For many women like me, in our 20s, it’s not uncommon to wake up to bruises; to photos on your phone you don’t remember taking; to an apartment that looks like it’s been turned over by thugs. These could be the hallmarks of a Black Mirror episode and yet they contribute to the mundanity of Sunday morning for so many of us – the 18% of British women who drink at increased risk of harm. The smart, educated women who are out-binge-drinking men. Our dodgy relationship with booze hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recent press reports detail women “drinking alone” and “drinking to keep up with men” while some women have documented their own experiences with alcohol, often brilliantly (namely, Amy Liptrot in her acclaimed book The Outrun, and Sarah Hepola over in the States). I regularly receive texts from friends that read “omfg never drinking again”. At this age I expect to have heard every possible disaster that might prompt such a vow, but I am always surprised. Now, the backlash is becoming visible, too: lifestyle columns proclaiming that abstinence changes your spiritual outlook, endless requests to “sponsor me for Stoptober” and friends politely declining an invite to the pub because they're “doing dry Jan”. Lots of women I know have decided to cut down on their drinking as they approach 30, recognising that blackouts and drunk texting aren’t exactly conducive to career success or starting a family. Then there’s the effect drinking has on your skin and – more importantly – your health. I wonder if I could do it. Stop altogether and never drink again. I wonder if I want to? My behaviour when I drink is, at times, regrettable and yet I’ve never reached that pivotal moment where you say to yourself, “Actually, this isn’t for me”. Intrigued by those who have and how it’s changed their lives, I talked to four women who have stayed sober for one year. What their stories show is that, while many of us may cling to a negative relationship with alcohol, realising we do often comes only when we stop.
BELLA, 24, DID ONE YEAR SOBER, STARTED DRINKING AGAIN TWO MONTHS AGO “I'm the child of two addicts, and my therapist recommended I begin to 'exercise control' once in a while, what with increasing evidence of addiction maybe being genetic. The statistics of children of addicts going on to develop substance abuse issues are terrifying. I didn’t drink excessively all the time, just a pint at the end of the day now and again. But when I was really going for it, I'd consume dangerous amounts. I was a very anxious person and a lot of the reason I would get trashed was as a coping mechanism for stress or to block out feelings. "My first step in quitting was a strange one; I downloaded this Australian binge drinking app called Hello Sunday Morning. They have challenges where you can quit drinking for different periods of time – 3 months, 6 months or a year – and I just felt like a year would be the only thing I would actually stick to and take seriously. I set a start date quite far into the future so I could properly prepare. I warned my friends and family that I was doing it and tried to take on lots of work to distract myself. "Not drinking changed my social life for better and for worse. It became very easy to identify the people who I surrounded myself with who were only tolerable because of alcohol. And yet endless small talk is unbearable when you're sober and everyone else is drunk. For that reason, dating was a complete nightmare, which was pretty difficult to adjust to. But I was in a better mood, springing out of bed each morning. "I only ever planned to take a year off so I stuck to that. After I started again, the hangovers were awful, and I felt crazy after one pint. But I drink in a totally different way now. I used to think nothing of getting wasted the evening before an important meeting whereas now I think twice about that sort of thing. It’s also nice to feel like drinking is a treat, or a reward, as opposed to just something you take for granted.”
HANNAH, 31, SOBER FOR ONE YEAR FOUR MONTHS “I only really started to think about quitting when I was approaching 30, was planning to get married and had worked really hard to get my career in a place I was pleased about. All of that was good, and yet whenever I got drunk I’d do things I’d never do sober. Ridiculous shit like knocking out a tooth, or losing my bag, phone and keys the night before starting a new job. "I went to my GP and explained that I drank too much and I’d like to get some help. They referred me to a community alcohol centre and gave me a counsellor for 12 one-on-one sessions free on the NHS. The counsellor said, ‘Do you think you should stop drinking?' And I said ‘no’. But I carried on seeing her privately for a year to try to work on the stuff I thought made me drink in the first place. I thought that, if I could fix that stuff with therapy, I wouldn’t want to get wasted any more.
"When I’d been trying to control my drinking for a year, and I still couldn’t, I realised I had a problem. My fiancé had told me I should stop drinking lots of times, but when I decided to go to an AA meeting, it was the first time anyone had said to me, ‘You don’t have to drink anymore – we’ve got an alternative toolkit to offer you that doesn’t involve getting into blackout.’ The stereotype attached to being an alcoholic is that it’s only for old homeless men in the park drinking out a brown bag, but at AA I saw people I know, young people, celebrities... I realised that these are all the varieties of people who don’t drink. And that, actually, not drinking can be cool. "In our country, drinking a lot is totally normalised. If you are a big drinker, you find other big drinkers to hang out with. The main thing that’s changed for me since I stopped is that I’ve got relationships back with people who didn’t want to hang out with me when I was a fucking mess. Like one of my oldest friends that I knew from childhood. We haven’t been very close in the past because she isn’t much of a party animal but in sobriety we’ve become much closer. She’s actually just made me a godmother. And I know for a fact that she wouldn’t have done that when I was drinking."
JOSEPHINE, 34, ONE YEAR ONE MONTH SOBER, FOURTH TIME QUITTING “The first time I attempted to get sober was when I was 23, I did two years and then had a few in and out of sobriety, before I had my child three years ago. So I’ve been on and off for 10 years. My problem is that I’m excessive with alcohol. I never want to go home – always the last at the party. Once I was in that state I was always worried about how I’d feel the next day so I’d just keep it going. For me it was binge drinking. "That was OK when it was just me. But when I became a mum it was a game changer. I couldn’t sleep all afternoon and shake it off. I had to be available for this person. I used to drink for escapism but I couldn’t escape any more; I just felt guilty about not being there for my son. That need for hedonism, I call it the 'fuck it button' – it’s always been what’s made me drink. I knew if I wanted to quit I had to look at why I wanted to press the 'fuck it button', why I wanted to escape. "I’ve used therapy and meetings to help me, relating to other people in similar situations. I find I just need structure; I’ve got a dog and go on nice big walks, I get up with my toddler, bright and breezy, and in the evening I plan what we're doing the next morning. I also do transcendental meditation, and things like writing a list of what I’m grateful for. Drinking was very selfish, so I find that writing a list of what I’m grateful for keeps that at bay. I still go out but try to go home before it all starts getting a bit wonky. "It takes a lot of balls to decide you want to do this, but if you stick at it then you get the rewards. The fear, the anxiety, the madness stops. Drinking a lot, you feel like you’re always on the back foot, playing catch up, or covering up. When you become sober you don’t have to contend with any of that. The clarity you get day-to-day is amazing. All I would say is, when you first get sober it’s common to try to fill up your time to take your mind off drinking and then you just run yourself ragged and want to drink. Don’t do that. Try to take it easy."
LAYLA, 26, ONE YEAR SOBER, STARTED DRINKING AGAIN THREE YEARS AGO “I had been thinking about stopping drinking for about six months before I actually decided to stop. I had drunk heavily since I was a teenager, always blacking out, always feeling full of regret and shame the morning after. In the final six months before I stopped drinking, I was constantly making promises to myself that I couldn’t keep, and trying to cure the anxiety I felt by drinking more, which was a vicious cycle. At that point, I was definitely drinking every day in varying amounts; bottles of wine alone, always having ‘just one more glass’. "I was 21 when I made the decision to stop so I definitely felt an impact on my social life. Drinking is so ingrained in our culture that not drinking, I felt I was met with certain levels of suspicion. Some friends distanced themselves – because when the person who is always the most drunk stops drinking, you are forced to take a look at yourself. Others were supportive, but I found I was often pushing myself to stay out until 6am even if I wasn’t enjoying myself, chugging Diet Cokes and trying to hold conversation with coked up or drunk people. But after a while you start being more OK with being sober, or going home. "There are so many benefits to not drinking. The obvious ones are that you never get hangovers, you don’t have to worry about what you did in a blackout, you didn’t spend all your money on booze and taxis. You turn up to work on time, you know you haven’t pissed anyone off. After a while, I also learnt to be confident without alcohol – which didn’t come easily. I had to really scrutinise my personality because when you are consistently just yourself, without adding anything to ‘you’, you start noticing the way you behave more. I grew up a lot. "I decided to drink again just before my two-year-sober birthday. The initial joy had worn off and I got it into my head that I needed to be young and reckless again, and that with the sobriety under my belt, I'd be able to drink normally. The first few weeks were great – the way I wanted it to be: a cocktail in a bar and then home. But within a few weeks I was straight back to my old tricks: putting myself in dangerous situations, waking up with no memory of what had happened, getting covered in bruises. "With time, my drinking has evened out and those kind of nights are rare, but not completely gone. I would say that today I am warier of drinking on feelings as, inevitably, you feel so much worse the next day. I also never drink alone, which I did heavily and frequently before. My advice to anyone thinking about quitting would be: if you want to stop, stop – only you know your relationship with alcohol, but you don’t have to wait until something awful happens to you to make that decision.” *Some names have been changed.