Sharon Hartley considered herself a fairly average drinker. She had followed a similar pattern to that of other people she knew in their mid-40s – teenage drinking that continued at university and in her 20s, then drinking at home in her 30s and 40s. “It crept up on me and I got to 44 and I thought: when was it deemed normal to be drinking a bottle of wine a night? And maybe opening it a bit earlier – not at 8pm, when the children have gone to bed, but 5pm, when you’re making dinner for the family.”
She didn’t consider herself to be addicted to alcohol, but says: “I knew my relationship with alcohol wasn’t going in a good direction.”
Hartley, now 49, had tried dry January, and sober October – the month-long campaigns that encourage people to cut out alcohol – but would be looking forward to the following month, when she could “drink my body weight in rosé”, she says. “I knew in order to experience a life without alcohol, I had to take a longer break.”
She decided on a 90-day challenge, starting on a Monday in 2018, with a raging hangover, on the first day her children were back to school. “It had been another really boozy summer and I thought: today it starts.”
It was hard at first, because drinking had become such a habit. “But then, step by step, something weird started to happen. Instantly, I started to feel better because I wasn’t waking up feeling below par every day. I used to brag that I didn’t get hangovers, but I think because of the frequency of my drinking, I lived in a constant state of hangover.”
She took a selfie of herself that first day, and then another each week, watching her face deflate, the blotches on her skin disappear, the whites of her eyes become clearer. “The benefits that came with that 90-day break have led me to say I will never drink again, and that removing booze from my life has been the best thing I’ve ever done.”
An estimated 17% of adults in the UK are taking part in dry January this year, and now may be the point where you have given up, or are counting the days until the end of the month. But just maybe you are considering extending your abstinence into February, and beyond, after discovering the joys of sobriety after years of drinking.
Joanne Midgley, 61, had done a few month-long alcohol-free challenges, just to have a bit of a break from the amount she and her husband were drinking at home, before going back to drinking almost immediately.
“Normally, I would have been waiting for the first of February, and had all the lovely gins lined up, ready to go again,” she says. Last year was different. She had partly been influenced by posts about being sober on social media and in newspaper articles, and her mindset shifted. “I thought, I’ll just do another month.” For Midgley, giving up completely has been easier than trying to moderate her drinking.
People have felt sorry for her, she says. “But it’s not about loss for me, it’s about what I’ve gained,” she explains. “Don’t feel sorry for me; I feel sorry for you. I was that person when I was drinking who was gutted if somebody turned up and they were on antibiotics or they were pregnant.”
Midgley has lost weight, and has more energy – and more friends, after joining some local sober groups Bee Sober and Sober Butterfly Collective. “My days are longer; my world got bigger.” Now she can drive to the other side of the city, rather than having to plan how to get back after a drink or – more likely – just remaining near home.
Kate Beavis, 50, a menopause awareness campaigner, also gave up drinking after her second attempt at dry January, in 2015, with a loosely held thought that she would try to continue it for a year. “I didn’t think I would last, but I felt so much better. A lot of my health issues cleared up. I now realise some of my menopause symptoms got better. I felt so much more able to look after my family and run my business, and that helped drive me forward with not drinking.”
She says she sleeps better, has more energy and motivation, and finds it easier to control her mood. Her back pain eased, simply because she wasn’t sitting on the sofa drinking several glasses of wine every night, which had become a reward for getting the kids to bed – something “very normal for lots of people, particularly women”. When it got to the end of the year, people assumed she would have a celebratory New Year’s Eve drink. “It would’ve been pretty stupid. If you gave up smoking for a year, you wouldn’t have a celebratory cigarette. So then I just carried on.”
To begin with, she says, it could be tricky to go out with friends. “People used to give me a lot of grief: ‘Why aren’t you drinking. You’re so boring.’ Which I did not expect, but it’s probably more about them than me.”
People still ask her why she doesn’t drink. “That can get quite annoying. I could be pregnant, it could be for religious reasons, I could have a health condition, I could be an alcoholic – it’s quite invasive to ask. Still, people are fascinated by it.”
For James, who is in his mid-50s, what finally convinced him to ditch the booze was waking up hungover after a workplace Christmas party. He had been a social drinker, and also drank at home three or four nights a week. “It was beginning to affect my health – just getting out of bed was harder,” he says.
Having stopped drinking, James loves not having hangovers. “You feel brighter, more alert, especially in the mornings.” He has noticed how much time he has – drinking seemed to take up more hours than it should, either thinking about the experience or recovering from it. He uses the time thus released for pursuing hobbies. “The main thing it’s made me realise is it’s so endemic in British culture – people drink all the time and you see, when you stop doing it, how ridiculous it is. But when somebody says: ‘I don’t drink,’ people are still aghast.”
Since Andy Garwood, who is also in his mid-50s, gave up drinking alcohol – he was a daily drinker, knocking back gin and tonic at home after a day running his construction business – he has changed his life. He has become a sober coach, helping others to give up alcohol, and has done triathlons and climbed mountains. “You think you’re giving something up, but you gain so much,” he says. “All these ailments I told myself were just about getting old, back pains, miraculously cleared up. It’s like rocket fuel, it’s life-changing.”
People Andy’s age are the nation’s biggest drinkers – the 55 to 75 age group, with the second-biggest consumers belonging to the group below, 35 to 55. Several factors lie behind this, according to Richard Piper, the chief executive of Alcohol Change, a charity that campaigns to reduce alcohol harm. One is life stage: drinking usually starts as a social activity when people are in their teens or 20s. After that, many people will have children and drink at home, where they will often drink more or more regularly, and perhaps start earlier in the day. On top of this, there are generational cohorts whose members share similar characteristics, not just their age. Members of some cohorts “just drink more – and the group currently 55 to 75 is the heaviest-drinking cohort we’ve ever seen. The cohort of 35 to 55 is second.”
The historical trend, Piper says, is that generations tend to react to each other. “That’s what’s happening – younger people are drinking less. That’s a reaction against the two cohorts above them. There’s a sort of natural rejection of our parents’ choices.”
Societal shifts in the past few decades have contributed to higher alcohol consumption in those older cohorts. Women started drinking more, and people started drinking at home. Supermarkets made alcohol easily available, and affordable.
We also know far more about the harm alcohol causes, he points out – younger people may recognise this, but so do increasing numbers of older people. “People are asking: ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not getting a lot out of this, and I’m doing it by habit, not by choice,’” says Piper. There are inequalities within this – he says it tends to be women, rather than men, who are cutting down or giving up, and it tends to be “wealthier, more wellbeing-conscious parts of the population, whereas working-class populations and communities are not, at the same level, exposed to those kind of messages, or are finding it harder to make the change. We’re not clear yet what’s leading to the problem.” There are also racial inequalities, he says, which his organisation is researching.
Mark stopped drinking two years ago; he was, he says, an addict. He used alcohol and cocaine to self-medicate his low self-esteem, lack of confidence, childhood trauma and then a stressful job in finance. “Alcohol in the City is a common theme,” he says. He had stints in rehab, and says it was easier to come off cocaine than alcohol. “Friends drank. The worst part was walking into a supermarket and seeing alcohol. Over time, that did lessen because I realised how much I’d gained by not drinking, and the possibility that I would lose everything if I started again.”
Counselling helped in terms of the issues that had led to the drinking and drug-taking; his wife was a big support, he got a dog, met new people. “I feel much more comfortable in myself, therefore I don’t need alcohol. I’m happy now. I’ve never been happy before.”
For Michael, who says he was “a functioning alcoholic”, drinking never seemed a big problem. He hadn’t been excessively drunk since he was a teenager, and got up at 5.30am every day to exercise, but the daily consumption of beer and wine was adding up. “You kid yourself that it’s fine,” he says.
In 2020, when Michael was in his late 40s, he stopped, and still feels great about it more than two years later. “I would never touch it again, which feels bonkers to me, because I could never have seen myself doing that,” he says. “I would have understood the reasons why I should stop, but I wouldn’t be able to relate to that frame of mind to be able to be free of it.” His mental health has improved and he lost weight and to begin with he used an app that showed him how much money he was saving.
At one point, Michael started to microdose with magic mushrooms to fill some of what alcohol was doing for him. “They seemed to break the pattern of behaviour and habit, and probably there is a human need, I think, not to get inebriated but to change how you feel about reality. I was looking for other ways to enjoy myself, I guess.”
Others haven’t taken quite such an extreme step – James realised he had to give some advance thought to what he would order at the pub, to make it easier not to slip back into ordering a pint of lager (for him, it used to be soda with ice, but now alcohol-free beer is better, and more widely available).
“I had a preconception that a life without alcohol meant it would be boring, miserable,” says Sharon Hartley. “You could never socialise. How could you navigate a wedding, birthday, any sort of celebration without a glass in your hand?” Each time she went to one of those events, it got easier. “I started to enjoy new hobbies, meeting new friends. There’s a whole sober world that I didn’t know was there, this amazing community of other people. It’s lifted the lid on my world. I now have a confidence that I thought came from alcohol, but it turns out I never needed it. It makes you braver, it makes you try new things.”
She went back to working in broadcasting, and presents her own show on BBC Radio Lancashire, as well as hosting a podcast, Over the Influence, about life alcohol-free. “You don’t have to say: ‘I’m an alcoholic’ in order to reassess your relationship with alcohol. There are people that just drink on a weekend, people that have a glass of wine every night, people that are binge drinkers, but they want to change.”
Most of the people who listen to her shows and join her wider online community are over 40. “People that don’t drink are classed as boring, but after 30 years of drinking, I think drinking becomes quite boring. It gets to the point where you think: ‘Is this it?’ I just wanted to jump off that hangover hamster wheel of hell.” It was only meant to be a brief break from the booze, she says. “But the longer I went, the easier it got, the more positive changes came into my life. I totally and utterly fell in love with sobriety.”