A year without a drink? This writer tries it out
Rory Kinsella didn’t set out to spend a year on the wagon. But after an epiphany in Mexico, he found himself unapologetically and altogether sober.
Through the flicker of candlelight I see pens hovering above notebooks. It’s a couple of hours before midnight in 2017 and our retreat leader in Mexico has asked us what we want to leave behind as we move into the new year.
Later we crowd around a fire and ceremonially cast our bad habits into the flames. Some mumble theirs to themselves, others exclaim theirs loud and proud as if in hope the group will hold them to their pledges.
What I throw in the flames is “materialism”, a habit of buying and obsessing over unnecessary things. But a couple of months later, it became clearer to me — that the biggest thing I was actually leaving behind was alcohol.
I didn't set out to do a year off booze. I did it for a week at the retreat, but that week made me feel so good that I decided to extend it into a Dry January. From there, it seemed natural to go to 100 days, then my competitive streak kicked in and I wanted to see if I could do six months … then a year.
It certainly helped to approach it in small chunks. The prospect of a whole year without a drink, when I’d barely gone a week for the previous 25 years, would have been far too daunting to contemplate.
But why quit? I’d rarely been a daily drinker. I was more of a binge drinker, but had come to the slow realisation that the downsides were outweighing the upsides. In my twenties, it was all carefree debauchery with little more than a sore head the next day. But by my late thirties, the hangovers were becoming longer and more soul destroying. The real kicker was that I wasn’t even enjoying being drunk any more. Rather than getting a buzz, it was bringing me down. It was as if after all these years, my body had finally cottoned onto the fact that alcohol is a depressant.
Since I was a teenager, alcohol had played a central role in my social life, as it does for many people. Dinners, catch-ups, ski trips with a heavy emphasis on the après, music festivals where the music came a distant second to the partying, all centred on the notion that a few drinks were requisite for a good time.
When I’d attempted a month off in the past, my rubber arm was always my undoing. Perhaps it was fear of missing out or an inbuilt aversion to being different. Either way it never took long to be successfully talked into a drink.
This time it was easier to say no because I didn’t feel I had to apologise. I read somewhere that alcohol is the only drug you have to apologise for not taking, but when you commit to your decision not to drink, people have less of an invitation to try to change your mind.
An Australia Day boat party and having to do karaoke sober were among the hardest moments, but after the initial awkwardness, I soon started to enjoy things. You don't need alcohol to talk to people you don't know — you probably do it at work all the time. You don't need alcohol to get on the dance floor or sing karaoke; you just need to decide not to take yourself too seriously. Dutch courage is nothing but a placebo.
There are many well-documented health benefits to life without booze, but for me, the most obvious benefit has been an even mood across the week. No ups and downs depending on whether I’ve had a big weekend. This hugely improved my productivity and meant I could spend time relaxing rather than recovering. Cutting out the one hangover day a week gave me back a full 52 functional days when I didn’t need to order multiple Uber Eats just to get through. I also saved a small fortune in drinks and taxis.
As a year ticked around people asked me how I was going to celebrate my first drink.
There have been no ceremonial pledges this year, but I still have no desire to drink and can’t see it happening again soon. To move forward in life, we sometimes have to give up old habits to make way for new behaviours and experiences. Alcohol is neither entirely good nor bad, it’s something we each have a relationship with and we’re all at different stages of that relationship. My advice would be that if you feel you’re at a turning point in your relationship with alcohol, don’t shy away from changing things up. It’ll be easier than you think and the benefits will be greater than you imagine.
Rory Kinsella is a writer and meditation teacher based in Bondi Junction