The sober truth

Kim Stephens enjoys a glass of wine, after abstaining from alcohol for three months. PICTURE: JEREMY BANNISTER
Kim Stephens enjoys a glass of wine, after abstaining from alcohol for three months. PICTURE: JEREMY BANNISTER

“YOU'RE the only person I know who can pressure people into having Jager bombs while nearly passing out from too many,” a colleague of mine jokingly remarked to me late last year.

We both laughed. He forgot about it. But, for me, this was a watershed moment. A big one.

I was rapidly approaching my 33rd birthday. Did I really want to continue to be “that” girl?

Throughout my 20s, like the vast majority of my peers, there was one mantra I adhered to when it came to social alcohol consumption – go hard or go home.

By my 30s, I had unwittingly become the poster child of a binge drinking generation - and I was inflicting pressure on others to join me.

“We have a culture where not only is it acceptable to binge drink, it’s a rite of passage,” said Jamie Moore, the Sydney-based global ambassador for the growing online abstinence movement Hello Sunday Morning.

“It’s a culture that can breed alcoholism.”

Not only do we actively encourage people to write themselves off, we celebrate it.

As I found out when I signed up with Hello Sunday Morning on January 1 this year and pledged to go three months without booze, it’s also a culture that largely ostracises those who choose not to drink.

“We have a country where we are not comfortable with people not drinking,” Mr Moore said.

I first entertained the possibility of signing up with HSM in April 2011, when I read an article by Sunday Age journalist Jill Stark about how enlightening the experience had been for her.

However, it took another 18 months of drunken taxi rank tumbles and raging hangovers before I decided to take the plunge.

For nearly four years, Hello Sunday Morning has provided an online forum to support more than 15,000 people through the challenge of breaking the binge-drinking cycle.

HSMers sign up for periods of three, six or 12 months, check in weekly and blog when they feel like it.

Its aim is not to preach temperance or encourage lifelong abstinence, but to help people better understand the relationship they have with alcohol and to improve it – in the process, engendering a cultural change. 

One Sunday at a time.

“We provide a platform for people to change their behaviour,” Mr Moore said.

“The whole reason for the website is to provide support, because taking that break is difficult.

“We have this really ingrained drinking culture. People often try to stop and they fail, because there is no support.”

Alcohol has become a ubiquitous element of our social lives and intrinsically tied to almost every occasion.

Getting married? Celebrate with booze. Someone died? Commiserate with booze. Friday night? Relax with booze. The list goes on.

Many people simply could not comprehend why I would want to give it up.

Admittedly, they were three very tough months.

But they were simultaneously three very illuminating months.

Never have I felt so continually socially excluded.

I constantly struggled with the feeling of being the outsider in social situations, purely by virtue of the fact I did not have a drink in hand.

Invites to events stopped coming from friends who decided I wouldn’t want to attend because I would be the only sober person when everyone else was getting smashed.

They waited patiently for me to start drinking again as if my personality only magically appeared when a bottle of wine was produced.

I suddenly found myself the target of peer pressure once again. Many people made it their mission to try to cure me of this perceived insanity.

One colleague commenced a relentless, albeit joking, campaign to get me drinking again.

Random text messages came that simply read, “you should drink”. When a former colleague returned from overseas, he insisted the occasion demanded I have “at least one”.

My housemate continually tried to win back his wine-drinking buddy.

“You know your personality vastly improves with three glasses of wine,” he joked.

Even at 33 and fairly strong of will, the pressure had me constantly battling to maintain my resolve.

Interestingly, it was people older than me who expressed the most incredulity at my decision.

“I just couldn’t do it,” one woman in her 40s said to me.

“I admire you for doing it but I just couldn’t do it.

“Why would you want to, anyway?”

“I suddenly found myself the target of peer pressure once again. Many people made it their mission to try to cure me of this perceived insanity."

It was a question I found myself answering over and over with lengthy justification.

The main reason I signed up to HSM was the realisation that a decade of binge-drinking had engendered a habit that would prove hard to break in my 30s.

If a bottle of wine was opened, it was drained.

I had lost the ability to drink in moderation. Perhaps I never had it in the first place.

By no means was I alone. On regular catch-ups with a couple of friends my age, it wouldn’t be unusual for three of us to go through five bottles of champagne.

Mr Moore said the scenario was not uncommon.

Women aged between 30 and 40 – many of them mothers – are one of the largest demographic groups who sign up to take a break from alcohol on the Hello Sunday Morning site after they find they are regularly drinking more at home than they intend.

The tricky topic that Hello Sunday Morning skates around is the definition of alcoholism.

Traditionally, it is a term that has been defined by chronic dependency and there is a running joke that many a binge-drinker uses to prevent putting themselves in that category – “I’m not an alcoholic, alcoholics go to meetings.”

Time and again, Sunday mornings roll around with headaches, embarrassing memories of poor behaviour and the oft-used, but always unfulfilled, cry, “I’m never drinking again”.  

So does the social acceptability of weekend bingeing and the fact that so many others do it devalue the fact that perhaps we are just a nation of alcoholics?

“Alcoholism tends to be defined by regularly drinking more than you intend to,” Mr Moore said.

“If you are constantly drinking more than you intend to, regularly having huge nights when you don’t mean to you, you probably need to ask yourself why.”

It’s there that Hello Sunday Morning tries to provide a non-judgemental forum where people can find others struggling with the same issues as them.

Mr Moore said of the 15,000 HSMers so far, 75 per cent had successfully completed their periods of abstinence.

He said 30 per cent of those have returned for a second HSM.

“Everyone who does an HSM wants to change the way they drink,” Mr Moore said.

“When they finish, we hope they have the ability to make an informed decision about their drinking.”

Like smoking and drink-driving before it, perhaps binge-drinking one day won’t be so culturally acceptable.

As for my own HSM, I learned how immense the pressure was to drink, both directly and indirectly.

At my first sober birthday in 15 years, I looked around a busy Melbourne restaurant and realised I was the only person without a glass of wine in front of them.

Suddenly I became aware of how intrinsic alcohol is in our culture.

It’s in advertising, TV shows, on social media and always with an underlying theme – alcohol equals a good time.

Of course, that’s not the case. Good company equals a good time. It’s just that alcohol has become so tied up in it, we assume we need it to have fun.

In the end, my drought broke at a wedding.

I had hoped to push through to a year but, to be honest, I was sick of feeling left out.

One friend was gleeful at my return. Another later expressed his disappointment.

“You had come so far and it was selfish, ugly peer pressure that brought you undone,” he told me.

He started his own HSM from that day.

Mr Moore said research by the charity showed that was not uncommon either.

One person’s HSM experience can influence the drinking habits of up to 10 people around them, he said.

I started my HSM hoping to learn to drink in moderation. I don’t think I quite made it.

Perhaps for me, undoing a decade of habitual binge-drinking is going to take a bit longer than three months.

I’m a little bit concerned this article is going to embarrass my grandmother. I’m not proud of my drinking past, undoubtedly she is less so.

So, I think it’s important to stress that when it comes to my drinking habits, I am not an anomaly.

Like many other daughters and granddaughters (and sons and grandsons), I have fallen victim to a culture that encourages drunken excess. Admittedly, though, I probably fell a bit harder than most.

It’s only by recognising the problem and speaking out about it that cultural change can begin to be engendered.

So, despite its impact on my social life, I have decided to persevere with my booze ban, because I believe in the end, the rewards will far outweigh the negatives.

From today, I’m saying Hello Sunday Morning once again and signing up for another three-month stint.

Is anyone with me?

This story The sober truth first appeared on The Courier.


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