Sober October: What did I learn?

I really couldn’t have picked a more difficult October to go sober. I was experiencing the height of post-graduation stress, disappearing into the remnants of my student overdraft as I entered my fifth month of soul-sucking job-hunting. I was trying to find a suitable flat in London, without knowing where I would be commuting to. I was watching the working world go by with a big left-out lump in my throat. It seemed crazy to be excluding myself from yet another social norm: drinking.

However, I like to make things hard for myself, so I signed up to go stone-cold sober for thirty-one days and raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. This would be good for me, I told myself.

My first post on social media quickly merited several donations to Macmillan, which felt nice. I was helping a worthy cause, which meant I wouldn’t back out of it. Going sober would have been a lot more difficult without the motivation to help others besides myself.

Week One

Week one of sober-life was a breeze. I had the flu, for a start, so didn’t feel particularly boozy. And I had enjoyed my fair share of drinking in September, having discovered the wonder of pink (pink!) gin. There had been some eventful nights, and days, and weekends. I needed a break, and so did my liver.

Week Two

Week one became week two, and I still didn’t feel too deprived. I was smug about my speedy recovery from terrible flu, compared to my non-sober acquaintances. I pictured my immune system working at full capacity, without being impaired by alcohol. I got back into my gym routine, made myself delicious vegetarian food and took my vitamins. I threw myself into interview preparation and freelancing, without craving three coffees a day to stave off a hangover. I drank herbal tea and went for walks. The donations were pouring in, and my own bank balance wasn’t depleting quite so rapidly. I even thought about going tea-total, permanently.

Week Three

Then week three happened: Three stressful interviews, three brutal rejections and a growing sense of impending doom as I doubted myself, my abilities and my life choices. Should I even have bothered spending four years of my life completing a psychology degree? The week passed in a blur of existential angst, and then it was Friday night. I had been alone all day, writing job applications before my housemate turned up with a bottle of wine. She’d had a long, hard week at work. She offered me a glass, I wistfully declined and then I came to a great and painful realisation: stress is why we drink. And often, we don’t even realise, because we’ve drunk preemptively.

Ordinarily, I would have cheerfully accepted the wine. I would have enjoyed a few glasses, chatted with my housemates, danced to some music and gone merrily to bed. I would have drowned out any doubts.

Instead, I had to sit with everything I was going through, like I had all day. I got so worked up that I burst out crying halfway through my dinner. I was quiet, I didn’t feel much like dancing, and I went miserably to bed.

I’m not going to lie to you, it was a bad night, but it gave me a lot to think about. Do we actually need poisonous substances to switch off at the end of a hard day? Or has British culture merely made it the only way we know how? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I don’t think they would even have occurred to me without removing alcohol as viable option on a Friday night. I might not even have noticed how upset I was with my current life circumstances.

Week Four

Week four wasn’t much better. It was a time for social events, like Halloween and birthdays, which inevitably involve drinking. I went along, of course, despite my soberness. I wanted to see my friends and get out of the house. I now knew how much job-hunting was getting to me and how much I needed to look after myself and socialise. Surely, I didn’t need to drink to reap the full benefits of that?

I would like to tell you that I had just as much fun without drinking on the pub crawl, but I don’t think I can claim that. It wasn’t that it was bad: I had a good chat with people, I enjoyed exploring London, and I had fun watching others descend into chaotic incoherence over the course of the night. However, I can’t deny the drawbacks. I felt massively left-out, even from the bad stuff. I don’t like getting hysterical, or vomiting, or losing control, but I felt remarkably excluded from the crowd just by being in control of my faculties. I felt like there was something missing from the night, some kind of buzz, some of those feelings of curiosity and freedom.

It makes me sad, that this is my relationship with drinking. I want to vehemently deny that alcohol has ever made my life better. I want to say it has never made me feel braver, or happier or stronger. But I can’t. If it didn’t feel good to drink, why would anyone bother? Alcohol has literally no benefits to your health or longevity. Any good results of drinking come by its association with social bonding, with loosening up, with sharing that story you needed to share.

Week Five

I was wiser in week five. I knew I couldn’t expect to feel buzzed, but that I could expect elevated productivity and a low-level sense of well-being. And that is what I got: I bossed an interview, I wrote three chapters of my novel, I remembered to do my sit-ups every night. I spent time with my non-British friends, who like to go to dance classes and taste new foods on a night out; no alcohol needed.

And, I was offered a job! I experienced the ultimate fulfilment of having achieved something because of months of hard work and determination. This is profoundly different from the instant, empty satisfaction of a glass of wine.

Take-Home Message

Maybe alcohol would have made my last month of job-hunting easier. But I like to consider alternative perspectives, just as a general habit. In this case, I wonder whether being sober actually forced me to commit myself more.

If I had been drinking in October, I would have worked just as hard to get a job. There’s no question of that. However, I might not have realised just how much finding relevant clinical work meant to me. I wouldn’t have had to face the roller coaster of emotion that comes with being a graduate; the fear, the guilt, the self-doubt. I would have drowned some of that out, and consequently not fully experienced the pure joy and relief of getting a job offer. I would also not have raised £250 for Macmillan Cancer Support!

Now we are into November and I have not gone tea-total, as I initially thought I might. I had a couple of ciders on bonfire night, which perhaps made the fireworks burn that little bit brighter. But equally, I have found myself not taking every single opportunity to get boozy. Sometimes, I just want to get a good night’s sleep, so I can feel sharper the next day. Other times, I want to be a bit of an idiot, because I’m 22 and that’s important. I take life too seriously sometimes. Maybe it’s ok for me to get tipsy now and then, as long as I don’t use alcohol as my default coping mechanism.

Ultimately, I imagine that we all have a unique relationship with alcohol, so I can’t claim that everyone will share the extent of achievement and self-discovery that I have found with Sober October. Still, I would strongly recommend the exercise, on the basis that you can’t know exactly what role alcohol plays in your life until you remove it for a while. Experimenting with and challenging the habits in your lifestyle is the key to achieving balance and wellness.

Dry January, anyone?

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