Ever considered giving up alcohol? Journalist, mother of three and ‘90s boozehound, Maggie Davis embarked on an enlightening year off
Exactly one year ago, I decided to stop drinking for a year. I’d woken up early on New Year’s day after hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve party for friends and although not really hungover – I’d had three glasses of Prosecco over the whole evening – something inside was stirring.
At 42, I realised I’d spent my entire teen and adult life drinking – in my twenties to bilious binge-drinking excess and since having children very moderately, but it was still a factor in my life, albeit in a glass-of-red-wine-on-the-sofa kind of way.
Alcohol also held deeper, more negative connotations. My childhood, although drenched in love, was also darkened by adults drinking and all the dreadful things that came with it (another story for another time). I learned of its devastating effects early on. I loathed what it did to people. So why did I still drink?
For pretty much most people in the U.K. drinking is a way of life. In socialising. In relaxing. In celebrating. In commiserating. In times of happiness. In moments of stress. But why? Did it need to be? Deep down I didn’t feel like I was enjoying booze anymore. The hangovers of previous decades still present in my mind. The shame. The guilt. The wasted days vomiting and feeling wretched. Bleurgh.
I was also beginning to seriously question how I felt about my three children seeing me drink, what messages it sent to them and how normalised it was in our society. I’d always made a promise to myself that once I had kids I would cut my drinking right back and they would never ever see me drunk, knowing how disturbing and confusing it is for kids. I stuck to this vehemently but was keen to go one step further. I’d read Jill Stark’s High Sobriety: My Year Without Drinking a few years back and knew one day I’d embark on my own year off.
I was beginning to find it depressing that booze-ups were still the normal way for people to socialise, hangovers to be made fun of and dangerous, out-of-control behaviour to be lauded. I was also becoming uneasy at the prevalence of drinking on social media. Instagram parents everywhere seemed to be joining in with the collective wine at bath time, that well-deserved double G&T as soon as the kids were in bed, the cocktail-bingeing on nights out with mum friends. I started by laughing thinly at it all. On Instagram, I found relief in Holly Fisher’s Sobersista feed and Bryony Gordon’s irreverent and honest feed, with snippets about life post giving-up alcohol.
Moreover, I was simply beginning to wonder, what if life without booze was better? What is booze didn’t actually enhance life at all? What if, like smoking, it was all a myth and just some silly but dangerous and unhealthy addiction? A wave of excitement crashed through me.
That morning on 1st Jan 2018, I was flicking through Instagram when I came across a post by a former fellow fashion journalist Molly Gunn of Selfishmother.com saying she was going to have a year off alcohol. Yes, I thought, I can do that. I’m going to do that too. It sort of cemented what I’d already decided.
I told my husband, who is by no means is an excessive drinker but habitually has a beer when he gets home and has a glass of wine with supper, and he was supportive. I asked one of my best friends, who lives overseas, and had also flirted with sobriety, if she wanted to join me. By mid-January she had committed and I had a sober buddy, which made things a lot less boring.
I read this piece by the William Leith, a former colleague at The Observer in the late 90s when practically every journalist in London was part of the mad, chaotic binge-drinking circus, and it all made total sense. I was keen to get back to that childlike happiness in ordinary life. A few years after quitting booze he said: “Quaffing sour or pungent liquids in order to make yourself dumber? Preposterous! I have the same feelings about alcohol that I had when I was 10. It’s dangerous; it’s disgusting; it causes cancer; it rots your liver and makes you look, and smell, like a much older and sicker person. Still, I’ve never stopped wondering why it grasped me so firmly, and for so long, why I allowed it to ruin parts of my life, parts I will never get back.”
Would I be able to enjoy Friday nights on the sofa? What about weddings, work dos or meet-ups with friends without alcohol? Weirdly, yes, with ease and the happy relief that I wouldn’t wake with a hangover the next day. Over the course of the year I conquered them all, refusing numerous glasses of whatever at various dos and going for the booze-free option.
The first month was one of exciting exploration. For me after a couple of weeks of not drinking, the physical craving for alcohol evaporated. When you quit something, whether it’s coffee, sugar, gluten, social media or booze, you suddenly realise how much everyone else is doing it. Everywhere I looked there was alcohol. People were drinking. The booze aisles in Sainsbury’s seemed preposterously enormous. Why was everyone still drinking Prosecco all the time? Did we really need 52 types of rose? The nation seemed to have a collective alcohol problem.
More than anything, giving up booze began to make me reflective of my life as a drinker. Which is when I really began to feel queasy. Like many teens in the U.K., my booze consumption started at around the age 15, in the local park. Back then it was the norm to ask someone a bit older to buy you a bottle of Strongbow cider from the local corner shop. It was usually someone’s big brother or sister or boyfriend, who was old enough – or looked old enough – to legally buy booze.
I’d hang out in my friends in some sheltered benches in the town park and we’d drink it. Inevitably, someone was sick, someone cried and someone had a fight. That was a normal Friday night as a teen growing up in a small market town in Wiltshire. When I speak to friends of a similar age, it was the same story across the country. A rites of passage for Brit teens everywhere.
The progression was the local pub. The publican turned a blind eye to underage drinking and by that point we’d progressed to the sickly sweet K Cider or Diamond White at a dangerous 8% proof. Just typing that made me retch. It wasn’t pretty or clever. But it was fun and reckless and so very normal. That’s just what you did as a teen growing up in the U.K. in the 1990s.
My own relationship with alcohol wasn’t helped by the I was never sat down and told about the dangers of it. I remember the ‘just say no’ drugs lesson at school but what about the one on the dangers of alcohol, by far the bigger everyday problem. The irony is that despite hating the idea of alcohol and knowing too well of the damage it could do, I was still binge drinking heavily myself.
By 20 I was at university in London in halls of residence and that’s when my drinking stepped up a notch. I hooked-up with a equally fun-loving, hedonistic friend and we became drinking partners in crime. We spent the next two years living together in north London, on a drink-fuelled road to crazy town. By then we were drinking pints of lager. That’s just what young women did in the mid-1990s. Successful, talented women from Tracey Emin and Kate Moss to Zoe Ball were boozing it up in public, after all. Falling out of cabs drunk was pretty normal behaviour back then. It felt naughty, fun and rebellious. But the binge drinking and horrendous hangovers that would last 24 hours or more continued as did the shame, the ill health and the idiocy.
Despite the hazy drunken fuzz, I managed to work hard at university and after a wobbly second year, put my all into my third year I managed to secure a first class degree and work experience on my dream job: on the fashion desk of the Observer Magazine. When I look back I wish that was the moment I woke up, grew up and ditched booze but the fashion industry in the hedonistic late 1990s was a blur of champagne and parties and I was drawn to it like a moth to a strobe light.
My career was rocketing to great to new heights when I was offered a job as junior fashion writer for Vogue. I couldn’t believe that ordinary old me and my Warehouse trousers had made the cut. I bought a pair of pale grey Pied a Terre boots to celebrate. I was daunted and shy and totally out of my depth both socially and professionally. Yet suddenly, gauche 24-year-old me was very popular with PRs. The party invitations rolled in and in. The free booze poured and poured and my drinking showed no signs of slowing down.
A club we frequented at that time was Kabaret in Soho. Although thankfully not into drugs at that time – and there was a lot of cocaine and ecstasy going around – I was big into booze. One night, after way too many glasses of champagne, I sat on a sofa in the club, took a nap and was woken by security who put me in a black cab. I arrived at my boyfriend’s house begging for cash to pay for my cab ride. The next day I was so hungover and sick that I couldn’t make it into work. It was shameful and pathetic and part of the reason I knew my days there were numbered.
It took me a whole four years more to realise that business and pleasure should be kept separate. It wasn’t till my fourth proper job as style editor for Time Out, after getting trashed at my leaving do at ES Magazine, that crazy drunk me was a thing of the past.
Fifteen years on, married and with three kids, the penny has finally dropped that life really is better without booze. A lot better. The clear head, the quality sleep, the better skin, the general clarity, the renewed energy (extremely helpful when you have an active toddler boy). The renewed dignity. The amazing child-like creativity you forgot you had.
Right now, a year since I stopped drinking, I’m not sure if I’ll ever drink again. Before this year, I thought alcohol enhanced life. Now, I realise life is quite a bit better in a myriad of ways without it. Everyone has different reasons for quitting booze but for me, my kids were the greatest motivation. I’m beginning to think sobriety is perhaps one of the greatest gifts I can give them.
Three books I loved…
High Sobriety: My Year Without Drinking, Jill Stark
Sober Curious, Ruby Warrington
The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Catherine Gray