By Renae Leith
There’s no doubt not-drinking is super cool right now. But I didn’t stop drinking to be part of the wave. I have always enjoyed a glass or two of wine or a cocktail. And it’s fair to say I have an ongoing love affair with champagne. It has never had an effect on my health or my life, but I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped.
Drinking is a way to celebrate, commiserate, party, detach, attach, show empathy by drinking with a friend who’s down (or up – or both), and share a moment.
There are times when it can even be meditative. I find it romantic, calming, even intimate to share a bottle of wine with a man I like. And don’t get me started on drinking with food, especially at Michelin star Restaurants, which are one of my personal and professional passions.
But dating someone who has an allergy to alcohol has changed my perspective. I’d always found it difficult, even embarrassing to say no to a drink in a social setting, like a party or restaurant.
It felt rude and disrespectful to the person offering it as well as to the person I was with, who was usually drinking. But being around someone who never ever says yes has made me see first hand that it isn’t that hard to not drink. And that the important thing in life is to put my own needs before those of others – especially when it comes to vices.
It also made me see that people around me really don’t care or mind. I was the one with the issue around not drinking, not them. Last year I spent time travelling and working in Asia, and that also helped me see alcohol isn’t an every day habit in many locations in the world, and most local people eat meals in or out of restaurants in Asian cities without booze.
I started to hear about a number of people -good, normal, people like me – who have been admitted to hospital with serious alcohol addiction problems. This was a shock. Whilst I have never had any issues anywhere near that category, it scared me, and made me wonder how in charge I really was of my drinking.
Before I gave up drinking, I would regularly drink 5 nights a week. Usually two glasses with dinner at home or, if I was out, I would often drink more.
Despite the fact alcohol had never had a negative effect on my health, I decided to take a serious break. Cold turkey.
I threw myself a pity party the night before, buying a very expensive bottle of Pinot Noir in a restaurant where I was holidaying in Gerringong, and savoured it, drinking it slowly.
The surprising thing was it didn’t taste as good as I’d hoped -my mind was possibly already detaching from the romance of alcohol. I had two glasses, and I was done. Finito.
The first week or so was very tough as I was on a NSW driving trip and I was in Canberra, a city with some seriously good restaurants and bars. I found myself apologising to wait staff about not drinking, and studying wine lists intently making sure I knew what I was missing out on.
I was staying at the Ovolo Hotel in Canberra where the mini bar is included and a free cocktail hour is part of the package. The world was testing me.
So I emptied the alcohol out of the fridge each day as a preventative measure (I’ve never liked hot white wine) and ordered mocktails at the happy hour, and sometimes didn’t go. It felt very strange at first, as alcohol was always something I enjoyed as part of any holiday, like I was punishing myself. But I kept going.
I looked for alternate drinks and developed a passion for green juices. Somehow this seemed to help. I improved my nutrition and reduced my sugar intake. This eventually reduced my booze cravings.
Suddenly alcohol was everywhere, at my hair salon, at every event I went to, and on every TV show I watched on Netflix. And it was always in the hands of super attractive, successful people.
My girlfriends didn’t take the news of me not drinking very well. The most common phrase I hear – even now- is “you’re so much more fun when you’re drinking”, but I blocked out the noise and persisted.
Initially I didn’t enjoy going out at all. I felt like the black sheep, not having any fun whilst everyone else was at the top of the mountain figuratively dancing with the music playing at full volume. My mind and body were accustomed to the pattern of work hard, be rewarded with a calming wine at the end of almost every working day.
But within weeks this dynamic changed. But it was very slow going. Time slowed right down. It took at least 5 weeks to notice any changes within me.
Sitting through a 5 hour Melbourne cup lunch sober made me see the alcohol fuelled Sydney world differently. In under an hour the entire venue was plastered and by the second hour a lot were making poor choices. By the third hour, many women were crying or shouting at each other. What an eye opener.
I was shocked when I saw the impact booze had on their personalities. Wow. It was a very sobering mirror to hold up to myself. These were and are amazing, successful people, and alcohol quickly exposed their deepest fears and regrets, and they all came tumbling out.
It didn’t take as long as I’d feared to let go of my meal and wine pairings such as steak and red wine, or oysters and champagne which I had previously loved. I just ate the food and got on with it.
And I spent so much less money. Dinner at fancy restaurants was half the price or less, I no longer needed ubers as I drove everywhere. I’ve never had an issue getting up in the morning, but it was now easier, and I was happy to go bed earlier. I had so much more time to work, read, and keep fit. I lost weight.
The universe was bringing people into my orbit who were also not drinking, which was really helpful. Two close friends co-incidentally gave up drinking at the same time, and they introduced me to the wonders of no alcohol rosé, sparkling wine, beer and cocktails. This instantly made socialising much easier.
What I realised is everyone around me felt better if I had a drink in my hand that we could all pretend was alcohol. I’ve never been into beer, but drinking a stubby of no alcohol Heineken or Carlton meant everyone forgot in seconds that I was sober. And the taste was not too bad.
Then another friend told me about AA – and explained you can now zoom into AA meetings anywhere in the world online, anonymously if you wish, and hear real people talk about their challenges with alcohol addiction.
Curious, I gave it a go. I logged into a meeting in London in a suburb I am very familiar with and have been going to for over a decade, (which meant I felt like I could relate to the types of people who might be at the meeting).
There were over 60 people online at 7am UK time starting their day. They all had their cameras on and were talking on zoom from the heart to each other. They owned their issues, supported each other and were so kind. There was even someone seriously famous there. Wow.
I was so humbled to see and hear these people talking about their lives without alcohol, their hopes, dreams and support for each other. Call me ignorant, but I had no idea this AA world existed, and how difficult it is for so many people to turn their back on booze.
Ninety days on my energy levels are higher, my sleep is better, anxiety is vastly reduced, and I have so much more time. I have absolutely no issue going out to events drinking water.
As fate would have it, on the 90th day I was invited to the 50th birthday of the sensational WA winery Cape Mentelle. My lunch place had 6 tasting glasses of wine around it.
So I decided to give the wine a go.
The wine tasted very different to before. I enjoyed trying the beautiful wines on offer, but the connection I had to alcohol over 90 days ago was gone. I wasn’t looking for more. I didn’t finish any of the tasting glasses. It was a case of quality over quantity.
Alcohol is such a fabulous part of life and dining out, I would never want to tell anyone how they should manage their relationship with it.
I can only say that for me, the new conscious relationship I’ve built with booze is so much more positive & balanced for me. I’m in control, and making the choices, not the other way around and in the vast majority of situations when alcohol is around, I prefer to stay sober.
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