“Sober for October”: Reactions to going sober for 31 days

I have previous undertaken periods of sobriety e.g. “Dry January”, times when I’ve tried to be healthier etc. To me these were decisions I had made to not drink and I have been fine with it. OK, there have been times when “everyone” else was drinking and I did feel the urge to join in! However, the main problem I have encountered is other people’s reactions to me not drinking. It somehow makes people feel uncomfortable, or makes me appear boring or righteous. When going sober I also have to be ready to deal with the “Are you pregnant?” and “Go on have one…you’ll enjoy it” rebukes. Determined to have a booze free month (I’ve just got married and could do with a break from drinking!) I thought it would be interesting to write about my encounters with others (i.e. how often I am asked why I’m not drinking and how often someone encourages me to drink). Also, given my research interests I am also interested to see how many times during the month I am exposed to alcohol-related cues. My research centres on the theory that with regular drinking, repeated exposure to drink-related cues (e.g. seeing someone else drink, seeing a bar display) can trigger alcohol craving and seeking, even when sober. So here goes…

October 1st: Day 1.

First day, first test! I am attending a welcome back reception for my fourth year students at university. From last year’s event I know there will be wine. Despite there being a huge ice bucket of wine, this was actually a breeze. My colleague Charlotte is also giving the sober thing a go and we both have soft drinks. No one remarks on us not drinking and another colleague even notes that I am as “loud and gregarious” without the booze. Good times!

sober 1

October 3rd-4th: First weekend

This was to be my first “Sober for October” weekend. Typically I do enjoy a glass of wine at the weekend, after a week at work. I am spending this weekend with my family. As a family alcohol is quite a big part of our socialising; wine and nibbles, dinner and wine, drinks with friends etc. Therefore I thought it was necessary to explain that I wouldn’t be drinking before I arrived.

My family were concerned that I was depriving myself of a “treat” or something to help me relax after a long week at work. I did feel that I needed to explain my sobriety, as I normally enjoy a drink at the weekend. In general I have felt like needed to explain my sobriety, more than I thought I would. A study of adolescents found that it was difficult for young people to express their desire not to drink alcohol. Another study reported that young adults often develop strategies and responses to help them manage explaining their not drinking. I was unable to find any studies of attitudes towards sobriety in adults, except for those towards individuals recovering from alcohol dependency. It appears that research is required to examine whether non-drinking adults feel the need to defend or explain their non-drinking behaviour.

October 6th: A Mid-Lecture Snack

I decided I needed some reinforcements in a break between teaching. Whilst grabbing a quick diet coke I noticed a rather extensive alcohol display in the campus supermarket.

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All of the alcohol-related cues!

Last year a student of mine completed a mapping exercise as part of her MSc health psychology dissertation to explore where and when alcohol was sold on campus. This type of research is important for understanding how alcohol availability may contribute to drinking behaviours. Evidence has indicated that availability of alcohol may influence alcohol consumption, however this relationship is very complicated and is affected by many factors. My own research has focused on the capability of alcohol-related cues (e.g. bar and supermarket displays) to increase alcohol craving and actual alcohol use. Bearing in mind the power of drinking-related cues, it is potentially problematic that availability of alcohol is growing. I cannot think of many places you can go as an adult and not be exposed to alcohol-related cues e.g. the cinema, train and air travel, restaurants and cafés etc.

Sunday 1st November-Reflections on my sober month

So Saturday was my final day of “Sober for October” and I’ve got plenty to reflect on. One thing I noticed was that, once people were aware that I was not drinking, they stopped asking me about it and also stopped encouraging me to “just have one”. This made things much easier, however other environmental factors did impact my month of sobriety.

In some bars and restaurants the price difference between alcoholic and soft drinks was small or virtually non-existent. In one particular bar, a pint of cider was £4.00 versus £2.80 for a pint of cola. If this had been a normal drinking week for me, I may have decided that I would rather have an alcoholic drink for £1.20 more. I can imagine many others would feel this way too. There has been plenty of robust, well-conducted research on the potential benefit of introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol. However, as a researcher I am not aware of any studies on the likely impact of reducing the costs of alcohol alternatives such as mineral water, soft drinks and juices on alcohol drinking behaviours. This could be a potential method for encouraging individuals to have “a night off” drinking or to limit the amount of alcoholic beverages drunk in one night.

During my sober month I was also very aware of the availability and advertising of alcohol. It may have been a reflection of my abstinent state, but alcohol-related images and the sale of alcohol sale seemed to be everywhere. There is mixed evidence on how individuals process alcohol-related cues (e.g. seeing others drink) during periods of abstinence and what effect this may have on the ability to resist drinking. Research in alcohol-dependent individuals has indicated that exposure to alcohol-related cues during abstinence leads to increased desire to drink. However, a more recent study has suggested that an increased response to alcohol cues was not predictive of relapse to drinking in abstinent alcohol dependent individuals. Together these studies suggest that there is a need for further research to determine whether alcohol cue exposure influences drinking behaviours in non-dependent individuals who are looking to cut down or remain abstinent for a period of time.

I get the train to work everyday and I often notice the announcement of alcohol sales and a promotion to buy 3 alcoholic drinks for £10. I have often wondered if I could buy alcohol at anytime of the day. It turns out you can, at least from the start of the train at 6am in Leeds. In terms of opportunity to drink alcohol in the past month, I had the potential to booze at the hairdressers, the train to work, a student award ceremony, cafes at work and more conventionally at several dinners and birthday celebrations, Research has shown that greater alcohol availability (i.e. number of outlets that sell alcohol) is associated with an increased positive attitude towards drinking and an increased likelihood of drinking alcohol. However, it remains unknown how the increase in alcohol availability in different setting e.g. cinema, transport etc. may influence drinking behaviours.

My “Sober for October” journey was an interesting one. I realised that whilst I can make a conscious decision to not to drink alcohol, there are many social and environmental factors that play a role in temptation and coercion to drink. Maybe for “Dry January” I should hibernate, or be prepared to face the alcohol cues and questions again.