A year without alcohol

Last weekend marked 12 months since I stopped drinking alcohol. For many of you, this won't be particularly surprising or interesting. And it's not, in the broader scheme of things. However, for others that know me well and understand the Australian culture I live and grew up in, you might understand the significance. It's a big lifestyle change, and I've learnt a great deal about myself in the process.

Why I stopped is pretty easy to explain. But before I do, I am really clear that this has no bearing whatsoever on anyone else. It is 100% my stuff and I really wanted my friends and family to continue to feel happy and comfortable enjoying themselves, and being themselves, around me. Luckily, I have good people in my world and they have been supportive, non-judgmental, and very, very cool about it. For that, I thank you all very much!

The rationale for this change took time. Firstly, it was about my health. As you might know if you follow me on social, I've just spent the last three years immersed in neuroscientific research and alcohol features prominently as a risk factor for a great many diseases and mental health conditions, ranging from cancer to dementia (Wilkinson et al 2016, WHO 2018). Moreover, in 2012, the World Health Organisation classified alcoholic beverages as group 1 carcinogens (IARC Monographs, 2017). Alcohol has also been established as causal in cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, colon, and female breast (Bagnardi, 2015). This kind of evidence is compelling when you have a family history of dementia, have lost someone close to breast cancer, and have been under investigation yourself.

But human beings are fickle and cognitive dissonance means that, while uncomfortable, we don't always trouble ourselves with behavioural change in response to 'inconvenient' facts! So, I went looking for more reasons to support the change I wanted to make. Luckily, the second reason was also pretty easy to find. I study, practice, and teach yoga and meditation, and drinking is explicitly contraindicated in the 15th century text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Akers (trans.), 2002). More compelling, in the Yoga Sutras dating back several thousand years, the Niyamas, the second philosophical limb of the eight-limb ashtanga yoga system advises us on our relationship with ourselves (Shearer (trans.), 1982). The first principle of the niyamas  is 'saucha' which might be translated as 'cleanliness' of thought, word, and deed/body. So while I do not believe that you need to stop drinking to practice yoga, as a long-time practitioner and now teacher of this philosophy, it was time for me to tackle my own habitual behaviour. I needed to 'walk the talk'.

However, the third and last reason was perhaps the most compelling of all: moderation, simply, did not work for me. I learnt this the hard way, by trying unsuccessfully to change for too many years.  For me, none is easier than one.  The science is clear. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and works with the brain's system of reward and reinforcement to escalate consumption, particularly in those with a genetic predisposition (Ron, 2016). While I might have been high-functioning and I didn't hit rock-bottom, I did unquestionably drink too much, too often, and I struggled to stop. That's not everyone's experience, but it was mine.

Once I did make the decision to stop, the new reality was full of surprises. I was lucky to be joined on this path by the incredible human being that I get to call 'husband'. Murray stopped a week after I did and kept me strong, listened , and made me laugh (a lot) when I felt distressed or overwhelmed. That said, I still needed other support to get through. I know AA works for many, but I chose not to go that way. I did spend quite a bit of time on reddit at r/stopdrinking in the early days.  It helped me to read the stories of others, to receive and offer words of encouragement. I tried the Daybreak app, but didn't find it as useful. In the flesh, I chose very carefully who I could trust and confide in to make sure they would be supportive. It was a more vulnerable time than I expected.

In the early months, I also avoided social functions. At first, it was just because it was easier and I didn't have to deal with a) light-hearted enquiries about pregnancy, which after two miscarriages is unpleasant and painful, or b) defend my choice not to drink, which I had to do on more than one occasion. However, once I did start venturing out again, I began to understand the role anxiety had in my use of alcohol. It was astounding to realise that I would drink because I was stressed and anxious, only to sleep poorly with an elevated heart rate, and feel more anxious the following day, after which, of course, I would drink. Even mild social anxiety would trigger a craving. It was remarkable to self-observe.

Thankfully, things are much easier now. I'm lucky and grateful to have the support of amazing family and friends. My yoga and meditation practice has provided comfort and deepened with improved focus. I've also noticed amazing benefits in sleep quality, hormonal symptoms, energy, strength, and stamina. But most of all, I'm lighter in attitude with more presence, and greater patience. It feels like a permanent change, but I won't put that pressure on myself. My health and my life have improved, and that is enough for now.

  1. Wilkinson C, Allsop S and Dare J. Alcohol, ageing and Australia. Drug and alcohol review 2016; 35: 232-235. 2015/06/30. DOI: 10.1111/dar.12301.
  2. WHO. Global status report on alcohol and health.  2018. World Health Organisation.
  3. WHO. IARC Monographs, https://monographs.iarc.fr/ (2017, accessed 15 October 2018 2018).
  4. Bagnardi V, Rota M, Botteri E, et al. Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis. British journal of cancer 2015; 112: 580-593. 2014/11/26. DOI: 10.1038/bjc.2014.579.
  5. Svatmarama and Akers BD. Hatha yoga pradipika (an English translation of the original Sanskrit). Woodstock, NY: Yoga Vidya, 2002.
  6. Shearer A. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Harmony, 2010.
  7. Ron D and Barak S. Molecular mechanisms underlying alcohol-drinking behaviours. Nat Rev Neurosci 2016; 17: 576-591. 2016/07/23. DOI: 10.1038/nrn.2016.85.

1 comment

  • Deborah Whitcomb

    Jenn- thank you for sharing the deets about the motivation behind your decision to go alcohol free. I commend your resolve & creativity to work thru the challenges that surfaced. I am grateful for the pranayama practice, I am using it daily to work with anxiety I have recently began to experience in addition to abstaining from alcohol . Congrats to you and be well .

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