Picture: Mary Hennessy

There is life after drink... why sobriety is a blast

Giving up alcohol proved inspirational for the BBC presenter and author Janey Lee Grace

Who was that bloated, ageing woman with several chins and greying hair?

It was 2017 and I accidentally caught sight of myself in the full length mirror in my bedroom. I had to look again. Who was that bloated, ageing woman with several chins and greying hair? I grabbed a towel and took a layer of dust off the mirror, convinced that once sparkling, the glass would show the real me. But no, I looked tired, drained, old. I felt winded at the sight of myself, mid-fifties, yet in my head I was 25 if I was a day.

I felt irritated all the time, and anxious. Oh so anxious. 

It didn’t make any sense, how had I put that much weight on? How had I got that awful glassy look around the eyes? I felt irritated all the time, and anxious. Oh so anxious.

I was terrified of getting old, it was all going south, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t think of a thing to look forward to. 

I could see my running shoes — silver, with a Nike tick, bought in a sale in a fit of enthusiasm — still in their box in the bottom of the wardrobe. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t think about running, I felt a sense of desperation just at the thought of washing my hair.

Looking for a solution

I racked my brain for what I could do. Strict diet maybe? I’d tried that many times, the weight went back on. Have botox? Mmm, didn’t fit with my “natural” approach, and I wanted to be able to smile. Find a bootcamp and start a fitness regime? Joking, right? It suddenly hit me, I was terrified of getting old, it was all going south, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t think of a thing to look forward to. 

I bought the right organic food, juiced regularly, did yoga and had all manner of treatments…but it was all while I was shimmying around the great big elephant in the room – alcohol.

Something was off. Since writing my first book 15 years ago I had been on a mission to inspire everyone to live more holistically, to eat well, eschew chemicals and practice mindfulness, enjoy therapeutic techniques and focus on self love. Was I walking my talk?

Am I practicing what I preached?

Well, you wouldn’t find me putting anything on my skin that I couldn’t eat, I bought the right organic food, juiced regularly, did yoga and had all manner of treatments, from EFT, TFT, NLP (perhaps I needed ABC) but it was all while I was shimmying around the great big elephant in the room – alcohol.

I just drank most days…doesn’t everyone?

You see I loved my nightly glass (or two or three) of wine, I was fully functioning, never had a DUI, never missed a day off work, I just drank most days…doesn’t everyone? I couldn’t just have one either, I wasn’t born with an ‘off switch’. But to be clear, there was no rock bottom moment, I was what’s known as “high functioning” – “high bottomed” (sadly not true for a woman my age!). 

I would wake at 3am almost without fail, heart racing, berating myself for yet again drinking too much, and on a Tuesday to boot! I would hear a voice telling me “This has to stop’ Its not authentic with who you are. You are meant to care about your health and practice self-care, Stop poisoning your body with alcohol!’”

Everyone is drinking! You can just have one! 

By 6pm the next evening a much chirpier voice arrived. The voice of the “wine witch”. You’ve had an exhausting day, time for a cheeky chilled Sauvignon…You might give up? Don’t be ridiculous! Sober – anagram of Bores! Everyone is drinking! You can just have one! 

When you look, alcohol is everywhere

Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture. From baby showers, christenings and playdates to parties, weddings, fresher’s week and funerals – from celebrations to commiserations, it’s the “social glue” that sticks everything together. We have been brainwashed into thinking we are either ‘good drinkers’ or alcoholic losers. Clearly there are rock bottom drunks who have a serious issue, and the rest of us – happy social drinkers – occasionally lightweights who just can’t hold their beer. 

I learnt over time that it’s a spectrum, there are many “grey area drinkers”. I’d suggest there are at least 50 shades of grey – but sadly not so sexy!

…the biggest rise in drinking is in older women, and yet we are the ones the toxic liquid hits hardest. 

How women’s drinking has changed

Women have been cajoled into keeping up with the lads, and its us baby boomers who are the worst, while many millennials are choosing not to drink at all, the biggest rise in drinking is in older women, and yet we are the ones the toxic liquid hits hardest. Alcohol is responsible for 200 different illnesses, including cancer, and itnotably terrible for exacerbating menopausal symptoms.

…so many women are being offered medication, without being asked whether they are in fact self-medicating. 

I’ve lost count of clients who have told me they rocked up to a GP or a practitioner complaining of mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, wondering if they were menopausal, only to be sent away minutes later with a prescription for anti-depressants, sometimes HRT too, but they were never asked about their drinking. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, that so many women are being offered medication, without being asked whether they are in fact self-medicating. 

I wasn’t sure how to stop drinking to be honest, it was such an ingrained habit, and I was worried about what others might say, whether I’d be ridiculed, “sober shamed”, rather than congratulated for the sober badass I really was! When you stop smoking everyone says “well done!” But if you stop drinking people tend to look concerned and ask if you “have a problem”. 

Alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking

You see, alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking, and when I finally decided to quit just for Dry January 2018, I didn’t tell anyone close to me. I felt a sense of shame and guilt that I couldn’t explain. In reality I found that if I stood my ground and said “Thanks I’d love a drink, I’ll have sparkling water”, people accepted that, if I hesitated and looked unsure, then they steamed in with “Can’t you just have one?”

This time it was different, it was as if a light had come on, and I didn’t ever go back.  

I’d given up for short periods before, during pregnancies etc, but I had always counted the days till I could drink again. This time it was different, it was as if a light had come on, and I didn’t ever go back. 

I found that rather than giving something up, I was gaining my life back.

If only someone had told me before how freaking fantastic life without alcohol is! 

I discovered – to quote the most perfect book title by Catherine Gray, ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober:

If only someone had told me before how freaking fantastic life without alcohol is! 

Want the best anti-ageing secret ever? Ditch the booze!  

Give up drinking, look younger

I’d read about all the benefits that can come when you reduce or give up drinking. Better sleep, regulated weight, better digestion, better sex, better cognitive function, and many people report their anxiety reduces or dissipates, I didn’t lose any weight for a few months and I felt chaotic, but eventually all the benefits kicked in – and more. My eyesight improved (really!) and I got shiny locks, sober hair (who knew!) And I feel younger. Want the best anti-ageing secret ever? Ditch the booze! (You’re welcome!) 

You see, alcohol steals your joy, and being sober makes you brave.

One of the biggest benefits of sobriety has been the way I have expanded (fortunately not around the waistline!) I feel as though I’ve been able to shine a light into areas of my life that had become dark and small, I am notably happier, and ready to take on challenges. I’m not unusual in this, women find they are suddenly able to start a new business, change careers or write the book they always wanted to write. You see, alcohol steals your joy, and being sober makes you brave.

Are you contemplating drinking less?

Fortunately the tide is turning in the UKWe have the rise of the ‘sober curious’. There is so much more choice of alcohol-free drinks. My mantra is “keep the ritual, change the ingredients”. If you always have a drink with a partner or friends, that’s important, a cup of tea won’t cut it, choose a nice glass (why do we name glasses after the alcohol poured into them?) and have something alcohol-free. 

I founded The Sober Club to encourage people to focus on ‘whats next’

In his TED talk Johann Hari said, “The opposite of addiction is connection”, and here are (lockdown notwithstanding) sober bars, sober meet-ups, mindful drinking festivals, sober dating apps and online communities; This is where I found my support and why I founded The Sober Club to encourage people to focus on ‘whats next’ and how to be in optimum health. 

Changing the question around drinking

I’d challenge everyone to look again at their relationship with alcohol and ask, notAm I drinking too much?”, but rather, “Would my life be better physically and emotionally without alcohol?” If the answer is “Hell yes”, then challenge yourself to 30, 60, 90 days without the booze and reap the benefits. If you decide to take a break from drinking you’ll be in good company. Inspirational celebrity sober heroes include: 

Russell Brand, Zoe Ball, Bradley Cooper, Kate Mosse, Rob Lowe, Brad Pitt, Kim Kardashian, Marian Keyes and many more. 

As for the mirror in the bedroom, I smile at it now, if I remember. There are still some bulges and I’m far from perfect, but its not self-loathing anymore. I’m not quite there yet, but I am ‘selflove curious’. I am…dare I say it…Happy, healthy and sober. 

— Janey Lee Grace

Janey Lee Grace is a presenter on BBC Radio 2, author of several books on holistic living and the founder of The Sober Club.

She hosts the Alcohol Free Life podcast, and gave a TEDx talk Sobriety Rocks – Who Knew! in July 2019. Her new book is Happy Healthy Sober – Ditch the booze and take control of your life 

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