Christmas was a sober one for me. Thanks to a course of antibiotics you genuinely can't drink on, I was teetotal for five whole weeks. That meant a lot of lime and sodas, a healthier bank balance than ever before and – to my surprise – absolutely no change to my social life.
Despite the lack of liquid incentive, I went out, socialised and even stayed in clubs until they turned the lights on. By the way, when you do that without getting on it, you learn a few things: i) there are actually a lot of drugs on the floor if you just look down; ii) it's much harder, as a journalist, to walk around a techno night at 7AM, asking people for quotes for a music magazine, without at least a moderate amount of MDMA coursing through your veins; and iii) all your favourite clubs have takeaways next door, which, astonishingly, you’ve never noticed before.
Anyway, that five-week break got me thinking about the way we consume alcohol in the UK, and the reasons why. Current drinking stats paint an ambiguous picture. On one hand, we have a study published last month, commissioned by charity Drinkaware, which looked at the drinking habits of 6,000 Brits. Worryingly, they reported that 60 percent of the participants "are drinking alcohol in order to cope with the stresses of everyday life". It's unclear if those findings can be generalised across society, but according to the NHS, more than 10 million people in England regularly drink "above low risk levels" (classed as consuming more than 14 units a week).
On the other hand, we recently had Dry January. According to research commissioned by the charity Alcohol Concern, 3.1 million people in the UK pledged to take part this year. Sales of low-alcohol beer and cider (less than 1.2 percent) soared by 30 percent last year when compared to 2015 – which should come as no huge surprise; you might have noticed both the mammoth marketing campaign from Heineken for its zero alcohol beer, as well as the vast array of non-alcoholic options available in every bar these days.
Then we've got Gen-Z, i.e anyone under the age of 21. They’re supposedly not really that bothered about getting pissed – figures published by the Office of National Statistics last year concluded that while 7.8 million people in the UK as a whole "binged" on alcohol regularly, for various reasons more than a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds do not drink at all.
It seems that, although we are very much still largely a nation of folk who revel in getting apocalyptically hammered most weekends, more and more people are opting to cut it out. Which does make sense in some ways: booze is, let’s face it, a pretty shitty drug. The high isn't all that, and it's the biggest risk factor for death among people aged 15 to 49 in the UK. Plus, it comes with a load of terrible side effects, like memory loss or, conversely, that mortifying moment you remember what you said to your colleague the previous night.
Still, many of us plough on, even after telling ourselves we should cut it out, or at least cut right down. Why? Because, admittedly, having a drink can be a great way to decompress after a long week. But also because of the social aspect: the drug is as ingrained in British culture as Sunday roasts and only ever reluctantly making a doctor's appointment. We're a society that, at times, seems to be built around boozy lunches, nightcaps and phrases ("cheeky pint", "hair of the dog") that seem to serve no purpose other than to justify drinking at all hours of the day.
Think – how many people have you heard say they would give up drinking tomorrow if only for the fact their social life revolves around it?
I have no idea what it would be like to stop drinking altogether, so I spoke to some people who have done just that, to see how it impacted their social lives. Jean Pierre Szajniuk works for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and has acted as a sponsor for various people over the years. At 54, he’s been sober for 13 years after quitting because he was struggling with addiction. "People who stop drinking and start working with the AA programme can live a normal social life," he told me. "Personally, I go to Glastonbury; I go to loads of concerts; I go fishing; I go to the theatre."
After also quitting drinking 13 years ago, because it gave her migraines, Kate, a 54-year-old journalist, told me she agrees with Szajniuk. "I still have an active social life," she insists. "But there are downsides to it: when you go to the pub it’s fine for a while, but if people start getting hammered you’re left behind. That’s a bit dull after a while."
Valerie, a 27-year-old who works in media, went sober three years ago because she found it gave her more energy and better skin. "If I go out on a night I tend to go home a bit earlier," she says. "Just because it gets to that point when everyone around you is plastered. It’s quite a strange experience when you’re not."
Szajniuk explained that if someone is going to go sober, it's advisable that they initially choose their environment very carefully. "If you go to a barber, you will get a haircut," he says. "If you stay around people using, the temptation – with the smell of it and things like that – could easily arise."
"Yeah, it was just ruining my life," says Tom, a 27-year-old supermarket employee. He knocked it on the head a year ago. There are some bars and old friends he "avoids" now, but he still goes out clubbing regularly. It’s a big temptation, though: "It's hard going out, because sometimes I’ll think, 'Fuck it, I’m going to have a beer,'" he says. "But, at the same time, I think, 'Nah,' because it just doesn’t agree with me and I realise that it is a really shit drug now."
So there you have it: putting down this particular state-sponsored narcotic will not kill off your social life; you can absolutely still see your friends while they drink and you don't. For some, of course, it might mean a slight shift in how you socialise – at least for the first couple of months. You can meet your friends in a cafe, like the French, or go bowling together, or hang out somewhere they don't serve alcohol, like a swimming pool or the Apple store. For others, the only choice is to put down the bottle and address their social life when they can.
"For a real alcoholic, it’s a matter of life or death," Szajniuk adds. "So, do you want to live and change, or do you want to die? It’s a difficult choice to make."
More on VICE: