Alcohol is interesting.
Just the fact I’ve drunk many hundreds of beers in my life, and I don’t even like beer. It says a lot.
As a New Zealander, alcohol surrounded most of my adult life. When people celebrate, they drink. When they catch up with old friends, they drink. When they meet new friends, they drink. Drink when you’re happy. Drink when you’re sad. Drink when you’re bored.
Social life in New Zealand is almost non-existent if you don’t drink.
I never saw this as a problem. In fact it served me well on the backpacker circuit. Backpackers are the craziest drinkers in the world.
You can find people drinking at 11 a.m. in the hostel bar, right after breakfast. Usually Australians.
If you’re from New Zealand, it’s easy to fit right in.
So that’s what life was like, for a lot of my twenties – drinking a lot at home, drinking a lot on the road.
And I loved it. Drinking is fun. You go out and do silly stuff and make lots of cool memories.
So why did I stop?
Last year in Namibia, I had a huge night with some new friends of mine.
Just a long afternoon of drinking, a very long night out at the bars.
Around 3 a.m. I was with a couple of new guys I had just met. One of them headed off to the bar and offered to get me something.
“What are you drinking?”
I remember the last thing I needed at that time was one more drink, but it felt so rude to turn down a kind offer from a stranger.
“Whatever you’re having!”
He brought me back a beer and I sucked it down.
The next day I woke up with the hangover to end all hangovers. I spent the day sitting on the couch, drinking water, half alive. I tried reading. My head hurt so I stopped.
That night I decided to change things. Nothing monumental. We were in November, and I decided to try and make the last two months of the year excellent.
I planned a one month reboot.
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I created my own diet, based loosely off the Paleo, GAPS and Whole 30 diets (I tend to create my own diets, based off what I know about my body).
I’ve tried a lot of diet “experiments” in my life, so this was nothing new to me.
This one was lots of raw vege smoothies, lots of cooked vegetables – avocado, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, stuff like that. On top of that, lots of fresh herbs, like oregano and parsley, nuts and seeds, lots of daily probiotics and bone broth, and regular fresh chicken or fish.
Things I cut out were red meat, dairy, sugar and all processed foods, and all beverages except water and herbal tea. And no drinking, obviously.
Luckily Namibia has excellent first-world supermarkets with lots of good produce, so this diet wasn’t hard to do.
I also joined the local kickboxing gym and trained three times a week.
After those two months in Namibia I was possibly in the best shape of my life.
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When the new year began, technically my “reboot” had finished, so I could drink again, eat steak again, etc. I tend to do strict diets in on-off cycles, otherwise you tend to lose your mind a little.
But I was feeling so good, and didn’t have many cravings, so I decided to push it further.
Instead of winding down, I started the new year with a 10 day juice fast.
It’s about cleansing waste out of your system. All the old faeces, mucus, dead cells, old waste sitting in your body, a fast is a way to flush it all out.
I’ve been a regular juicer for many years now, but an extended juice fast isn’t something I’ve been able to successfully do. This felt like the perfect time to try again.
The ten day fast had some bumps but it wasn’t difficult and not once did I think about quitting.
At the end, I could already feel my body had shifted to a new level. It was so easy for me to feel – everything just functioned better. It’s like when you have a computer that’s all slow and shitty, the hard drive is old, there’s all these little lags and glitches that were annoying at first, but you’ve learned to deal with them.
Then you upgrade, replace all the old parts and everything just runs like a dream.
You wonder how you ever lived with anything else.
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After the fast, I revamped my diet again.
I went vegan five days a week.
Fresh green juices for breakfast, fresh fruits and nuts and seeds for second breakfast, large servings of vegetables.
A few small servings of meat once or twice a week.
That guy who buys all the fancy organic cereals and fruits – that was me.
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I also moved to daily intermittent fasting. This involves doing an extended fast every day, something I’d tried in the past.
In my case, it was a 16 hour fast from 10pm until 2pm.
This is an old body-building technique for shedding fat, and also something many martial artists do. More important than shedding fat, it reduces your digestion period into a small window each day, instead of your body constantly digesting food from morning until night.
First thing I remember after switching to this diet was my digestive system went into God mode. Poops became effortless. Like a soft serve machine, whooosh, as if I’d just installed a brand new set of intestines. Dairy, red meat and processed food are usually the culprits of clogged up colons, but replace all that with raw fibres and vegetables and it’s like having a high tech Japanese plumbing system inside your digestive tract.
The second thing I noticed was my cardio went through the sky. I used to gas out halfway through sparring class, now in the last rounds I was overwhelming people, walking forward with fresh legs while they huffed and puffed with their hands down. I would even go home and keep working out since I wasn’t tired.
After a few weeks, I went on a second fast. This time I did a water fast.
As fasting wasn’t so foreign to me anymore, I didn’t need to put a strict goal on it, I just planned to fast as long as my body was comfortable. I went seven days drinking only distilled water, maybe two litres a day.
To be honest, I didn’t feel any big benefits from doing this one, other than another good clean out of the colon. Water fasting is supposed to have slightly more healing effects than juice fasting, and is more taxing on the body, but the effects for me weren’t as drastic. Possibly because I’d just done a long fast a couple of months earlier. It was still a valuable experience.
By now it had been around six months since I had touched any alcohol. But the most important thing was, I wasn’t missing alcohol. I wasn’t even thinking about alcohol.
All my focus had been on doing more experimenting and levelling up my body to be fitter, stronger, faster, lighter, and each day I would read a new book or article about other ideas and experiments to try.
Instead of sitting around thinking I’m not allowed to drink alcohol, the mission had grown into something bigger, which was simply how much healthier can I get? What’s something new I can try? How can I get even fitter?
I mean getting drunk is cool and all, but have you ever had endless energy and landed a six punch combo on a dude who’s too tired to keep his hands up?
Then around June, I hit the road again.
This is when alcohol started to re-emerge in my life. In New Zealand life was simple – kitchen, laptop, gym, sleep – but once I was back in Tanzania I was being invited out to catch up by old friends and offered drinks by new ones.
A simple “I don’t drink” was enough and usually met with understanding. Some people asked why, and I explained my sober year. Most people thought it was pretty cool.
One night, I was somehow convinced to join my friends at a nightclub. It obviously felt weird not having anything to drink, but after a while I felt comfortable and didn’t mind being there sober. In that part of the world, it’s not actually rare for some people to go out and not drink alcohol, so that helped.
Waking up fresh the morning after a night out was obviously a great feeling.
Over the trips that followed to Kenya and Europe, I noticed how often you drink just because there’s nothing else to do. You might be wandering around a shopping street, you’ve seen everything, so your first inclination is to say “Let’s go get a drink” as if that’s how you make things interesting again. There were many times where, had I not been on a “no drinking mission”, I would have happily gone and had a cocktail, for no other reason than we had nothing else to do.
That showed me how often I would normally drink, even when I didn’t particularly want to. Those drinks are probably the ones that affect you more, because they seem harmless, and in many ways they are, but they also highlight a lack of intention in what you’re doing; I’m going to go drink because I have nothing better to do, versus I’m going to work on this thing because that’s what I want to do.
This brought me to around October.
For the final month of my sober year, I was backpacking through the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
What’s it like being a non-drinking backpacker?
It’s definitely different. It’s a different crowd of people you meet. It’s a different type of experience. You do tend to spend more time alone, more time in periods of reflection. I can’t lie, getting drunk with new travel friends is fun, I did miss that.
However that doesn’t mean you’re excluded.
Whenever you feel like hanging out with someone, there are always lots of people to meet. People often think not drinking means they can’t be social, but that’s not true at all. I met a lot of great people this year.
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I was in Luxembourg when my one year finally came to an end.
It felt good, of course, but it still just felt like an ordinary day. It didn’t feel like I deserved a life achievement award, so I didn’t feel the need to celebrate with anything, or anyone. I went and had noodles and dumplings for dinner, then spent the night doing my laundry at the hostel.
I think for challenges to affect you greatly, they need to be difficult, and this one didn’t affect my day-to-day life too much. Once you switch your mind over from drinker to non-drinker and make that initial adjustment, life just tends to roll on as normal.
So what changed?
Whenever I read about people giving up drinking, the results always seems drastic.
“I met so many like-minded people, I made so many new friends, I started making so much more money, I have so many new hobbies!”
It didn’t feel like that for me.
To be honest, I think I actually made less new friends. I didn’t find any new hobbies. Probably make the same amount of money.
The only big change was in my health.
But that’s also the only thing I was actually interested in, too.
When it comes to travel, we’re always trying to stay healthy on the road, but the regular nights out tend to keep resetting all your progress. You have three healthy days and then a big hangover erases it all.
This year staying healthy has been much more like a positive feedback loop, and I’ve gotten healthier as the year went on. Obviously removing the alcohol has been a big part of that.
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As for drinking itself, I did learn a lot from those few moments that forced me to really resist drinking something. Times like when I was at a bar with friends, and everyone was sipping cocktails. When someone asks if you want one, it’s pretty hard to say no.
It helped me understand a lot about why we drink, and what it gives us. The answers to both those questions don’t really seem to be good ones.
If I could choose the drinks I actually enjoy drinking the most, I don’t think anything alcoholic is in the Top 5.
So why have I spent so much money on it?
That’s when you start to realise, it was never alcohol I was buying.
I was buying fun, I was buying approval, I was buying confidence.
Of course, you can still have fun and make friends and be confident without alcohol, but it’s much harder and doesn’t provide as many funny stories.
What it does provide though, is self awareness, self esteem, self confidence.
I think we like to get drunk, because we’re not confident with interfacing our sober selves with the world. Being funny is easier when you’re drunk. Being interesting is easier when you’re drunk. But staying sober forces you to develop a certain boldness, to speak and act what’s really in your mind, be unapologetic about it without hiding behind a cocktail. This is healthy. In fact, it’s necessary. I think everyone could do with more self awareness, more self honesty. All it does is bring you closer to understanding who you really are. And for the guys who like to drink for the liquid confidence to approach women, I can confirm the sober confidence gets much better results.
Looking back on the year, there are no drastic lessons that stand out. It’s more a collection of very small changes and realisations. But I think the one major lesson for me is the importance of intention.
We need to start doing things with purpose.
Don’t do things because you feel like it’s obligatory, or because it makes things easier, or because you can’t find anything better to do, or because it’s what you’ve always done. We should try to do things because you have a need or desire to, because it’s helping us work towards something, because it’s part of a greater goal we have. I think for most people there isn’t a genuine need or desire to drink. And it consumes too much of our time and money to do it “just because”.
Will I ever drink again?
I actually already have.
I had told myself that I might celebrate my sober year with a drink if the situation arose. It never arose in Europe, but I went to meet some new friends here in Abidjan a few weeks later and they have a lemonade beer here called Chill. I had a glass, it was delicious actually! Tasted like Sprite.
And in the future, I think I will approach it much the same way. I don’t think I was ever an alcoholic, I didn’t have a vendetta against alcohol and I don’t find it particularly harmful in the right situations. If my friend is getting married and there’s a toast I’ll have a champagne, for sure.
I suppose all I needed to prove to myself was that alcohol wasn’t an addiction; that I control it and not the other way around. I proved that to myself, and learned much more.
How to get started
There really is no secret.
Just start. Maybe you can start with a sober weekend, then a sober week, then a sober month and so on until you reach your sober year.
Discipline is beautiful thing to develop. Understand why you want to do this (save money, get healthier, improve your mental health) and just focus on the positives you start to see every day.
If you think you’d have more success with a support group, there are communities like One Year No Beer which are also extremely successful, and a worthwhile investment if you think it will help you stay on track.
Whatever you do, if you decide to take up the challenge, I’m sure it will be equally fruitful for you.