HEALTH

They said my drinking wasn’t that bad. But it was

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When Catherine Gray told people she was giving up booze, the reaction was mixed. Why are so many people uncomfortable with sobriety, she wonders

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By Catherine Gray on

“You're not that bad, Cath.” This was the reaction of most of my friends when I told them that I was quitting drinking. That I wasn't just going to do Dry January, I was shooting for a Dry Forever.

This was coming from Ben, who'd had to physically carry me out of a taxi one night. Helen, who'd once taken a “morning reality check” picture of me when I sat down on an escalator and refused to get back up. Matt, who'd endured hours of maudlin drunk crying. And Sarah, who'd had to tell me about men I'd kissed – men I didn't remotely remember.

The “you're not that bad” people were not being unsupportive, not deliberately. Their YNTB was usually followed up with: “How about just taking a few months off? To reset?” What they didn't know was that I'd been trying to reset for years. By buying the tiny bottles of wine, by marking ND (No Drinking) nights in my diary, by hitting the treadmill before I hit the pub, by eating before I drank, by switching from wine to cider.

The YNTBs were also trying to save me from what was still seen as social suicide when I quit, back in 2013. We've all hit share on memes that say things like, “there's a reason why ‘bores’ is an anagram of ‘sober’”. We've all watched as the tormented celluloid detective (always detectives) stare wistfully at a bottle of whisky, despite being 10 years teetotal. We've all bought greeting cards saying things like “I don't get drunk, I get awesome”. We've all watched the beer ad featuring a convertible, surf boards, hammocks and a beach bonfire. We've all been taught to believe that great stories are at the bottom of glasses, and that being “stone-cold sober” is a hard, icy fate. That drinking is joyful abandon, while sober is joyless, constant craving.

They hadn't seen the hundreds of bleak mornings when I stood in the shower, willing the hot water to wash away my shame

They were trying to reassure me that I didn't strike them as the kind of person who had to quit drinking. That I didn't fit into that cardboard cut-out. But they hadn't seen the hundreds of bleak mornings when I stood in the shower, willing the hot water to wash away my shame, and thought “never again” as I patched up my puffy red face. I told them the “fun holiday story!” of when I stripped off and sprinted into the Indian ocean with an all-male running team I'd only just met; but they didn't know how my heart had dropped like a free-falling elevator the morning after, when I'd imagined what could have happened.

They didn't know about the countless days I spent fake-working at my desk after four hours sleep, the thrum of paranoia I felt about being busted for calling in sick, that the words “I have a bone to pick with you” were like a dagger being plunged into my heart. They weren't there when I gingerly picked up my phone as if it were an unexploded bomb, to survey what messages I sent at 2am. The drinking had broken. It had stopped being fun and started being scary. The bad times used to be one in 100, then it was one in 10, and now it was near enough every time.

Another motivation behind the YNTB's was an unspoken societal belief that when somebody chooses not to drink, they've become a buzzkill – they've chosen to go AWOL, they're a deserter somehow. After I'd been sober for a couple of years, even close friends – who could see that I was a million-fold happier – tried to talk me back into attempting to moderate. When you decide you're not going to drink dairy products anymore, or full-fat Coke, or coffee, nobody really gives a damn – and nobody tries to topple your decision, nobody asks “why not?” huffily, as if it's some kind of social betrayal.

But there were the golden people, too, the people who didn't feel like they deserved an explanation. Who said, “Well done. Good for you. What can I get you to drink?” They understood that even though I wasn't drinking, I was still part of the round. I was still at the pub or the party, I hadn't somehow been scratched out by a coin, or moved to the social periphery. I was still there and still up for a good time, despite having a different thing in my glass.

If somebody in your life tells you that they have quit drinking – whether for good, or for a few months – they have already soul-searched, agonised, researched, and thought dang long and dang hard about this decision. They will have tried moderation literally thousands of times already. They'll tell you their reasons when they're ready to. You're on a “need to know” basis rather than a “right to know”. The fear of the “why aren't you drinking?” question often keeps people stuck inside their drinking.

For me, a life lived without booze is predictably lovely. I know I won't be body-snatched by booze and end up in a sticky-floored nightclub at 2am on a work night, or face-down in a box of fried could-be-chicken. It's self-care, on a radical level, my choosing not to drink. Everything in my life has become better, as a result of that one decision.

I was that bad, and now my life is that good. So, let's go out and have some fun. Mine's a T without the G

Catherine Gray's book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, is published by Aster

@cathgraywrites

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