Keeping on top of my drinking in the face of sober shaming

Updated: May 10


Conceptual image of social exclusion, peer pressure
Image credit: Marcus Spiske (Unsplash)

For most of her life, Lucy has had an on-off relationship with alcohol, one that has been favouring its 'on' state since the pandemic began. Now, with the help of Alcohol Change UK's awareness efforts, Lucy feels more in control than ever of her drinking behaviours.


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with alcohol. One that’s been full of fun, love, and laughter, but also one that’s included a lot of sadness, anger, guilt and anxiety. It’s fair to say that at best my relationship with alcohol is fun, laid back and carefree and not something I need to worry much about. But at its worst, it’s a catastrophe.


It’s very difficult to keep my relationship with alcohol on an even keel. Somewhere in the middle of carefree and catastrophe would be preferable. I flit between periods of drinking and not drinking and always have. My biggest problem is the inability to just have one or two. For me, it’s always been “all or nothing”.


Now in my late 30’s, I’m much better at pacing myself, knowing my limits and how to avoid the hangover from hell. You know the ones: the overwhelming fear and anxiety that creeps in after an excessive night out. The feeling so nauseous and physically sick that it’s hard to imagine it ever going away. Flinching at the slightest glimmer of light, the smallest sound, touch or movement. That haunting feeling that stays with you, for only the remainder of the day if you’re really lucky; the one that tells you you’ve done something really stupid, embarrassing, or unforgivable. Self-loathing sets in, as does despair, depression, anxiety and every other negative energy you can think of.


Lucy's story quote about peer pressure and sober shaming

For a lot of people, these feelings can be short-lived, not surface at all, or managed with whatever preferred “cure” that always seems to work. Whether it be full-fat Coca-Cola (a lot of my friends swear by this) or a greasy fry-up. But for many, the feelings that alcohol brings to the surface, both mental and physiological can be incredibly difficult to manage and cope with.


One night out


My relationship with alcohol had been going steady for several years until the start of the pandemic. A year in, and I had to have a word with myself. My drinking at home, especially my daytime drinking, I felt was starting to get out of hand. I have thankfully never been in the position of alcohol dependency, but I was able to recognise that I was drinking too much and using the pandemic and the increasing amounts of time I was spending at home as an excuse to get regularly trashed.


Considering myself told, I was doing well. I tried as much as possible to not drink during the week, even if work was stressful, and I cut back on how many bottles of wine I bought on my weekly shop. I have always used alcohol as a coping mechanism to relax and de-stress, which I recognised as something I needed to address and find alternatives to, such as yoga, meditation and exercising.


All this worked for a while, but it was a short-term solution. As the pandemic continued to progress and affect everyday life, so did the impact alcohol was having on my state of mind and, in particular, my relationships. Following a particularly volatile row with my partner, induced in part by an alcohol-fuelled rage, I decided enough was enough. I went home and rid my house of every drop of alcohol. Even unopened bottles all went down the kitchen sink – and not for the first time (all or nothing remember).

 

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All the while I was in control at home, my relationship with alcohol was in that middle place. It was on my terms, I’d be drinking nothing at home, and only having a few if I went out. But then control was lost – or seemingly taken away from me – on one particular night out with people I didn’t know that well. I broke all my own rules and felt under pressure to drink to excess because I didn’t feel that I could say no.


So much so, that I was in a bad way. The worst state I had been in since my 20s.

That one night out triggered a four-day panic attack episode (I’ve suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for years, but have never experienced anything like this over such a prolonged period of time). My resting heart rate was over 115 BPM and felt like it was going to burst out of my chest (for comparison, a normal resting heart rate is anywhere between 60–100 BPM, depending on age and other factors). My resting heart rate has always been high for my age considering that I have no known heart or blood pressure conditions (usually averaging around 75-80 BPM).


The fact that it was so high for me when resting was a concern. This constant state of panic made me feel incredibly emotional and distressed. I found it difficult to function and complete basic everyday tasks. I was beside myself with anxiety and started to experience intrusive and unwelcome thoughts which exacerbated the distress I was already feeling.


The stigma of staying sober


So why did I feel that I couldn’t say no?


According to Alcohol Change UK, “sober shaming” is real and on the rise as more and more people decide to cut down or ditch the booze altogether. Their #StopSoberShaming campaign was launched at the end of lockdown in recognition of those who were getting a hard time from their peers for not drinking.


This is certainly something I had and continue to experience, and it is a comfort to know that I am not alone. Like a lot of shaming behaviours, the person at fault may not even know they are acting in a way that makes others feel bad or uncomfortable.


During my various sober phases over many years, I have been subject to each of these examples of sober shaming, as listed by Alcohol Change UK:


“But it’s my birthday, you *have* to have a drink!”

“You’re not drinking? Why?!”

“Oh go on, just have one!”

“You can’t be serious – you're not drinking on your own stag do?!”

“Don’t be boring!”

“The night won’t be the same if you’re not getting drunk with us...”

“Oh my goodness, are you pregnant?? No? Then why won’t you have one?”

“But you don’t have a problem with alcohol, do you? So why not have a couple?”

“Don’t tell me you’re teetotal now!”

“You can’t come to my party if you’re not drinking!”

*Eye roll*

Getting bought an alcoholic drink despite saying you didn’t want one.


It was largely because of the last one on this list that I came unstuck for what I hope is the final time. Although I must still take some responsibility. I was the one who accepted and drank them after all. But I wouldn’t have done had it been more socially acceptable not to drink alcohol to the excess when out at the weekend.


Triggered by my panic attack episode, my most recent sober phase was the longest one yet. For 62 whole days I didn’t have a drop. I didn’t even fancy it so much was my determination to give up this time. Over those 62 days, I noticed a lot of changes to my mood. I felt much calmer, less anxious, and had more energy. I felt more positive and lighter of mind. I was certainly more care-free and enjoyed socialising without the anxiety of what the consequences may be if I had one too many.


Lucy's story quote 2 about her ongoing relationship with alcohol

Giving up drinking was by far the easier part. Justifying my sobriety to my friends, family and colleagues was much harder; or at least feeling the need to have to justify it was. All have been understanding, but I could tell that none of them really understood it completely – they are obviously not as affected by alcohol and the anxiety it produces in the same way that I am. Whilst that’s completely fine, it still made me feel like I was the one with the problem. That I was blowing my relationship with alcohol out of all proportion. That I wasn’t fun anymore and couldn’t enjoy myself if I couldn’t drink. The stigma I felt for being sober was itself equally frustrating as it was depressing.


Re-calibrating


I had fully intended to try having a sober Christmas for the very first time and had felt good about it; but it was never a realistic goal for me to be 100% sober forever. I still like the social aspect of drinking too much to give it up permanently. Instead, I’ve decided to re-calibrate. Adjust my “all or nothing” mantra to something which is more flexible, healthier and manageable. I have a drink or two if I fancy it, and if I don’t, I won’t – even when out socially. The non-alcoholic drinks market is now full of choice, especially if like me you like beer and gin. As I did during my 62 sober days, I’m going to continue drinking zero alcohol alternatives at home and when I’m out, but now when I fancy it, have the occasional drop of the harder stuff in between and not feel guilty about it.


Thanks to Alcohol Change UK, I am now fully aware of sober shaming and what it looks like, and so better equipped to handle awkward social situations. In the past, when I may have felt pressurised to drink, I will now feel more confident to hold my own and speak out if necessary, against those who sober shame. I will also put less pressure on myself to conform to societal ideals around alcohol and having a good time. I want to regain control and still be able to enjoy alcohol on my terms, but not to the detriment of my mental health and personal relationships. That is my new goal, and something I will continue to work on into 2022.


 

This article was produced in collaboration with the person who provided the story. If you would like to share your story but need support doing so, contact a member of our team at contact@talkingmentalhealth.com.

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