“The challenge aspect gave me huge motivation and also made it a lot easier to tell people what I was doing”

1st March 2019. The first day of my OYNB challenge and the start of my journey. What had brought me to that point?

For as long as I could remember I had always enjoyed alcohol and been a drinker. From the tender age of 14, trying to get served in the local pub, and somehow succeeding, aided and abetted by the rather relaxed alcoholic landlord. It was somehow the “thing to be seen to do”, the rite of passage to being grown up.

I also had anxiety issues and insecurities as a child, more than likely as a result of witnessing my mother go through a mental breakdown when I was still very young. I soon realised that alcohol masked these issues, it helped numb them and at the same time made me sociable and confident. I had found my new best friend! Alcohol helped me be the person I wanted to be – the sociable one, the life and soul of the party – not the shy one in the corner. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was hooked. From the age of 17-18 I drank almost every day. My drinking career had begun.

During my formative teenage years

Neil before quitting drinkingI played rugby. I made some great lifelong friends through the game who remain a big part of my life to this day. Great times, great memories. Boys together against the world, having a laugh…and drinking as much and as often as possible.

So, for me like millions of others the alcohol seed was sown in my early years and from there it just continued to grow. Drink was always just part of life. Always there to help celebrate, congratulate and commiserate.

For many years drink just wasn’t a problem and it never occurred to me to see it as such. I functioned perfectly normally. I achieved well at school and university, held down series of very good jobs and worked my way up the career ladder. Fine. I married and had children and experienced the ups and downs of life. All to the accompaniment of alcohol. No problem.

So, what went wrong?

Time. Getting older. It began to catch up with me.

Looking back as each decade of my life passed (I am now 57), the drink habit became more and more engrained, the problems it created became more and more apparent. I was into my 40’s before I had the first glimmer of alcohol becoming a problem for me. The responsibilities of life were beginning to take their toll – the massive responsibility of marriage and fatherhood, the challenge of self- employment, an awful divorce. For the first time in my life I became aware I was drinking because I needed to. To anaesthetise and unwind.

Then it was the slow descent downhill.

So gradual it went almost unnoticed, but not by me. Deep down I began to realise that alcohol was becoming a problem for me. It wasn’t so much the amount I drank but how it affected me. As I got older, physically my body could not process the alcohol in the same way. The morning after became a real struggle. Crushing fatigue, feeling “grey”. But it was mentally that it was really taking its toll. Debilitating anxiety and depression really took hold. I became aware that drinking was no longer fun and sociable. It was dominating my life completely. Everything was geared around drink. I began to feel guilty and worried about drinking. It was now blighting my life, not in any way enhancing it.

I took steps to cut down

I had many periods of abstinence to “prove to myself I didn’t need to drink…that I had control”. After the withdrawal of the first day, abstinence was pretty easy as I have huge reserves of will power. I was going to be ok. Who was I kidding? Not drinking for a period of time – a week, a month, 3 months, is actually pretty easy when you know that at the end of abstinence you can drink again – as much as you want. Stopping forever is a different ball game altogether.

Into my 50’s and the descent downhill was getting faster

By now alcohol was having a serious negative affect on my life. My health, my family, my work, my happiness and wellbeing. I knew I had to stop. I couldn’t. I just could not contemplate a life with no drink at all. What would I do on my birthday? How would I get through Christmas, or a holiday or night with the lads? I was trapped and alone. The outside world didn’t know. I had to keep up appearances, try to hold it together. There was no one to talk to, or so I thought. I lived in what I can now describe as silent misery for probably around 5 years. It was at times unbearable; I don’t know how I survived.

To the outside world I was I think, the same old person. Sociable, happy, reliable, lovely wife and family and enjoying life. In reality I was barely functioning. I was now drinking early in the day, drinking alone and drinking secretly. All the time trying to cover my tracks (chewing gum, after shave, hiding drinks) to try to keep up the pretence that I was ok. “I mustn’t show weakness”. I knew I had to stop. I couldn’t, just couldn’t.

My family were of course not stupid. They had seen the signs; they were aware of what I was doing. My family are my life and I love them and I’m very proud of them, but I was hurting them. More and more frequently my wife would discover my secret drinking. The utter shame was excruciating. The inability to do anything about it was so much worse. I felt completely trapped. I was popping anti-depressants, diazepam and sleeping tablets, I was addicted to those too. I was stuck in this relentless cycle. On many occasions I thought I would go under. I knew I had to stop. I couldn’t.

So, what happened?

Rock bottom arrived. My son accidentally stumbled across evidence of my secret drinking and he was distraught. I was devastated. A cliché I know, but I genuinely did want the ground to swallow me, I did not know where to look or what to say. I took myself off, I sat, and I thought. I thought back to something my daughter had said about a couple of city types we had totally given up drinking – One Year No Beer. I clicked on the computer and had a look. It was a light bulb moment! It struck a chord, like nothing had before.

Here were two blokes who loved to drink, who lived and worked in a hard-drinking environment, who had somehow achieved the seemingly impossible task of stopping drinking for a whole year – and beyond. For the first time in my life I was reading about someone I could relate to. Reading about how they used to live their lives, how they used to feel and most importantly how they had managed to stop drinking and still enjoy a great life without feeling like they were missing out. This was it, this was the missing link, and this was how you could celebrate a birthday, Christmas or have a holiday without drink and still have fun!

I knew I had to stop. Now I knew I could.

Neil after quitting drinkingI dived into the group. I bought the book and signed up to the OYNB Challenges Facebook group. It was revolutionary for me. It served as 24-hour counselling on tap whenever I needed it. I also loved the idea of treating not drinking as a challenge. The challenge aspect gave me huge motivation and also made it a lot easier to tell people what I was doing without feeling too embarrassed. A common reaction was “no way, a whole year, it’s impossible you’ll never do it”. I love proving people wrong and I did, I stopped drinking and I continued to not drink, and I slowly built this firm enthusiasm and belief that I would never go back to be a drinker again.

I haven’t had a drink for 14 months. I am a different, better person.

What are main things I have learnt along the way?

I have realised 6 key things which once grasped and genuinely believed, allow anyone to stop drinking if they truly want to.

I realised that in order to stop drinking forever I had to change my whole way of life. The time I went to bed the time I got up, what I ate, how I exercised, where and with who I socialised. I had to change my whole mind-set about my priorities in life. I had to start to look forward to and enjoy different things. The food not the wine, the meet up for a coffee not a beer. The fresh feeling in the morning not the “life and soul” the night before.

I realised that not drinking isn’t a punishment or a hardship to be endured. Far from it, it’s a huge positive, a reward and a gift. In fact, drinking is the punishment that gives you the slurred speech and incoherence, the poor sleep, the sweats and headaches and the crushing anxiety. Not drinking is the gift that gives you the memory of the night out and good catch up with friends, the good night’s sleep and the clear head in the morning ready for the next day’s activity.

I realised that drinking does not enhance your life, even though it temporarily tricks us into believing it does, but it actually detracts from it. The short-lived buzz when the drink kicks in is just not worth all the pain of the aftermath. Not drinking has improved every aspect of my life. My health, my wellbeing, my family life and my effectiveness at work.

I realised that not drinking could actually enhance the enjoyment of a social experience. I can now go to that party, that football match and that trip away with family and enjoy it more. I no longer have to plan to get there and back around alcohol, I just drive. I don’t get tired and a bit bleary as the event goes on, I can stay the course and leave when I am ready and remember it all clearly. Best of all I don’t have to plan the trip or holiday around where the nearest pub or off licence is, I can just go anywhere.

I realised that not drinking can make you so much happier and healthier. Since I stopped drinking, I have lost over a stone in weight, my blood pressure, cholesterol, liver and kidney function readings are all perfect. I am fitter, calmer and able to handle stressful situations without dipping into depression or reaching for the booze or medication. Above all my mental health is better and I am more consistent – one of the greatest gifts alcohol-free life can give. I feel better in myself and think I’m a better person to be around.

I realised that I would have to work on not drinking and my mental wellbeing every day of my life. Not drinking is good but it doesn’t magically cure everything. Life is not straight forward; it still can be difficult, and I work on my mental health on a daily basis. That still has a certain stigma, but I see it as normal and I embrace it. After all, if I exercise most days to maintain my physical fitness, where’s the problem with exercising the mental muscle every day to maintain my mental fitness?

Finally, a huge thank you OYNB. I cannot express how grateful I am to have found them. It is truly an inspirational and lifesaving group of people. Thanks to them I have my life back.


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