A new book promises that it’s possible to give up alcohol and keep your social life. Friends and drinking buddies Sophie Morris and Rebecca Armstrong weigh up its wisdom on the eve of sober October
Image by Dirk Wohlrabe from Pixabay
The problem - one of the problems - with me and alcohol is that I like the taste. As in really, really like it, not just pretending. And so I open this Sober October publication, How to Be Sober and Keep Your Friends (HTBS) with a mild hangover. Do I want to be sober? I’m not sure. Do I want to continue this pattern of mild hangovers from two or three drinks? No.
The first part digs into why we should give up drinking. And why wouldn’t you when there are so many obvious and brilliant benefits like L’Oréal skin, Tiggerish energy levels and a wallet groaning with undrunk twenties? It moves on to why we drink, identifying types of drinker with an amusing quiz. I turn out to be all six types: anxious, distraction, out-of-control, crowd-pleasing, bored and enjoyment. Instead of despairing, I grip on to the word “enjoyment”. I begin a diary, noting down what and when I drink, and what the triggers are. I’ve done alcohol-free months before, but while HTBS is linked to giving up alcohol for October, its real suggestion is a longer commitment to abstinence.
Before launching this experiment I think back to when I started working in newspapers, when the culture was closer to how to be drunk. You could be drunk in the pub after work. You could be drunk in work after lunch. You could be drunk throughout the night when your editor suggests a second round of whiskies. And you could be drunk in the morning and throughout the day when the same editor sends you on a research expedition to a breakfasttime wine tasting.
These weren’t even the boozy and blowsy days of Fleet Street. It was the noughties and certain standards around time-keeping and respectability existed in the workplace. Fifteen years later I’m living a very different life as a selfemployed parent working from home in a small town. This means no postwork cocktails with thendeskmate-now-friend Rebecca, but when we get together it’s too easy to squeeze out the old habits.
There’s a lot of noise about why we should be sober, but a recent night out made me wonder if what I really need advice on is how to be pissed and keep my friends. Members of my demographic (exhausted thirtysomething parents seeking sanity and affordable pub lunches outside the capital) are moving away from alcohol.
I go to a gig and among my group are two non-drinkers and two who have an opening spritz then focus on dancing. Then there’s me on large glasses of rosé. It’s a shame the delight of a large glass of rosé is mostly diminished when it’s poured into a plastic pint glass and I wonder whether booze, in this context, is still enjoyable. Shortly afterwards I see the mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon celebrating two years without a drink on Instagram and realise I’m envious of her sobriety. I go back to the book. There is a very strong line about clearing the house of booze. This terrifies me. I wouldn’t want to go round to a house with no booze in it. If I throw mine away, how can I expect friends to visit? And it has taken me ages to stock such a lovely drinks cabinet with so many different glasses and artfully retro bottles. Am I expected to relinquish my treasured tequila selection to the recycling? I know that alcohol is both big business and a big swizz, but so much about quitting makes me worry I’m letting down other people, other people who have always counted on me to be up for a drink. But then there are the people I let down with the after-effects of drinking, like my daughter when I’m grumpy. The book claims that all your relationships will improve when you stop drinking, so I guess I’ll try harder next month and not worry about losing my friends.
This is not my first rodeo. I have had a few breaks from booze in the past, and each time I’ve filled my bookshelves and my Kindle with read-through-your-fingers memoirs of alcohol-fuelled adventurers turned born-again teetotallers and how-to guides that promise that life can be FUN without drinking (“why not try mocktails?”).
But I approve of Ocsober, because its name makes sense. I’ve long railed against both the branding of Dry January - why no clever name? Why not NOVEMBER, which I made up and completed in 2017 - and the timing. January is no month for abstaining, although I managed almost three weeks of it this year. Damp January, perhaps. I doubt a logical name is the reason why 1.8 million people in the UK took part in Sober October last year, but regardless, I salute them.
While Sophie now lives by the sea and bakes bread with her toddler in tow, I live and work in London during the week and drink if not every day, then the majority of them, and certainly consume enough to make me lie to the doctor about weekly units. I don’t have children and have plenty of free evenings to socialise. I think far too much about when I’m having my next drink and - worse - when the one after that is coming.
I love pubs, and the easy chat of fellow barflies, while I feel a bit uneasy around people who don’t drink at all. And yet. I feel increasingly alarmed about how easily a bottle of wine slips down. When I smell old alcohol on fellow commuters, I recoil. But there must be mornings when I too exude the scent of a night on the sauce. So, can Flic Everett and her book convince me of a different way to so-cialise, one unlubricated by a few good drinks? I read the buzz-kill passages through gritted teeth. “Do I drink too much?” Yes. “What if it’s serious?” Oh god. But the section about the emotions that cause us to reach for a glass is eye-opening. She suggests that we ask ourselves “Am I hungry/angry/lonely/ tired?” and explains why each are powerful catalysts. Right after I read it, I have a day off work, which often means a lunchtime pint. Instead, I realise that I’m hungry, lonely and tired. I head to a café and eat properly. The urge has gone by the time I’m done.
The obligatory section devoted to mocktails leaves me cold - alcohol-free spirits scream “total ripoff” to me - but I like how HTBS sees bumps in the road and offers diversions: flatmates with a raging thirst, big nights out, quiet nights in. If you crave alcohol as much as I do, these all have the potential to derail the best intentions. And the following shouldn’t have been revelatory, but they were, making me see my approach to celebrating in a different light: Your friends did not say, “I know, let’s get married so our friend can get smashed at our expense.”
Your family did not book a luxury weekend away for Dad’s 70th so you could crack open the wine every night and get up at noon with a blazing hangover.
Your friends didn’t bring champagne for new year because they think you’ll be no fun without it.
Dammit. She might be on to something. So, this year I have decided to go sober for October and do NOVEMBER (copyrighted by me). I hope to still have friends at the end of the process, and a more healthy relationship with alcohol, even if we don’t break up altogether.
‘How to be Sober and Keep Your Friends: Tips, Hacks & Drinks’ by Flic Everett (£12.99, Quadrille) is out now