The following is an extract from Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington.
As I found myself contemplating the sheer cliff face of total abstinence, the fears swirling in my frontal lobe (the part of the brain that monitors the potential outcomes of our actions, as well as suppresses socially unacceptable behaviours) went a little bit like this: life will become dull and monotonous; I’ll lose all my friends; people will think I’m a weirdo, must have a "problem", or worse, that I’m all judgy and superior; it will be impossible to "switch off" from work; holidays, weddings, and birthdays will never be the same again; the Pisces and I will have nothing to talk about; I’ll never have a reason to get dressed up in an outfit.
This last one seems so ridiculous, doesn’t it? The idea that without cocktails, what would be the point of ever putting on a dress and a pair of heels? And yet it surfaced time and again. Proof of just how deeply ingrained alcohol was in my experience of fun times, parties, celebration. And, on a deeper level: of participating in the world as a person who felt comfortable being seen. After all, why put together a killer look unless you want to be looked at?
As for my other fears, I suspect you may be familiar with at least a few of them. Given its role as the ultimate social lubricant, bonding tool, and all around "awesome water", alcohol, for most of us, is intimately woven into the fabric of our social interactions. Whether we’re at home, at work, or on a hot date, a glass of wine or a cold one is the universal code for "let’s connect".
And we humans are "hardwired for connection", with study after study now showing that the quality of our relationships is by far the greatest predictor of overall happiness. Also that "we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed," says Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013), adding that "social pain is real pain".
It’s no wonder that the thought of removing booze from our Friday night activities leads to visions of our sitting alone glued to our phones or bingeing on bad TV, depressed and dressed in the same food-stained slouchies we’ll be wearing all weekend.
But there’s good news. While walking the Sober Curious path has meant I’ve confronted a lot of these fears head-on (meaning, a lot of them have proven to be rooted in some pretty uncomfortable realities), I’ve also come to realise that the only thing you miss out on by not drinking is...getting drunk.
My point? That far from being integral to our experience of connecting with others, and therefore living a full and happy life, getting drunk is an activity in and of itself: a simple act of altering our mental, emotional, and physical states through imbibing toxic liquor (a substance that, as Holly Whitaker reminded me, "is literally the same thing we use to fuel rockets and cars"). One that actually makes us less aware of our surroundings and the people we’re with. And that, as many of us have experienced, can also just as easily lead to arguments, fights, texts you regret, terrible sex, and, in the cold, queasy light of a morning after, our feeling utterly, devastatingly alone.
Get to know what triggers your FOMA
Not that we usually choose to remember it that way. Enter the phenomenon known as euphoric recall. It might sound like a 1990s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but euphoric recall is actually a psychological term that Wikipedia defines as "the tendency of people to remember past experiences in a positive light, while overlooking negative experiences associated with that event(s)." Euphoric recall is often cited as a factor in substance dependence, and I first heard the term from a friend in recovery and have used it since as a way to recognise when I’m getting all misty-eyed about my boozing – and therefore more likely to succumb to FOMA.
The reasons we drink, and the situations, people, places, and memories that will likely lead to bouts of FOMA and/or euphoric recall, are going to be different for everyone. As individual as our thumbprints – and another reason that a one-size-fits-all approach to sobriety has never made sense to me. From our family backgrounds and the communities we grew up in, to our physical attributes, the education we received or didn’t, and the media we’ve been exposed to, we will all have developed a different relationship to alcohol – along with our individual reasons to believe in the bliss-inducing properties of booze.
As you begin experimenting with longer and longer periods of abstinence, try to develop an interest in the specific situations where FOMA kicks in for you. On the other side of the kneejerk response to reach for a drink, this is valuable insight into all the reasons you use booze: aka Sober Curious gold.
For me, it was holiday visits with my family, weddings, bachelorette and birthday parties, anticipating a vacation, any kind of restaurant situation, attending a media networking event, especially if I knew I might have to speak to a "VIP" (not that uncommon in my last magazine job, as I was responsible for compiling the weekly "party page" – which basically meant going to the opening of every envelope in town and attempting to get a "funny" quotation from any celeb in attendance. This was the natural evolution of the "girl about town" status I craved in the early days of my career I guess, but pretty much my idea of hell).
You will no doubt have spotted something of a theme: I feared I would miss having alcohol as my ally in pretty much any and all social interactions that occurred outside office hours or home alone with the Pisces. How would I start a conversation? Would I be dressed wrong? Exactly how awkward would the small talk be? Having gone and said all that about our unique attachments to booze, I have to add, given alcohol’s ability to switch off the part of our brain that monitors how we are perceived by others (more on the specifics of this in the next chapter), that these fears are not at all uncommon.
While not every experience of drinking led to wretchedness and regret, my honest truth is that overall, the negative consequences far outweighed the good times.
It’s the moments of euphoric recall that are actually more specific to each of us. For me, these can swoop in as suddenly as a tropical storm and feel almost like an out-of-body experience: when the idea of "a drink" becomes not only filled with pleasurable anticipation, but is drenched with nostalgia for the best days of my life – tinged with melancholy that those days may now be in my past. Passing a bar in a train station or airport at the start of a long trip; the "tools-down" moment that marks the meeting of a deadline or completion of a project; the specific way the light hits the buildings on the first warm day of spring; the smell of a cigarette on a hot street; the moon being in the sign of Leo; a precise style and cadence of deep house drum beat.
So here we have two different kinds of triggers: one motivated by fear of social discomfort, the other by a craving for an experience of something like magic or transcendence. Both of which were equally likely to make me reach for a drink as I navigated my new hangover-free existence. What are yours? Thinking back to Marc Lewis’s theory that all human behaviour stems from our desire either to seek out pleasure or to avoid pain, it seems obvious that our specific FOMA triggers will be individual for each of us, even if they are rooted in the same basic needs.
It’s also important to note that none of my triggers is linked to an especially traumatic life event – since it’s the point at which alcohol becomes less social lubricant and more self-administered anaesthetic that the hook of addiction can sink deeper into a person’s brain. It could be considered another "privilege" – the same way I get to choose to be Sober Curious – that I never learned to use alcohol as a way to cope with a painful loss or a period of depression, for example. A privilege first and foremost since I have experienced relatively few traumatic life events – but also since my background gave me the resources and confidence to trust in my own ability to cope when things get tough.
In the HBO documentary Risky Drinking, which profiles, well, risky drinkers from all different walks of life, experts discuss the "shades of grey" that are now widely acknowledged to exist when it comes to addiction. At what point does grey become black and white? At what point does the amber warning light of addiction begin to flash red? "I like to say it’s when alcohol be- comes a friend, the thing that we turn to to relieve our stress, to numb our pain," says Deidra Roach, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Because when alcohol becomes a friend, it’s firmly on the path to becoming a partner. And as a partner, it’s poison." One way to read this is that the more severe the stress, the more traumatic the pain, the more likely it is that "normal" drinking will slide stealthily into becoming risky drinking.
This gets deeper into the roots of our experience of FOMA. Perhaps what so many of us really fear about missing alcohol is coming face-to-face with the shame, the discomfort, the absence of joy, and in some cases, the abject pain that make us drink in the first place.
For now, the key to working productively with euphoric recall (as with so many things in life) is balance. For example, for every effervescent memory of dancing on tables and bonding with new BFFs, I can also choose to bring to mind a morning after spent projectile vomiting each time I tried to take a sip of water. Contorting my body into agonised shapes in a tangle of sweaty sheets. A close call with grievous bodily harm brought on by my drinking. The creeping existential crisis of a three-day hangover.
I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge both sides of the coin. The sunshine and the sorrow. And while not every experience of drinking led to wretchedness and regret, my honest truth is that overall, the negative consequences far outweighed the good times.
In AA they call it "remembering your last drunk" – one of many useful tips for living sober in a slim volume of the same name published in 1975 by the organisation (which is not just for alcoholics, by the way, and which anyone can order from Amazon). "This is not a typographical error," the book explains. "The word is 'drunk', not 'drink' ... 'A drink' is a term which has awakened pleasurable echoes and anticipations in millions of people for centuries." As soon as euphoric recall creeps in, the advice is to "think the drink all the way through, down to our last miserable drunk and hangover." It’s what they also call playing it forward. And in the case of conquering FOMA, it’s one of the most effective tools in the box.