As we coast into the second lockdown, many of us are concerned about our alcohol consumption. It’s an easy vice to indulge, after all, a glass of wine turning into a bottle and all that…
I first looked into the sobriety movement in January earlier this year. In the months that followed my second mental breakdown (September 2019) I was drinking far too much. Being well versed in anxiety by this point, I’m aware of the counter effects that alcohol has on the brain. It depletes serotonin levels for instance, which is why on top of standard hangover symptoms, a person feels vulnerable and ‘on edge’ the following day. (Beer fear anyone)? It also plays havoc on gut health, which has a direct impact on the brain.
Medicating the mind
Self-medicating has long been associated with mental illness. According to Mental Health Foundation; 16.6% of adults in England report drinking to hazardous levels, while 1.2% report levels which indicate probable dependence on alcohol.
Although, is it any wonder really? With the lack of adequate support and treatment available. I’m not saying it’s right, but neither am I willing to judge those who fall into the depts of addiction.
Still, after months of overuse, I recognised the negative impact that wine (it’s always wine for me) was having on my wellbeing, and inspired by many articles/blog posts/interviews in which people credited giving up alcohol with ‘saving their mental health,’ I decided to cut it out completely for twelve weeks.
The first week was rough. Like sugar or caffeine, the brain rarely accepts the absence of an addictive substance without a few tantrums. But by day nine, everything had settled down.
A new tribe
During this period I dove headfirst into the world of the sober curious. It was thrilling to access a group of people who championed social events that didn’t revolve around alcohol. In the past, like many people, I’ve been accused of ‘being boring’ because I wasn’t drinking or felt pressured to ‘have one more.’ The idea that fun times can only be achieved with booze is an unhealthy and irresponsible message to circulate, not to mention completely false!
I was in awe of the positive energy that radiated from this community and I picked up some cracking recipes for alcohol-free cocktails. (Club Soda in particular is one to watch. They organise various booze-free events, not to mention an annual mindful drinking festival).
As week twelve approached and my experiment came to its conclusion, I took stock of the results. I very much enjoyed the benefits of having a clear head each morning, zero sluggishness, or cravings for carbs. There was also the added bonus of not discovering embarrassing whatsapp messages I’d sent the night before, or ASOS purchases turning up that I forgot I’d ordered.
No brain change
However, to be clear, being ‘sober’ didn’t cure my anxiety or panic attacks. I truly wish it did, but alas my brain wasn’t automatically emptied of everything negative just because I gave up the vino. My condition remained a part of me, as it had since I was eight years old, and I continued to manage it as I always have.
Going forward I decided that moderation as boring as that might seem was my best bet. After all, I was fortunate enough not to have a drinking problem and therefore had the option to do this.
Things took an unexpected turn when after viewing a post from one of my favourite sober Instagrammers ‘ Let’s normalise not drinking’ I commented ‘and healthy moderation too! 😊’ Presuming that mindful drinking would also be encouraged. The abuse that followed shocked me to the core. Gone were the kind aspirational messages, replaced by accusations that I was;
encouraging alcoholism, or that I was a bad influence to others and should f**k off, along with a nice dose of personal abuse via the comments and in my DMs. (Not a great experience for my brain). I didn’t retaliate, but I did have to delete the comment to stop the flow of hate.
In short, the sober curious movement are just lovely, until you question them.
I was gutted, and in many ways felt like a naughty child being disciplined. Perhaps naively I was hoping that I could continue to be a member of this community but also indulge in a glass of wine with friends after a long week. Besides, most therapies for anxiety disorders discourages ‘all or nothing’ thinking, as extremes can be unhealthy.
On top of experiencing anxiety, I now had a strong dose of shame because I’d chosen not to give up alcohol for life, and trust me, when you live with mental illness you already feel like everything is your fault, so this was crushing.
It made me question… is being shamed for enjoying a glass of wine any better than being pressured to drink at a party? It also made me fear for others with my condition who might be guilted into continuing with something that didn’t work for them. Which encourages secret drinking, (the most dangerous sort).
Doing it the mindful way
I opt for mindful drinking these days, (which I appreciate is only doable if you don’t have an alcohol-related condition). E.g. I don’t drink on an empty stomach, and for every wine I have, I make sure to have a glass of water too, or a diet coke. I also try to be aware of my emotions and question whether I’m craving a drink to suppress something negative, or because I’m tired. Things that will pass in time, without alcohol. So, instead of darting to the pub, (not that I can right now), I allow myself to feel the emotion and sit with it for a while, before taking action.
Thanks to Shahroo Izadi and her brilliant book ‘The Kindness Method,’ rather than berating myself when the urge to overindulge strikes, I ask myself a series of pre-planned questions, such as Will one more drink really make this night more fun? Or Why don’t we have a bath instead? A bubble bath always helps and there are zero repercussions. This helps to engage my rational brain but from a place of compassion rather than shame.
Whilst I undoubtedly agree that too much alcohol is harmful to mental health, I’m not in a position, nor do I have a desire to go teetotal. I enjoy it and it’s a treat. Life is hard enough at the moment, without dumping on each other for enjoying a vice in moderation, and whilst I understand the need for control in a state of chaos, I didn’t find it by replacing Chardonnay with cake.