At the time of writing I’ve been alcohol free for 120 days. This is amazing (to me!) for a number of reasons.

  1. I only signed up for a 90-day challenge!
  2. I didn’t think I could achieve 90 days without any slip ups.
  3. I can think of many things throughout my life that I’ve started and didn’t finish and thought that this would be another one of them.

One of the messages that gets drummed into you about One Year No Beer (regardless of the length of challenge) is that there is never a good time to have a break from the booze. There will always be a birthday, a gig, a stag do, a hen do, a wedding, a christening, a funeral, an amazing day at work, a disastrous day at work.

So in short, if you’re putting it off until it’s convenient then you’ll be putting it off forever.

When I signed up to the challenge, at the end of June, I was staring down the barrel of a summer jam-packed of alcohol fuelled temptation – 40th birthdays of people I’ve known for 20 years or more (and my drinking habits hadn’t really changed in that time, I still drank like a teenager), boozy camping trips (for me every camping trip, even if it was just the family, was a boozy camping trip) a one-day music festival at Hyde Park (which would have meant an excuse to start drinking at lunchtime) and barbecues (aka Boozecues).

So how on earth was I going to get through all these events without succumbing to my fermented friend?

One thing I will point out is that my attitude to a One Year No Beer challenge is that everyone’s challenge is different and personal to them. Yes, you will find many people on the forums and Facebook groups that sound like they’re recounting your life when describing theirs. But everyone is different.

My triggers will be different to yours. My drinking habits will be different to yours. My reasons for drinking will be different to yours. So my approach to going alcohol free will be different to yours.

So please don’t take this as THE way to approach going alcohol free, this was my way. I hope it gives you some helpful tips and inspiration but don’t take it as a mandate you should follow!

Hide in the toilet

Perhaps not the first piece of advice you were expecting and certainly not one I’ve picked up from Andy and Ruari. However, this was something that helped massively on my first social outing, which was nine days into the challenge.

This was a friend’s 40th birthday who I met at university and have been friends with ever since. And my group of University friends have done a pretty good job of staying in touch and meeting up on a regular basis. So these are people that I have done a lot of heavy drinking with in the past.

So it was a very strange environment to be in and not be drinking. And it was tough. Every fibre of my body wanted to have a drink. That’s what felt natural to me – because it was a Saturday, I was in a pub and I was with people that I’m normally inebriated with.

So every time I felt uncomfortable and thought I’d crack, I hid in the toilet. This wasn’t due to the relaxing ambience or because it had a soothing aroma but because I could look at my phone. But why?

In the first few days of an OYNB challenge you are advised to write down all the reasons you want to take a break from alcohol and keep them close at hand.

That way you can refer to them to give you resolve when you need it most. I’d typed these out in notes on my phone and they became my mantra, to the point that I eventually didn’t have to refer to the phone. But on that day, hiding in the toilet and regularly re-reading my reasons, they really helped me get through the afternoon.

With friends like these…

You’ll be delighted to know that I wasn’t alone in the toilet. In fact I had hundreds, if not thousands of people in there with me. How big was this cubicle, I hear you ask?

Well, I don’t mean they were there physically, I mean they were there digitally. Another thing that got me through that day, and many others since, is the overwhelming support of all the other members of the OYNB Facebook groups. And the amazing thing about this is that it doesn’t matter where you are in your challenge, whether you are on day one or 100, you will always find motivation, inspiration, a pick me up and a shoulder to cry on.

So if you’re just starting out get involved as much as you can – whether that’s saying hello, being accountable by saying what day you are on, asking for help or advice or giving advice.

By fully immersing myself in the Facebook group I really felt part of the OYNB community. A community that I really wanted to be there for because I quickly realised that they were there for me in their droves when I needed them most.

Even now on day 120, I’ll see someone who’s on their first week make a comment that really strikes me like a thunderbolt.

That could be a helpful tip regarding a situation I am yet to encounter, that they’ve dealt with in the first few days of their challenge or helps me address or understand the issues that led to my unhealthy relationship with alcohol. So whenever you’re feeling vulnerable, at the very least read some of the comments on the group for digital pick-me-up.

Go hard or go home? Just go home!

My friend’s 40th birthday celebrations started at lunch time as many of the guests had children. Normally the procedure would be that I’d arrive with the family, start drinking and when it was time to leave spend at least an hour insisting “just one more and then we’ll go” (while asking my friends to keep topping me up) or then send them off while I continued drinking with my pals.

So it raised a few eyebrows when I said I was leaving with the family and wasn’t staying out for the “main event” – some had noticed I wasn’t drinking, some hadn’t.

By that time a lot of my friends were getting increasingly worse for wear and I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and agitated. I found it quite upsetting that I was finding it difficult to relate to my friends without a belly full of booze.

However, I told myself that I had to do whatever it took to get through that situation without drinking, even if it meant leaving early and potentially upsetting my friends. And that’s a philosophy I stuck to for a good few weeks.

I wasn’t worried about social niceties, I was worried about staying on track with my challenge. I realised that those that cared about me wouldn’t be offended in the long term, once I properly “came out” about my desire to have a break from alcohol.

So while I didn’t turn down any social invitations in the first few weeks of being alcohol free, I had absolutely no qualms about getting the heck out of dodge if I felt that boozy temptress whispering (or one of my boozy mates shouting) in my ear.

And the thing is, I’ve found the challenge like fitness training. Each social event has felt less uncomfortable than the last and as a result I’ve lasted longer into the night each time I’ve been out.

Stealth Drinking/Alcohol Free Beer

I’ve not been that successful with stealth drinking. I didn’t quite get the memo about pouring your AF beer into a pint and topping it up with lemonade. I’d just stick to AF bottles and turn the bottle round so people wouldn’t be able to see what it was I was drinking.

However I got busted a couple of times on that first trip to the pub. How ironic that the number of times I’ve downed sneaky cans, bottles and shots I’ve never been caught but when I have an AF beer in my hand everyone develops the same powers as a Neighbourhood Watch curtain twitcher.

But alcohol free beer was invaluable to me in the first couple of months and helped me get through many occasions, both at home and out at the pub. I know some people worry that it’s reinforcing a habit that you’re trying to break but my attitude was as long as I wasn’t drinking alcohol it didn’t matter how much AF went down my neck.

Another irony is that I really notice if I drink too much, I feel quite gassy and bloated, so I stop. Which obviously never happened with booze!

And while I still knock them back if I’m out socialising I don’t tend to drink them that often at home now. In some ways I feel it’s almost for the benefit of those around me, to make them feel comfortable, than it is for me.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Slip Up

This isn’t an area I can speak about with any great authority, as I haven’t had any slip ups. Typing that sentence now still astounds me. Starting the challenge, I took the approach that if I managed, say, 85 out of 90 days alcohol free it would be a huge achievement for me.

There were some occasions that I just didn’t think it would be possible to get through. Have you ever tried sitting in a compostable toilet for the duration of a three-day camping trip? No, neither have I and I wasn’t prepared to.

For me camping, campfires and close friends go hand in hand with getting blind drunk – especially if it’s pissing down with rain. Just a few weeks into my challenge we had such a trip lined up. I was stocked up with AF beer but I knew it was highly likely I would waver, with nowhere to run and hide.

I therefore made peace with myself before the trip that if it really came down to it, I’d allow myself a drink. Bizarrely by giving myself permission to drink it took the pressure off. It didn’t feel like a constant battle to resist (although I came quite close a number of times) and remarkably I got through the camping trip without drinking, despite the continuous downpour.

I think it was a very important part of my journey deciding that if I did falter, it wasn’t the end of my challenge. If it happened I’d treat as just a hic-cup and I’d just get on with it, I wouldn’t be starting back from square one.

So there we have it, the crutches I relied on to get through those early days of being alcohol free. As I say, this is how I did it and isn’t meant to be prescriptive in anyway. Obviously One Year No Beer has a lot more scientific ammo in its armoury but I think it’s always helpful to get the view of someone who has, against unsurmountable odds, survived several occasions alcohol free.

And this weekend I was out for another friend’s 40th birthday. This one certainly didn’t involve having the children so did I feel out of place not “getting on it.”

No – I had a great night with my friends, polished off all the AF beer the bar had and drove home. The next morning I was up for a 10 mile run, through Kingston-Upon-Thames. This was where I went to University and met the people I’d been out with the night before, who I consider as much family as friends.

And I couldn’t help smiling to myself that they’d be feeling as rough as dogs while I was getting a 10 mile PB. And that my friends, is what alcohol free feels like!

David Pawsey

You can follow David on Twitter @therealmrtrihard or on his blog

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