Maz Compton seemed to have it all. A successful media personality with a high-paying job, she was the life of the party, and the envy of many. And she had daily access to free booze at the dozens of media parties and networking events that were part of her work.
Likewise, former rugby international and author Peter FitzSimons was in a similar position. A novelist, newspaper columnist and political activist, he was a family man who had ready access to alcohol to celebrate every occasion, no matter how small or large.
Compton and FitzSimons are just two of thousands of people who decided their social drinking had gotten out of hand. Neither consider themselves alcoholics, they are not down and out or homeless. Rather, they are successful professionals, leading functional lives that revolve around their work, family and friends.
Yet both took the radical step of giving up grog. Completely.*
They are not alone. There is a growing movement of individuals calling time out on their enjoyable social habit of drinking or using drugs. Most of them are busy people, holding down jobs or studying, in relationships or dating, and generally looking like what most of us would call ‘successful’.
And none of them have become outcasts in the process. In fact, the opposite has happened with most people reporting that their social lives, and lives in general, are better than ever before!
So why stop?
For FitzSimons, the decision to put aside grog was to improve his fitness and to lose weight. His moment of truth came when he realised on a ski trip that sinking several glasses or a bottle or two of wine each night meant he was coming off the mountain feeling “old, fat, and slow”.
Compton’s reasons were deeply personal. Alcohol helped her cope with life. “I was lonely, living interstate away from my friends and family, I had a super demanding job that required me to be out a lot, and I somehow managed ‘to cope’ with all of this in front of anyone who was watching, I kept up appearances and made a Logie winning performance that I was ‘doing really well’,” she wrote in a reflective piece on her blog. “On the outside, on paper I was a totally successful, cool chick who was on the up and always up for fun times. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I would, more often than not, have a drink in one hand, sometimes one in each. I would drive my car to a party with the intention of just having one or two, and find myself still fully clothed in my bed the next day nursing a hangover with a taxi receipt hanging out of my purse and zero idea on how I got home, until I figured it must have a cab, because, you know, taxi receipt, ‘duh.”
Her tipping point was going through the pain of a close friend’s sudden death and realising that alcohol had become a central theme in her life.
FitzSimons and Compton reflect the diversity in why people choose to take a break from drinking or using drugs. In a study of 3037 participants who undertook an online no-alcohol challenge, fitness was the most popular reason for stopping drinking (30%), while 25% nominated ‘mind and body’ as their reason for abstaining. The desire for sobriety came in third at 21%. Many participants also included specific goals. Some wanted to ‘run a half marathon’ or ‘get back to surfing’ while others said they wanted to ‘become more in control of my life’ or to ‘reach my full potential’. (Carah, Meurk & Hall 2014).
Most people who are recreational drinkers or drug users don’t consider that they rely on their substance of choice. And they would never think to use a term such as ‘addicted’. However, most will say that when they drink or use, they often use more than they intended. FitzSimons put it this way about the first time he refused a celebratory drink: “If I had just one sip, it would have been ridiculous not to have two sips. And if you can have two sips, why not four? Why not the whole glass? Of course it wouldn’t hurt to have two glasses, because if one glass of grog is nice, two glasses are great, a whole bottle is fabulous, and with two bottles in me, I always had the time of my life. At least I think I did, if only I could remember it.”
Both FitzSimons and Compton are quick to share the positive benefits they have witnessed from stopping drinking. After 12 months of not drinking, FitzSimons dropped 34kgs and is enjoying life in general. “While it is a better night with grog, it is a better life without,” he writes. He says he now brings his ‘A-game’ to everything, he and his wife have a happier relationship, and his restaurant bills have halved.
Compton agrees. “The stress of my world became more manageable, my relationships were flourishing, I seemed to be a better, more in control, more thoughtful, positive, fun and fit human,” she writes. “It’s a no brainer these days, with a year down, it’s my norm and every time I tell this story, people get either inspired, have their mind blown or become a bit jealous. This has been the most empowering and rewarding decision I’ve made.”
They are not alone. In 2010, ESPN sports anchor James Swanwick challenged himself to go without alcohol for 30 days. “I was feeling ‘blah’,” he says. “After I woke up with yet another hangover, I decided then and there to place a bet with myself.” He felt so much better that his 30 days turned into six months, then a year, and years later, he remains a non-drinker. He was so inspired by his experience that he turned his personal challenge into The 30 day no alcohol challenge, an online program to help others have a similar experience.
For Swanwick, the personal benefits have been immense. “I feel better, look better, work better, act better, am better, have more money, have better quality of friends, really enjoy a nice ice cold water, don’t miss alcohol, realize I can party like a rock star without alcohol, friends who’ve known me a long time say I’m a considerably nicer and more agreeable person.”
Swanwick’s students agree. They report experiencing improved energy and mental clarity, better health, improved sex, weight loss, sound sleep and financial savings. Cincinnati participant Neil Burger says: “I feel like I’m getting better at everything. I feel like my willpower is expanding beyond alcohol to other things. From eating right to being more productive at work to working out to regulating my sleep better.”
A challenging decision
No one who is a regular social drinker or recreational drug user takes the decision to stop lightly.
One of the key factors is that their drug of choice provides them with certain benefits. It might help them to relax, overcome shyness, connect with people or forget their worries. Often drinking or using is fun and you might wonder whether there’s any enjoyment in a life of non-using.
If you’re thinking about the decision, you might also worry about how your friends and family will react to your decision. ‘What are you? A wowser or something?’ is the often unspoken implication.
Compton agrees her first month was a difficult time. “I must have refused a thousand drinks in that month,” she says. “People were mean to me, people said some pretty rough stuff, but I stayed true to my choice and said no regardless of the pressure or how awkward some people would try to make me feel.”
Many people have found helpful ways to move through this period and still retain their social lives. It might be anything from substituting non-alcoholic drinks and having specific reasons for not using to building a non-drinking or non-using support network or finding a social buddy who can hold them accountable.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore some of these options and explain how thousands of people have made it possible to say no to drinking or using drugs, and build a lifestyle that is even more fulfilling that before.
*If you’d like to read Maz Compton and Peter FitzSimons’ personal stories about their decision to give up alcohol, see http://mazcompton.tumblr.com and http://www.smh.com.au/comment/peter-fitzsimons-how-i-gave-up-the-grog-20151202-gldn92.
Carah N, Meurk C, Hall W 2014. Profiling Hello Sunday Morning: who are the participants? University of Qld.
Swanwick J, 2015. 30 Day No Alcohol Challenge: Transform Your Health, Wealth, Love & Happiness. http://bit.ly/1SCwV7G
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