Photo: Getty Images

My year without alcohol

Pallas Hupé Cotter’s new year’s resolution for 2018 was a big one: going alcohol-free for an entire year. As she approaches the halfway point she shares what she’s learned so far.

At midnight on December 31st 2017, while watching fireworks from a hilltop on the outskirts of Wellington, I took one last sip of bubbles out of my plastic travel cup and declared that I was going alcohol-free. Not forever – just for 2018.

When I say this out loud, people often gasp. And then they ask, “Why?”.

One reason I decided that this year was the year is that in 2019 I’m moving to Central Otago. My husband and I are building a home within stumbling distance of one of the region’s many wineries. Before we make the move, I want to shift something else too: a habit. I want to go back to the days when enjoying a glass of wine was something special – not just a nightly routine I adopted after moving to New Zealand from the US.

The plan was to write about my experience at the end of the year, but I only made it to June. No, I haven’t had a drink, but the journey’s been so fascinating and challenging – in ways I didn’t expect – that I wanted to start writing now.

I’ll also admit that “going public” early will definitely help keep me accountable.

I’ve obviously shared this resolution with a few people before writing about it, and most did the same double-take, “The whole year?! Are you sure?”. Someone asked me, “Why start January 1, why not wait until summer’s over?”, which made me pause, but didn’t offer as clean a break as I wanted.

That was followed by a variety of wildly different responses, ranging from “It’s easy!” to “It’s sooo hard” and “You’ll never go back” as well as “You won’t last the year!”.

That last one was from a family member, which made me feel a little uneasy.

Recently on The Spinoff Nadine Hura wrote about her choice to give up alcohol, leaving the  “sisterhood” of mums who have leaned in – for support from our wine bottles. Hura’s no longer turning to a glass or two or three to help her feel “as if” she was coping, after realising that she’d been struggling physically and emotionally. Tired of the constant negotiation in her brain about when and how many she could afford to have. It’s a voice I’ve heard too – and don’t want to hear anymore.

But let me say this isn’t easy.

“On holiday or at any celebration, I feel like I’m missing something without a stemmed glass in my hand.” The author raises a glass (supplied)

Ritual

One of the things I missed most, from the start, was my ritual.

Just like morning doesn’t feel right without a cup o’joe, at the end of a long day I can no longer look forward to the reward of a glass of vino. (Yes, I recognise the cliches, as well as the irony, but I can’t even think about giving up caffeine simultaneously.)

And at either end of the day, the ritual of making a cuppa just doesn’t create the warm fuzzy for me that it does for most anyone raised in the UK or as a Kiwi.

There’s also the social ritual and, conversely, the antisocial side of tee-totalling.

On a date night with my husband, a holiday or at any celebration, I feel like I’m missing something without a stemmed glass in my hand. I’ve also noticed social invitations starting to dwindle. Comparing my experience with friends who’ve made similar choices, they confirm that’s normal. They miss the “wine-o’clock” excitement and have also warned that friendships can dry up, which can leave you feeling rejected.

I’ve run into something else I didn’t expect and find surprisingly uncomfortable: having to refuse hospitality. I didn’t even think about disappointing hosts who want to share their cellar selections. A couple recently plunked a glass of their finest in front of me after our meal, brightly declaring it a “nightcap!”, almost as if issuing a challenge. I felt guilty about the pleasure I was denying them when I stuttered, shrugged my shoulders and apologised. But I said “No thank you”, again.

Judgement

Some of the social reaction to not drinking can be blamed on one loaded little word: judgement.

If you say you’re not drinking, some hear it as a judgement of them. That leaves them stammering excuses, or saying they’ve been meaning to cut back too, even apologising or admitting they feel guilty about drinking – or how often they do.

I’ve discussed this phenomenon with vegans and vegetarians, who’ve also experienced the same kind of reaction. To be fair, they seem to have a pretty strong belief in a “cause”, so maybe that reaction can be expected. But with alcohol, for most social (not addicted) drinkers, and about a century after the Temperance movements, it’s a lifestyle choice that only affects the individual. When I hear people’s “shoulds” I usually say, “I wish I could!”, but right now it just isn’t right for me.

Societal Anxiety

It’s also been harder to ignore something that’s been disturbing me for a while – something Nadine Hura also mentioned: how drinking is about “our pain as much as our pleasure”. I didn’t like it when I would hear myself sigh, “I could use a drink”, instead of enjoy one.

It’s becoming ever more clear how much we try to zone out in our society: with alcohol, or drugs, or food, or screen time or digital devices. I’m as guilty as the next person of not wanting to face up to difficult emotions or of sometimes feeling trapped and craving ways to escape. I’ve had some marathon box-set binges.

But as a society, it looks like learning how to be happier by being more present is a pressing challenge, be that through mindfulness or giving up things like drinking.

Health

“Are you feeling better?” is one of the most frequent questions I get.

And I asked the same question of a friend who cut way back on drinking long before my decision. She said, “I don’t necessarily feel better, just not worse.”

She recommended that I don’t try to deny myself much else while I tackle alcohol. I’ve already taken that to extremes. For years I’ve called chocolate my “mood-altering substance of choice” and admit that in these past few months I’ve reached for it way too often. Of course sugar’s now the new taboo, so that’s starting to trigger a new panic: “Do I have to give up my chocolate too? What’s left that I can enjoy?”. If you’re thinking “moderation” is an option, well, I will try. But my fear is if can’t stop myself at one square of chocolate, what makes me think I can enjoy just one drink now and then?

These are questions I can’t yet answer.

I can say that even though I really wasn’t a big drinker, I am suffering fewer fuzzy mornings. So yes, I guess I do feel better and would like it to stay that way. Remembering that comes in handy whenever I feel tempted – and I’ve definitely had moments.

I’ve even dreamed about falling off the wagon! I either forget my resolution and accept a drink or accidentally pull the wrong bottle out of the fridge, twist it open and swig before I realise what’s happened.

Homemade kombucha. CC-BY-2.0

Kombucha

It actually is easy to confuse a bottle of beer with a bottle of kombucha, which is quickly becoming my new go-to. The probiotic fizzy drink feels a little bit special, and allows me to pretend that I’m celebrating and socialising, just like everyone else.

Yes, technically it’s fermented and therefore has the tiniest bit of alcohol – but think of it like drinking vinegar. It would take too much to stomach to even get you buzzed.

I’ve started little parallel social rituals like pouring kombucha into a champagne glass, and hosting other tee-totalling friends who’ve starting producing their own concoctions. I even organised a dinner party for a kombucha “tasting” and “pairing”.

*

My appreciation of wine didn’t start in New Zealand, but in Northern California. When we moved to an area that was just a half hour drive from Napa Valley, we were warned we’d become wine lovers by osmosis. Every home our real estate agents showed us had its very own wine closet. As it turned out, our realtors  were also part-time vintners, who hosted neighborhood bottling parties to get their product to market. We enjoyed their wine only on special occasions. That said, when I lived there, I presented the news on TV at night, so there was no opportunity to have a “glass at the end of the day”. That started here, as a luxury, and then devolved into a routine.

I recently fielded questions from of a group of friends fascinated by my decision. They started talking about the latest statistics on how much alcohol takes a toll on your health. Many admitted to drinking more than was recommended, but debated whether it was worth the sacrifice to cut back.

To be clear, it has felt like a sacrifice, but it doesn’t have to. I’m now trying to focus instead on feeling empowered. Making a conscious choice to reframe and make reaching for a glass of wine not an unconscious reflex, but something special again.


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