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Why my Sober October lasted a year

Personal essay by Jemal Polson, CNN

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Jemal Polson is a social media producer at CNN, based in London.

It wasn’t something I originally intended to do long term.

Abstaining from alcohol for a couple of weeks or even a month was nothing new to me. However, it would only be a matter of time before the drinking ramped back up, along with the anxiety and regret afterward that could often last for days.

I knew the key to alleviating these issues. How to no longer fill in the blanks with the worst ideas imaginable of what I might have done, or what may have happened the night before. But frankly I was in denial.

Giving up drinking for an indefinite amount of time was too big a leap for me. But in October 2022, I knew I needed to break the cycle.

After one too many occasions of waking up with a hazy memory of the night before, I started my sober journey after seeing this CNN Wellness piece, which coincidentally published on the day I was feeling particularly rough.

I read it thoroughly and bought “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol,” the book by Annie Grace mentioned in the story’s second paragraph. As it turned out, I needed more than a Sober October.

But without alcohol, would I still be fun? Would I lose friends — either because they would no longer want to be friends with me or I’d no longer want to be around them? Socializing and dating, especially within the LGBTQ community, are so centered on drinking — how would I navigate that? I’ve gone weeks and even longer than a month without drinking before. I don’t drink every day, or heavily every time I do — so do I need to abstain entirely?

The answers to those questions are, yes, I would still be fun; no, I did not lose friends; yes, dating is a struggle regardless of drinking; and for the last one, yes, I do need to abstain. If you feel as though you need to quit drinking, even temporarily, I think it’s worth trying.

Within weeks of abstaining, I realized what had led me to this point.

I wasn’t a heavy drinker in my teens or early 20s, but my alcohol use slowly accelerated in my late 20s. I think it was due to a mix of work events, where free booze flowed, and a higher disposable income to afford more drinks. I loved it all — wine, cocktails, spirits and cider. They took the edge off and lifted my mood.

I turned 30 in the middle of the pandemic, in 2020, and what was already on the rise went up on an even faster trajectory. Staying at home meant I didn’t have to be up early to commute to an office, so drinking more after work wasn’t the issue it once was.

I was also one of the people fortunate enough to be employed throughout the pandemic, so the disposable income I’d acquired in my late 20s stretched even further. My drinking was at an all-time peak by late 2022.

I was so in love with the idea of drinking that I didn’t realize how much I had used alcohol to self-medicate through stressful situations. It wasn’t necessarily the number of drinks I was putting away, but the alcohol percentage of what was in my glass that escalated.

READ MORE: Alcohol: Do you drink too much?

A couple of days after my decision to abstain, I thought it was time to tell my friends and family. There was initially surprise from some. I drank, but not enough to warrant quitting in their eyes. Overall, they’ve been supportive, and as mentioned, I haven’t lost friends. If anything, our relationships are stronger as I can now be sure they aren’t based on alcohol.

A friend who had stopped drinking five years ago told me that the first couple of months would be the most difficult. They were, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through them if it weren’t for the copious amounts of video games that I played to keep my mind busy. (Thank goodness that’s not a bad habit — partaking in moderate video game play has been shown to improve mental health, according to studies from the University of Oxford and Australasian Psychiatry.)

The struggle hasn’t been limited to those first few months. Navigating birthday parties and weddings can be still daunting, especially when I don’t know most people on the guest list. Drinking gave me the courage to face awkward social engagements. What I’ve found is that I just get more comfortable as the night goes on, with or without alcohol.

Explaining to guys on a first date why I don’t have a drink in my hand has received mixed results. I can’t be sure of this, but I imagine it’s why there haven’t been some second dates.

But there have been many instances where people have either forgotten or not realized that I haven’t been drinking. That has made me see that I don’t need to explain or even mention that I don’t drink. At one birthday party, a friend pointed to my glass and said, “What are you drinking? A gin and tonic?” He ran away to the bar before I could answer, “It’s just tonic water.”

The benefits are obvious. I have a higher disposable income, I’m sleeping a lot better, and I’m more focused at work. I’ve gotten through birthdays, weddings, dates and Pride season, all without a drop of alcohol — something I could not have foreseen 12 months ago. There’s also the freedom of not having to think about the next time I’ll potentially embarrass myself by drinking.

Sobriety hasn’t solved all my issues. We often hear about the life-changing aspects of putting down alcohol, but doing so also has shed light on the other work I need to do on myself.

Stepping away from drinking can be scary, and I have been asked how I stay focused. I found the Sober October feature and Grace’s book to be so powerful, they’ve been my only source of staying sober. Dealing with it as publicly or privately as you want also makes it slightly easier. Set up realistic rules and goals that work for you. But do not be hard on yourself if these goals aren’t met.

Will I stay sober forever? I don’t know. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself. I’m not sure about the future, but right now, I’m focusing all the good that’s come from my decision to take care of myself. And I’m celebrating a year of sobriety.

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