January 1st 2016 marked my 9th year anniversary of sobriety. Quitting drinking was easy for me, as I was never really that into booze to start with. It's not that simple for many folks though. Perhaps because I'm the always sober guy in the crowd, a few people have come to me asking for advice, with their 'I'm never drinking again' New Years Resolution plans over the last few days. Often it's just talk from cats with head-splitting hangovers, (I do remember hangovers, that shit is no fun), but just as often I hear a genuine desire to live a more balanced, health focused lifestyle. The thing is, changing habits around drinking can actually be harder than expected. Like changing any behavior, you need more than just will power. You need a plan, and often some supportive people around you. As well as not drinking myself, I've worked in community alcohol and drug harm reduction at a community level the last few years, and I get lots of interesting links and articles sent to me at work that tackle the topic on the regular. So, for your reading pleasure, I've compiled a bunch of tips from my personal and professional experience. I hope it's helpful.
Before going further, it's important to note, that if you think you've got a serious problem with alcohol or even an addiction to it, it's worthwhile getting in touch with a health professional or support group. Alcoholics Anonymous have a long and proven history of helping people gain lasting sobriety through the 12 step program. In Auckland, Community Alcohol and Drug Services (CADS) can help with counseling or in serious cases medical detox. Nationally, the Alcohol Drug Helpline has a toll free line to call, and a great directory of services to help you find services somewhere near you. And don't forget, you can always visit your GP and they can give you advice too. If on the other hand you think you generally have a handle on things, but you are looking for a lifestyle change and need a little advice and support to get a handle on it, read on.
A good place to start with any plan is to figure out the why you want to drink less or not drink at all. Is it cause you're tired of waking up to virtual strangers in your bed? You waste too much money getting pissed up on the regular? Are you missing too much training? You want to lose weight? Whatever the reason is, figure it out, write it down. Put your why at a the top of a list and at and stick it on your wall or make it your screen saver, wherever you'u can refer to it regularly. Reminders help us to stay focused and keep us on track.
Once you've thought about the why, obviously it comes to the how. What strategies are you going to have in place to reach your goals to drink less. Goals should be achievable. If they aren't you're just setting yourself up for failure, so be realistic. If you drink every night after work for example, going cold turkey off the bat can be a hard ask. Start off with aiming for a reduction in your drinking, and then look to phase the devil's fire water down or out. Drinking four nights a week when you used to drink five is a positive step. Gradually reducing how much you drink down to one or two nights a week, or cutting it out all together, is going to be much more achievable for most people than trying to do it all at once. People losing weight keep a food diary, you can do the same with your drinking. Similarly, if you binge drink, if you're not looking to be totally abstinent, see if you can cut it down from weekly binge drinking to fortnightly then monthly. Figure out what your goal is and stick to it. Your wallet, waistline and liver will thank you for it.
As you're drinking less, you'll need to figure out new ways to deal with stress, relax and socialize. Having ideas at hand to deal with shit days or boredom, that fill the space of alcohol is a vital part of the equation to maintaining your change. Life is stressful, and a wine or a beer is no doubt an easy and often enjoyable way to take your mind off things, but for lots of folks, one often leads to seven and some bad decisions, a cloudy head and more stress. To clear rather than cloud the head, consider meditation, or yoga, or taking up running to deal with the tough days we all a encounter. You've heard about the endorphins that come with exercise, get some going in you! Practice your DJ set, (music is medicine), read a book or a magazine, learn to bake all the raw organic recipes you read on health blogs, go for a walk with your boyfriend, play touch with your bros, do all the shit you talk about doing but never get around to. It can help you unwind and connect with yourself. Do this, and, maybe, the clear head that comes with drinking less can actually help you figure out solutions to whatever is causing your stress and resolve it.
Socializing sober, or even when you're drinking sensibly can seem daunting when the standard invitation to hang out most of the time is 'Do you want to get a drink?". Think of fun alternatives to do rather than just meeting up at a bar. There are heaps of things to do. A play, a gym date, a concert or a dinner, anything where drinking isn't the central focus of the event. Some of the activities you might have taken up to deal with stress can actually be just a fun way to chill with your friends. I've had some of my best heart to hearts in the gym, or over coffee and brunch. Alcohol doesn't have to be involved to talk deeply or have a laugh.
In my experience, friends, for a range of reasons, often find taking no for an answer when it comes to drinking difficult to accept. "Just have one", they plead and tease. Who you spend time with, especially in the early stages, can really make a difference in whether you stick to your goal or not, so wisely chose who you hang out with. Some people are supportive of your changes, while others can feel threatened by them. Have a look and see if your friends and family are encouraging or enabling and try and spend more time with those who support your goals, not those that undermine them. If you're struggling to think of people who might be supportive, there's an awesome online community called Hello Sunday Morning which helps people change their relationship with alcohol. It's got a vibrant social media presence, where people share what they are learning and doing in a declared 3 month break from booze. You can visit their website, or check them out on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. As an aside, on Instagram in particular, there are a lot of feeds dedicated to living sober. Have a search around and find one that gels with you. Regular doses of motivation and inspiration can help keep you on track.
Once you've figured out your why, and your how, making our goals public is often an effective way to hold ourselves accountable and stay focused. This can work for a bunch of reasons, but if we openly declare a goal, we're often more likely to try harder to achieve it. You don't have to make it your Facebook update every day for a week, but talk with your partner and tell some people close to you. They might be able to give you a shoulder to lean on when you've had a tough day, or offer to do alcohol free things with you, if you want to miss an event you know is going to be explicitly boozy.
All this said, don't stress out too much if you slip up. While you should be honest with yourself, and others you've included on your journey, accept that change is hard, especially around something like alcohol. If you slip up and fall off the wagon, dust yourself off and try again. Revisit why you want to change in the first place. You wrote that down, remember? Refine your strategies to relax and socialize. It can take a few times around to make a change stick, the important thing is to keep trying. Every attempt at positive change gets us a little bit closer to where we want to be.
If you've changed your habits around alcohol, please feel free to share them, I'd love to read what's worked for you!