What I’ve learned halfway into my ‘three months without alcohol’ challenge

In its earlier days, Hello Sunday Morning encouraged people to “do an HSM challenge” – a period of three, six or 12 months completely without alcohol. I recently started working as Head of Marketing with HSM and decided to get into character by giving this a go for the first quarter of this year. I chose the easy-peasy three-month entry-level point, and at the halfway point of just six weeks, this is what I have found …

So, what happens when you give up the booze?

I imagine it depends on how large booze looms in your life before you jam the cork back in the bottle. In my case, I suspected that my drinking was on the wrong side of the bell-curve, although not to a reckless or unhealthy extent – but maybe I’ve been deluding myself. One time in my 40s I reviewed the previous year and realised that my casual drinking had become habitual, to the point where there probably hadn’t been a single 24-hour period in that 12 months when I wouldn’t have blown over 0.05 in a breathalyser at some stage.

I cooled it a bit on that realisation, but through my 50s I’d still drink nearly daily, although I started to leave a few alcohol-free days in the working week. My drinking left me functional and I had no problems with it domestically (I have a wife who matches me drink for drink). It was normal when compared against my circle of friends, and it was also normal when compared with what I remember of my parents’ drinking.

I like to drink. I don’t like being at the point where I slur my words (and that is quite a low threshold for me), but I certainly enjoy heading in that direction. On normal evenings, when I was working the next day, I would share a bottle of wine with my wife, and often get some way into a second. On weekends, it would be two bottles between us on both Friday and Saturday. I’m not a great one for following expert advice on health, but even I could work out that I was consuming up to 35 standard drinks per week, compared to the 14 that is recommended as a safe limit.

So what prompted me to give it up?

Well, I noticed that I functioned better on those days following an alcohol-free day. In particular, I slept very much better. On nights that I drank, I would go to sleep readily, but often wake up after midnight with a racing mind and anxious thoughts. Sometimes this would be accompanied by a hard-beating heart, and a return to sleep was always a few hours away (usually just minutes before the alarm clock went off). It left me feeling like crap the following day, even when there was no detectable hangover. On alcohol-free nights, I would usually sleep right through, and if I did awaken in the night, I could easily fall asleep again.

On working weeks that I went alcohol free, it was clear to me that my alertness, focus and general intellect improved as the week wore on, and I began to wonder if, perhaps, a late-40s career plateau had been partly self-inflicted.

Finally, I recently began to wake up in the mornings with distinctly tender feelings in the kidneys, which would pass after a couple of hours. On days following an alcohol-free night this never happened.

So this year I’ve decided to do a Hello Sunday Morning 3-month challenge: no booze at all until April. I’m now at the six-week midpoint and I’ve noticed some positive things, but I’ve also noticed a few downsides, so here they are in summary:

Upsides of going without alcohol


Sleep. The first and most unmistakable benefit is a great night’s sleep. This kicked in after the first 48 hours, but it also seems to be improving over the six weeks. Not only is the sleep deep and unbroken, but the quality of dreams also seems to have improved: they’ve been more detailed, linger in the memory for longer with an almost cinematic quality to them, and for some reason often feature Her Majesty the Queen (although I realise this last phenomenon may not be universal).


General well-being. You know how your car feels after you’ve just given it a 15,000 km service? You can’t put your finger on it, but everything seems tighter, more responsive and just works better? That’s how I felt at the two week mark, and it hasn’t fallen off yet. I know I would pay a lot of money for a vitamin supplement that had this effect.


Energy and focus. There’s been a small but definite improvement in my work performance, particularly in my ability to concentrate, organise and generally be ‘present’ during meetings. The effect carries over when I get home. Just the other night, I ate my dinner and then carried on painting a spare bedroom from where I’d left off over the weekend. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d opened a bottle of wine first. However, it doesn’t last long into the night, and I’ve been going to bed earlier than usual since starting this dry spell.


Mood. I’m told we all conduct a continuous dialogue with ourselves in our heads during waking hours. Over the past couple of decades, my dialogue has tended towards the unhelpful and self-critical, particularly at 2:00 am when I’m trying to get back to sleep. I think it’s had a corrosive effect on my self-confidence over that time, because I can feel confidence returning during this period.

Downsides to going without alcohol


Something’s missing. I’d got into the habit of coming home, starting the cooking and opening a bottle of wine each day. For the first few weeks I felt uneasy during the 5:00–7:00 pm window – like I’d forgotten to do something important. A glass in hand was a prop for the post working-day chit-chat with my wife, and it felt odd without the wine. It’s also noticeable that our conversation doesn’t flow or digress onto tangents in quite the same way.


Twinges. Every now and then, quite out of the blue, I get a pang of regret that I won’t be opening a bottle of shiraz tonight. It passes.


NA substitutes. During the first few weeks we tried some of the non-alcoholic options that are available, with mixed results. To my surprise, the non-alcoholic beers were pretty good. It’s obvious at first sip that Cooper’s Birell is non-alcoholic, but if you accept it for what it is, then it’s a very pleasant thirst-quenching lager-style drink. Carlton Zero actually does taste like a nicely hoppy-flavoured beer, but tends to bloat a bit. Other than the beers, there don’t seem to be any ersatz products that have the same satisfying depth of flavour of a wine or spirit. The NA wines were pretty dire; the whites were too sweet, and the reds were flat, like a bottle that has been left open for a couple of weeks. We also tried the non-alcoholic distilled botanicals which are promoted as an alternative to gin. For the life of me, I couldn’t detect the connection. One of them tasted like water that had recently been used to boil peas, and the taste of all of them was too weak to survive a mixer. (However, my wife really likes the Brunswick Aces with tonic water.)


Adverts. I’m realising now just how powerful adverts for booze are. They ambush you with a desire when you’re going dry, and either the industry has recently doubled its advertising spend, or the ads have always been all over the place. Product placement also works well on me. I’ve never been much of a spirit drinker before, but the sight of a couple of fingers of golden scotch being poured in a Netflix series gets me thinking “Mmmm – whiskey …” The cues are everywhere!


People’s reactions. This is quite a complex one, and I might expand on this at the three month mark. Most people don’t give a damn if you’re not drinking, and that’s great. However, some people take it as passive-aggressive criticism of their own drinking, or as a dismissal of their culture, almost a form of apostasy. I’m building a repertoire of responses beyond “mind your own business”, and I’ll give them a test run for the remainder of the 3-month trial.

Which brings me to contemplation of my return to boozing in April. On the one hand, I’ve got my eye on the exact bottle of shiraz for opening on 1 April. But on the other hand …

The last couple of weeks have been quite easy as I settle into new habits while still noticing the benefits, and I’m tempted to stretch this out to a 6-month HSM challenge period. I remember once reading an interview with Mel Gibson (okay, not the best choice of role model, perhaps – but this was about 20 years ago) who was talking about the benefits of staying off the grog. He said the real benefits don’t kick in until 6 months, but that most people simply don’t have the patience to last that long.

That’s got me curious …

Roger

I could have written that myself Roger. It’s my exact experience. I did the 30 day alcohol experiment in January with Annie’s Grace (This Naked Mind). I feel so great that I decided to do 100 days. I’m 57 days in. I don’t intend to never drink again but someone would have to give me a compelling reason to do so right now. We shall see

ID LIKE TO KNOW MORE

I am surprised by the comment/point on sleep. I actually sleep far better after my usual glass (or 2, or 3) wine each night, and I sleep badly when I don’t drink. I am digesting all the other points and still contemplating a dive.

I think the longer you go without it the less you want it however I’ve read that even one glass can set you right back to where you left off. I am 46 days in and I am ready to give it up completely, I don’t think moderation will work for me unfortunately. My drinking patterns were much like described in the article. The hardest part will definitely be the social aspect, alcohol was a huge part of most of my relationships with friends and family. But there is no point worrying about these things, just take each hurdle as it comes.

Very inspirational. I am in my 80’s and need to do what you are doing for the same reasons, BUT there is a powerful voice telling me “You only have a few years left so why torture yourself?”. I have seriously said that HSM should get a Nobel Prize, but I don’t knows how to make a nomination.

Liked ur article and it reminded me how I felt when I stupors drinking in January. I think the best part for me was just feeling so much clearer headed and also saving money. The downside is I miss the habit. I’ve started drinking again and quickly went back to my old patterns which was disappointing. I was hoping I could drink one glass of Chardonnay and that be it. But it’s never been that easy for me.

I’m right with you … pretty much the same habits … but for me, there was a creeping realization that it just wasn’t fun anymore, it was just a bad habit that was getting in the way of my being more awake and engaged. I quit smoking ten years ago and I decided to go the same way … just stop and see what happens. It’s been seven weeks and things are going very well … super bowl party with no alcohol, valentines dinner with no alcohol … so far so good. I’ve become a diet soda and sparkling water fiend to take care of the behavioral part and I’ve lost about fifteen pounds, to boot. My wife was a lighter drinker than I was, but she’s stopped as well, just to be supportive, and she’s noticed the differences as well. I just tell people I’m trying to be more healthy, get some weight off, etc. No one really comments beyond “well, good for you”. I’m much more engaged in the world around me. The feeling it’s most like is when you get a new windshield for your car or a new prescription for your eyeglasses ….wow, I didn’t know everything was so fogged over. Very, very interesting.

Wow, you absolutely nailed it. I’m on Febfast and those are very close to my experiences. Good to hear from someone who is articulate and unafraid to use words like ersatz and apostasy!!! Can I ask how old you are?

Hi Roger, thanks for sharing your experience with such honesty. I have found it very relatable and encouraging. All the best. Regards Rachael.

3+ years sober and happy after drinking for 45+ years. It only gets better my friend .

The longest I have done is 7.5 months before it crept back in again. Thanks for the inspiration for getting back to AF

Good job and well done! I am 53 days AF today and feeling good but keen to see what 6 months feels like! Weight down sleeping better, strange aches and pains though – not sure what is causing that!

Great insight and encouraging.

Stay the course – I’m almost 3 years sober and continue to learn even more about myself. When I laugh, I’m really laughing and when I’m crying, really crying. The feelings are real, both good and bad. There is so much to life when your mind is clear. So, I encourage you to stay the course.

Five weeks in on a permanent change in my relationship with alcohol sees me physically and mentally so much better. The urge to “just have a sip” remain, but are becoming fleeting, if regular, synapses.

It gets better. I’m now at 6 months and the triggers seem to ebb away. There is that fleeting thought, but its more like the fleeting thoughts I used to have about olives – i.e. I should like olives because everyone else does – before I admitted that I can’t abide them. I actually think olives are a middle class plot and no one actually likes them but I digress. In fact, compared to my previous sober periods (1,3,4 months before dipping toe back in the grog and ramping quickly back to the satisfying pop of a cork most evenings) I find myself being more and more turned off by the thought of a drink, especially when my mates hit the 3rd beer mark and I find myself unable to follow their conversation (read – no conversation, generally shouting of opinions at each other). And yes, I do revel in that hideous self satisfaction at having a clear head at the end of the night, although I keep the smugness to myself…most of the time…

My first HSM was 12 months long. It was never harder than the first month. Since then, and I’m now 4 years in, I can’t imagine drinking again! I’ve ejected those passive aggressive people who felt I was holding a mirror up to their drinking. Or else they’ve signed up too! I’m much more present in my life and enjoy it far more. I’ve made some startling discoveries about myself that would never have come if I were drinking. Thank goodness for HSM!

I’m thinking of going alcohol free because I’m 60 and my whole life socially had revolved around booze. Your story was helpful. Thanks for sharing

I agree with the feeling of brightness when not drinking, the sleep is great. 2-3 hrs of drinking mid week after a long day seems great at the time, but the next 24 hrs suffers. I don’t think / believe in the all or nothing approach tho, you have to , dare I say, “suffer” through the agony of knowing you can drink at anytime, but you choose not to, I still can’t get the balance right. I believe that abstinence for a month, or 2 or 3… ultimately does nothing long term…, you should always have the right to choose to have a night that is full of drink. (clearly not too much)…..but just do it from time to time…. My number one tip, that you have said in your own way, “listen to your body” Great article.

Putting down the booze is like picking up a drink! It might be slower for the effects to kick in but when it does hang on!!

I am only 4 sober and already I feel the health benifits , I still have the cravings and I hope I can stay off the alcohol as it cost me to loose so much .

Thank you for your thoughtful essay on going AF for three months. I’ve tried to go completely without for three months but have not managed to go 90 days consecutively without booze. I’ve done 90 days in the span of four months for example. Do you think that the same benefits come with this sort of moderation? Or does one have to abstain completely? Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to try complete abstinence for 3 months.

Great read. I haven’t given it up completely but practice strict moderation on the few days I drink. And I keep track of every drink. I love this campaign. It’s all about positive and healthy living. Thank you!

absolutely brilliant article…thanks…I’m just the same… in my 50s and after a stint in the Maldives (working) had to endure long periods of no booze….at first I thought it would be hard…looked for ginger beer, and other supplements and eventually just chilled into it….now I’m in France and thinking mmmm….is the wine so good or have I just flipped into excess under the pretence the wine is so great …and cheap 🙂 ….I do breath holding exercises in the mornings and definitely see the difference when had an easy healthy night the day before ….Great work you guys…

Great Post Roger. I decided after almost 4 decades of being in love with the bottle that I had had enough. Once 2019 rolled over, so did I & made a decision to put aside not only alcohol but the ciggies too. I have had a couple of nights of indulge since then, but got straight back on the wagon. Funny thing is, that prior to this the thought of not drinking absolutely terrified me. Once I made that decision though, it was easy. So it’s as simple and as hard as that – a decision. Well done on your journey so far, I may just join you on that 6 month HSM – I’d like to experience what Mel Gibson says.

I really enjoyed this article. I too have stopped the nightly drink whilst making dinner, now week 3 or an indefinite time- which due to accumulated stressors/ triggers had developed into half a bottle often. All the observations are spot on – sleep – yes that 2 am wake up and racing heart and mind – are gone. I have had to use other means to replace that urge to slow everything down – I take the dog for a walk – yes I have a Carlton Zero ( my pregnant niece put me onto that). But I only have one so it is a great alternative. I learnt to TAP to handle the cravings or reactions to the busy home all returning and me being the main carer feeling swamped. I have printed out your article It is great – will take to a group I meet once a week who are all doing this – hit the pause ( or STOP ) button and reset that button to low very low if anything

Product placement, my wife and I did dry July last year while our go to Netflix show was Mad men. Holy crap, whiskey and vodka every day at 8am for those guys. It is set in the fifties tho.

Great stuff, I hear you. I gave u p drinking about two weeks before Christmas. Not easy at first, especially at that time of the social year, but hang in there. I for one feel so much better and my Husband (joining me on not drinking but he never drank much anyway) agrees, I feel better, people tell me I look better, I feel more energetic and confident. I fully intend to make this a lifelong choice fo rme. Good for you!

Nice insights. And nice to see you leading by example.

Hi Roger, That is very brave of you to put this all out there for us to read. Your pattern sounds so similar to mine and my husband’s. I found HSM a few years ago and did a couple of dry runs while he kept going. Then I”d join him again for a while and I’d always end up regretting it because after a while it just feels so much better to be sober and present, and I get so much more done! I become more like the person I want to be. I have the energy and the emotional capacity to accomplish things that I can’t when I’m drinking and either don’t get a good night’s sleep, have a headache or just don’t want to do anything but chat and eat. I have not made it to the 6 month mark as your anti-hero has but your mentioning that has got me thinking I would really like experience that. I also notice the advertising and that massively powerful industry has their hands in everything, at least here in the US. Thanks for your piece and good luck!

Everything, Roger, you’ve written here is spot on. The only thing is I don’t partake in the NA beer or wine…my roommate of 20 years sobriety does and swears by them “for the taste”. For me I go sober for sometimes up to 2 weeks but normally when the money runs out and after my last bender’s ‘shame’ period and lack of sleep, hangovers, detox period, etc promotes my disdain for drinking. My drink is Club Soda, Lemon juice and a bit of sugar and I find it enjoyable especially when I don’t feel the grog or the come down when empty, the psychological effect of ‘no more left’ and when the ‘Dynorphin’ kicks in, as Anne Grace from The Naked Mind and 30 day experiment explains (“the evil cousin of Endorphins”). And I agree..when not drinking it’s everywhere. I watched ‘True Detective’ an American series..and it seemed every scene they were cracking beers!!! Guess what I wanted? Thank you for the great read and keep on keepin on! 🙂

Thank you for this article. I am 8 days into a 100-day challenge, and sometimes I feel like a fraud because I’m not a “falling down drunk”. Why do I need to give it up? Your article proves that there is a spectrum of drinking, and what’s comfortable for some may not be comfortable for others. I, too, drink about every day, that “relaxing” glass of wine the first thing I think about when I come home from work. Except that glass turns into 3-4 glasses and then I feel rotten all the next day It is about changing habits and that takes time. I wish you luck!

Hi Rog. Very, very brave of you man for putting your story out there. Seems you sure were developing a problem but you kicked it to the curb. Bravo!

Can you restart the ‘hello sunday morning’ community? I miss my friends. 🙁

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