BY ODETTE BARRY
“Quitting booze allowed me to find joy within my own means, and to start loving and respecting myself. So my new non-drinking identity was grappling with more than just not drinking. I was moving through a leap of self. I was letting go of a painful cycle that was all I had known since my teenage years. They always say the messy middle is the hard part and it’s true, I didn’t know who I was. I only knew myself as the reckless wildling (who was a bit overdue growing up). I was reimagining my new identity.”
In 2014, I woke up with purple bruises all over my legs, a few cuts here and there (not for the first time), and to my partner storming into our bedroom asking what the fuck had happened to our lavender bushes.
To be fair, I never liked the lavender in our garden. I didn’t have a conscious vendetta against it or anything like that, it was more in my subconscious. I wasn’t a fan of their woody stems, the way they always looked brittle and dead, and the smell of lavender while apparently calming, really wasn’t my vibe.
All the same, I had no idea what had happened to them.
But walking out the front of our suburban home, I saw a hedge, or what was previously a hedge, flattened, totally zeroed out. I had no memory of what had happened, but through the haze of my horrendous hangover, and knowing what I was like under the influence (and with the proof of the bruises and scratches) I was pretty confident that I’d played a part.
This wasn’t an isolated experience. And it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the worst of my mishaps. This was one of many blackout ridden, injury-inducing, roller coaster rides that was part of my binge-drinking 20s.
This coincided with a turning point for me.
I’ll admit that I had pushed the limits of more than a few friendships, my relationship, and my safety more than a few times. I just didn’t have a slow down button once I had a drink in my hand. It was straight to 100 and that always came with a supersized serving of regret, shame, and days if not weeks of struggling to come to terms with my choices and my self-esteem.
I guess I’ll preface this by saying that generally, I’m pro-booze for other people. I’ve just learned the hard way that it’s not for me. It’s tricky in our often alcohol centric world, the way people come together around alcohol, and I’ll admit that it frustrates me that rocking up to Friday knock-offs doesn’t quite have the same magic when you’re trying to disguise your soda.
I don’t miss being drunk, I do miss the conversations from those never-ending nights chatting until the sun comes up. Being sober in alcohol oriented spaces can at times be incredibly alienating and uncomfortable, but worse I think it is not being included in the spontaneous pub crawl, a party, or BBQ because it’s assumed that you don’t want to go to the piss-up. In our society when you don’t drink you’re an outsider. There’s an assumption that you’re pregnant or antisocial.
Globally, Australia has a reputation as a heavy drinking nation, but research indicates that alcohol consumption trends are on the decline – particularly among teenagers. The changing tides are welcome news, at the least for our livers, but moreover for the low lying depression that lingers beneath the surface for so many. But what was sober life like as a 20-something year old? And is zero alcohol for everyone? My simple answer is: no.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it definitely has its challenges. Choosing to put down the bubbles and vino had a particularly profound impact on my life.
My entire social life had to shift – instead of bar-hopping on a Friday and Saturday night, I switched to bushwalks, surfing adventures, and signed up for fun runs. I became that obnoxious fitness-obsessed friend who was leaving parties early to squeeze in a run before it got dark. But I hadn’t anticipated the mental clarity, the confidence, and the ambition and drive that had been suppressed by the weekend warrior lifestyle of intoxication.
I wasn’t planning to quit drinking altogether (although if I had half my wits I would have). I started off a little sober-curious which I’ve read is a common thread for those who eventuate in abstinence. I would have a dry weekend, just out of curiosity, and then a dry fortnight. Just for fun. Then I tried Dry July, Febfast… Ocsober and all of these months suited me just fine. I never found them difficult to adhere to. But I didn’t know a single soul who was in their 20s and didn’t drink, in fact, I don’t think I knew a single soul who didn’t binge drink. But it was definitely the circles that I moved in. Or maybe, it was just that I couldn’t see what I didn’t want to see.
In the dry weekend experiments I enjoyed the shifts in my lifestyle from mooching on the couch with Hungry Jacks and an upsized Diet Coke to weekends spent in national parks and feeling engaged on a deeper level in some self-work. I enjoyed the motivation to eat well and my mental health thrived.
Around the time of the lavender bush incident I saw something on social media about Hello Sunday Morning. I didn’t need to sign up, or read too much about it, I really resonated with the founder’s story. Chris Raine, undertook a year-long experiment to quit drinking. A nightclub promoter at the time, Chris blogged about the challenges and successes of his experiment when he woke up hangover-free every Sunday morning.
I decided to have a crack. I’ve never been shy of a challenge to test my limits. I’m forever signing up for fun runs to keep me accountable although there are plenty of failed attempts at marathons under my belt. In the case of a year without drinking, I was drawn to the personal challenge but it felt like a win-win. A year without booze, what did I have to lose?
I was pretty naive entering that first year about what I was really giving up. I was letting go of a lifestyle, friendships, and I was letting go of my identity. It’s too much to say my whole world was built around the party scene, but a lot of my friendships were built on blurry (albeit hilarious) days and nights, followed by days and nights of rambling conversations, laughter and spilled drinks. I had forged my friendships deep into the night, knocking back prosecco, wine, too many cigarettes, and a handful of MDMA.
Perhaps I was too hard line on the no booze, no parties, and no drank scene. Maybe I could have softened my tolerance for remaining in the scene but straightedge but I found it too awkward and exhausting and I think if I’m honest, I was changing.
My transition out of alcohol came at a pivotal time in my growth. Quitting booze allowed me to find joy within my own means, and to start loving and respecting myself. I soon realised that my week days were no longer filled with weekend-regret and self loathing and instead I was investing in myself. I had gone back to uni as a mature age student. So my new non-drinking identity was grappling with more than just not drinking. I was moving through a leap of self. I was letting go
of a painful cycle that was all I had known since my teenage years. They always say the messy middle is the hard part and it’s true, I didn’t know who I was. I only knew myself as the reckless wildling (who was a bit overdue growing up). I was reimagining my new identity.
I was three months into my first year without booze when it dawned on me that I would probably never drink again. I think it took that long for the toxins to finally leave my system, but for my ego to recalibrate, for my confidence to begin to rebuild itself. In those first few months I went through some enormous shifts, from huge transformations in my relationship, to letting go of old friendships.
Six years on, there is a marked difference in my life. There’s less wild and exciting highs but there are very few lows that I’d been accustomed to punctuating my days. There’s more of a gentle yet, buoyant middle ground. But I’m older, and even my friends who drink, don’t drink like we used to. For me, life without booze is lighter, more confident and full of gratitude for my choices. But would I recommend it to everyone? Probably not, I think we have to find our own path. But I would recommend trying a year without. Who knows, you might just love it.