Interested in leading a sober-curious lifestyle but don’t know where to start? Four women who decided to go alcohol-free during lockdown share their stories – and their top tips for anyone else looking to rethink the way they drink

The past year and a half has been one of the most difficult periods in our lives. With the country in and out of lockdowns, time often felt like it was at a standstill and at the mercy of events way outside our control. 

What’s more, lockdown provided a degree of introspection that many had never experienced before. Things that normally could be brushed under the carpet thanks to the distractions of a pre-Covid world, became harder to ignore. Yet, for some, time away from people, pubs and clubs provided the space they needed to make a change that they’d long been putting off – to re-examine their drinking habits and join the growing number of people wanting to have a “sober curious” relationship with alcohol. 

We asked four women who did just that to share their stories with us. From what motivated them to make the change in the short and long-term to the benefits of quitting alcohol and their advice for others who are looking to do the same, here’s an insight into their journeys to provide some inspiration for getting started and overcoming common hurdles should you be looking to cut back this party season and beyond.

Gemma Saggers, psychotherapist, counsellor and mental health consultant
Gemma has led a sober lifestyle since November 2020

Lockdown provided the perfect excuse I’d been looking for to stop drinking

Why I stopped drinking

“For me, the decision to stop drinking was both a personal and a professional one. The last drink I had during lockdown was on the 28th of November 2020. I remember this because it was a close friend’s birthday and despite my willingness to celebrate, the thought of pouring myself another Prosecco and sitting alone at my laptop to partake in another Zoom quiz felt so miserable to me.

“Lockdown coincided with many of my friends turning 30, and, understandably, we wanted to make up for the many cancelled plans. Drinking inevitably (and alarmingly unquestionably) assumed its role at the centre of these celebrations, with friends signing me up to cocktail boxes and mixology classes as a way of trying to hold on to something a bit special. While I didn’t want to be a killjoy, I realised I just wasn’t enjoying the alcohol aspect of it at all. What I found most jarring about drinking at these virtual events was that you’d pour yourself a couple of celebratory tipples, only for the celebration to abruptly end leaving you tipsy at best or drunk at worst, with no ability to go anywhere more exciting than your living room.

“I was also working as a newly qualified psychotherapist, having completed my MSc only a few weeks earlier. Overnight, the format of how therapists were able to offer therapy changed, and we found ourselves in the unique position of both experiencing our own pandemic trauma and supporting our existing and many new clients through theirs. To hear another’s life story, experience, and deepest thoughts and feelings is a privilege; but one that can often involve exploring the realms of addiction and substance misuse. For this reason, I’ve witnessed first-hand just how seductive and dangerous alcohol can be, with the risk of addiction to all humans being both an emotional and a physical one. As the weeks turned into months and the reality of the second lockdown kicking in, I recognised that we were all at risk of falling into bad habits as coping mechanisms. Therapists are not immune to this. It felt more important than ever that I maintained a crystal-clear head and upped my self-care.  For me, this meant no drinking.”

How being sober-curious has enriched my life

“Giving up alcohol has been an incredibly positive experience for me, not only connected to my mental and physical well-being but one that has had a hugely positive impact on so many of the personal relationships with the very friends and social circles I was worried about ‘letting down’ by quitting. What you soon realise is that those that matter don’t mind, and those that mind really don’t matter. No one’s judgement or opinion is worth putting yourself in a position you don’t want to be in.

“Hangover-free weekends are also the best – since lockdown I have taken up paddle boarding and golf – two things I know I’d never have had time for if I was nursing a hangover. For me, hangovers were passion drainers, so it’s been amazing to reacquaint myself with hobbies that are not hangover friendly. This can obviously look different for everyone but it’s been so fun to exchange my hangovers for things that are much more fun and worthwhile.”

The hardest part?

“If I’m being honest with myself, I think that lockdown provided the perfect excuse I’d been looking for to stop drinking for a long time. Stopping drinking wasn’t the difficult part for me as it was never something I would do after work, alone or with my partner. What I had struggled with was finding a socially acceptable way of communicating my desired teetotal lifestyle to my friends and wider social circles. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘anti-fun’ and I’d noticed how wary people were of those who didn’t drink at parties. I was grateful to have some time to work out what was best for me and built up some momentum without the pressure or demand for an explanation that I just didn’t feel I could provide other than: ‘I just don’t feel drinking is for me.’"

“I suppose the hardest part has been letting go of the fantasy that alcohol will provide me with some sort of magically fun, transformative experience that I’d miss out on without it. As the world opened, I briefly flirted with intermittent drinking again, succumbing to that fantasy by accepting a couple of glasses of champagne at a friend’s wedding. What I quickly realised was that it really wasn’t drinking the champagne I liked, but the celebrating, which can be done regardless. It cemented the fact that for me, exchanging all the benefits of not drinking for a few glasses just isn’t worth it in or out of lockdown!” 

Small promises are much easier to keep

My top tips for leading a sober-curious lifestyle

1. Enjoy the process of finding alcohol-free alternatives.“If you enjoy the taste of alcohol, I recommend New London Light’s Alcohol Free Gin. It’s delicious.”

2. Read ‘Quit Lit.’ “I loved reading The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober and Sunshine Warm Sober by Catherine Grey, and The Sober Girls Handbook by Millie Gooch. There are also so many brilliant free podcasts on sobriety that can really help you stay connected.”

3. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions of your relationship with drinking. “This was a big thing for me! I really dug deep to offer myself the same support I would my clients, which is that ultimately you must be the most important person to yourself. Your mental and physical health is more important than anyone else’s opinion of you. Real friends stick around.”

4. Get professional help if you feel that you need it. “If you’re struggling with addiction, I cannot speak highly enough of the work that Alcoholics Anonymous does. Go along to a meeting either virtually or in person. Or, come to a therapist, they will be such a support.”

5. Take it one day or one event at a time. “We can overwhelm ourselves by the demand of ‘forever,’ so just promise yourself that you ‘won’t drink today’, or ‘won’t drink at this event.’ Small promises are much easier to keep.”

Abi Bird, homeless advisor
Abi stopped drinking in September 2020

I would get such bad ‘Beer Fear’ after nights out that I wouldn't be able to sleep

Why I stopped drinking

“I originally decided to stop drinking for three months just for ‘a break’, but when they were up, it was mid-December and we were in a full lockdown, so I thought why not keep going. I haven't drunk since.

“My main reasons for wanting to stop were my mental health and to save money. I would get such bad ‘Beer Fear’ after nights out that I wouldn’t be able to sleep and I would be sick with anxiety for the whole week after. Constantly going out, drinking and not sleeping or eating properly was starting to really take a toll. I was always tired, irritable and lethargic. At the same time, I was wasting all my money on drinking. Not just the alcohol itself, but Ubers, drunk food, hungover takeaways, replacing things I had lost or ruined – it all added up and I was forever taking money out of my savings each month.”

How being sober-curious has enriched my life

“My mental and physical health have benefitted a huge amount since stopping drinking. I now have the energy to exercise, have a more balanced diet, get regular sleep and it has made huge improvements to my mood. I never thought I was a morning person until I stopped drinking, but now waking up early to have a coffee and read is one of my favourite things to do. Since being sober, I have taken up yoga and have started learning British Sign Language, which I absolutely love. I’ve also gotten back into reading a lot, which was always a hobby of mine.

“My relationships have definitely benefited, too. I am less argumentative, less irritable and generally a much happier and calmer person to be around. I have reconnected with old friends and am no longer having to apologise for saying or doing things that I don't remember!”

The hardest part?

“The hardest part was when restrictions started easing and the weather was beautiful. It seemed everyone was out at the pub drinking and even though I was over six months sober by then, I hadn’t really socialised at all. I really felt like I was missing out on the party. I think it was at this point that I realised just how much of my social life was based around going to the pub, parties or clubs.” 

I try to fast forward the night and think about where it will end up and how I will feel the next day

My top tips for leading a sober-curious lifestyle

1. Try it for an hour. “If you’re in a situation where you would usually drink and you feel a little uncomfortable or awkward, give yourself an hour and tell yourself you can leave after if you still feel that way. I have always found that usually after that amount of time, the dust settles and I am happy to stay there.”

2. Always plan an exit. Where possible, make sure you have the freedom to leave whenever you want. Staying at a party you don’t want to be at quickly becomes very tiring and irritating. I try to avoid offering to be the taxi (or will tell my friends I will give them a lift if they want to leave when I do but I am not sticking around) so that I can always leave at a time that suits me. There’s also nothing wrong with a swift French exit, as much as drunk people may beg you to stay when you say goodbye, they will also likely not even realise you’ve left if you slip out without being noticed.”

3. Make plans for the morning after the party. “It acts as motivation for not drinking so that you’re not hungover. My go-to is either meeting a friend for breakfast or attending an early morning exercise class.”

4. Be accountable. “To help with the transition, I would definitely recommend telling your friends or family. They might have an odd reaction at first, or might not believe you, but after a while, they will get used to it.”

5. Play it forward. “Whenever I want to drink, I try to fast forward the night and think about where it will end up and how I will feel the next day. I might be craving a couple of beers now but tomorrow when I am hungover and have spent too much money, it won’t seem worth it! It also helps with peer pressure."

“Also, there are tons of alcohol-free alternatives to enjoy now! My personal favourite is 0% Heineken, which some pubs even have on tap, but you can get a 0% version of almost every spirit and beer now, which really helps you to feel included when socialising. Good spirit alternatives are Seedlip and Caleno.”

Sarah Stewart, licensed conveyancer
Sarah chose to stop drinking in October 2020

I worried – would I still be fun?

Why I stopped drinking

“The last time that I had an alcoholic drink was on 17 October 2020. I went out that night, as I did most Saturdays, and it’s mostly a blur – I don’t remember how many drinks I had, what my friends and I talked about, or how late we were out that night. I don’t remember what I was wearing, how I got home or if I even had a good time.

“What I do remember, though, is how I felt the next day – sick, tired, bloated and nauseous with a whole ton of anxiety mixed in for good measure. This wasn’t anything new to me, I’ve always been one to suffer with bad hangovers, (it was actually a running joke in our friendship group that I would be unable to do anything the next day) but this time I decided that enough was enough.

“I was sick of being the one who couldn’t remember anything, the one who always embarrassed myself, lost things on nights out and upset people.

“From there came the idea to try and give up alcohol for a few weeks and see how I felt. With the lockdown in place, it actually made this ‘easier’ than I thought it would be – the pubs and bars were shut and I couldn’t go to my friends’ houses, so the option was taken away from me, which is exactly what I needed. To be honest, I thought that it would just be for a month or so, or at most, until the pubs opened again. But then being sober started making such a difference to my life that I wanted to carry on, and so I did.” 

How being sober-curious has enriched my life

“When I started this journey, I was admittedly worried that without drinking, life would be a lot less fun, and that my non-sober friends wouldn’t want to include me in plans that involved drinking. Would I still be good at having a conversation with people I have just met? Would I be able to hit the dancefloor without any liquid courage? Would I still be fun?

“I can happily confirm that while life does look a bit different now, I’ve still had plenty of fun and it turns out that I can still crack plenty of jokes on the soda water instead of champagne (also, NO MORE HANGOVERS!). It’s been nice to challenge myself to make plans that don’t revolve around alcohol, and to know that my friends and I can still connect just as deeply without it. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a person over the last 10 months. My self-confidence and belief in myself has gone up, I’m putting myself out there and taking on things that I would never have before, I’m making sober friends and exploring the sober communities, trying new activities and ultimately trying to bring out the best version of myself.

“I felt like I needed a new hobby and outlet after I stopped drinking and so I started running. I’d dabbled with it in the past, but I was far from consistent – it was mainly a way to feel slightly less guilty about a hangover. Now, it gives me a place to release negative feelings and emotions – the same feelings I used to numb with alcohol, I can now control through running.

“During lockdown, I completed lots of virtual races, which got me motivated, and now things have opened back up, I’ve started to complete some actual live runs, which have been so much fun. I even get a monthly copy of Runners World magazine delivered each month now!”

The hardest part?

“One of the hardest parts for me was the peer pressure when the world started opening back up again. For the first few days and weeks, I had FOMO if I didn’t go out and also tons of social anxiety if I did because I was missing my alcohol comfort blanket. I was torn on whether to give in to peer pressure, or to be strong and carry on.

“I also had to deal with a lot of questions about my choices. At first people didn’t take me seriously, I had a lot of, ‘You always say you won’t drink again, so why is this time any different?’ or ‘You weren’t that bad, you weren’t an alcoholic, can’t you just moderate?’ It was hard to deal with people’s opinions and I had a lot of judgement that I now wouldn’t be fun anymore, or I would be boring. I felt like I had to really justify my choice and to show people that I was serious.”

Surround yourself with like-minded people

My top tips for leading a sober-curious lifestyle

1. Set a limit. “If you are wanting to moderate or cut down, then before you start drinking on a night out, set a limit on how much you’re going to drink and only take a fixed amount of money out with you to spend on alcohol.”

2. Surround yourself with like-minded people. “It exposes you to others going through the same experiences as you are. Of course, you can still have your old circle of friends, but it really helps to build a sober network of support and encouragement first. Don’t put yourself in tempting situations if you don’t have to, if you don’t feel ready to go to the pub in the early stages, then don’t.”

3. RSVP alcohol-free. “If you are going to a Christmas party, work event or special occasion, mark that you’re ‘alcohol-free’ under dietary requirements on your invitation. This is actually a lot more common than you think. This way, you won’t be put in an awkward position on the night.”

4. Find a new activity to replace drinking. “What are some of your hobbies? Do you like sports, knitting, reading, or something else? When you get sober, you gain time, enthusiasm, and the capability to finally do what you have been talking about.”

5. Go to sober socials. “I love using, which is a great online app to find out what’s going on in your community. There are so many fun groups and activities, and you can narrow your search down to alcohol-free events also. If you don’t find a group or activity to participate in, create one and ask others to join!”

Hayley Louise Fry, teacher
Hayley chose to stop drinking in March 2020

One drinking day always became a few

Why I stopped drinking

“I had so many reasons to give up alcohol. My main ‘why’ was that one drinking day always became a few – and it never stopped at one drink. It also really affected my sleep and didn’t fit in with the rest of my lifestyle where I try to be cautious of my health and fitness.

“I started by signing up for a free 28-day challenge with One Year No Beer and then went on to complete their one-year challenge. I’ve continued to lead a sober lifestyle since.

“Always keeping the ‘whys’ for wanting to go alcohol-free at the forefront of my mind has been one of the main reasons for my success. I wrote all of my reasons down to refer to them as and when needed.”

How being sober-curious has enriched my life

“There have been so many positive changes, including having more energy, being more productive, more mindful and grateful. I find that I eat more healthily, too, and that I am able to push myself more in my training. I have always been very active, but I feel that I’m getting better results now that I’ve stopped drinking.

“The way that I look at it, I haven’t given anything up by being sober – I’ve gained so much. Without weekend hangovers, I now have so much more time and energy. I also moved to Thailand during the middle of the pandemic and I recently decided to change my job. I feel like I’ve grown in confidence and my own ability to handle whatever happens – I don’t know If I would have been able to make these changes if I still drank. I also realised that drinking used to make me think that I was confident, but going alcohol-free has shown me how much more I can grow. My mental health has improved, and I am able to be a lot more positive and present.”

The hardest part?

“Pressure from others has to be the most challenging part. When you decide to do something like give up alcohol, it can almost feel as if everyone else is waiting for you to fail. This can lead to people putting pressure on you to drink (‘Just have one!’ they’ll say) and tell you that you’re boring just because you don’t drink.”

Find what your whys are and write them down

My top tips for leading a sober-curious lifestyle

1. Deal with peer pressure by planning what to say before. “Depending on how comfortable you feel, some suggestions are: ‘I’m driving’, ‘It doesn’t fit my lifestyle’, or if you want to turn it around on them, ‘Why are you drinking?’”

2. Find what your whys are and write them down. “I personally recommend journaling for keeping your whys in your mind.”

3. Focus on what you gain. “Write down all that you gain from being sober or drinking less and not what you are giving up.”

4. Plan what you are going to drink. “Look up alcohol-free options at the bar or restaurant that you’re going to before you go and have a back-up drink in mind. My go-tos are soda and lime and Nosecco.”

5. Being alcohol-free doesn’t mean being perfect. “It just means allowing yourself to grow and develop to your full potential. You’ll have days where you feel motivated and days that you don’t.”

With thanks to Laurie McAllister (@laurievmcallister on Instagram), a sobriety coach and advocate, for her input to this feature. 

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Photography: Stocksy