40-something Kate Gunn quit drinking as part of a 30-day challenge in 2016. “I knew alcohol was holding me back in a way,” she says, “and the hangover was getting worse. I had tried to quit before for Dry January and hated it, but the difference this time was the mindset. Last time I felt like I was depriving myself of something, whereas this time it was more like, ‘Well, what can I get out of it?’ Her life has improved so much since she quit that she wrote a book: the accidental soberist, out now. “I wasn’t an alcoholic at all,” she told me, “but I was addicted to alcohol. It’s a huge gray area, and among women there’s a lot of private struggle. Giving up was such a gift to me, I wanted to share it with other people.
Stylist Jan Brierton, 45, gave up last June. “My husband said I hadn’t had enough to give up, but I felt like I was drinking mindlessly. A trip to the local store for bread and milk included cider for him and wine for me, and I thought, ‘Well, that shouldn’t be part of the grocery store.’ She has no regrets. “I’m very happy with myself for not having drunk.”
Others worry about their health or job performance. Siobhan Murray is a resilience coach, psychotherapist and author of The burnout solution. “Women come to see me after having signed their work, she says, and you realize very quickly that alcohol is part of the problem. It’s so easy for addiction to set in. It helps them recognize their triggers and patterns: why they drink, when and how much. “Once they are more aware, there is a period of negotiation. They decide whether to drink on the weekends or to water down the drinks. I don’t tell them what to do. Siobhan quit drinking when she was 39. I drank two bottles of wine a night and felt overwhelmed. I woke up after a heavy night and said, “I can’t do this anymore. “She gave up for a month, pouring herself a Diet 7UP in a wine glass every night after work. Thirteen years later, she is still sober.
With celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Miley Cyrus off the booze, and Instagram awash with sober influencers, sobriety has become a global trend. New York-based Ruby Warrington is the founder of sober curious, a movement that encourages everyone to reassess their relationship with alcohol. She organizes retreats for those considering abstaining and is also the author of two books: sober curious and the Sober Curious Reset: Change the way you drink in 100 days or less. “We are expected to drink,” she says, “despite the fact that alcohol is extremely problematic for many of us. I wanted to take a step back, really question that. Why is alcohol so intertwined with our lives? Is there a spectrum of alcohol addiction and where am I? I’ve spent the last ten years getting to grips with the ways I’ve used alcohol for fun or relaxation and finding other ways to do it. So how does she relax? She laughs. “I’m not doing anything. It’s pretty hard! I also realized that I like to do crossword puzzles. Her most memorable moment was when she discovered how to dance without alcohol. “I took the plunge, and it was so liberating.”
So how hard is it to give up? And what does sobriety really look like? “The physical effects are immediate,” says Laragh Strahan, 46, of Lolly & Cooks, who quit alcohol in 2019. “My skin cleared up and I wanted to do things – run in the morning, jump in the sea in the middle of winter. Kate saw the bottom of the laundry basket for the first time in years, became her best parent, and took up running and hiking – all in between writing her first book. There was no more Sunday night fear, no more procrastination at work. Only energy levels that soar; deep, restorative sleep; and increased focus and concentration. “The clarity of decision-making is what I remember the most,” says Siobhan. “It gave me such confidence.”
Weight loss just happens. “After 100 days, I checked my Done Drinking app and realized that I had managed to avoid consuming 30,000 wasted calories.” said Kate, who had also dropped a dress size. The money is piling up. “I didn’t earn much during the pandemic, but there was definitely a lot more change,” says Jan, who bought herself little things to say well, including a radio for the kitchen.
Hormones stabilize, but emotions resurface, especially unexpressed grief and anxiety. “The best thing about giving up alcohol is that you get your emotions back,” Kate writes in her book. “The worst thing about quitting alcohol is that you get your emotions back.” Siobhan agrees. “It doesn’t make things go away, but it gives you the ability to manage them better.” Jan has found that she is more assertive. “I’m more comfortable expressing myself and I speak more in the moment rather than bottle things up.”
Getting out is difficult at first. “I was really uncomfortable,” Kate says. “Who was I without drink? We start drinking at 16 and spend our whole lives doing the same thing. We don’t live life without it and we don’t know each other. But you have to get past that and now I’ve found that I’m actually more confident than I was when I was drinking. I realized that I was not the person telling the stories, and that’s fine. She’s not alone: All the women I interviewed said they realized they were introverted. There are advantages: wine time becomes cake time. “My sugar cravings exploded,” Kate says. “I realized sugar was the main addiction,” laughs Siobhan, “not alcohol.”
Friends and family aren’t always so supportive, and that can be the biggest challenge of all. “We’re very good at normalizing heavy drinking,” says Siobhan. “We don’t like other people questioning that.” Kate agrees: “There was a lot of negativity and pressure at the start.” Even parents can jump on the bandwagon, terrified that you might become boring or too different. “My mom used to cut pieces out of the newspaper telling me that red wine was good for me,” laughs Kate. Siobhan advises her customers to get their own drinks from the bar and drive until they feel comfortable not drinking. “It’s getting better,” she adds. “People are recovering from it. And attitudes toward non-drinkers are improving. The pandemic has helped. Now, it doesn’t matter whether a date is a walk in the park or a picnic.
All are relieved to have stopped drinking before confinement. “I would have lost my mind,” Laragh said. “As it was, it really wasn’t that bad. In fact, the first lockdown was wonderful. The business branched out into ready meals, and I was on the ball and ready to adapt.
Is there something they are missing? “The first sip of a pint of Guinness,” says Jan. “And the pub. My husband and I used to say, “Are we going to do tile or carpet? The carpet being an old bar and the tiles being a new one. I miss the carpet. “Red wine with steak,” Kate says, “but even that…” Laragh is clear: “Nothing. I was so ready to give it up. I needed to feel good.” With sobriety comes a quiet pride. “I did it,” says Jan. “I did it. I’m very proud of myself.
Sober curious? Here’s your five-point plan…
1 Step back
Reevaluate your relationship with alcohol. When do you drink and why? What are your triggers? In what situations are you more likely to drink more? Do you drink to please others or yourself? Is it holding you back from realizing your potential?
2 Find out
Read the Naked Mind: Control Alcohol – Find freedom, discover happiness and change your life by Annie Grace. Grace wants you to have a better relationship with alcohol. His website offers a free web course and a number of helpful podcasts, including one on how to manage food cravings. Talk to women who have given up benefits. Follow sober influencers. Find role models. Writer Marian Keyes celebrated 27 years of sobriety on Instagram this year. “A beautiful life of self-respect, gratitude, honest relationships, and limitless possibilities is here for you,” she wrote. “I’m infinitely grateful for what was given to me, so freely, and if that’s what you need, I’d love for you to get it.”
3 Start small
Set small achievable goals. Give up for a week or a month. naked mind has a 30-day experiment that will help you break your drinking habits and discover your non-drinking self, while Ruby Warrington the Sober reset: Change the way you drink in 100 days or less suggests that it takes more than 90 days to relax into life without alcohol.
4 Go slow
Choose your business carefully in the first few weeks. Substitute alcohol with other treats like an elderflower press or an afternoon tea. Take new things. Check out the high exercise.
5 Evaluate again
Would you like to give up or are you ready to drink more mindfully? What’s right for you?
Artwork by Maggie Stephenson. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of IMAGE magazine.