How exercise helped me quit drinking for good

“By forming this exercise habit, I found I had replaced my alcohol habit. When I did quit drinking, it almost happened by accident.”

Like so many people I have connected with in the alcohol-free community, my drinking started when I was young, at about 14 years old at boarding school. I had no idea who I was or where I fit in so I drank to feel more confident and grown up. At university I drank to cope with raging social anxiety. After university I drank because it was the social thing to do after work. After children I drank to cope with the stress of motherhood. Like so many, I drank to socialise, celebrate, commiserate and to cope with life.

Why drinking was no good for me

woman smiling at camera

I knew early in my drinking days that alcohol did not agree with me. Not just the awful hangovers, but the guilt, the shame and the tears. I suffered from depression and anxiety. There were reasons for this but ultimately, I know alcohol had a large role in my anxiety and depression. My answer to every problem was booze, yet after the relief of the first glass had quickly faded, everything seemed worse. I knew I had to quit drinking, but I didn’t seem to be able to.

Trying to quit

My first attempts to stop drinking were after university. I managed a few times, for a few weeks. I stayed alcohol-free for 6 weeks after my first son, when postnatal anxiety had taken over, but it didn’t last. I remained alcohol-free through my three pregnancies, but they were long, sick, miserable affairs filled with cravings and resentment.

I think I gave up trying to quit for a while after this because all I could think was that if I quit, the rest of my life would be filled with cravings and resentment like my pregnancies. I believed that I had put myself in a position where I would be miserable either drinking or not drinking, so there was no way out.

What changed

At the end of 2017, I had re-trained and was about to qualify as a nurse. It had been a very long and hard journey with divorce, remarriage, family illness and 3 children. I had a job that was starting in Jan 2018 and something had to give. But instead of being able to quit, I drank more over the Christmas than I ever had and after boxing day, I lay in my room, with my head spinning and body aching as if I had flu knowing that this was alcohol poisoning, and that if I didn’t stop I would probably die, not right now, but not at a good old age.

New Year

I do have faith that when you really need it, the universe steps in to help. I don’t have a TV at home, but I was in a hotel room on New Year’s Day, feeling shocking, so I thought I would have a look at what was on. There, on the screen was Andy Ramage, Ruari Fairbairns (from OYNB) and Catherine Gray, all talking about how they had quit or massively cut down on their drinking and how they were OK, even happy! I think this is what my subconscious needed to hear, that I could be sober and happy. Even after rock bottom you could be alcohol-free and happy. I bought The 28-Day Alcohol-Free Challenge and The Unexpected Joy of being Sober immediately!

Dry January

I signed up for Dry January 2018, plastered it on Facebook and started to use The 28-Day Alcohol-Free Challenge as my support for the month. It was absolute hell! I hated it. Completely craving filled, annoyed and resentful. BUT, in total I was 42 days alcohol-free and it changed so many things.

Before I read The 28-Day Alcohol-Free Challenge, I think my attempts to quit had always focused on the not drinking. But following their advice, I focused on something else – physical activity and community.

Finding exercise

woman meditating

I started a 30-day yoga challenge and a programme of High Intensity Interval Training.

I knew how good exercise made me feel but I had always done it in short bursts, for example, before a holiday or when trying to lose weight. It was always the first thing to go when time got tight. Now, I made it my priority and I told myself I was going to be consistent! This backfired a little in the beginning. Like so many people, I set expectations way too high. I told myself that consistency meant I had to do it every day, like being alcohol-free, and that if I missed a day I was falling. If I couldn’t exercise every day how could possibly stay AF every day?

Habit building

In the end I didn’t, I started drinking again at the end of February. However, I quit for good at the end on April 2018. So what changed?

I had started to get involved with the alcohol-free community online and was beginning to realise that my expectations were off. The important thing was to be consistent, but consistency doesn’t mean every day. Consistency means keeping going whenever you can until your new habit has been formed. Once your brain has adjusted to your new exercise habit, it becomes a part of life, so having a few days off doesn’t matter.

By forming this exercise habit over the intervening months, I found I had replaced my alcohol habit. When I did quit drinking, it almost happened by accident. I just hadn’t drunk for a few days, and I didn’t want to. I had the odd craving on and off for the first 6 months while my brain settled into its new life, and at 6 months I finally knew I was free.

I was never in control of my drinking until I quit

I knew I wasn’t in control of my drinking from the very start, when I was 14. After 18, when getting hammered at university was de rigueur, I just let go. I was incredibly unhappy and ended up on antidepressants at age 24. I am an introvert with social anxiety, not at all equipped for the society we live in that rewards extroverts. Alcohol helped me hide my personality and my fears. 24 years old was the beginning of my 12 year struggle to stop drinking.

From this point onwards, I ‘controlled’ my alcohol intake to a maximum of 1 bottle of wine or 4 cans of beer most days – unless it was a social or celebratory occasion, in which case, anything goes! But I was never in control. Alcohol completely controlled me. But because I seemingly had a grip on the situation – there was no rock bottom, no loss of job, I could juggle children, work and life without drinking in the mornings – I was dismissed time and time again as not having a problem.

I can look back now, at 15 months sober, in horrified fascination at how long it took me to stop. I think it is likely that I didn’t actually want to stop drinking, I just wanted to stop wanting to drink. But I finally quit drinking forever on 29th April 2018. I am around people who drink, I am around alcohol, I go to pubs, bars and restaurants and I am totally fine!

“We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?”

So why did it take so long?

I never opened up to anyone other than close family and my doctor, all of whom didn’t think that there was a problem. I considered AA, but I didn’t access the support of the huge sober community because I didn’t want to be labelled ‘an alcoholic’. The negative connotations attached to that word makes it so hard for people to ask for help. We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?

So what changed?

I decided, after an unnecessarily heavy Christmas which left me feeling dreadful, to try Dry January. I was happy to announce this intention to the world as it was a challenge, not a problem. There’s no stigma attached to a challenge! This was my first taste of support. Everyone around me and on social media was generally very encouraging. I lasted 40 long, craving-filled days and needless to say, I started drinking again very soon into February. But it had changed something in me.

I had never gone so long without alcohol, other than in pregnancy. I started to do yoga and exercise. I had done that before but always in an ‘all or nothing’ kind of way. If I didn’t do it daily or didn’t lose weight quickly enough I’d give up, feeling like a failure. This time was different, I realised that if I didn’t exercise one day it didn’t matter, as long as I did it again another day and didn’t just stop. Yoga and exercise made me feel amazing and I believe this was the start of forming new and healthier habits.

“…when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going.”

For me, alcohol was a habit – a means to a very quick reward: relief from stress and anxiety, escapism – whatever the ‘reward’ or reason seemed to be. It was a well-trodden path that my brain was familiar and comfortable with. When I stopped drinking, my brain craved that quick reward. But brains can be trained to follow new pathways, to new rewards. For me, those new rewards were exercise – same happy hormones, but those good feelings lasted for so much longer than that first glass of wine! And like my exercise, when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going. This attitude is how I got to my current, craving-free life!

One final note on accepting yourself that is crucial to living your happy alcohol-free life: I have always had feelings of low self-worth and anxiety. I thought that alcohol helped this. In reality it fuelled these feelings every day. I rarely have anxious feelings these days, unless there is a genuine reason! My sense of self-worth is increasing daily; otherwise I could never have opened up to others with my blog. I sometimes wonder, if I had stopped drinking sooner, where I would now be at 37 years old.

But I don’t worry for too long because if I had done anything differently, I wouldn’t have the life I have, and I am so grateful for every tiny part of it.

FUN WITHOUT ALCOHOL

Although quitting drinking is never easy; I drank for 22 years and actively tried to quit for 12 of them, I think it is made much harder by the illusion, perpetuated by our society, that you cannot have fun without it.

Alcohol is so normalised within our society that all fun events seem to include it. What do we do for celebrations, nights out, dates, summer evenings, summer days, Christmases, birthdays and holidays? We drink! Even a child’s birthday party – bring on the gin and prosecco. 

This does not even begin to mention when we drink for things that are not fun – loss, pain and commiseration. Society tells us that alcohol is pretty much the answer to everything.

It certainly does have a lot to answer for.

SOCIAL ANXIETY

I convinced myself that it was the alcohol that made the situation fun and not the situation itself. There are definitely times when alcohol made the situation feel manageable, for example, parties that I didn’t want to be at with people that I didn’t want to talk to: but why on earth was I putting myself in these situations in the first place? 

I drank at university to deal with social anxiety and because it’s what everyone was doing for fun. But I was kidding myself that I was having fun. I didn’t have many friends, probably alienated them with my drinking, I was lonely, shy, anxious and by the end suffering from depression. I probably could have had more friends and a real social life and been happier, if I hadn’t drunk so much and then spent days hungover, ashamed, guilty and too anxious to go out again.

I knew that my drinking was a problem, so after uni, I ‘controlled’ my drinking for 12 years.

THE ILLUSION

Drinking for fun was an illusion. I’d lived in cultures that don’t drink and I have friends around the world that don’t drink. They absolutely have fun, celebrate and enjoy life without alcohol. So yes, I knew it was possible. But I worried that I’d made this impossible for myself. Whenever I managed to quit for a while, every evening was spent craving alcohol and feeling miserable. Three pregnancies equated to about 3 years of feeling miserable and deprived. Even though I desperately wanted to quit, I literally couldn’t cope with the idea that I would feel like that every day for the rest of my life. That would not be fun at all. That would mean I would never have fun again. Better keep drinking then!

Yet the longer it went on, the less fun I was having drinking. Examples of this were Birthdays and Christmases. Since childhood, I have loved family Birthdays and Christmases. The problem became that, as soon as the day got going so did the drinking. The nice fuzzy feeling lasted for approximately one glass, maybe two, of prosecco and then wore off. Then my anxiety kicked in and my worry about the day, the children, the noise and the mess. So I drank to try to recapture the nice fuzzy feeling, which is impossible, and then did not enjoy the rest of the day because it all became a hazy blur which I would end early because I felt tired, upset, anxious and ashamed. 

So there I was stuck – no fun drinking, no fun not drinking.

SELF-SABOTAGE

I first rediscovered fun without alcohol when I went dancing. I had recovered from a breakdown about 6 months before and had started to try to heal my life. Very bravely, raging social anxiety present, I went by myself to a dance class. I discovered the pure, unadulterated joy in dancing. I felt like a child again and I was on a cloud for the whole time. I didn’t drink while doing it because I felt so happy. Then I let my negative inner voice and my anxiety in and eventually started drinking again. The thing is that vigorous exercise, which dancing is, and alcohol do not really go together. So in typical style, I self-sabotaged and gave up the dancing rather than the drinking.

I am not going to go into habit-changing here, as this post would be far too long! But let me say that working consistently to change your habits is the key to getting rid of those cravings.

LIFE WITHOUT ALCOHOL

I quit drinking for good on 29th April 2018. I had completed a miserable Dry January in 2018 and started drinking again afterwards. Then I began habit changing. Since I quit I have been basically craving free and have never been happier, less anxious and had more fun.

These are the things that I now find so much fun without alcohol.

Exercise:

The word exercise can put so many people off but please, believe me, there is some kind of movement for everyone out there that they can enjoy. For me, it’s dancing, yoga, cycling, walking and short high-intensity circuits, all of which I can do at or from home. Exercise gives amazing and long-lasting feelings of wellness.

Nature:

They say nature heals and it is so true. Get out of your house and into nature as often as you can. I love the warm sun on my face, the sound of the ocean, the breeze in the trees, the glistening of frozen grass, the sound of rain and the crunch of snowfall. I walk across a big field to get my bus to work at 5.45 am. I never thought that would be a time I could enjoy but now I feel my heart lifting at its beauty and silence.

Taking me time:

Often people, especially mothers, do not feel they have a right to me time. Me time is so important for your health, mental and physical, and for your healing. Drinking coffee in a bookshop, surrounded by books, while reading a book is my idea of heaven! If I can’t get to a bookshop, a bath will do!

Evenings:

Booze free evenings have been a revelation. In winter they are warm and cosy, with tea, good food, family and probably a few too many sweet treats. In summer it’s eating alfresco, outdoor cinema and sunset walks. I missed so many evenings because of drinking.

Celebrations:

Whatever you loved as a child you will probably still love as an adult. So birthdays, Christmas, Easter – try them as booze-free events. I was so surprised and delighted to have these celebrations back the way I wanted them to be. Just make sure you are doing them with people you want to be with and with lots of good food! 

My message in all this is please do not keep drinking because you’re worried you’ll be constantly craving and miserable if you quit. Once you start changing your habits, the cravings will go and there is a world of fun and happiness waiting for you.