Sober for a year - one reader shares her story
Drinking is considered a national pastime in Ireland, with all manner of embarrassing episodes shrugged off as an offshoot of "having the craic".
Mer Murray lived this life for her twenties. Hitting her thirties, she decided it was time for a change and time to wave goodbye to The Fear. Here, one year after becoming sober, she tells her story - in her own words.
"Were you drunk?" was the first question most people asked me after I told them I had fallen in such a way as to put my leg in a cast for six weeks.
It was fair enough to assume my fractured foot was acquired while intoxicated, as this was the person I was and had created quite perfectly, one drunken disaster after the other.
After spending the night in a city hostel, I climbed out of a top bunk one Sunday morning, forgot I was a few feet higher than usual getting out of bed, attempted to stand on thin air and landed all my weight on the left side of my left foot. It was the morning after the night before and whether I was half asleep or half drunk, didn’t really matter to me or anyone who asked the question either. This was something I was used to at this stage of my drunken adventures. Drunk or sober I had become someone not to be taken too seriously, whose name was synonymous with a tut and an eye roll, a walking incarnation of Murphy’s Law: what could go wrong certainly would go wrong and what an entertaining story it always made.
But it was my life and I was sick to death of being a constant punch line.
I was also sick of the constant "fear" that followed a night out. We've all experienced it, feeling like you pissed the whole world off, and it never seems to lift until you've met everyone in your life from your next door neighbour to the man delivering your hangover pizza, just to clarify you hadn’t said or done something out of turn to someone, somewhere. Even by Monday morning I’d find myself crawling into the office to face my coworkers with caution - hands up, head back, making no sudden moves until someone offered to make me a cup of tea.
It does eventually lift but for me it was lingering far too long and it seemed I was in a constant state of anxiety and sadness that I just couldn’t shake, torturing myself over things said and done not just from the night before but from the months and even years before. I didn’t like or respect myself very much and would drink enough to create havoc through my words or actions to make sure others didn’t either. That gave birth to so much negativity in my life that it took over, forcing me to believe that I was just this awful, ridiculous person who I was then so uncomfortable and haunted with being, I could barely stand it. And so I would drink more and more and create more and more regret and problems for myself. Then just like that, I built my very own vicious circle that spanned the past decade of my life. It started off slow, gained a little speed and now at 30 years old was spinning a million miles an hour.
On 28th April 2014, I sat hungover and exhausted in my second floor apartment, staring at my brand new bright green plaster cast and, with no elevator in the building, wondered how I was going to hop up and down two flights of stairs over the next month and a half. I remember it was so grey outside and had rained constantly since morning. It was one of those days that felt like everything was shut down, everybody was gone and I was the only person left. I felt very alone, and for the first time in a very long time I felt stationary, albeit physically forced, but mentally things were still and every decision, every mistake and every regret that had brought me to this point were all clear. I couldn’t pretend it didn't hurt and I couldn’t run away from any of it anymore - literally.
I wasn’t enjoying life, I was blocking it out and creating some twisted version dictated by booze. It felt like I was tumbling down a road I didn’t want to go down and I just needed to stop and take a good look at where and who I was. I decided enough was enough, made the decision while it was still mine to make and set myself the goal of experiencing life without alcohol for one full year. I decided to share what I learned and if you're considering taking a break too, it might just help along the way.
You become a walking cliché
I’m aware my introduction was riddled with clichés and it won’t stop there. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve rambled off an episode of Oprah and other times it as if everything you say should be pinned to a Pinterest board with a picture of Marilyn Monroe beside it. But the way I see it, at least these things are now true rather than you wanting them to be. You are actually making a change and it lets you know that contrary to what your muddled mind has led you to believe, you are not the first person to have ever felt this way. There’s comfort in that and above all else brings you back down to Earth and stops you taking yourself too seriously. You’re learning all the time and what you find out might even end up helping someone else down the road. (And, hey if you're really lucky you might even end up being quoted on the internet by a dead movie star from the 50s.)
Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind
People can surprise you. Those who I thought would take the most convincing were my biggest supporters and those who I thought would be the most understanding were the ones who almost took it as a personal insult. You will experience lots of different reactions, from people who couldn’t care less whether you were drinking vodka or Fairy Liquid to others who think you’re now allergic to pubs and will burst into flames if you so much as step within five feet of a beer.
Being treated like an alcoholic china doll can be frustrating, but keep in mind people don’t know your level of tolerance and they’re only trying to be considerate. Then there are some who are just more comfortable drinking if you’re drinking too and can relate to you easier as that person than the new one you’re trying to be. For me, it separated those who respected what I was trying to do and those who were more concerned with their own good time. But don’t write off anyone on their first reaction, just as you’re getting used to sober life, the people around you are getting used to sober you. You can tell the difference between who needs a little more time and who has no interest at all and that’s fine - it doesn’t change what you’re doing one bit, it just changes the people who are around to see it.
I had gone off alcohol before for a few months at most, but succeeded in doing so by turning into a complete hermit and the moment I went out I would be back into old habits. So this time it was important to me to experience socializing without a drink as these were the times I felt I needed it most and where I knew I’d make the biggest changes. Alcohol does allow you to lose your inhibitions and can have you dancing on tables and singing out of tune without a care in the world, but what helped me was telling myself that I could still do all that sober if I really wanted to. And I mean all of it, the good, the bad and the downright crazy. Giving myself that permission, in a way, eradicated any feeling of deprivation with quitting, which I think played a huge part in me sticking to my pint of water for twelve months. For me, it simplified alcohol and stripped it down to its most basic form: just fermented sugar and yeast in a glass. It helped shrink it from something so huge to something quite insignificant and I suppose in my case, that took a lot of its power away.
I’ve had great nights out in the past year, there are a lot of things that aren't different at all and we can still have the same conversation we would if we were drunk, we just might just remember it a little better. On all the nights out, I found I was on the same level with everyone until around midnight, when tiredness started to kick in and by 1am it was time to go. The tiredness can hit like a ton of bricks at what seems to be the exact same moment everyone around you starts to get drunk. Your energy is going down and theirs is going up and you’re no good to each other at all. This isn’t always the case and does depend on the kind of night, but I realised it was best to pull a Cinderella and make tracks at midnight before the whole evening lost its magic.
You Feel Everything
Things feel very close to the surface without alcohol to numb them and tears can be brought on by anything from a quote on a calendar to, most recently, an advert for bacon. You also become very perceptive and pick up on a lot more than before which can be a good and bad thing at times. You begin to realize what you haven’t let go of and can work out what has been the root cause of the binge drinking because that’s what won’t leave you alone. It will pop into your mind constantly no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It’s like a child pulling at your jacket relentlessly vying for the attention you’ve starved it of for so long. You begin to understand what it is that actually matters to you, what you can and can’t change and what (and who) you just have to let go of once and for all. This is when I realised quitting alcohol didn't instantly solve my problems, it just showed me what they are, but that’s still a million steps ahead of where I was before giving it up at all.
You can manage your time and money
You’ll be surprised how much time you have when you have the energy to use it. Because you’re not drunk, hungover or in post-hangover mode (it was usually Wednesday until I felt half normal and then it was almost the weekend again) it feels like all of a sudden there’s more time to do more. I also found that I was able to manage my money so much better. I was able to budget and save for the first time in my life which in just the past eight months allowed me to visit Brisbane, Melbourne, Beijing, Tokyo and New York as well as fly home to Ireland from Korea.
I’m not saying people who drink couldn’t do the same and I know most who do even more, I’m just saying in my case I wouldn’t have had the money or motivation to save and pay for these trips had I been drinking. Besides, even if I did manage to do it, it wouldn’t have been without a whole load of stress and/or some drama or another. I have had enough moments of lost passports, missed and almost missed flights, lost luggage and blown spending money in my drunken travelling to know for certain that things wouldn't have ran too smoothly with a Mai Tai in hand. And, as it turns most of those trips I went on in the past year have ended up being some of the best experiences of my life so far.
Being healthy is addictive
This year has been my healthiest yet and it’s not that quitting booze has made me suddenly healthy, it’s all the motivation and commitment that has been born out of that. Without drink drowning my willpower, I was able to start and maintain a healthier lifestyle. I cut out gluten, dairy, processed foods and red meat and started walking for three or four miles every day. I was even up and out at 6am some Sunday mornings which still makes me laugh considering my usual antics at that time. Of course I still break out and gorge on pizza and chocolate and I haven’t purchased my KALE hoodie just yet, but these days are the healthiest I’ve ever been and that’s something you end up wanting to only add to and build on, rather than take away from.
You can change. Your past will not.
This is what is hardest to accept. My biggest regrets in life happened during (or are a result of) my partying days when I was sober maybe a third of the time. I made a lot of mistakes and as a result, people were hurt, relationships suffered (or were lost altogether) and unfortunately quite a few people’s opinion of me would not be a positive one. I hold my hands up to all of it; I can’t change it. I wish I could and I’ve wished I could, over and over, constantly looking back hoping to replay the past into rewriting itself. I spent so long trying to be someone else I didn’t know what I stood for. But I am very lucky to have people in my life that chose to see the good in me when I was hell bent on destroying what was left of it. I don't know where I'd be now without some of the people I've been blessed with along the way, always there, no matter what state or situation I got myself into.
With those you've wronged in the past, quitting booze doesn't wipe the slate clean but it does stop you adding any more to it. Just as you have the right to change, people have the right not to change their minds and keep the perception of you that justifies their feelings and hurt. So, do what you can to put things right, apologise where and when possible but don't stay cowered in a cloud of other's hate because no matter how long you hold your head in shame, you can’t change the past but at least you’re doing something about the future. What I've learned is this: the people who do actually want to be in your life will forgive yesterday as long as you are trying your best today, and in the end that’s all you can really do.
“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
The decision to change has been the best thing I could have ever done for myself and everyone around me. It was a huge challenge because drinking was such a big part of my personality. When I was sober, I didn’t know who I was and to be sober for a whole year was a long time to find out and it didn't come without its ups and downs. I would say to anyone who is unhappy in any part of their life, and think they don’t have the courage to change things, to just take a deep breath in and a wee step forward. By the time you've let that breath out, you’re already further than you were before. What started this off and kept me going throughout, was always telling myself “If you change nothing, nothing will change.” It was, and is, as simple as that.
I set myself the goal of not drinking for one year because my relationship with alcohol had become an unhealthy one. I was sick of being in a constant state of guilt about who I was and I wanted to prove to myself I could stop. I suppose I recognised a weakness in myself, that could possibly send me to that place they call rock bottom and rather than waiting until I got there to make a change, I hit the brakes half way down. Now as I reach the year, I’m not opposed to having a drink but I’m not gasping for one either. If I do drink it'll only be to enjoy it for what it is: a bit of fun, with a nice dinner, a toast on a special occasion or a night out. I'm not claiming to have life all worked out now or to have reached some Zen-like existence, finally free of all anxiety and doubt, far from it, but I have found some happiness in my heart, strength in my soul and peace in my mind after these past twelve months. But most importantly, I know there never was and never will be, one bit of that happiness, strength or peace to be found at the bottom of any bottle.
Post republished with full permission of the author. Originally posted on hellosundaymorning.org.