Wednesday, 17 October 2018

My guide to getting sober

I have recently been approached by a couple of friends who have asked for my advice on giving up alcohol.  Now that I have completed 3/4 of the year without having drunk a single drop of alcohol, I feel fairly well qualified to outline what I believe has been the key to my success.  Here is my guide based on my experience:

1) Be determined

You need to be 100% committed to stopping drinking as this is not going to be easy.  You will be going against what has become society's norm and at the outset this could make you feel isolated and excluded.  You are going to have to get used to a new kind of normal - one where you don't unwind, de-stress, celebrate, commiserate, relieve boredom, numb pain etc. with a glass or ten of your favourite tipple.

Work out why you want to make this change and try to keep focused on the end goal.  My many reasons for deciding to quit are outlined in this blog.  In short, drinking was making me feel increasingly anxious, fearful, incapable and overwhelmed with self-loathing and shame.   I wanted to start liking myself again and to feel confident and robust.  Throughout this year, if I've felt even a minute craving for a drink, I have reminded myself about just how shit I used to feel and just how fabulous I feel now.  There is no way I want to go back to the me I was this time last year.  So think about what you want to get out of going sober and focus on the long term gains.

2) Change your perception about alcohol

During my first few months of sobriety, I voraciously read endless 'quit lit'.  There were four books that were complete game changers for me in terms of changing my perception of alcohol and toppling it from the pedestal I had placed it on for my entire adult life.

  • The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley:  This is an autobiography written by an old work colleague and as we had both been indoctrinated in the same advertising agency binge drinking culture, it was very relatable.   It is beautifully honest and revealing, combining witty anecdotes with insightful research and offers great tips and advice for those looking to make the change to a sober life.
  • Kick the Drink... Easily! by Jason Vale:  This book was a complete eye-opener for me.  Vale takes a look at how we are conditioned to accept that alcohol is a normal substance, despite the fact that it is a highly addictive drug and the major cause of many of our social problems and health issues.  By helping you change the way you see alcohol, he makes it easy to enjoy the process of quitting drinking.
  • This Naked Mind:  Control Alcohol by Annie Grace:  This book is a slightly more high brow version of Vale's 'Kick the Drink'.  In short Grace investigates how millions of people worry about the affect drinking has on their health but are unwilling to change due to the stigma associated with alcoholism and recovery.  She shatters the illusion that drinking less will be boring, hard and involve significant lifestyle changes.
  • The Unexpected Joy of being Sober by Catherine Gray:  This is another honest and very well-written memoir of a young woman's experience of getting sober, portraying her journey in a really positive light with some easy to follow and well researched advice for anyone seeking to lead a sober lifestyle.

3) Be positive

It is vital to keep positive to stop yourself falling back into drinking.  Think about the language you are using.  As I explained in this earlier blog the words we use are extremely important.  For example, I haven't once allowed myself to think or say out loud sentences like - "I'm going to try to stop drinking" or "I probably won't drink" - I've unwaveringly stuck to assertive language like - "I'm going to stop drinking", "I'm not going to drink" and "I don't drink".  Words matter and the words we choose can either lift us up or drag us down.

Make sure you are consistently looking forward to the positive outcomes of stopping drinking - and I can guarantee, there will be many. If you are only concentrating on what you think you could be missing, you will only miss out on what you would be gaining.   Quitting drinking will enhance your life rather than diminish it.

4) Be prepared

When you have been one of the instigators and prime participators in drunken debauchery, you might find yourself coming up against resistance from your former drinking buddies and vulnerable to peer pressure.  You need to think about what you are going to tell people and how you are going to deflect the compulsion to drink.  If you aren't properly armed, it is desperately easy to fall back to your default position and you will be back to square one.

This time last year I gave up drinking for seven weeks and I didn't feel robust enough to defend my decision to stop drinking.  Instead I chose to tell people that I was on a pre-Christmas weight loss regime and this managed to fend off the pressure to drink.  In contrast, at the start of this year I decided to announce from the outset that I was stopping drinking for a year.  Apart from the initial haranguing and general consternation, this has worked well as once I announced my resolve, I felt far more compelled to stick to it.  In addition, it has short cut the need for repeated conversations about why I'm not partaking.

For me, I found it easiest to keep a fairly low profile during the first couple of months of getting sober and keeping myself out of temptation's way.  I discovered other ways to occupy myself rather than hanging out in bars.  For example I threw myself into yoga and hiking, I read a lot, I watched films and I ate a lot of cake and chocolate!  For the times when I was compelled to go out, then I always made sure I had an escape plan up my sleeve if things got tough.

5) Be patient

The old adage goes 'good things come to those who wait' and over the course of this year I can vouch for the fact that this is undeniably true.  Back in April I wrote this blog that talked about the changes I had experienced during my first four months of sobriety including: feeling happy; looking less bloated; reduced cellulite; glowing skin; healthier hair; and an improved ability to tan (weird but scientifically proven!).  After six months I looked back on the things I had managed to achieve since being alcohol-free and you can find those in these two blogs.  Now a further three months down the line I have started to put my energy into cutting out the chocolate and cake, eating healthily and getting fit.  I have dropped a dress size in the past two months and feel bursting with energy and confidence as a result.

This is how sober me rolls on a Friday night!

Quitting drinking will deliver so much but don't expect everything to happen immediately.  Have a little patience and you will soon start to reap the rewards.

6) Be realistic

Finally, be realistic about your expectations of what an alcohol-free life will look like.  Being sober doesn't wave a magic wand and make your problems disappear.  Life is still going to throw curve balls  your way that you are going to need to tackle.  At first, you may well find it tough dealing with life without your good old trusty crutch, alcohol.  Everything can appear in sharp focus and a little scary without booze blurring the edges.  You may also find that you are going to have to face up to some issues that you might have suppressed for many years with alcohol.  I know I did and my therapy has been writing my blog to process those emotions.  Just be prepared for this and find ways to get support through this.  There are some really supportive and completely non-judgemental closed Facebook groups such as Club Soda Together, One Year No Beer and Women Who Don't Drink, which I have found incredibly helpful when I have been struggling.

There is definitely a lot more I could add to this blog but it will end up being the longest blog ever so this is my starter for ten guide.  Basically by getting sober your life will not be the same as it was before, but trust me, it will be so much better.

I really hope you find this useful and if you want to ask me any questions about my experience of getting sober, please do post a comment or privately message me at

Monday, 17 September 2018

The joy of rediscovering an old interest

I know I have mentioned this in previous blogs but since giving up alcohol, I have been surprised at how much more time I have on my hands.  Whereas before I would go out drinking until late on a Friday and Saturday and then struggle with debilitating hangovers, which sucked the life out of me for at least 24 hours, I am now almost always in bed before midnight (and much earlier on a school night) and up by 7am.  My new normal is feeling energised, with a desire to fill my days, rather than festering on a sofa gorging carbs and feeling lethargic.  Over the past eight alcohol-free months I have increased my hiking, yoga and swimming, read prolifically, dedicated more time to sailing and diving and spent more time writing.

However, recently I have been feeling a little low and I started to consider whether I could find a new interest that would fill my time, keep my brain occupied and give my mental health a boost.  Thinking back to my childhood, when going out drinking was not my primary hobby, I remembered how much I had loved singing and being part of a choir.  My mother sings in the prestigious London Concert Choir and has suggested for a while that I should join a choir.  So, finally listening to my mother's advice - see mum, I do sometimes listen - I started researching choirs in Hong Kong.

Through some online searches, I found a choir called the Cecilian Singers, that looked as though they sang the type of choral music I enjoyed singing, and didn't look too amateur (i.e. you had to get through an audition), or too professional (i.e. the ability to sight read was a nice to have, rather than obligatory).  I contacted the choir, who were just about to start rehearsing for their Christmas concert and I was invited to come in for an audition.  So, last Monday after some half-hearted vocal warm-up exercises at home, I went along for my audition with trembling hands and flashbacks to completely terrifying and tearful choir auditions at school overseen by our quite demonic choir mistress.  Fortunately, the audition was much easier than previous choir auditions and I got through and I am now part of the Cecilian Singers choir.  After my audition I stayed on for our first rehearsal.  Most people who know me, know that I love Christmas, so legitimately singing Christmas music in September was my idea of heaven!

There were two things I took from the first rehearsal, the first was that the other choir members were very friendly and welcoming and the second was that I left the rehearsal with the same sort of buzz I get from working out.  I started looking into this and I discovered that firstly research shows that singing in large groups is a great social bonding activity and secondly research has found that  singing releases positive neurochemicals such as β-endorphin, dopamine and serotonin.  So, I am hoping that through being part of the choir I will meet new like-minded people and keep my mind filled with feel-good endorphins.  Aboveall, it is really quite exciting to have relit the flame of an old interest that fell by the wayside for a long time as 'socialising' took over.

For those of you based in Hong Kong who like listening to Christmas choral music, our Christmas concert will take place at St. John's Cathedral in Central on the evening of Wednesday 5th December.  I know this isn't everyone's cup of tea but let me know if you are interested in coming along and I will let you know how you can buy tickets nearer the time.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

How to crack my sugar addiction

Slowly, slowly the grey drizzly clouds have passed and the sunshine has started to reappear - both metaphorically and literally.  The last couple of weeks have been tough.  When I'm feeling low, I tend to catastrophise over everything and it can be quite hard to lift myself out of that dark place.  At times like that I rely heavily on: exercise; trying to keep my mind busy by losing myself in a good book or listening to music; and confiding to friends about how I feel.  Fortunately this combination seems to have done the trick this time and I'm feeling much stronger emotionally.  Thank you to everyone who has sent me kind messages or called, given me a shoulder to cry on and who has tolerated my Eeyore-like state - you have been a great support and I do appreciate you all being there.

This has also helped me to kick-start the next phase of project 'Get Sober'.  When I first decided to stop drinking I thought the weight would literally drop off me as I wasn't drinking.  However, I didn't account for the fact that I would replace the sugar from alcohol with sugar from cake and chocolate.  I followed the advice of other people in my sober support groups who recommended concentrating on giving up alcohol first and addressing the sugary food issue later.  While I haven't put on weight in the past 8 months, I definitely haven't lost any.  So, now that I am confident that I am in control of being a non-drinker, it's time to focus my energy on getting my eating and sugar consumption under control.

To help me get started I have signed up with a personal trainer who has been involved in helping  various members of Club Soda - the mindful drinking movement that I participate in - to get fit and healthy.  Last week was the start of my new healthier regime which has meant sticking to 1,590 calories a day, logging all my meals on My Fitness Pal and following an exercise plan.  I am now committed to doing three gym work outs a week, along with my regular hiking and swimming.  My plan is to apply the same strategies to getting fit and healthy as I did to getting sober, by: being focused and consistent; having a positive mindset; being accountable; being patient i.e. not expecting immediate results; and being kind to myself if things don't go completely to plan.

Hiking selfie at Mount High West today
I have four months until the end of the year and I'm hoping that by the time Christmas comes around I will have cracked my sugar habit and developed a consistent healthy eating and exercise regime that I can stick to long term.  I feel confident that if I can master not drinking, I can gain control over my eating in the next few months.  I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

How to make it easier to recognise and address problem drinking

This week the BBC showed a documentary called 'Drinkers Like Me', in which the TV presenter Adrian Chiles explores his relationship with alcohol.  In the words of the BBC, Chiles wants 'to find out why he and many others don't think they are addicted to alcohol, despite finding it almost impossible to enjoy life without it'.  I actually found it pretty depressing viewing as it did almost nothing to investigate the potential for living a happy life without booze, but it did successfully highlight some of the issues I have been reflecting on since I have become sober.  Primarily, it helped to clarify some of the ways we could make it easier for people, who may have an inkling that their alcohol consumption is slightly problematic, to acknowledge and address the issue.

Redefine the term alcoholic 

Throughout the documentary people were stressing that they couldn't be alcoholics because they weren't getting into fights, waking up in shop doorways, vomiting or drinking Sambuca first thing in the morning.  They were all clinging to the fact that because their drinking habits weren't as extreme as more hard core drinkers, they were OK.  This is something I battled with myself before I got sober.  However, I have realised that alcohol addiction has many shades of grey - we don't need to be drinking vodka from a coffee cup at breakfast time to have a problem with alcohol.

I think more should be done to educate people on what 'alcoholic' actually means.  If you look up 'alcoholism' in the dictionary, it defines it as 'addiction to the consumption of alcoholic drink; alcohol dependency' , and if you look up 'alcoholic' the definition given is 'someone who regularly drinks too much alcohol and has difficulty stopping'.  Well, I was definitely dependent on alcohol to help me navigate life: to make me happy, to help me relax, to give me confidence, to help me celebrate, to enable me to bond with people, and to drown my sorrows.  If I hadn't been dependent it wouldn't have been so hard to get used to living a sober life. I also used to drink twice a week and I regularly failed to find my off switch.  That would make me an alcoholic.

Just because we aren't as bad as the most extreme cases, doesn't mean there isn't a problem that needs to be addressed.  If there was more clarity around the signs that indicate we are developing a problematic relationship with alcohol, it would be easier for people to act on it.

Remove the stigma attached to quitting drinking

In the documentary Chiles points out that alcohol is 'the only drug you have to apologise for not taking'.  Tell me about it Mr Chiles!  Over the past eight months I have lost count of the times I have been blatantly interrogated and judged for my decision to go sober.  Ironically, those of us who have quit drinking are the ones who don't actually have an alcohol problem any more!

Last week, The Lancet published research called 'Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016'.  This large new global study has confirmed previous research which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. The research found that moderate drinking may protect against heart disease but found that the risk of cancer and other diseases outweighs these protections.

This research has been publicised globally and it is being heralded as 'the most important study ever conducted on the subject'.  It is time we faced up to the real dangers of alcohol and applaud rather than ostracise non-drinkers.

Highlight the positives of sober socialising

Throughout the documentary we are introduced to people who admit to finding it impossible to enjoy life without alcohol and Chiles really struggles with the idea of moving away from the allure of the social side of drinking.  Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture that it is the accompaniment to pretty much everything.  However, what does it say about us if we can only enjoy ourselves with a drink in our hand?

Over the past eight months I have experienced sober birthday parties, formal dinners, casual dinners, work events, karaoke, wedding anniversaries etc.  I can honestly say I have had just as much fun as I would have had if I had been drinking, but with the added bonus of remembering everything, not making an idiot of myself and waking up hangover free.  Additionally, I haven't wasted the next day in bed or on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and fretting about what I may have said or done.

Going against the crowd and quitting drinking is tough and at times quite isolating.  It takes bravery, determination and a very strong-will to stand up to the criticism and judgement and set yourself outside the group.  However, that doesn't mean you can't still go out and join in the fun - enjoyable sober socialising is 100% possible.
Sober socialising - just me drinking water by a barrel of wine!

Despite the fact that Adrian Chiles didn't look into living a sober lifestyle, it is really encouraging that documentaries such as this are being commissioned and people are being challenged to reflect on their drinking habits.  I am sure that eventually non-drinkers will become part of the mainstream and we will look back on our drinking culture with consternation.  We just have a bit of a way to go still.

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Monday, 27 August 2018

Six things to do when sobriety becomes tough

Over the past couple of weeks I've felt a bit flat and moody.  I think the pink cloud - the euphoric feeling of being sober - has well and truly passed and made way for a slightly grey English drizzle.  I'm getting pissed off with going out and explaining to strangers why I decided to get sober and then listening to them telling me exactly why they don't think they have a drink problem. I DON'T CARE but maybe they should ask themselves why they are telling me this! I'm completely over being lectured that I should just moderate my alcohol consumption by people who are necking double whiskeys like water and not picking up on the irony of the situation.  I'm over being asked when I'm going to start drinking again... I'M NOT.  But most of all, I'm fucked off that when life throws me a curve ball now, I have no way of dulling the pain and numbing myself to what's going on.

Don't get me wrong, I have a fabulous life and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities I have and the amazing husband, friends and family I have around me.  I am #blessed!  However, recently something rather scary and horrible has happened and I am finding it hard to deal with the fact that I have to face this head on and I can't/won't just reach for the bottle.  Right now, I would like nothing more than to drown myself in wine rather than listen to the over dramatic voices in my head that are unrelenting fearmongerers, who have taken to waking me up at 3am.  It would be a great release to be able to bury my head in the booze and block out the noise.  However, I have no intention of starting drinking again as I know that it will provide nothing more than a temporary reprieve and the repercussions will make everything so much harder to cope with.

So here is what I am attempting to do to deal with the fact that the pink clouds have passed and I have to face up to reality without a booze crutch.

1)  Writing down how I feel

Just by bashing these words out onto my blog is helping me to process my emotions and make me feel a bit better about life.  Throughout my teens and twenties I kept diaries that I used for this purpose, but somewhere along the line I stopped.  It is a great emotional release, rather therapeutic and a good way to organise my chaotic thought processes.

2) Talking about how I feel

Today, I realised that I couldn't bottle up how I was feeling any longer and I vomited out what has been bothering me to my husband and later to a friend.  It didn't necessarily come out as I would have liked it to have done. In retrospect I probably should have written it all down first, then once my emotions were a little more ordered, I could have discussed things more logically.  However, just getting my worries out in the open has helped.

3) Taking exercise

In the past week I have been exercising like crazy in an attempt to access some feel good hormones and keep myself busy. Undoubtedly the hiking, swimming and circuits have given me a bit of a lift so I will carry on throwing myself into exercise to keep improving my mental state.

4) Setting aside time to meditate

OK, so I haven't done this yet but I do know that when life gets tricky and the worrywarts invade my head, then setting aside twenty minutes a day for a guided meditation definitely helps.  So, I'm going to start focusing on this again now.

5) Keeping myself busy 

To try to distract myself from the negative thoughts that could potentially trigger me to start drinking again I've been keeping myself busy by cooking.  My husband is loving this as he is coming home to nice healthy home cooked food. The only downside is that when I run out of meals to cook I end up baking unhealthy stuff like chocolate brownies, resulting in me eating my own body weight in delicious gooey brownies.

6) Pampering myself

And finally, there is absolutely no harm in setting aside a bit of 'me' time.  With the money I save through not drinking, I can afford to treat myself every now and then to a relaxing foot massage, manicure or facial. So rather than heading to a bar, a good calming distraction is a nice long foot massage.
Having a footie...

Going against the grain and becoming a non-drinker has its ups and downs.  While the ups definitely outweigh the downs, that doesn't mean that there aren't times when I find it difficult.  I am in the midst of a down at the moment and I hope that in time it will pass and I can start to feel more positive about life.  In the meantime, for those close to me, please bear with me.  I am struggling so please be a bit gentle with me for a while.

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Tuesday, 7 August 2018

My top ten alcohol-free drinks

I was recently contacted by a member of my family who told me that she is planning to stop drinking alcohol for at least a year and asked  "but what do you drink instead? I get so bored of water!".  After seven months of sobriety, it didn't take me long to put together a long list of suggestions.  The world is definitely geared up for non-drinkers nowadays, with more alcohol-free drinks options being introduced the whole time.  The UK leads the way over Hong Kong but I have found great alternatives to booze in both countries, so here are my top ten alcohol-free drinks in no particular order.

1.  Becks Blue 

Beer was rarely my drink of choice unless I was watching rugby and couldn't be arsed to fight my way to the bar very often.  However, one of my favourite booze-free tipples has turned out to be alcohol-free beer.  I've sampled quite a few including: Erdinger Alkohol Frei and Bitberger Drive (wheat beers); Bintang 0.0%, Free Damm, San Miguel 0.0% , Amstel Free, Becks Blue (lagers); and Vetlins (pilsner).  My favourite is definitely Becks Blue, which tastes just like regular Becks (in my opinion anyway).  Unfortunately I haven't managed to find this in Hong Kong yet but hopefully one day I can get it there too.  This has been my go to drink in the UK this summer.

2. Crodino

One of my favourite drinks for the past few years has been Aperol Spritz, and Crodino, made by the Campari Group, is a great alcohol-free alternative.  The first time I tasted Crodino I was so convinced that I was actually drinking an Aperol Spritz that I had to check and double check that I hadn't accidently picked up someone's Aperol. Unfortunately it hasn't been very easy to track down Crodino in Hong Kong (in the UK you can order it on Amazon), however I am fortunate enough to have an awesome Italian friend who personally imports it for me when she goes back home to Italy.

3. San Pellegrino Chinotto

I stumbled across Chinotto by accident at Stazione Novella, our favourite bar in Hong Kong.  Apparently Chinotto has been around since the 1950s and is made from the extracts of Chinotto oranges.  I like it because it is bitter/sweet and a really unusual flavour.  

4.  Sanbitter

In my opinion, the Italians know how to cater for the non-drinker in style.  Sanbitter is similar to Campari and I like it with lots of ice, a slice of orange and a splash of soda water.  It is quite bitter but really refreshing and a delicious aperitif.  I have found this, or a similar product, for sale in Il Bel Paese in Hong Kong.  

5. M&S Sparkling Summer Cup Mocktail

I have always loved Pimms.  Throughout my life in England it was the marker that summer had finally arrived, so there is a certain amount of nostalgia attached to the drink.  As such, I was overjoyed when I bought a four pack of M&S Sparkling Summer Cup Mocktail to discover it tasted exactly like Pimms.  Having found this I literally stripped M&S's shelves of the product and lived off it for about a month so now I'm a bit sick of it.  However, by next summer I'll be ready to reintroduce this into my booze-free repertoire!

6. Stowford Press 0.5%

Going to school in the West Country, cider was my starter drink and it has always been one of my go to drinks, despite its high calorie count.  I have tried Sainsbury's Low Alcohol Cider, which is slightly sweeter than I like but still very cider-y rather than apple-juicy and refreshing.  Stowford Press is better still and only 81 calories per bottle versus around 140 calories for regular cider.

7. Kopparberg Mixed Fruit Cider (alcohol free)

I've also enjoyed Kopparberg's fruity ciders, particularly in a pub beer garden or at a barbecue in the summer.  Therefore I was so happy to see that Kopparberg make alcohol free versions of a few of their fruity ciders.  Poured over a lot of ice, Kopparberg mixed fruit ciders are super refreshing.  They are easy to come by in supermarkets in the UK but I haven't managed to find them in Hong Kong yet.

8. Sainsbury's Alcohol Free Sparkling Wine

As someone who was firmly on the Prosecco-drinking band wagon, I have been keen to find a substitute.  However, finding an alternative has proved challenging.  In Hong Kong I found The Bees Knees Alcohol Free Sparkling Wine at CitySuper but was really disappointed as I felt it tasted more like a pear cider than a sparkling wine.  Back in the UK I bought a bottle of Nosecco - alcohol-free prosecco - to try.  However, before I could get my hands on it, my family went on a prosecco bender and, failing to read the Nosecco label, polished off the entire bottle before realising it was alcohol-free.  They reported back that it was revolting (despite not leaving a drop of it for me) so I haven't bought another bottle to sample.  I did buy some Alcohol Free Sparkling Wine from Sainsbury's, which is OK but a bit Asti Spumante tasting.  It might improve with a few drops of Angostura Bitters to take away some of the sweetness.  While I definitely haven't found an adequate prosecco alternative, at least you can blend in at a celebration when you are drinking something like this.  Oh, and it is less than a quarter of the price of a bottle of prosecco.

9. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Aromatised Low Alcohol* Cabernet Sauvignon Wine

I have tried and tried but I just can't find a really good low alcohol* or de-alcoholised* red, white or rose wine.  I have sampled a few, including Eisberg, but all of them have a bit of a sweet grape juice flavour to them.  However, what I have discovered is that when you mix Sainsbury's Low Alcohol Cab Sav with lemonade, some orange slices and ice, it makes a fairly authentic and very yummy sangria.  I have shared my non-alcoholic sangria with various drinkers this summer who were surprised at how good it was.  Alternatively, if you pour this wine over ice and tell yourself it's a refreshing fruity drink rather than a red wine, it makes quite a tasty aperitif. 

10. Kombucha 

Apparently fermented foods are a big thing right now so Kombucha, a fermented tea drink, must be bang on trend.  There has been a lot of talk about Kombucha on the Facebook sober groups and I have to admit to being rather sceptical - fermented tea sounds disgusting.  However, I saw Kombucha in M&S a couple of weeks ago and picked up a couple of cans to sample it.  I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised how good it was.  Also, although I haven't tried these yet, Jonny Wilkinson has just launched his own Kombucha drinks brand which you can buy in Sainsbury's.

Apart from the drinks I've highlighted above, my alcohol-free drinks of choice are mocktails and many of the Hong Kong mixologists are creating the most amazing non-alcoholic cocktails - maybe I'll write a blog about the best bars for mocktails in Hong Kong, I'll enjoy doing that research!

These days, there are so many great alcohol-free and low alcohol* options that non-drinkers are spoilt for choice.  For those living in the UK, Canada or USA, you can sample and buy lots of alcohol-free drinks from the Dry Drinker website, or find out about other booze-free options by visiting Club Soda.

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* UK drinks labelling is really confusing.  As it stands, the rules in force across the UK (Regulation 42 and Schedule 8 of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996) uses the following terms “alcohol-free”, “non-alcoholic”, “dealcoholised” and “low alcohol”.
  • ”‘Low alcohol” refers to products between 0.5% and 1.2% ABV.
  • “Dealcoholised” refers to products that are 0.5% ABV or less.
  • “Alcohol-free” refers to products that are 0.05% ABV or less.
  • “Non-alcoholic” refers to products with 0% ABV, but cannot be used for products that are usually alcoholic, such as beer or wine.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Can friendships carry on when you give up drinking?

As time has gone on I have started to adapt to my alcohol free way of life and living without pickling myself in booze has become normal.  When I set out on this new path, there were frequent situations that provoked waves of anxiety but nowadays, these are few and far between.  Having said that, I have spent much of this year feeling slightly anxious about coming back to Europe for the summer and facing my friends in England and Greece, who had not yet encountered sober me.  Since the start, I have seen this as the last major challenge facing me.

My primary criteria for forging friendships over the years has been based on whether people are fun, naughty, loyal, supportive, a touch quirky or crazy (preferably without a formal psychotic diagnosis) and a drinker.  I wanted to fill my life with boisterous party people who didn't take life too seriously but would be by my side when I needed them and vice versa.  The last thing I was looking for were sensible friends who sat in the corner sipping water and judging me as I made a twat of myself in blackout mode. So instead I recruited allies who also failed to find their 'off' switch and were willing to let loose and then call me the next day trying to piece together the events of the night before.  I did a pretty good job of this too!  Needless to say, it never crossed my mind to consider what would happen in the seemingly impossible event that I gave up drinking.  As such, I was fearful that some of my oldest friends would feel uncomfortable with non-drinking me hanging around when they wanted to revel.

Drunken memories with some of my fabulous friends

Fortunately this hasn't been the case and everyone has done a great job of disguising their disappointment that I'm now teetotal.  Almost all of them have been incredibly supportive, buying in alcohol-free drinks for me or taking me to bars with good mocktail options, but otherwise carrying on as if nothing has changed.

It has been undeniably reassuring and a great testament to the strength of these relationships, that although they may have been formed over countless pints of cider, glasses of wine, bottles of vodka and shots of sambuca, the friendships continue to flow even though the booze has ebbed.  The truth is that we have been there for each other through so many life experiences - from heartbreak to love, engagements to marriages, pregnancies and miscarriages to babies, and family dramas to bereavements - that alcohol is merely an ancilliary, it's not the glue that keeps us together.

It has been enlightening to discover that it seems fairly irrelevant that I have stopped drinking and besides, between us all we have enough tales of silly boozy antics to keep us entertained for the remainder of our lives anyway, we really don't need to create any more together!  However, I am more than happy to sit on the sidelines and observe, in a non-judgy way, if they want to carry on.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

3 steps to developing a non-drinking habit

Over the past month I have been away from Hong Kong in Europe and it struck me a couple of weeks ago that not drinking has now become second nature to me.  A week ago my husband and I were in Greece celebrating my friends' 10th Wedding Anniversary and we had an action packed itinerary of events to attend, along with a large group of their friends who had flown in from around the world. Despite not knowing the majority of the group, I had a really great time meeting lots of new people and being one of the only non-drinkers really didn't faze me.

This got me thinking back to my first booze-free holiday to the Philippines earlier this year to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday.  Looking back at my blog I highlighted how I felt very self-conscious about not drinking and withdrew from the crowd the moment the booze started flowing.  I believed I'd lost part of my identity and I wasn't entirely comfortable with the new sensible, calm, less extrovert character that was emerging.  In Greece, I noticed that not drinking felt entirely normal.  I didn't feel apologetic or embarrassed about the fact that I wasn't partaking and I wasn't paranoid that I was being judged for my choices.  It's clear that I've started to care a lot less about what people may be thinking and I've adjusted to the calmer version of me.  Most nights I was out until around 1am and, with the exception of one night, I didn't feel I had to skulk off when the party got into full swing.  It struck me that not drinking has become a new habit.

Alcohol-free beer - my new normal

I was interested to find out a bit more about how habits are formed so I started to read up on the topic.  Here are the basic steps to developing a new habit:

Stage one:  Initiation

Research shows that in order to initiate a new habit it is vital that you are sufficiently motivated.  For me, by the start of this year, I was so ready to quit drinking and to dispose of all the negativity that accompanied my drinking that I was 100% motivated to give it my best possible shot.

The same research goes on to explain that 'within psychology, ‘habits’ are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance'. For me, this has meant developing a new action (e.g. drinking non-alcoholic drinks) in response to contextual cues (e.g. being in a bar or in a restaurant).  This seemed quite alien at first, after all, over the past 30 years, there have been very, very few times that I have gone into a bar or out to dinner and ordered anything other than booze.

Stage two:  Learning

University College of London research explains that 'in order to form a habit, an action must be performed repeatedly in a consistent context. This repetition creates a mental association between the context (cue) and the action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically.'  Therefore, the key to ensuring my non-drinking habit has stuck has been to keep repeating the ordering and drinking of non-alcoholic drinks when I'm out in bars and restaurants and not to deviate from this new path.

Stage three:  Automaticity

Research shows that 'it takes 66 days (up to 10 weeks) on average to form a new habit after the first time the new action is performed, but this can vary from person to person and for different actions.'  For me, I would say it has taken me longer than 10 weeks for this habit to become 'normal' but I have noticed that in the past month ordering alcohol just doesn't cross my mind any more.

Changing behaviour initially requires considerable cognitive effort but, if you do keep up the action until a habit is formed, it will eventually become second nature. By tomorrow, I will have completed seven months without alcohol and it is apparent that non-drinking has become a habit and going into a bar or restaurant and ordering a glass of wine would feel quite abnormal for me now.  Creating this new habit has not been plain sailing, but I am happy that I have finally reached this point after all my hard work.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

What no one told you about sober holidays

A couple of days ago, I arrived on Paros, one of the Greek Cyclades Islands and one of my favourite places in the world.  It is also the primary source of my binge drinking.  I spent the summer of 1991 and 1992 working here as a 19 and 20 year old, numbing my insecurities and low self-esteem with cheap beer, wine, ouzo and dubious shots.  I have since returned here many more times over the years but those are the standout summers, as they were my first real taste of freedom, adventure and independence and are filled with laughter, lust, love and drama.  I look back on those booze soaked memories with great fondness (and the odd cringe).   However, they couldn't be more different from this time - my first experience of holidaying in Paros as a non-drinker.

You arrive feeling great

The journey to Paros is a bit of a ball ache, although it is a lot more straight forward these days than it was when I first came here.  You can't fly direct from England so you need to fly to Athens, Santorini or Mykonos and then get a ferry.  My previous trips here would often involve a drink or two at the airport, on the plane and on the ferry and arriving on the island looking and feeling pretty tired and ropey after a long journey.  However, this time round, having avoided the potential temptation of any booze, I arrived on the island feeling just fine despite a 16 hour journey.

You get up early effortlessly

Every other holiday I have spent on Paros has been all about the night.  As the sun set, I would come to life and my friends and I would pass the night crawling (sometimes quite literally) from one bar to the next, pursuing or being pursued by men, gossipping and resolving all the problems in the world!  The mornings were something we rarely encountered unless we had drunk our way through to sunrise or if we were unfortunate enough to have secured a job making breakfast (which I had one summer).  This time round though, I have seen the sun rise every morning and not because I haven't yet made it to bed.  I have discovered that early mornings really are the most beautiful time of the day and I love the tranquillity and anticipation of what lies ahead.
Getting up early with the cats and the fishermen

Your days are long and packed

When you are waking up at sun rise and not suffering from a vicious hangover, the days are long and asking to be filled rather than wasted.  So far, I have been up early hiking every day - much to the amusement of my friend who's hotel I'm staying in, who has known me for the past 27 years.  Seeing my girlfriend (and former fellow barfly) and I clad in gym kit at 8am and raring to go, reduced him to near hysteria accompanied by cries of "What's happened?  I cannot believe this!"
Early morning hike

Getting back from hiking we enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the village, where we invariably catch up with old friends who are passing by, followed by a walk to the beach for a spot of sunbathing, reading and swimming and we haven't even got to lunch time yet! 

In the past my day wouldn't start until lunch time which didn't leave much time for anything other than a carb-packed lunch to feed the hangover and a couple of hours snoozing on the beach before the night time revelry kicked into action again.

You can eat without guilt

As a drinker, I was aware that I was ingesting a significant number of extra calories on holiday - not just via the alcohol I was imbibing but also through the unhealthy food my body craved post-drinking.  This meant that I was constantly trapped in a cycle of drinking too much, eating unhealthily, feeling guilty and repeat.  I rarely went out for a meal and enjoyed the experience, as inside I was castigating myself for my excessive calorie consumption.

This time though things are different.  By eliminating alcohol from my life I have got rid of all the calories attached to the drinks and the carb-laden hangover food.  In addition, because I am no longer sloth-like in the mornings, I am able to get up and exercise and burn calories.  This means that I relish going out for meals now and enjoying the heavenly Greek food, guilt-free.

You recharge

During my first two summers working on Paros I drank every night without fail and after two to three months I'd returned to England feeling very low and completely knackered but unable to sleep.  Even on more recent holidays, I drank most nights, stayed out late and rarely returned home feeling well rested.  This holiday is going to be different.  Although I am happy to stay out late talking rubbish with my friends, because I'm not drinking alcohol, I'm sleeping really deeply. In addition, because I'm up and out and doing things early in the morning, I have plenty of time for an afternoon nap later in the day.  
Beach snoozing

In the past holidaying was all about over-indulging, letting loose and partying.  It never occurred to me that holidays could actually be far more enjoyable and action-packed without chucking vast quantities of alcohol down your throat.  No one told me that I would actually do more, spend better quality time with my friends and feel brighter, happier and more energised without a drink glued to my hand.  I'm so glad I have finally stumbled on this great discovery.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

My top ten achievements during my first 6 months of sobriety

Part Two

Following on from yesterday's blog about my top ten achievements since I stopped drinking, here are the top five things that I've achieved since January.

5. I've been writing children's stories for an English course

I was approached recently by my tutor from my CertTESOL course, about writing some children's stories for an English course.  In the past I would have been too scared to have committed to this, believing I wouldn't be good enough and being concerned about how I would find the time.  With the new found confidence that a sober lifestyle has given me, coupled with the ridiculous amount of time I have now I'm not wasting it rotting on a sofa with a hangover, I have grasped the opportunity with both hands.  I have actually loved writing the stories and found it much easier and more fun than I ever would have thought it would be.

4. I qualified as a PADI Enriched Air diver

Going on my first booze-free holiday back in April, I quickly realised that holidaying when you're not drinking becomes all about the day and filling those days.  With a clear head, I committed to doing my PADI Enriched Air diver qualification and I have done more diving so far this year than I've done since 2002 when I first got my PADI.  I plan on doing so much more diving from now on as I do absolutely love it.

3. I've had one of my research projects from the Trinity DipTESOL published

Last year as part of my Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language I had to undertake three pieces of research.  This year, I finally plucked up the courage to pitch one of my pieces of research to an academic publication called Modern English Teacher.  I was over the moon when the Editor came back to confirm that they are going to publish my research on 'Effective Strategies for Managing Young Learners’ Behaviour in the ESL Classroom' in the July 2018 edition of the publication.  It's out any minute now and I can't wait to see it.

2. I competed in (and completed!) the Countries of Origin trail run

Back in April, my husband, a good mate of ours  and I competed as a team in the Countries of Origin trail run.  This was no mean feat bearing in mind we had to run (walk in our case!) 30km but also ascend 1,563m (higher than the tallest mountain in the UK) and all in the Hong Kong humidity.  We managed to complete the course and the buzz from surviving the challenge was 100% worth the pain.

1. I'm beginning to learn how to like myself

Since stopping drinking, the mean girl in my head has calmed down and I have learnt to listen to the kinder voice.  Now when the mean girl attempts to pipe up, the kind girl tells her to shut up and she does.  The end result has been that I've started to like myself a lot more.  I have learnt to be proud of my achievements, as well as not beating myself up too much for my failures (e.g. my chocolate addiction!).  My biggest achievement in the past six months has been learning how to be kind to myself and the end result is that I am a genuinely happy and content person as a result.
Before I stopped drinking and after I stopped drinking

The best thing is that it's only been six months since I've stopped drinking and I feel I've already benefited so much from this big change.  I can't wait to see what else I can achieve in 2018 without alcohol holding me back.

Monday, 2 July 2018

My top ten achievements during my first 6 months of sobriety

Part One

Well I've made it through six whole months without letting a single drop of alcohol pass my lips.  I have been surprised at how this radical change to my lifestyle has been much easier than I anticipated and has got even easier as time has passed.  I have probably found it fairly straightforward as by the start of this year I had realised that alcohol was no longer my friend.  I had stopped finding drinking fun and I was ready to find an escape route from my increasingly debilitating hangovers and their accompanying anxiety, fear and shame.  It has been quite surprising how quickly my attitude to drinking has transformed during this time as well.  Now I can see alcohol for what it really is (a poison) and what it really delivers (a load of empty promises), I don't feel I'm missing out by abstaining because my life has got immeasurably better since I stopped.

So to celebrate six months alcohol-free, I thought I'd look at some of the things I've achieved since January.

10.  I've survived numerous alcohol-laden occasions

There are a plethora of events that I associate with drinking including birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries, hen parties, the Hong Kong Sevens and holidays.  I have managed to get through every one of these occasions and more without drinking.  Every time I tick off another kind of event that I have survived and enjoyed booze-free, the easier it has been to face the next.  After six months, I no longer feel fazed about facing any event without drinking alcohol.

9. I sang karaoke at a Chinese banquet sober

Fairly early on in my sobriety I was strong-armed into singing karaoke at a Chinese New Year banquet.  Never in my life did I ever think I would have the guts to stand up and sing in front of a group of strangers without being fortified by booze. While it certainly wasn't the performance of a lifetime, it was great fun and it proved that I don't need alcohol to make people endure my singing.

8.  I sang a mini-gig at a friend's party

I was asked to sing a few songs by a friend's girlfriend at his birthday party as a surprise.  I was lured into doing it with the promise of being accompanied by a very talented professional guitarist and I was comforted by the fact I had coped with sober karaoke in front of a banqueting hall full of people.  Our friend is a massive Oasis fan so the set included a number of classic Oasis tunes and a cameo part for my husband as Liam Gallagher.  We ended up singing six or seven songs and despite the fact that I definitely don't have the X factor, it was really fun and I was buzzing that I got through the set without making a complete nob of myself.

7. I helped friends with the launch of their fashion label

Two close friends have launched a brand new sustainable fashion label called LaMy Dragonfly, and they asked for my help with articulating what the brand is all about.  I really enjoyed discussing the thought process behind the label and thrashing out the messaging. It was good to tap back into my marketing brain and the reward was a front row ticket to their debut runway show which was awesome... my first and last Anna Wintour moment!

6. I've made an effort to take on a more active role sailing

Since I've stopped drinking, I've stopped getting hangovers.  One of the numerous benefits of this has been that when we have gone racing early on Sunday mornings, rather than putting my hand up to be rail bait on board the boat and taking a very limited role in the actual sailing,  I have been doing main sheet - one of the more important roles on board.  We have also had some pretty good results on those races too and the sense of achievement at the end of each race has been really rewarding.  Next stop... Etchells racing in the harbour!

To be continued........  Here.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Why binge drinking is not an effective quick fix

I have always suffered from being a chronic worrier.  Even as a child I was overwhelmed with worries, lying awake at night fretting about the house burning down, or being kidnapped or my parents dying or other similarly far-fetched melodramatic situations.  Much of my early childhood was punctuated with the words, "Mummy, I'm worried".  Worrying followed me into my teenage years and started to morph into overthinking.  For most of my life I have fretted over and overthought pretty much everything, from my appearance, my studies and my career, to my family, my friendships, my relationships and my health.  I believe this has contributed to my anxiety, my raised stress levels, my tendency to be over-sensitive and my mood swings. 

Thirteen year old worrier me
This assumption is backed-up in the book 'Women who think too much' by Nolen-Hoeksema, who goes on to discuss how "Women are twice as likely as men to become severely depressed or anxious, and our tendency to overthink appears to be one of the reasons why".  We live in a society where we are constantly seeking out a quick fix for when we are feeling anxious, unhappy, upset, stressed etc. and research has shown that overthinkers are twice as likely as non-overthinkers to binge on alcohol on a regular basis.  Now that I am clear-headed, it is blatantly apparent that up until 2018, one of my quick fixes to a plethora of different emotional ailments has been binge drinking.  Although binge drinking has invariably dulled the problem and provided a momentary escape, it does in fact exacerbate the problem.  Nolen-Hoeksema, stresses that "alcohol may actually narrow [overthinkers] attention on their worries" and research by Steele & Josephs talks about alcohol myopia whereby alcohol actually heightens awareness and perception of worries and magnifies them so they become bigger and worse than before.  Therefore for the past couple of decades I have been in a slowly descending vortex of worrying, overthinking, self-medicating with alcohol, worrying, overthinking, self-medicating with alcohol and so on.


When I look at it like this, it is hardly surprising that my mental health has improved so dramatically over the past six months since I have removed alcohol from the equation.  Before I stopped drinking, I had what Buddhists have referred to as 'monkey mind' - an unsettled, restless, confused mind filled with fretting monkeys clamouring for attention and pointing out all the negative consequences of just about everything.  Now that alcohol has been extracted, my head has quietened and calmed and I am capable of thinking far more rationally.  Of course, I still worry about things - I am a natural born worrier - but I can now apply logic and gain a more balanced perspective.

It has taken me far too many years to realise that alcohol is not the answer to any of my problems and it is in fact the foundation of many of them.  Over the past few months I have been stunned by just how much my life has changed for the better since I gave up drinking and equally how my allegiance to the bottle has been completely shattered along the way.  The positivity, confidence and fortitude that I feel on an almost daily basis now far outweighs the desire to drink ever again.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Ten reasons why I love alcohol-free weekends

I started writing a blog today but the words just weren't flowing so I thought I'd try making a vlog instead all about my weekend and why I love alcohol-free weekends.

Take a look at my latest vlog about my alcohol-free weekend...

In short the reasons why I love my alcohol-free weekends are:

  1. I'm not debilitated by hangovers
  2. I have so much more time to do things when I'm not feeling hungover and rubbish
  3. I am so much more productive and capable of doing things
  4. I don't keep putting off the rubbish chores
  5. I am able to properly catch up on sleep and rest before the week ahead
  6. I am happy and pleasant to be around
  7. I enjoy watching my friends get drunk and not being one of the chief participants
  8. I love waking up early and reading in bed with a cuppa - this may be an age thing!
  9. I feel great all the time so the world is my oyster
  10. Did I mention that I DON'T GET HANGOVERS!!
Watch my vlog where I ramble around these points....

Saturday, 16 June 2018

How do you know when it's time to stop drinking alcohol?

Since I have stopped drinking, it has been fascinating to see the different effect it has had on my friends, family and people I meet.  

The curious - but why don't you drink?

People are very curious as to my motivation for stopping drinking - maybe silently wondering if I was downing vodka with my morning coffee and squirrelling away cans of Special Brew?  However, I also sense that some people are probing or looking for some guidance as to how I knew when enough was enough with my drinking.

Sometimes I suggest people read my 'Goodbye to alcohol letter' that talks about the deterioration of my relationship with drinking and summarises why it was time to stop.  But generally I explain that alcohol was no longer making me feel good, instead it was making me feel depressed and anxious and since I have stopped drinking my mental health has completely changed for the better.  Some people have responded by saying "Oh, please don't tell me you feel amazing now!" - to which my response is "But I do!" - and I mean it.

The supporters - maybe I could stop too...

A lot of people comment on how great I look now and say that I'm a good advertisement for quitting - adding "maybe I should give up too".  I don't say this in a boastful way - I think it's more a reflection of just how shit I had started to look and feel before I stopped.  When I look back at pictures of me from this time last year I feel sad for the me who was wrestling with considerable inner turmoil, whereas now I see a healthy, happy and positive person.

Me one year ago vs. me now
Other people are unbelievably encouraging and frequently tell me how they admire the choice I've made and follow my journey with interest.  I'm sure that some of them will join the sober revolution too in due course.

The justifiers - I drink because...

One of the other things I have noticed when I'm out socialising is that nine times out of ten, someone will come up to me and justify their drinking in some way, as if I am judging them (I promise I'm not) and they need to explain themselves.  They will tell me how they have cut down on their drinking recently or that they don't drink every day or that they aren't drinking a particular drink.  I suppose my stopping drinking has placed the spotlight on their relationship with alcohol and maybe they are worried about what they see.  Or perhaps now that one of the primary binge drinkers has stopped drinking, they feel slightly more conspicuous at the front of the pack.  I know I used to feel quite uncomfortable when any of my drinking buddies quit for a while.

So, how do you know when it's time to stop drinking?

Regardless of whether people are curious as to why I've stopped drinking, supportive of my choice or justifying their own drinking, maybe some of them are experiencing the same underlying anguish that gnawed away at me for a long time.  The feeling that perhaps you are alcohol dependent or an alcoholic or a problem drinker and your life is starting to be affected negatively by alcohol. But then you undertake one of those online 'Are you an alcoholic?' tests and the results are inconclusive.

Since stopping drinking I have read endless academic research and books on alcohol dependency.  I have discovered that problem drinking comes in many different guises and doesn't just fit into the stereotype of the drunk swigging Special Brew for breakfast.  The danger signs can be much less obvious.  They can be as subtle as persistent feelings of guilt after drinking or relying on a few glasses of wine to unwind each night.

Research has shown that 'there is physical dependency - the need to have alcohol to get through day-to-day life physically. Then there is psychological dependency when someone needs alcohol to cope with the everyday issues of life'. In addition 'there is a tipping point after which problem drinkers can no longer moderate their drinking'.  I believe I am fortunate enough to have caught my drinking before I reached the tipping point and before I developed a physical dependency and this has made it relatively easy for me to quit. 

If you are questioning your relationship with alcohol, then it is probably time you started to evaluate your drinking seriously.  It is important to know that being addicted or dependent on alcohol is not black or white, there are so many shades of grey.  Now as I approach 6 months alcohol free, I realise just how negatively my alcohol consumption was affecting every aspect of my life - so much more than I ever realised or had been prepared to admit.  I am so grateful I had the strength and resolve to go against the social norm and stop drinking before I passed over the tipping point and developed a physical dependency.   I believe I am one of the lucky ones who escaped in the nick of time.