This is a new joy. It wasn’t on the #55Joys list, but it is now. I didn’t know it would be a joy. It is. I didn’t know I could do it. I can.

I’m on the train heading back from the brilliant Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. I love a good book festival. I especially love a good crime writers’ book festival. I’ve written crime, historical, literary, all sorts of fiction, and the crime writers (and readers) are among the warmest, most generous, kindest people I’ve ever met in my writing work. They’re also, many of them – many of us – big party people. Lots of writers are. We mostly work alone, we party when we’re together, we often drink when we party. Sometimes we drink when we’re not partying. Sometimes we just drink.

Today, I am heading home without a hangover, with a clear memory of everyone I met and every conversation I had. This has not always been the case. And I’m fine with that. I have loved so many parties and singalongs (the Sound of Music year, Harrogate people!) and deep conversations and silly conversations and all of that. I have loved all of those times and been fine with most of those times (in my case) being alcohol-fuelled.

And … I’m not drinking at the moment. I may never drink again. I have had a drink on five occasions this year. I remember each of them, and had no more than 2 units each time. Astonishingly, as someone who has been drinking since I was about 15 and very heavily on a fairly regular basis since I left home at 17, I’ve just … stopped.

The only time I miss drinking is just before a party, dinner, event, that time when the social anxiety (and general anxiety) I suffer from all the time anyway is especially ramped up and I had become used to dampening that feeling with a glass of wine while getting ready for the event. And a large one on arriving. And another …

Like anyone who has very much enjoyed drinking for decades there have been plenty of times I’ve had an amazing afternoon or evening while not-drinking, but they have been far fewer than the drinking good times. Basically, for about four decades, I have mostly enjoyed large social events with the help of a glass or many glasses of wine. It has never hampered my ability to work or to achieve the things I want to achieve, it has never (as far as I know) caused me any major health problems. And yet …

It was making me tired. It wasn’t actually helping my social anxiety and technically I now know it was probably adding to it. I grew up in a household where alcohol abuse was coupled (often but not always) with violence. My wife barely drinks and we were therefore, often, on different emotional planes when out with others. And I had thought for some time that maybe it was more of a problem than I was allowing – a problem I knew was there and didn’t want to look at.

So I stopped. I didn’t do ‘dry January’ (although it was) because I knew that my inner 14-year-old would immediately rebel and take me straight down to the off-licence to buy the shop. I read Annie Grace’s brilliant This Naked Mind while already not-drinking, and it made it easier to keep not-drinking. I’ve done a couple of 8-week mindfulness courses, as well as therapy, that’s helped too. (Though I’ve never had a drinking/not-drinking conversation in relation to mindfulness or with my therapist.) Running 3 times a week and yoga every day certainly help. I’d been doing those two for a while, but (obviously) exercise is easier without alcohol in my system. I haven’t set a deadline or a limit, because I know my personality doesn’t work that way, and I also know that alcohol consumption (what with it being an addictive drug) doesn’t work that way either. I’m just happy being not-drinking right now – including at the times I always thought I ‘needed’ a drink.

Here’s what hasn’t happened, despite all the people who said it would :

  • I haven’t lost any weight (I’m happy with my shape and size right now, but I didn’t anyway)
  • my arthritis isn’t any better (pity)
  • I’m not sleeping any better (gah)
  • my hot flushes haven’t gone (I’ve been menopausal since chemo for my first cancer at 37, maybe I’ll be menopausal forever …)
  • drunk people are not boring, boring people are still boring
  • parties are not awful without alcohol

And here’s what has happened :

  • I’m feeling more. The hard stuff as well as the good stuff. Alcohol is an anaesthetic. Sometimes feeling more is hard. Sometimes it’s amazing. I’m finding the balance worthwhile.
  • Shelley and I have had hardly any rows. Gripes, of course, but fewer rows. Like most pissed people I can be a dog with a bone when arguing – it really doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong, sometimes letting it go is the most useful in a specific moment, and I find letting it go easier when I’m sober.
  • I’m less inclined to go to events that I don’t really want to attend, because I know I won’t be using alcohol to get me through.
  • I’m beginning to get a bit better at saying no.
  • people say I look well. I think I do too. Having been very sick a couple of times, being  told I ‘look well’ is lovely.

So. I have LOVED drinking and the playing that (often) goes along with it. I may well do so again. Right now I’m loving the playing that goes along with no-drinking. You should totally drink if you want to.

And if you want not to, then perhaps if I – a happy drinker who has been very skilled at drinking all of the wine/champagne/martinis for quite some time – can chose not to, then maybe you can too.

Have a read of This Naked Mind. It’s great.

ps – I’m pretty damn honest on this blog, about cancer and queer and mental health stuff, ticking ‘publish’ on this one feels scary. Our culture is SO fucked up, ambivalent, love/hate, disdain/adore about our relationship with alcohol and that, probably as much as the alcohol itself, is part of what has been problematic for me. Hitting publish anyway …