Why I gave up drinking in my early twenties
On New Years Day of 2022, I stumbled out of bed and immediately lost my vision, fell to the floor, and had to get my then-partner to help me back into bed. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and I knew what it was straight away - I was having a migraine. In the previous decade I’d had countless migraines, and they always followed the same pattern. I’d wake up after a night out, attempt to get to the bathroom, lose my vision, and most likely end up on the floor vomiting from the pain that I can only describe as feeling like someone trying to hammer a nail into my skull.
The worst part about them? They were avoidable. The only times they'd ever occured were after nights of heavy drinking. The first one I had was at the age of seventeen, when I passed out in my bed after a night out, only to wake up at 3 am with a head-splitting migraine. I quickly stumbled into my bathroom, only for my vision to start to fade. Within a few seconds I had fallen over and was lying on my side on the cold tiled floor, vomiting in nothing but my boxers. Only for my dad to hear me, come into the bathroom and assume I was belligerently drunk whilst I desperately tried to explain I was having a migraine before he could attempt to (rightfully) chastise me. Not my best look. You’d think I’d have learnt my lesson there. But, I didn’t. This New Years Day migraine was as embarrassing and tragic as the first one (and all the others). After a late, late New Years Eve dinner, I had possibly the worst migraine to date the following morning. So I lay in my partner's bed writhing in pain until I eventually passed out, spending the first day of the New Year being looked after like a toddler.
Since that day, I haven’t touched booze, and the hardest drug I’ve taken is the caffeine in a double shot of espresso. Whilst that particularly awful migraine was the catalyst for me to get sober, there were a multitude of other negative consequences from my drinking that I was eager to have out of my life. Whilst I never had a drinking problem (however it is prevalent in my family), I had what Jolene Park describes as a ‘problem with drinking’. The most extreme end of consequences I faced during my drinking were wounded bank accounts, weekends spent lying in bed catatonic and the rare missed day of work. I was never violent or destructive, more so overly excited and reckless.
My drinking was never outwardly a major issue, in fact, in Australia, it probably wasn’t even noticeable to anyone else around me and would’ve been considered pretty standard early twenties behaviour. Ironically, the fact that my drinking was never completely out of control made it uniquely more difficult to stop. I never lost my job or had my partner leave me due to out of control drinking, so there was no flaming mess I could point to as a reason to stop. Instead it was the culmination of the little things and a heavy blanket of sluggishness and malaise that was hard to identify during its presence, but extremely evident in its absence. Some people may be reading this and thinking ‘why not just drink less?’, to which I totally agree. And when I’m sober I don’t want to have a dozen drinks, but when I’ve had two drinks, another ten seems like a real hoot. So as I lay in bed for a few days recovering from my New Years Eve bender, I read This Naked Mind by Annie Grace, and decided I would abstain from alcohol for at least a month, and see how I felt.
The biggest and most daunting question I asked myself while beginning this experiment was ‘How am I going to socialise and not drink?’. Growing up in Australia, drinking has been synonymous with socialising for me since the age of fifteen. I work in Sales Engineering so even my work obligations can sometimes be booze adjacent (one of the biggest DevOps meetups in Sydney is called BeerOps and it’s exactly what you’re imagining). And outside of work I run a community radio station, which is deeply involved with the Sydney dance music scene. It seemed that all facets of my life revolved around booze.
At first I somewhat just avoided going to parties or pubs, completely removing myself from any situations where I could end up drinking. Over time I started to go out a little bit more but was always making sure to leave before people got too rowdy. Some outings felt just as enjoyable as when I used to drink, and I didn’t even notice the absence of a schooner in my hand. But other nights seemed to be an unbearable social situation I was waiting to get out of. And as I had more successful (and very unsuccessful) outings, I realised what determined whether or not I’d enjoy myself sober; the people I was with.
Those nights with friends I had known for years felt no different now that I was sober. As I didn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable around them, and drinking together wasn’t the only activity or situation we saw each other during. Relationships with people who I only ever drank or partied with definitely started to fade away, but I never felt like I lost anything as a result of that. The nights where I was stinging for a beer to get through it, however, were the events I had no real genuine interest in attending, or with crowds that I didn’t fit in with.
These nights were harder, and they were a leftover side effect of my drinking days where I’d say yes to any occasion because ‘why not?’, if it was a dud I could just have a few drinks. I had to assess whether or not these nights were important to me, what I gain from attending, and what were my motivations behind going. Did I go because I wanted to? Or did I go just because I didn’t want to say no, or because I didn’t have anything else on that night? Now, a year later, I know what nights are enjoyable for me, and I pick and choose what I go to, to avoid those socially tiresome nights.
Now the big question I get from friends, family and colleagues as I come up to a year of sobriety is always a variation of “How much better do you feel!?”. The answer is a rather anti-climactic “A fair bit”. Now, it hasn’t completely changed my life and launched me to soaring new heights in my career and mental well being. And I haven’t lost 10kg of fat and replaced it with lean muscle. However, I’m definitely in the best shape I’ve ever been, and I don’t have to try and remember what I did last night anymore. The biggest win has been reclaiming my mornings, and not having to deal with hangovers that were getting increasingly more excruciating as I got older. But ultimately it hasn’t eliminated all the problems in my life that were present when I drank, it’s removed a few and made some others much easier to deal with though. And all of that is more than enough for me to be happy with my decision.
Do I miss a drink? Occasionally. But the morning after every night I’ve thought about having a cheeky sip of a cocktail, or a beer, I’ve woken up pleased with the decision to abstain (and with no hangover). So to anyone who’s reading this that thinks they might have a problem with drinking, or just feel a bit trapped by the cycle of drinking, have a think about your relationship with alcohol, and maybe try a month off. You might realise you don’t need to remove it from your life, and you can live a health balanced lifestyle with alcohol as a part of it. Or you might enjoy the month off and extend it like I have. Either way, it’ll help you realise the company you keep that's most valuable to you, and guide you in framing your life around them.
One final note: I know some people may be reading this slightly frustrated as I didn’t quite elaborate on the how of staying sober, only the why. I’m planning on touching on this in another write up, however, for me it boiled down to the support I received from those close to me. Mainly, my then-partner who went sober at the same time as I did and was an extremely supportive and loving person throughout. I was still able to socialise and for example, go to dinner on a night out, because I had a sober companion the whole time. For that, I owe them quite a lot, and am eternally grateful, but also acknowledge the pure dumb luck in being fortunate to have someone like that so close to me.