Guest blog: How giving up alcohol became my superpower
Laurie McAllister, founder of Girl & Tonic, shares how going alcohol-free helped deal with depression and allowed her to rebuild her confidence and self-worth.
1st March 2022
How to reduce drinking
In the winter of 2015, I was living the life I had always wanted. Or, in truth, the life I thought I had always wanted. I lived in a flat in East London’s melting pot, Hackney, and I had a job I was good at in a nice office in central London. My life was full up with expensive yoga classes, dinners with friends, weekend getaways and an annual long-haul holiday.
It should have been the time of my life. Sixteen-year-old me, stuck in the middle of nowhere in rural Norfolk reading Confessions of a Shopaholic and watching endless re-runs of Sex and the City, would have thought I’d made it. And from the outside, based on how we so often measure success, I suppose it looked like I had. I’m sure it would have all felt fabulously exciting, like a life worth celebrating, if it were not for the fact that I felt totally empty inside. Dinners with friends often ended with more and more drinks, a night cap and a blackout, meaning I had no idea what had happened or how I got home. And the long-haul holidays were paid for on my credit card.
By all accounts, I was having a “nice time”, my life looked great on social media and gathered likes from friends, acquaintances, and that boy I met once in Croatia. And while I have some great memories that intersperse the dark days, there is no escaping that these were bad times. On the inside I was a mess, on the outside I was pretending I was totally OK. My life was like a house for sale; show-home worthy on first inspection but I had stuffed all my bad times and emotions into the cupboard under the stairs. Keeping everything hidden out of sight was a precarious place to be.
Facing the truth
I didn’t realise that I had stopped finding things fun, that I was turning more and more to alcohol to bolster my diminishing self-esteem, that my energy was zapped and that life through my eyes was only experienced in shades of grey. My life, that as a kid, had been full of colour, full of excitement and joy, had become an ordeal to get through. Every day of the week would be spent counting down to the weekend, every weekend spent drinking and dreading the following week ahead.
I didn’t realise quite how bad it had become until I started to write it all down. I began writing at the start of 2015, aligned with my introduction to the self-help genre. “Journalling” as it is so often called is a much-recommended tool of self-help, and not coincidentally has been recommended by every therapist I’ve seen since realising that my mood and my experience of life needed improvement. Six years on and I have circa 30 notebooks filled with my thoughts and feelings, it’s the one tool I use consistently and recommend to everyone.
Sat opposite a young GP in East London, I broke down telling him - and he was the first person I ever told - the truth about my situation. I wasn’t eating. I was drinking too much. I was panicking. I was drowning in a life of my own creation.
In truth, my twenties were a tale of two halves. The first a hedonistic melting pot of drinking and working and overspending, the second unravelling it all and starting again without my comfort blanket of booze.
What happened next was slow. It took a while. I have found no quick fix when working to improve my life and mental health. It takes time and I am still working on it. But it began that day I opened up about how I was really feeling to my doctor, how much I was drinking and about the darkness, the black dog, that would come to be labelled as depression.
In December 2016, after a year of trying to stop drinking, it finally stuck. 10th December 2016 is my soberversary. Depending on when you read this, I will be (at least) five years and two months sober – and I’m 30 for anyone curious. I stopped drinking at 25 and it was tough. But it is the one big life decision that I credit to getting me out from under a rock and into a life I truly like (most of the time).
With a slight hangover and a fog of overtiredness, on my first day without alcohol I started an Instagram page and a blog. I wrote a post: “day one” and I followed every sober person I could find on the app. Back then, it was not a big number. Now, I could follow tens of thousands of sober accounts if I wanted too. Instagram gave me a community of people like me, people who had also been drinking too much and were committed to stop drinking. If I look back at the first year of trying to stop drinking, and then at the time it actually stuck – a community I felt accountable too is the differentiator.
Finding community helped my sobriety stick. Being able to post about my daily struggles, my thoughts, and feelings and when I wanted to drink (in those days my account was anonymous) gave me an outlet rather than internalising my feelings.
I began to go to therapy consistently. Once a week I would trek to Warwick Avenue after work to untangle my feelings and unravel the shame spirals I’d built over years of drinking too much and turning the nights I’d rather forget into light-hearted anecdotes. Instead of the one step forward, two steps back I had become accustomed too – I found stable ground that I could build on.
Getting sober helped me to rebuild my self-confidence. Step by step, day by day, I built the foundations of good mental and emotional health. I removed alcohol from my life, and I chose myself every day I didn’t drink. In truth, the first two years were the most challenging. These are the years of the “firsts”. First sober bad day, first sober good day, first sober work night out, first sober hen do, first sober wedding, first sober Christmas, first sober date. But as time goes on, the first box gets ticked and after the second, third, fourth sober wedding – it no longer feels like something worth worrying about. In fact, I have way more fun sober than I ever did drinking – helped by not worrying about what I said or did the morning after or the night before. Waking up without a hangover is also a pleasure that never goes away.
It really is true what they say – people overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in a decade. Without a hint of hyperbole, I can tell you that the last five years of my life, five years alcohol-free, have been transformational. I paid off my debts £100 at a time, I quit my job, I moved back to Norfolk from London, I trained to be a yoga teacher, I worked in a pub (sober!), I got a dog, I got a new job, I bought a house, I moved to Cambodia, I moved home again, I have made so many new friends, and now – full circle – I’m back working in London three days a week.
I am so glad that I started being honest about my life back in 2015. I worried so much that people would judge me for my depression, and that they would deem me weak for not being able to drink alcohol like everyone else. But in not drinking I have found community, and I have deepened my relationships with my friends and family.
I have learnt that being sad, lonely, anxious, depressed, or unhappy with our situation does not make us weak. Opening up about how we feel requires strength. It takes an incredible amount of strength to be true to yourself on a daily basis – and to reject the narrative that we need to drink to have fun (adverts, tv shows, movies – it’s everywhere!).
Stopping drinking is my superpower. There are hundreds of articles that you can read that will promote the many benefits of giving up alcohol; more energy, better sleep, more money, reduced risk of many diseases – and I acknowledge them all as helping me enjoy my life experience more. But they are the cherry on the cake for me. At its core, stopping drinking has restored my self-belief. It has shown me that I can do hard things. I can help myself. I get to choose what is right for me. And the reward for that? Remembering every single moment of a life that I love living.
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