“Giving up alcohol made me realise my problems weren’t to do with booze”

“Giving up alcohol made me realise my problems weren’t to do with booze”

Written by Kat Brown

As Chrissy Teigen marks a year’s sobriety with a moving Instagram post, one writer looks back on her own recovery, and the many forms that alcohol addiction can take.

Chrissy Teigen’s beautiful Instagram post celebrating a year without drinking alcohol made me sigh in contentment. One of the nicest things about Instagram is seeing someone celebrating an internal life success. And the way it was done, her caption on a seemingly unconnected Reel on a family holiday, highlighted what has been my biggest discovery since giving up alcohol: that it was never really about the booze at all.

“I miss feeling loopy and carefree sometimes, but to be honest toward the end, it didn’t give that fun feeling anymore anyhow,” Teigen wrote. “I drank to end crazy anxiety that later mostly went away when I – get this – quit drinking!”

In August, I will mark three years off the booze for very similar reasons. It took me nearly 10 years to finally admit that wanting to be sober was more pressing than not seeing myself in the classic imagery of what we imagine to be a problem drinker. When Dairy Milk started making enormous bars of chocolate in the 90s, the word “chocoholic” became a badge of honour and I would happily throw that label around. I found it significantly more challenging to ever call myself an alcoholic. 1) An alcoholic, as everyone knew, was an old man with a bulbous red nose, swigging Special Brew cans on a park bench and muttering to himself. 2) I never missed work due to drinking too much. 3) I worked in an industry lubricated by free drink and parties. My entire social life depended on them to have fun – I reviewed bars, for heaven’s sake, the non-chocolatey kind – and none of us had a problem.

Teigen’s line about the end of her drinking not feeling that fun any more rang a lot of bells for me. As my metabolism settled down in my late 20s, I started to experience more consequences than I did joy. I couldn’t knock back the cocktails with quite the same abandon – not without random blackouts and a chaotic loss of control that seemed to come out of nowhere (it had, in fact, come out of the lengthy call sheet of booze I would have been unconcernedly enjoying on a night out).

In my 30s, I started guarding myself around alcohol, without acknowledging to myself that I was doing it. Work drinks were a non-starter. Drinking during the day – no thank you. At work events I would be on my best behaviour, even though I had colleagues who would sometimes need to be helped home. My self-esteem was sufficiently low that I never thought I deserved help.

Like Teigen, I also endured infertility. After our first IVF cycle failed, I asked my husband to get some cava that we could drink outside. A few months after our second cycle failed, my friend died after a long, cruel illness. I left her wake early, knowing that if I stayed out with our friends, I was tempting disaster – as it was, I had still drunk enough to leave my favourite sunglasses in the Uber home.

Writer Kat Brown gave up alcohol three years ago

I didn’t have a rock bottom, as the boozing tropes go. I was just wobbling along not really enjoying myself, and wishing I could drink normally, as everyone else seemed to. Nobody seemed to drink as quickly, or be aware of what everyone else was drinking, and how much there was. I never drank outside socially-accepted drinking hours, or got stuck into bottles of spirits – but I longed to be free of it. I just couldn’t see how. I would look at other people drinking, and try and calculate the equation of what made them able to drink, even to get drunk, without attachment. What can I say? I’ve never been very good at maths.

There were a couple of near misses before I finally stopped drinking that I won’t go into – all drinking stories are more or less the same – but the night that made me do it was remarkable for being so unremarkable. I was going to see Fleabag, and when I rifled through old WhatsApp messages to see who was coming, there was a message from my dead friend saying that, if she was able to, she would love to come.

I went to a wine bar in town to “toast her” before the show. I don’t remember much about Fleabag, to my chagrin. I drank more wine at the theatre, and then insisted that my husband come with me for a “jolly dinner” where I had all my favourite drinks from a decade before when drinking alcohol wasn’t a potential catastrophe. But nothing was hitting. Nothing was doing it for me. As we waited on the pavement for a bus home, I thought – well, that’s it, isn’t it? How sad, using your friend as an excuse to drink. The next morning, I googled recovery meetings. I found one five minutes’ walk away that started in 10 minutes. I haven’t drunk alcohol since.

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One year, three years, all starts with taking one day at a time. Every night, after turning on my side so that my cat doesn’t paw me in the face in her quest to get under the duvet, I say thank you to whoever, whatever is out there for another sober day. I am so relieved to go to bed without chaos. That, for me, is the biggest reward from no longer drinking. 

The actual drink has almost nothing to do with it: it was just a tool for me to use to ease the panic, anxiety, tension and horror that went round and round inside my head. Not having that sticking plaster has influenced other areas of my life: I was diagnosed with combined ADHD the following year, which has explained a lot of my addictive behaviours, as well as giving me a focus for therapy and unpicking my life. If I can’t turn to alcohol, I need to find other, healthier ways of processing difficult feelings. Even, heaven forfend, sitting with them.

I don’t necessarily call it sobriety. There are still so many other things I cling to for that hit, or to soothe difficult feelings: sugar, coffee, hyper-focused shopping, and so on. I feel I’m a way off being “emotionally sober”, although therapy with an ADHD practitioner has helped me immeasurably this year. When things have been seriously hard – and life, in its infinite sense of humour, has made things very challenging in the years since – I haven’t had to crack open some fizz to try and celebrate my way through it.

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I’ve had to learn how to party without alcohol – which really means, partying without self-conscious anxiety. In my first months, I missed engagement parties and big birthdays because I couldn’t imagine going anywhere without alcohol – wouldn’t people look at me? No. The only person who cared was me. This summer, I went to one of those weddings. I didn’t drink; I didn’t think about it, I had a wonderful time and danced. That honestly felt inconceivable three years ago.

I only miss alcohol in contexts where I either didn’t get drunk, or it wasn’t a trigger. At a restaurant review, recently, my friend enjoyed a paired drinks menu and I watched each exciting new wine appear with rueful envy. I had sparkling water and a virgin mimosa – but I also know that, when there isn’t a stimulant in the mix, I don’t actually want to drink that much anyway. Some restaurants have started doing their own non-alcoholic drinks pairings: at L’Ortolan and The Fat Duck, I realised how imaginative unbooze can be. Rather than banana bread, my lockdown obsession was brewing kombucha. At home, my fridge is always stocked with Remedy Drinks variety packs, Aqua Libra, and Big Drop Pine Trail pale ale – beer was never a trigger for me, and my husband also adores it.

Things have come on so much since the days of Diet Coke, J2O and – shudder – fizzy elderflower. And, like Chrissy Teigen, I’ve come on a lot too. That’s the most wonderful thing.

If you’re worried about alcohol, or the relationship someone close to you has with it, you can find out more from the NHS.

Images: Getty; Sarah Brick

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