-increasing membership, a growing Facebook group and a successful podcast under their belts, it's clear that the OYNB movement is gaining momentum. It now has two options available: a free community and support group on Facebook with access to regular podcasts and blogs, or a paid exclusive membership that costs around €105 for 90 days of video support, daily emails, audio support and three months' access to an exclusive challenge Facebook group.
My little app called 'I'm done drinking' tells me that so far I have done 100 days alcohol free, thus saving myself approx €1,000 and 30,500 calories. So that's Christmas paid for, a jean size dropped, and a whole heap of added life and health benefits to boot. Now I'll drink to that.
For more, see oneyearnobeer.com
1 No hangovers
No more wasted weekends lying on the sofa or dragging yourself out of bed for your son's soccer practice. By the end of the challenge, you'll be managing the team.
2 More time
The holy grail. There finally ARE enough hours in the day - and you have the tools to make the most of it too (see points 3 and 4).
3 More energy
One of the wonders that appears within the first 10 days and stays with you. Perhaps it's because that your liver isn't working so hard to eliminate all the toxins from your body, or the fact that your brain isn't an anxiety-ridden mess, or that you've lost weight, are doing more exercise and haven't been craving greasy junk food… Whatever the reason, your energy levels are higher than they have been in 10 years.
4 Less anxiety, better mental health
Time and again, members of the OYNB group cite better mental health after giving up alcohol. While we use alcohol to relieve stress and anxiety, it actually only works as a pause button, and in fact increases the stress and anxiety the next day, leading to a vicious circle.
5 Increased productivity
More energy and a clearer mind lead to a more productive life. Home, work, hobbies, kids - we all have a huge amount of tasks to juggle. Living life alcohol-free helps you stay on top of it all. And that Sunday-night fear? Completely gone within three weeks. If you have specific goals you want to achieve this year, you might want to give it a go.
6 Inner confidence
So many of us use alcohol as a social crutch. We can't have fun without it, can't socialise without it, can't talk to strangers (and even friends) without it, and certainly can't dance without it. But imagine if you proved to yourself that you could? There's a lot you can learn about yourself being sober in an alcohol-fuelled world.
7 Outer glow
Your complexion improves and your eyes get noticeably brighter within a month. I noticed my own skin improve in the first few weeks, although it took about two months to get the first "wow, your make-up looks great - have you changed your foundation?" comment. For some people, this is the only thing that will make it all worthwhile.