Thursday 21 November 2019

Staying dry: How my month off booze turned into a life of sobriety

As 'Dry January' draws to a close, you might be debating staying sober. That's exactly what writer Kate Gunn did

Author Kate Gunn
Author Kate Gunn

Kate Gunn

I gave up alcohol for 30 days. That was over two years ago now. I had never intended to stop drinking long term, in fact I had entered into the 30-day agreement with my boyfriend Aodhan under the strict condition that it was for one month and not a day more.

So what changed? Those 30 days were sometimes difficult, occasionally boring, but mostly a positive experience for me. I didn't miss the hellish hangovers and delighted in the early morning productivity and increased energy. My skin began to improve and I felt less low-lying anxiety as I went about my daily tasks.

During that first month, I spent the days being active and the nights laying low. Although I loved the daytime benefits, I had to admit, if only to myself, that my cup of peppermint tea to celebrate the weekend just wasn't really cutting it. I stayed at home on the weekends because I didn't believe that I could actually go out and socialise without drink. How could I? I'd been drinking my way through social occasions since I was about 16. Who was I without it?

Towards the end of the month, I sat down with Aodhan to discuss how we were getting on. We weighed up the pros and cons and decided to give it another month. No major commitments. Just one more month and then we could see if we wanted to finish the 90-day challenge we had been reading about.

It turns out that telling people you are doing a 90-day challenge is a lot easier than just telling them you're off the drink. It sounds more exciting, less restrictive, and also less judgemental of everyone else. Others are willing to give you a chance - sure it's only 90 days, it's not like you're one of those weirdos who doesn't drink. We all know that nobody trusts them.

But 90 days is also very different to Dry January or one month off the drink.

One month allows you to hide away from social occasions, hibernate from the night world for a while. The longer time-frame of 90 days forces you out into social scenes. Birthday parties, weddings, gigs and family dinners all need to be ticked off the list. This is where the greatest challenge - and the greatest benefits - are to be found. Surprisingly, you do find out who you are. With no alcohol to hide behind, no loosener to get things flowing, you find your own confidence. You discover you don't actually need drink in order to talk to your friends. You talk, listen, laugh and enjoy the night, and when you are ready to leave, your car is very handily waiting just outside in the car park. You've had the best part of the night - and you get to revel in the next day, hangover-free and full of energy. It's the unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

With this revelation, I began to wonder what other myths we had been sold. I questioned what our other motives for drinking are, and whether, like social confidence, the truth was different to what I had believed for all of those years.

I discovered that, like many, I drank as a reward. Good day - have a drink to celebrate. Bad day - have a drink to take the edge off. Special occasion - break open the bubbles. Sunny day - enjoy a cold beer in the garden. Cold day - you need a pint of Guinness by the fire. Every situation had a drink to go with it. But was it really the alcohol that was the making of the situation? Would the sunny day be just as enjoyable with a different drink that just happened not to be alcoholic? I had been so indoctrinated to alcohol being the key factor that I hadn't seen there was an alternative.

I also realised that, like many, I drank to destress. Whether it was a glass of wine at the end of a long week, or a full-on blowout to reset the system - I always thought alcohol was helping. Not so. It's now proven that alcohol only presses the pause button on stress and anxiety. Once the effects start to wear off, the symptoms actually come back worse than before. Without alcohol in my system, my anxiety petered out and stressful situations became so much more manageable. I felt much more capable of taking on issues or setbacks. And Sunday night fear became a thing of the past.

No fear: Kate Gunn cut out drinking for a month but has stayed off alcohol ever since
No fear: Kate Gunn cut out drinking for a month but has stayed off alcohol ever since

So one by one, the myths dissolved, the issues left, and the positive aspects kept multiplying. My productivity and happiness soared. I became that irritating Instagram friend who posts pictures of 5am swim rises and 10k runs. I finished a diploma, painted the house, did a triathlon, ran a sub-50-minute 10k race, hiked 120k of the Camino, was promoted in work, and wrote a book. Alcohol had been holding me back without my even realising it.

I also saved a heap of money. Going out becomes so much more affordable without endless bottles to buy and late-night taxis to hail. I actually began to go out more often because it wasn't such an expense, or a hassle, plus I didn't have to factor in next day hangovers. I do more now than I ever did with alcohol by my side.

I'm finally no longer embarrassed to say I don't drink - in fact I'm proud of it. And as time goes on, I realise that more and more other people are interested in how to do it too. And if you've just finished dry January and are considering staying away from alcohol, you might be one of them.

The health risks of alcohol are becoming so much more evident to us these days. Alcohol is linked to seven forms of cancer, including breast cancer and bowel cancer - the less you drink, the lower your risk. A bit like smoking really…

Alcohol can contribute to diabetes, heart disease and pancreatitis, as well as liver disease and mental health issues. But we're finally getting more clued in. The tide is beginning to turn - even here in Ireland. With big breweries such as Guinness, Heineken and Budweiser all bringing out new zero per cent alcohol beers, as well as independents like Brew Dog joining in, you know there has been serious thought put into how the market is changing.

Brand new spirits, such as Seedlip and Silk Tree, are giving non-drinkers more options when out on the town or at home. Coupled with alcohol-free prosecco and wines, non-drinkers are now spoiled for choice. Indeed, if you're still hiding the fact that you're on the dry, your friends probably won't even notice. And if you're a little further down the line and have managed to persuade a couple of others to join you, the first alcohol-free pub is just about to open its doors in Dublin. Our culture has normalised drinking so much that to not drink is considered suspicious and boring - but it's worth breaking the spell once in your adult life to see whether you like the view from the other side.

As for me, I'll be staying over here, enjoying life and looking forward to a better and healthier old age. I even started a pension with the money I saved from not drinking each month - so really, who said non-drinkers are boring?

Irish Independent

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