Confessions of a non-alcoholic

Jon Wilks, co-founder of Real Kombucha who are sponsoring the Mindful Drinking Festival, wrote a blog for us about his journey as a non-alcoholic:

It’s an odd thing to have to confess, being a non-alcoholic, but it’s something I find myself having to do surprisingly often. You see, I gave up drinking 10 years ago this April. I celebrated with a Real Kombucha (for obvious reasons), and my friends and family all raised a glass of whatever they fancied. Nobody made jokes about me celebrating by going on a bender. We’re kinda past that now. That got old and boring about five years ago.

That confession, though – the one about being a non-alcoholic – remains old and boring and probably won’t ever go away. It’s a conversation I have to have every time I meet somebody new; start a new job; go to a party. It must be a bit like having to come out on a regular basis – you have to take a measure of the situation and work out how to deal with it. I work in marketing, an industry which can be surprisingly backward in the way that it socialises. I have a strong suspicion that my career progression has been hampered in the past, simply because I wasn’t willing to “get on one” three times a week, and subsequently failed to access “the inner circle”. Given the attitudes of the people inside that circle, I’m pretty sure I was better off on the outside. Things have a habit of working out in the long run, anyway.

There’s an irony there, nonetheless, as it was an increasing over-reliance on alcohol that hampered my working life a decade ago. While I’m not sure I’d ever have classed as a full-on alcoholic, I certainly felt I was on the slippery slope. The amount of recreational drinking I was doing was having a negative effect on my life, and I’m glad I took action when I did.

At the age of 26, I was a relatively young father who was perhaps not mature enough to settle down and take a bit of responsibility. Like most people, I felt that the drunk version of me was more gregarious and fun to be around, even though it was playing havoc with my mental and physical health. It was a typical vicious circle: by night, I’d drink to drown out the increasing depression and anxiety that would come with the crippling hangovers during the day. I’d often say, seemingly in jest, that I didn’t have hangovers – only existential crises. I’m not sure anybody else found that particularly funny. I think those close to me were simply starting to worry.

At the time I was working in journalism and music, two industries where free alcohol was commonly present. Most nights I’d come home plastered at 3 in the morning, wake the baby up, spend hours getting the baby to sleep, and then try and hold down a regular day job. I have grimy memories of calling in sick or simply failing to show up at all. Luckily for me, as a freelancer, it didn’t matter much whether I was in the office, as long as I hit my deadlines. I managed that most of the time, but my work was sloppy and my boss was starting to get irritable.

It was both a worrying physical reaction to the booze and a moment of clarity that finally made me put down the glass. My body couldn’t take the combination of constant late nights, stress and alcohol, and I developed arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat that luckily turned out to be benign, but was horribly uncomfortable and worrying. It preoccupied my thoughts and I started worrying about my wife and our baby son and what would happen to them if my heart just packed up. At the same time, I realised that my career was in a similar decline and that I needed to change things around if I wanted to get on and support my little family beyond hand-to-mouth writing jobs.

And so I decided to take a month off. I honestly thought that was all I was doing. I’d get my body and mind healthy again, and then pick up where I left off. It didn’t occur to me that I was giving up alcohol full-stop, and with hindsight that probably helped me more than I realised at the time. I’d inadvertently stepped onto a kind of one-day-at-a-time plan – something to help me get through a single month.

That single month was revelatory. I remember it being a beautiful spring with high, blue skies and the gentlest of breezes – a good time to suddenly start noticing things around me and interacting with the world again. I spent a lot of time with my wife and son, and I could see the pressure of not having to worry about me lift from her shoulders. It felt good to be awake and aware rather than nauseous, headachey and hidden beneath crumpled blankets.

At the end of the first month, I decided to do another one. During the following couple of weeks, I was offered a permanent writing job which quickly became a regional editing position. By the end of the year, I’d been made deputy editor. The lack of coincidence was clear to me, and the encouragement I got from my friends and colleagues was incredibly life-affirming. So I kept it up.

I won’t pretend that the first year didn’t have occasional blips. While I never drank again, I had to be “talked down from the edge” a number of times, and I’m hugely thankful to a handful of friends who helped me keep going. If you’re thinking of taking a prolonged period off the booze and you’re slightly more dependent on it than perhaps you’d like to admit, then having a few people who will watch your back is very important. I wouldn’t want to try it again without them.

Any urges I had to drink again had stopped almost completely by the second year, and now at the 10th year, they’ve entirely disappeared. Life without alcohol is perfectly normal. At first I needed to substitute it with something else (I hit the gym and the swimming pool a lot) but that’s no longer the case (I really need to get back to the gym and the swimming pool!) That said, I recognise that I identify as a non-drinker, and while that has its social difficulties from time to time, it’s more of a badge of honour than anything else. Each new year that I mark off as a non-drinker is something that I’m proud of. I celebrate it much more readily than my birthday, that’s for sure.

The only lasting negative difference that I’ve noticed is that, while I used to pretty much live in the pub, I tend to avoid it now – and that can make for uncomfortable social situations. I find pub life very limiting. It’s a mixture of having to watch other people become increasingly inebriated, which is really not as fun as you might imagine, and not having a decent choice when it comes to having a drink myself. After all, there’s only so much sugary crap you can stomach before you start to feel just a little bit poisoned.

My involvement in Real Kombucha comes largely from that conundrum. For varying reasons, the founders of the company (myself and two other chaps) each found our way to kombucha as an alternative to drinking alcohol. We quickly realised that, whether you were cutting out alcohol temporarily, permanently, for health reasons or simply for a night off, an ice-cold kombucha had the requisite sophistication of flavour that we had missed from our nights out. That it does plenty for your physical and mental health is, for me, an added bonus.

There are a whole host of stats that I could throw at you concerning the reduction of drinking among certain age groups, etc, but the fact is that each person has to make their own decisions based on their own unique situation when it comes to taking time away from the booze. Whatever your reasons, it’s rarely easy, and a large part of that has to do with the drinking culture in this country and the bizarre stigma attached to saying, “You know what? I don’t really fancy drinking so much that I can no longer stand unaided.”

What I admire about Club Soda and the Mindful Drinking Festival is that they are attempting to make healthy changes to the way our national mindset works – to show that, not only is it OK to put the bottle down for a while, but that the alternatives can be enriching, fulfilling and tasty to boot. I’m not a vindictive person, so I won’t say that I hope these changes will lead to the “inner circle” suddenly finding itself on the outside. However, I will say that Club Soda should be applauded for showing that other circles exist and that you needn’t belong to any particular one to help yourself get more out of life.

Jon Wilks is a co-founder of Real Kombucha, an alternative drinking company based on the outskirts of London. For more info on kombucha and its health benefits, head to the Real Kombucha blog.