Sobriety tears you open and leaves you open. That is the simplest way I can explain it. There is no escape hatch, nowhere to run and hide. You take all the stabilisers off your life. There is nothing to hold onto because this is deeply internal work, and you have to turn up every day. The work begins with one simple, seismic instruction: do not drink. But beneath that is a cavern in which lifelong questions reverberate, bellowing for answers.
Everything suppressed rises to the surface. Everything you’ve ever pushed down, ignored, batted away, held off facing, comes to party. It’s now your job to scrutinise these pain-phantoms as they present themselves. You are being given a chance to exorcise them for good. What remains in their wake is an entirely new understanding of the world. It’s like a yearlong gut-punch, but somehow, doubled over, you are beginning to smile.
I quit alcohol because I cannot control my alcohol use, and I no longer want to be defined by that fact. Over my 20 years as a drinker, I had cultivated quite a habit. Drinking is the only mode of socialising I’ve ever known how to do since I first cracked open a Smirnoff Ice as a teenager. I think a lot of natural introverts find this to be the case. Drinking gives you a new personality, it makes you louder, wilder, and more confident than you really are.
“I couldn’t seem to socialise on any level—date, have sex, play a gig—without being, if not fully drunk, then teetering on the brink of it”
My idea of glamour has always been a rebellious woman. I grew up listening to The Slits, X-Ray Spex, and Bikini Kill and watching the tail end of the ’90s “Ladette” era play out on TV and in the tabloids. I loved booze, cigarettes, and narcotics as much as the next “geriatric millennial” whose peak party years played out in Anti-Social and Boombox from 2004 to 2007 to a soundtrack of “Up the Bracket.” Life revolved around my Old Street flat-share, and dinner was an ecstasy tablet served on a china plate with a knife and fork. There were no phones documenting our every move; people just turned up, at the club, at the afters, at the after-afters, climbing through windows at 8am the next morning in sunglasses with water guns and Red Stripes.
Then that scene came to an abrupt end. Against the backdrop of the Iraq War, financial crash, and doom-laden Tory/Lib-Dem coalition newly appointed to power, 2010 heralded the beginning of the new gothic era. Hedonism’s somber (and far sexier) twin was here: still high, but now with an existential twist. Our clothing turned from acid bright to all black. By then, I had a band and a Blackberry. Social media was suddenly important, and things could no longer be solved by shaking glow sticks with strangers.
And yet, even as the music changed and the clothes changed and the community grew up, my habits stayed with me everywhere I went. I didn’t even question it, only upgrading what I consumed in accordance with my age: swapping cans of cider for bottles of wine, bumps of this for lines of that. I don’t know when exactly it happened, but suddenly I couldn’t go out without solo pre-drinks or solo post-drinks and, of course, all the drinks in between. I couldn’t seem to socialise on any level—date, have sex, play a gig—without being, if not fully drunk, then teetering on the brink of it. I was always sick, always blue. I didn’t connect the dots, though. I didn’t have the vocabulary yet. No one used words like “anxiety” back then, and therapy was something only people in American sitcoms or Holland Park did.
At its root, my drinking was a disappearing act. My real self would retreat as my drunk persona lunged forward. I was spontaneous, sure, but I was also aggressive and prone to exploding. I was fun, absolutely, but I was also dangerously sloppy, blacking out in cabs, waking up with cuts and bruises, vomiting on my best shoes.
“Everything I’d been looking for—adventure, newness, the courage I knew was mine—materialised”
By the time I turned 36, the lights were on, but I did not know how to leave the party. It took two years of false starts to find myself at the real beginning. For a while, I would celebrate the end of each one-to-two-month “dry” stretch with an unprecedented blow out before giving up again, which kept me in a permanent state of low-level depression. The hangover cycle used up all my energy, time, space. At 38, I knew it was over—I’d done partying to death—but could I actually change?
Somehow, I began to trust that my curiosity would win out in the end, because I really did want to know: what’s next? What happens after alcohol? What else is out there, or inside me? What happens if I stop avoiding, deferring, beating myself up, and really shed the past? Sobering up cut the cord on a decade-long pile-up of shame I had been hauling around with me about my experiences in the music industry. When you let go of things like that, space opens up inside of you, because that same dusty, admonishing narrative isn’t there to reach for anymore.
By quitting alcohol, I was immediately thrown into motion, unstuck. Everything I’d been looking for—adventure, newness, the courage I knew was mine—materialised. I no longer feel like a passenger in my own life. I might be standing completely still waiting for the Tube, but inside I’m pulling up with screeching tires, car in flames, bandana around my head. This past year, I have traveled lightyears. The momentum is real. I feel it everywhere, every day.
This past year, and every year going forward, is my bid for “emotional repair.” I picked up this phrase from the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose work is based on this idea. “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.” Just as a spider spins its silk and mends its web, a human has inside them all the materials they need to repair their world, too.
Below, nine things I wish I’d known would happen in my first year of sobriety.
- Your social life will capsize. Bar ride-or-dies, your relationships will seem to sink and reappear reconfigured, or they will wash away completely. You have to remember some friends weren’t prepared to lose drinking with you, and they experience an abrupt loss, too. Allow for this. Everyone experiences a reshuffling of the social deck. It’s weird and okay. You will also freak certain acquaintances out because you no longer drink. When people ask if you want a drink, respond with, “I’m good for now,” because it disinvites further questions. Hold something that looks alcoholic to ward people off, ie an alcohol-free beer or a soda and lime that looks like a vodka tonic. If someone brings it up (and they probably will), it will feel like they’ve put a “No Fun, Keep Clear” cap on you. You’ll die a bit inside, but you’ll get through it.
- Your body will start doing strange things as it adjusts to your new life: more sweat, more hormones, more tears, more lust, more fatigue. You will worry often because of these things. Your hormones will go buck wild—I mean, just-starting-your-period-as-a-teenager volatile. You will realise everything turns you on because you feel so fucking alive. You will realise everything makes you cry for the same reason. You will cry while running and cry while cycling, cry in work cubicles, at bus stops, against trees, holding onto municipal buildings. You will not give a fuck; the tears will be coming from somewhere ancient, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, and it will feel good.
- You will, for a while, experience every social occasion like one long panic attack, and you must control the impulse to run from the room screaming. This will take tremendous energy; it will affect your personality. You will say blunt, strange things. You will not be yourself. Afterwards, this will create feelings of shame not dissimilar to booze-related shame, and you will wonder: why are you doing this to yourself? You would be better off drinking, surely, than replacing one shame with a whole new set of shame but… You will not drink. You will thank yourself for not drinking. You will learn that, when you stick with a situation and stand in the discomfort, each moment passes to the next moment, a new moment, a better one, because you survived the last, and every little survival builds strength.
- You will experience many firsts: your first sober wedding, sober Christmas, sober New Year’s Eve, sober birthday. They will all have their own set of crushing challenges, the main one being you can’t drink champagne ever again. No, the main one being you feel you are letting people down by not being a fun (ie drunk) person. You have ditched that persona for good, and are having to build a genuine social identity. It’s scary but feels real, and real is as high as it gets. Plus, you will have lots to celebrate; the 22nd of every month means something momentous.
- Late one Saturday night under a peach sky, you will drift down Old Compton Street, across Leicester Square, towards the river, and it will feel like you’re walking through an oil painting, and everyone will seem to be dripping and melting and in slow motion. Everything will feel very Hieronymus Bosch-esque, and you will be gliding crystal-clear through it. It will be more psychedelic than drugs. You will feel like a shining silver river as you flow through this acid trip. You will realise you can reach a flow state more frequently now because you’re experiencing reality from another dimension. This is a Revelation.
- You will begin to remember everything that has happened in your life. You will be walking down the road and some repressed memory will pop up, unwanted, and you will have to stand there, right in the middle of Regent Street, slaying this invisible demon. You will have to do this many times a day, a month, until your demons start to fall back. You will realise no one knows you are slaying invisible demons, they just think you’re holding a coffee or sitting in a strategy meeting, and it’s not something you can really say out loud. You will feel insane and insanely lonely at times because of this. But you will, in the end, feel freer, too.
- At six months, you will start to think, why not? You could easily have one drink because you’ve clearly mastered sobriety. You can do this, you’re a pro! This is a crucial moment. You know this con all too well. One drink today means full-time drinker by the weekend because it always has, and you will be dominated by it again and diminished by it again and so fucking bored by it again. You will realise there’s no going back. Temptation will be everywhere but you don’t want out. This is another Revelation.
- You will not buy strangers in the bar drinks anymore just because you want to be the person that buys strangers in the bar drinks. You will not be overly confessional to fast-track intimacy with said strangers. You will not dust off that same old Francis Bacon quote, “champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” and deliver it like you’re the only person that’s ever read a book. You will not send texts that make your blood curdle in the light of day.
- You will need a lot more space to process this new way of being. You will need to spend a lot of time alone adjusting to this new sensitivity. You will retreat from everything. You will return to everything. You will sleep better, like someone shot you with a tranquiliser dart. Your skin will brighten. And you will brighten.