‘Moderate psychological dependence kills more people than alcoholism’

According to Government guidance 14 units a week is the maximum amount we should drink
According to Government guidance 14 units a week is the maximum amount we should drink - Digital Vision

For years I used to drink every day – not huge amounts but regularly. I would always be the first to suggest a trip to the pub for work drinks, and the last to leave. To ease back, I’d try “being good” from Monday to Wednesday. But in spite of the alcohol-free days, I still felt I needed it. The problem is, even if you take a few days off, your body and brain are still anticipating the “rewards” of drinking at the weekend.

What’s more, the drinking would gradually creep up again and I was soon consuming alcohol more frequently.

But once I took a total alcohol break in 2018, I found I no longer needed it, and that’s still the case. You don’t have to give up drinking completely – I still have a drink occasionally – but life can be better and richer if you feel in complete control of your drinking habits, rather than them controlling you.

Dr Piper admitted he would try ‘being good’ from Monday to Wednesday but despite alcohol-free days he still felt he needed it
Dr Piper admitted he would try ‘being good’ from Monday to Wednesday but despite alcohol-free days he still felt he needed it

The health risks

One of the biggest myths about the dangers of alcohol is that most people who die from it are alcoholics, when in fact the largest number of fatalities is among people who are not yet dependent on it. A lot of alcohol deaths are due to cancers, heart conditions, strokes, accidents and mental health issues, all of which are linked to mild and moderate psychological dependence on alcohol.

Even at 14 units a week – the maximum amount we should drink, according to Government guidance – the risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition is around 1 in 100. For many people, taking a month-long break from alcohol can help them break the grip alcohol has on their lives

Track your month

At the start of October use a paper calendar, pinned up somewhere visible, to set yourself a goal. Noting each day without a drink will give you a sense of achievement and marking down upcoming social events means you can make sure you’re prepared.

Some find keeping a sober diary helpful, as you can make a note of how you feel and when you’re struggling, preparing better for those occasions. Or use the Try Dry app, which helps you understand your drinking habits, triggers and cravings.

Share your sobriety plans

Whether it’s your partner, your family or a friend, let the people in your life know you’re doing Sober October and tell them why so they can keep an eye on you and be supportive, especially when you’re socialising. Make it clear that you’re doing it for your health, and you’ll find that most people that care about you will be with you all the way, especially now that “going dry” is increasingly becoming normalised – in fact over a fifth of the adult population now don’t drink alcohol. If you’re met with sober shaming, just avoid those people for a while.

Don’t hide – get out and about

We tend to associate having a drink with relaxation, with good times and socialising – all things that can be had without alcohol, once we learn how to do it. Instead of having a duvet month during Dry October, go out to bars and restaurants so you get used to socialising without drinking and break the associations with alcohol. Find out which alcohol-free drinks you enjoy, so you’re never tempted to default to your usual tipple.

Go out to bars and restaurants so you get used to socialising with alcohol free options
Go out to bars and restaurants so you get used to socialising with alcohol-free options - Rii Schroer

Nowadays there’s some really good-quality zero-alcohol beer available, and a mixer combined with any flavour with a kick is just as delicious as a gin and tonic. And remember, drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol are fine for “going sober” – the same amount as in fruit and bread.

Know your triggers

Whether it’s pouring a glass of wine when you get home from work or heading to the bar for a beer after a round of golf, alcohol triggers – the moments you associate with having a drink – can scupper your alcohol-free month if you’re not careful. It’s all about preparation. If you like a drink after work, have a nice cold “Nosecco” waiting for you in the fridge. Tell the golfers you’d rather go for a meal than get boozed up. Most of all, don’t forget that you can have a craving without giving into it. After two or three minutes the craving will pass.

Organise distractions

Without boozy lunches and endless hangovers, you may find a break from alcohol gives you more free time to fill throughout your week. Pack it with pleasurable and enriching activities like hobbies, classes and sport, so you don’t default to your usual drinking habits. New activities are a good idea but avoid taking on a huge unfamiliar challenge that you could potentially give up on further down the line, as this might tempt you to slip back into the drinking habits too.

Plan for parties

If you’ve been using alcohol to feel comfortable at big social events since your teens, that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without – you just need to try. Remember, it’s the wedding or birthday party that’s the special thing – not the alcohol you’re going to have there. To give yourself a fighting chance, bring your own alcohol-free drink, have an exit strategy planned and leave early if necessary. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will soon find you enjoy every moment of these occasions without alcohol, remember them in more detail and relish waking up hangover-free.

If you fall off the wagon

With any change there will be bumps along the way – so if you succumb to alcohol during Dry October, it’s how you respond that really matters. While you may have had a drink or two, you’ve still had far less than you normally would in a month, and that’s progress. Don’t give up after one knock, don’t beat yourself up, just get right back on the wagon.

Assess how it’s gone

How you experience Sober October will tell you a lot about your relationship with alcohol, and your level of dependency. If you find it hard to go to a party without having a drink and can never stop at one glass, these are signs of mild alcohol dependency. Learning about your triggers and putting in place strategies can help you ease back on your drinking all year. However, if the craving for a drink was too strong and being without it made you anxious and irritable, this suggests your dependency is more severe, and you may need professional help to change your relationship with alcohol.

 As told to Marina Gask