Why I started drinking alcohol again after two years sober

Madeleine Spencer was sober for two years (Madeleine Spencer)
Madeleine Spencer was sober for two years (Madeleine Spencer)

On the very same day the news was ricocheting around the internet that Adele had been teetotal for over three months, I had to go to work with a hangover. My hot eyes stared blearily at the screen, taking in her words: “I stopped drinking quite a long time ago now… maybe like three-and-a-half months ago. It’s boring. Oh my God, it’s boring… I miss it so much.”

It’s hardly a rousing endorsement of sobriety, but sitting there feeling exhausted, sweaty, and peaky, I decided that Adele was probably remembering the fun bits and forgetting the bad bits with which I was acutely acquainted at that moment. But look, it could’ve been worse. Much worse. The morning after my 30th birthday, for example, I suffered from such an advanced hangover that I lay completely still for a full day, feeling that even walking to the loo might break the delicate eggshells that seemed to have occupied the space where my brain should’ve been. That I could the other week get on the Tube, go to work, and produce words with said hangover was testament to the moderate relationship I’ve built with alcohol — and in no large part that was because, like Adele, I took a break from the booze.

The idea of stepping back from alcohol to reassert boundaries is something that Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of What We Want, endorses. “It is beneficial in myriad ways, is a reminder of autonomy; there is something liberating and empowering and bolstering about knowing it’s possible to shift a habit.” She adds that while some take a break out of necessity, and for some that break will become a permanent state of abstinence, for others, like me, “knowing you’ve made a choice and are in charge of yourself goes a long way.”

It's liberating knowing it’s possible to shift a habit

On the face of it, I wasn’t someone who needed to step back. Despite my Dad owning a restaurant with a bustling bar and people therefore assuming I have a prodigious ability to drink, I am tipsy after a single unit and thoroughly drunk after three. But as a consequence of that, I have been hit by quite a few hangovers over the years thanks to my window for retribution-free drinking being tiny. Generally, my attempt to achieve that golden suffused but not soused thing was unsuccessful, and I’d usually tip into tired and a little uncoordinated between drinks one and two, then wake the next day feeling thirsty and vowing to stop at one next time.

I had no plans to quit, but found myself having a quite literally sobering conversation with Dr Ingrid Eysn at VivaMayr after an especially bad chest infection in 2018. She asked whether I partook in drinking, and I replied in the affirmative, and she said, “alcohol adds an extra stress to the body that it doesn’t need. Could you pause for a few months and see if that helps?” Always on the quest for betterment, and keen to kick my perma-cold, I decided to give it a whirl.

Things got off to a challenging start when I had a wedding to attend on the first weekend. It's one thing to skip booze while kicking back at home in front of a film, but quite another to sidestep champagne toasts. I decided to be strategic about it, taking it one hurdle at a time. I tipped my champagne into my partner's glass, sipped sparkling water at the wedding breakfast, said no to the round of shots an enthusiastic groomsman brought over, and heartily embraced water. By the end of the night, I was surprised that I’d had a great deal more fun than usual: rather than toddle around the dance floor craving bed as I so often do after an extended period of drinking, I danced around full of energy, and rather than having groggy half-remembered conversations, I had interactions that were more satisfying.

Weber agrees that the knock-on effect of not drinking reaches into different parts of life. “It sharpens your social skills to break free from the easy go-to of alcohol, and it’s joyous to discover you can still have fun — possibly more fun — free of booze. You also save money, and your skin, mind, and body benefit.”

Although I'd never classified my drinking as compulsive or a source of consternation, I noticed the benefits as the days and then weeks and then months ticked by, all unpunctuated by alcohol. I was also delighted by the improvement in my sleep quality, which made everything from my moods to my energy levels more manageable. And, yes, the perma-cold was decidedly a thing of the past.

There was one fly in the ointment: I am extremely sociable and very fond of pubs, and as such, my drink options in those early days were quite limited. Yes, I had my sparkling water, but there is only so much I could drink during an evening out with friends. Fortunately, it was around that time that abstinence started to gather momentum in the press, with celebrities including Lily Allen, Kate Moss, Blake Lively, and Fearne Cotton talking about the improvement in their lives as a result, so by the time I’d hit the two-year mark, more intriguing alcohol-free options abounded (my favourites: Three Spirits, Crodino, Feragaia, DASH Water, and Revibe Drinks).

While I was used to socialising, holidaying, celebrating, and relaxing without touching booze, the pandemic jolted me and stripped me of my routine. I decided I wanted to introduce the odd glass of wine to celebrate milestones, as I was bereft of any other way to mark them.

I immediately noticed the change in my approach, often stopping after a small glass, seeing it as a treat, not a given. My friend Lisa Oxenham, Beauty & Style Director at Marie Claire, has also noted that her relationship with alcohol has been reset since reintroducing it after seven years sober. “I like having one or two glasses every now and then while socialising but don’t use it as a crutch anymore.”

We both stick to Weber’s maxim: “ask yourself if a drink has you or if you have a drink,” and, sure, sometimes things tip a little into the hangover zone, but I definitely now certainly have my drink and it not me, thanks to an awareness I wholly attribute to having had the time off.