What I Learned from 9 Weeks of Sobriety

Why Mike Nicholson took a self-imposed hiatus from drinking, how his friends responded, and what he learned from the experience.

The following is a common conversation I endured this year when I did the unthinkable and became a twenty-something year old male who stopped drinking alcohol for two months.

Mate: “It’s my round, what would you like?”

Me: “A soda water please.”

Mate: “Gin and soda, no worries.”

Me: “Nah … straight up soda water.”

Mate: “What now?”

Me: “I’m not drinking.”

Mate: “I don’t understand … do you want a beer?”

Me: “No thanks, soda water is fine.”

Mate: “WHY?!? What’s wrong with you?”

Me: “Nothing. I just don’t want to drink.”

Mate: “Riiiiiight.”

I know it is not common for a person my age to be a tee-totaller but I was thoroughly amazed at the amount of times this conversation occurred over the course of my sobriety. Not to mention the worried looks, the accusing eyes, and the questions of “Why?” with a hint of judgement.

I have never considered myself a binge drinker, but by definition there is a case that proves otherwise. Leading up to my alcohol sabbatical I noticed that drinking was a big part of any and all events in my life. The weekend comes around … get on the booze. A day off mid-week … get drunk the night before. Dinner at my parents’ house … go for the wines. Walk past the fridge … grab a beer. The list goes on.

The going rate for soda water changes drastically from bar to bar. For the record, charging $4 for a pint of bubbled water is criminal.

The final kick of inspiration to go cold turkey came from a story on a not for profit initiative I produced for the breakfast radio show I work on. The organisation Hello Sunday Morning promotes giving up alcohol for a period of time in the hopes of reshaping the relationship society has with alcohol; I could relate a little too well with the cause. The scariest realisation I had was that I couldn’t think of a time in my life that I had gone for an extended period without alcohol. For someone who didn’t consider himself to be a binge drinker, this truly worried me.

Initially I proposed cutting down my beverage intake to one any time I went out. But after further consideration I decided that it was all or nothing.

The first weekend was the hardest test with the temptation to go out being the strongest. A large part of drinking is the social element and I think there was a fear that if I couldn’t drink, I wouldn’t have fun and therefore I wouldn’t go out. Hence the doubt seeping in. Fortunately this experiment allowed me to realise that I am at a stage in my life where I should be able to enjoy myself in any social setting with or without alcohol.

The biggest shock from the two months occurred on the first weekend after laying low Saturday night. On Sunday morning I awoke with a pounding headache that I am embarrassed to admit was from alcohol withdrawal. I felt like I was in my own PG rated version of the British classic Trainspotting. Ok, so I didn’t dive in to the toilet to fish out a stray beer, but the ensuing headaches were thoroughly unexpected. Once I had my “alcohol withdrawal” hang overs under control, the rest of the weeks took care of themselves.

Over the course of my two month sobriety challenge, I had many moments of enlightenment:

It’s amazing how often I would have to apologise to those around me or feel bad about my decision to not drink. If anything it should be the other way around.

The going rate for soda water changes drastically from bar to bar. For the record, charging $4 for a pint of bubbled water is criminal.

Going out with people who are drinking is not a problem, it’s more dependent on the setting. At a party or club it’s easy to float around, have a boogie on the dance floor or take a break outside. On the other hand, having round table conversations with mates getting progressively drunker is pretty tiresome. The conversation gets louder and louder, more repetitive and cyclical.

I used to be a complete hypocrite in how I conducted myself when drinking around others who were not. I will now be respectful of the decisions of others without trying to peer pressure them.

I’m not about to get on my high horse and say that no one should drink alcohol ever again. I have gone back to drinking and have dealt with my fair share of “Why am I doing this again?”, “Good Lord, my head is pounding,” and “Maybe another ‘Hello Sunday Morning’ stint is around the corner after last night’s efforts.” But what has changed is how I view alcohol. I no longer think of “needing” alcohol to enjoy myself but rather “wanting” a drink because I feel like it. If I want a beer, that’s fine. I’m the one in control. Also, years ago, if anyone had suggested taking a break from alcohol, I would have had a solid case of the “fear of missing outs.” But now, alcohol-free periods are not something I fear.

The best part (besides the savings to my bank balance, improved health to my liver, increase in fitness, lack of hangovers) was that after all the loaded questions and accusations of insanity from my friends, I was able to explain my motivations without preaching and gain their support. I even inspired a few people to take a break from drinking and, after all, that was the point of the initiative; re-access what alcohol means to me and start a discourse on society’s relationship with booze.

 

Read more on Addiction on The Good Life.

Image credit: Pretty/Ugly Design/Flickr

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About Mike Nicholson

Mike Nicholson is a 26 year-old freelance media graduate from Adelaide, South Australia. When he's not undertaking a variety of temporary media and non-media related work you can find him avidly tweeting, trawling the internet for memes or attempting to forge a career in radio. Check out his innermost thoughts on twitter: @Mikey_Nicholson.

Comments

  1. I am so glad to have read this right now, as a musician preparing a slew of shows I was hit by the sudden realization that the only songs I have that don’t feature self medicating with alcohol as a major theme are instrumental improvs, and am seriously considering taking a break of my own as a result.

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed the piece Flincher.
      I initially promised myself it would be one month and then at the end of the month I was “enjoying” the experience too much and didn’t feel ready to start drinking again so I thought, what the hell?, I’ll just keep going.
      I definitely recommend trying it out. The first weekend is the hardest, after that it gets easier.

  2. Good on you Mike – I used to be a typical British binge drinker- out clubbing and boozing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, couple of pints on a Sunday night too to take the edge of work on Monday. I’m 39 now and the body just couldn’t cope with it if I tried to cane it like I used to.

    I’ve got a 5-year-old son now and he gets up at 7am, full of beans and wanting to play with his dad whether I’m hungover or not (it’s a mistake you only make once).

    I also have fitness regime which sees me working out just after waking up – push ups, sit ups, stretching etc – which would be nigh on impossible with the heaves (which I’m very aware of). It’s easier living in the US and not being part of the British pub culture but I’ll be back for Xmas so we’ll see how it goes.

  3. I used to drink heavily and regularly. I’d justify it by saying that I just loved having a good time. Or I’d tell myself that it wasn’t an issue because I never drank alone or I’d go days without a drop. But I never had a shortage of people to drink with, including my equally enthusiastically drinking wife. Unfortunately, my ex began to suffer from anxiety/depression, perhaps induced by alcohol, and she lost the ability to control her drinking. It was only when I quit drinking to support my wife in not drinking (it didn’t work), that I realized how much of a psychological and social crutch alcohol had become for me. I realized that I had been using it to avoid being genuine with myself and other people. My ex-wife’s alcoholism ultimately destroyed our marriage. I still drink socially, but I am much more cautious around alcohol and people who really like to drink a lot.

  4. Elysse Kuhar says:

    Well said Mike, you may have inspired me. I am only too aware that I have allowed myself to get caught up in the culture of drinking. As you said, whenever it occurs to me that I should maybe take a break, I also suffer from fear of misding out on something. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great article Mike! As a mum of three I have had the pleasure of at least 27 months of non-drinking in the past 5 years, and it makes me laugh when people with no kids ask ‘how did you go not drinking?’ I never realised how much I actually missed out on when I was drinking. Getting up at 6am on a summer morning to walk down the beach without a hangover, going out with all my mates, then jumping in the car to drive home while they waited for taxis….. Needless to say I had a fantastic excuse so never had to justify myself, I actually feel sorry for guys, particularly Aussie guys who will never be able to use this excuse!

  6. Mike, great article. The opening exchange described is oddly familiar to me. Although I do drink alcohol, I have chosen for many reason not to eat meat. If you were to substitute drinks for meats in that conversation it would be the same thing I, and many other vegetarians, endure every time we go out to eat. Congrats to you for making a choice for yourself and going against the social norm, and even more so for sticking with it! Cheers!

    • Funny you mention that. I’m a vegetarian and sometimes have the same problem. I had considered writing a piece in my experience as a vegetarian guy but went with this instead. It’s pretty eye opening to see how people react to males who don’t eat meat like there’s something inherently wrong with them. Particularly in Australia.

  7. Jamie Parsons says:

    Good article.

    Here in Australia it’s just as bad, and being a strict teetotaller doesn’t exactly help you fit in. There are people around that originally judge a person’s worth on how much they drink. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a non-drinker to move to a place where he didn’t know anyone. Nearly every social thing is based on drinking. Weekend – out drinking with friends, after work – drink, sporting events – drink, after sporting events – drink, weddings, parties, any event at all seems to be packed with alcohol. And while sometimes I understand the allure of alcohol for these things, other times just do my head in. So much happens at these things, so many good experiences, and half the time I see my friends unable to remember them because they drank too much. Their loss I guess.

    It gets you wondering why you do a lot of things when your mates just treat it as an excuse to drink.

  8. I don’t drink alcohol. Just because I don’t want to. Just because I don’t need to. None of my friends have a problem with this, but I do come across new people who think I’m nuts. But you touched on something that I struggle to understand. Why pay $4 (and upwards. $4.80 is my record) for a glass of weak-flat-unsatisfying soda when you can pay $5 and have a beer or a spirit or a wine. If someone was able to regulate soft drink prices, maybe there would be more people willing to have a break like you; even for one night.

    Great work Mike, keep it up :)

  9. Drinking was never my drug of choice. I’m not a big fan of the taste and less of a fan of the price. Occasionally I’ll have one drink here and there but for the most part I don’t. I have repeatedly had the same conversations to the point where I just don’t go to bars anymore. Plus there’s other stuff I want to get accomplished on the weekends. I have found that a lot of those conversations from people feeling discomfort with their own choices and less about you and your choices.

    I’m lucky. Drinking was never a thing in my family. My mom and dad didn’t drink (dad has been sober for 30+ years). Drinking never equated to fun in my life so when people talk about it as their only social outlet I get really confused because for me it’s this really expensive past time where people can’t even track the conversations they’re having.

  10. Checo de la Cueva says:

    So, Mike, did you go to any self-help group, like AA, or did you take some kind of therapy to overcome your drinking problem? If so, I would appreciate any information concerning this. Also, how long has it been since you started being in charge of your drinking problem?
    All the best

  11. Good article Michael.
    I have been drinking alcohol less and less as the years go by…but even so I find there are times when I order a wine with my meals out of habit, rather than a real desire for the wine….

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