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SocietyJanuary 24, 2019

The things you’ll notice when you give up alcohol after a lifetime of drinking

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After almost 20 years with a drinking problem, newly sober Baal Caulfield* is realising a few home truths about life without alcohol.

Recently I wrote about the horrific realities you face when you start skidding down the slippery slope from heavy drinker to ‘functional alcoholic’ to just plain alcoholic. It’s the nasty slide into messiness that awaits every alcoholic, no matter how ‘in control’ you are right now.

After I developed acute pancreatitis my father, who also struggled with the bottle, told me that “it’ll always get you in the end”. And right he was. But hopefully, with the sobriety I enjoy now, I’ve fallen as far as I’ll fall.

There’s a lot that I miss from those heady cocktail-swilling day – if by ‘cocktail’ you mean necking a bottle of Angostura when no other alcohol was available. The late nights, the crazy adventures, the long pointless conversations that seem so damned important at the time, the almost dying while climbing cranes on the Wellington waterfront. You know – glamorous stuff.

But still, there is a lot to be said for sobriety. For example…

You have so much more energy

Those mornings waking up with a roiling belly, half-lidded bloodshot eyes, and total and absolute fear for what the day might bring? The fear of knowing you have about 45 minutes before you need to arrive at your desk at your high powered job while smelling like a 19th century Irish poet? Anyone who drinks too much has been there.

I no longer experience that terror. Now I hop out of bed like man on a mission to save the world from certain destruction. I feel refreshed, awake and happy with the day ahead. I can actually get up at 6am and run on the beach without feeling like I am going to vomit on the ocean. My sexual prowess has gone from ‘5/10 – lost points for falling asleep twice’ to ‘9/10 – would sleep with again and recommend to others’.

Not drinking has returned the desire for physical activity. With a sober head all those monstrous chores and all those walks your girlfriend takes you on with no set time limit or destination actually become quite enjoyable. I even took up Muay Thai and was able to do it. I think I even got rather good at it.

Not drinking and having more energy leads to…

Your beer belly is disappearing

I’ve always been a rather rakish and slim gentleman. But because of alcohol, exacerbated by a poor diet, I developed a gut that was completely out of proportion to the rest of my body. Previous romantic partners have even likened me to E.T.

Mine is a weird body shape that should never be considered for mass production: gangly arms, relatively muscular legs and no ass (a fact which my girlfriend says makes me look like a Lego man). My alcohol abuse meant I ended up getting fat, but a type of fat which didn’t distribute equally around my body – it just coalesced around my lower abdomen and stayed there.

So while now I’m pushing 40 it’s harder to lose weight, not drinking makes it easier to start shifting my belly fat, or at least move it around the body to take up residence somewhere else. I still weigh around 80 kg, which is about what I weighed when I was drinking. And while I haven’t changed in that respect I look a little less like E.T. and a little more like a human which is good because…

You look better, healthier – and other people notice

No more dead eyes.

I remember once I was at the supermarket buying my standard 2 litres of wine and I was ID’d. I didn’t have my driver’s licence on me so I began to argue:

“I’m 35”…

“Your note at the checkout says we ID if you’re under 25 but I’m over 25”…

“This is exactly how Nazi Germany started – with a bunch of people enforcing arbitrary rules that make no sense”…

During this exchange I’d taken my sunglasses off. I looked at the clerk right in the eye, and this is what she said:

“Sorry sir, I didn’t believe you but your dead eyes have convinced me.”

“Dead eyes”? Jesus fuck.

Since addressing my drinking problem my cheeks are rosier. My eyes sparkle. My skin tone is less grey and more infused with vital life blood.

In a word – I look alive. Much more so than my drinking brethren. Which reminds me…

You realise how fucking annoying drunks are

One night I was at a pub for an open mic evening where my girlfriend, a beautiful singer, was performing. Before she was due to go on stage I went outside for cigarette. Upon my return I found my girlfriend being hit on by a drunk guy. He was rude, annoying and got right up in my grill.

“Is this your girlfriend?” he asked.

I answered in the affirmative and he snorted, “I guess it must really bother you I am sitting next to her.”

“Why would it bother me?,” I replied. “She’s my girlfriend, not yours.”

What followed was an excruciating 20 minutes. While my girlfriend sang he kept moving into my line of vision and chuckling about it to his friend. He asked me if I’d like a drink and I replied that I didn’t drink. Why? he asked. “Because I’m a violent alcoholic,” I deadpanned, which seemed to put him off. He left, but not before winking at my girlfriend, making a lascivious gesture, and stealing the mouse from the computer behind the bar.

It was then I realised drunks are really goddamned annoying when you’re sober. Was I that person once? I know I was never sleazy, that’s not in my nature, but did I create such scenes – ones that seemed funny at the time and that I forgot in the morning, but were remembered by the more sober people around me? Probably. I must have been nightmare fuel given how much I used to drink. Jesus, I can’t believe people put up with my antics. And this leads to my final point…

You realise that drinkers really don’t understand someone who’s sober

When I told that guy at the pub I didn’t drink, he was shocked. This is not unusual. People often assume I’m the sober driver (which of course I am) but even more often I’m met with incredulity.

“You don’t drink? Why?” Cue mystified expressions. In New Zealand, encountering someone who doesn’t drink by choice is akin to saying you’re from Gabon or that your favourite band is Nickelback. People just don’t seem to be able to compute it. It’s so commonplace to be a drinker that choosing not to be one is considered weird.

But when you say you don’t drink because you have a drinking problem, that’s also considered weird. I am genuinely surprised at people’s reactions when I tell them. All I’m doing is admitting I was addicted to an addictive substance. People don’t query if you give up smoking, but saying you’ve stopped drinking because you’re addicted to alcohol is almost taboo. But it’s not odd or anti-social, it’s just honest.

There are probably many alcoholics out there who don’t even know they are one, because society has us all convinced that only with alcohol can we enjoy a Friday night out. “Going for a drink” is just how social life is conducted. Now that I can’t just “go for a drink it” it becomes more difficult to arrange a social meet up. But never mind that, because there is that other addictive and powerful drug I can still socialise over. Anyone keen for a coffee?

*Baal Caulfield is a pseudonym

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