Swapping sambuca for soberness: When is it time to eliminate alcohol?

We all love going out with friends and being reminded of our drunken antics the next morning, but the lines can blur. When does it stop being a few wild nights out, and become a troubling habit?

Entering your twenties is a time associated with partying and letting your hair down, and often, alcohol plays a role in this.

However, this was a different story for Tom, a 20-year-old student at the University of Manchester, who had a tumultuous relationship with alcohol during his second year.

“I’d suggest going to the pub every night, but some nights people wouldn’t be up for it. So, I’d buy myself a beer to have at home instead.” said Tom, who has asked for his name to be changed. “It started with a casual beer or two, which turned into a casual beer or four, and then it got to the point where it was a casual bottle of whiskey, and it carried on like that every night.”

Originally from Derby, Tom couldn’t wait to move to a bigger city and start his university experience. After countless wild nights out (many he admits having no memory of), he began slipping into a habit of alcohol dependence

“I essentially became nocturnal. I wouldn’t sleep until 7 or 8am. I wouldn’t wake up until 5pm, and by then I’d have missed everything I had on that day – uni, football, gym. Everything.

“I didn’t see sunlight for two months; by the time I’d wake up, with a banging headache, the sun would’ve set” he said. “So, I’d be thinking ‘what’s the point?’ I didn’t know what to do other than buy more booze. I’d go back to my room and drink until around 7am again. It was rinse and repeat for months.”

While this was a ‘quiet’ night in for Tom, there were several nights were going out drinking was the plan. However, after everyone else enjoyed their night at the club and headed home so they could make it to their 9am lecture, Tom would plan how he could prolong his drinking.

“I’d never just have one drink; I’d always take it to the extreme. We’d all go out and be walking back at 3am and stop at a shop on the way. My friends would buy food to sober up before bed, and I’d buy another crate of beer. I’d sit at home and drink them all, because I was scared of sobering up. I was literally drinking myself to sleep.”

After struggling in silence, missing all his lectures and spending his last pennies on booze his grades inevitably started to slip, and people were noticing, which he admits was the wake-up call he needed.

“I got pulled aside by my tutor on one of the days I did attend, probably looking rough”, he said. “Because I’d failed all my assignments, I had to sit in a room with him and say ‘look mate, I’ve got a drinking problem’, which was a big deal because I’d actually admitted it. My housemates obviously knew – most nights I’d fall asleep on the sofa, so the next morning they’d wake me up and move me. But I realised I didn’t want to throw my life away.”

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as waking up and ending his binge drinking. According to Healthline, people who cut out alcohol after drinking heavily daily, are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety and irritability – both of which Tom experienced. Getting sober is complex.

“I asked my housemates to take their alcohol out of the kitchen, because I’d steal their booze when I had none left”, he admits. “I’d replace it, but in the moment, I wouldn’t think twice about robbing it. So, when I stopped buying alcohol, I’d find myself looking through their cupboards. Getting sober wasn’t easy, I was very cranky and still couldn’t really leave the house.

“Eventually, I started to wake up and my head wouldn’t be pounding, and the sun would still be up. I was feeling fresh and started to improve my routine. I dedicated more time to university, going to the gym, starting football again and spending quality time with my friends.”

It’s no secret that drinking culture at university is wild. People are downing vodka from a funnel on an average Wednesday evening. Being a tee-total twenty something isn’t exactly the ‘norm’, which naturally raises eyebrows, but as time has passed, Tom says he found it easier to not feel the external peer pressure.

“People say ‘come on just have one’, and initially it felt awkward saying no”, he says. “Now when people ask ‘why? ‘I know I don’t have to explain why. I don’t have to tell you. It’s not a case of being boring, I’ve just got more discipline and feel happier now. I don’t want to find myself in the same position as before, so to eliminate the risk I just avoid it. I feel confident that I don’t need a drink in my hand to have fun.”

Over the past year, he has gradually reduced his alcohol intake. Today, Tom still lives his best life, going to parties sober, the races and even celebrating New Years Eve without a drink, which he admitted felt like a full-circle moment to close the year this way, considering how it started.

He has exciting things planned, including running the Leeds marathon in May, and travelling to the other side of the world – all completely sober.

“It’s amazing to think I’m actually going to run a marathon,” he says. “I’ve always been good at running; I just lost the motivation to do it. It’s good having something to work towards and I’m enjoying my training.

“In January 2025 I’m getting a flight by myself to Australia, and I’m not just travelling for a piss-up. Not buying booze allowed me to save for my flight, and I can’t wait to see everything and meet new people without relying on alcohol. Life doesn’t revolve around when I’m going to get my next fix anymore and I have so much to look forward to.” 

Tom is not alone in his sober journey, as Statista predicts that 35% of men and 42% of women aged between 16-24 have completely cut out alcohol.

For Melissa Watkins, 35, her struggles with alcohol were not dissimilar from Tom’s, and has been sober since 2020.

“It was during the pandemic when everything stopped”, she said. “I had time to reflect on the fact that alcohol was severely impacting my mental health. I struggled with depression, anxiety, and even had suicidal thoughts. Working in a corporate job, I was responsible for entertaining clients with alcohol, leading to daily drinking to mask my struggles.

“Upon becoming sober, I gained clarity on my life goals, and my mental health significantly improved. I returned to university and launched my own successful business. My life is fulfilling and happy now. I see no reason to jeopardise it with alcohol.”

After transforming her life, Watkins now works as a psychotherapist, based in Sydney, Australia, helping others who struggle with addiction. She gives advice to over 5,000 followers on her social media platforms, showing people how to have a fulfilled and happy life without alcohol.

“Just as you’ve trained your brain to rely on alcohol for coping with emotions or socialising, you can retrain it to change those beliefs” she said. “You don’t have to think of quitting as a permanent decision; it’s about acquiring new skills so you can navigate life’s challenges and joys without relying on drinking. You’re enough without it.”

But how much is too much? We’ve all heard of units, but where should we be drawing the line? AlcoholChange says that 14 units per week, spread over a three-day period is safe.

But what does this even mean? Well, 14 units is equivalent to 14 single measures of spirit, or equally seven doubles. It’s also equal to six medium glasses of wine, or six pints of beer. So if you’re under this threshold, your alcohol consumption isn’t deemed excessive

And if you’re thinking, ‘what will I do when I go to that party and don’t know anyone? What about that first date next week? Surely, I’ll need a drink to calm my nerves?’ there are still ways to live your best ‘messy’ life without that glass of wine.

Watkins understands the ‘liquid courage’ alcohol gives you and explains this is because alcohol shuts down the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that makes rational decisions. Therefore, without it you feel like you have more confidence.

“Relying on alcohol for confidence is a negative spiral” she said. “You convince your brain that you need alcohol to socialise or be the life of the party. If you’re funny and confident when you’re drunk, you can do that sober. Alcohol isn’t doing it for you.”

So, if you’re worried about feeling awkward without that vodka lemonade in your hand at the next wedding you attend, Watkins suggests setting yourself goals, even as simple as ‘I’m going to talk to someone completely new today and find something out about them’ to combat any awkward feelings.

She advises people that it’s not about being sober and isolating yourself – you can be sober and thrive. You can absolutely do all the outgoing, crazy things you love, without a drink in hand, and be confident with your sobriety.

“I would encourage anyone wanting to break the cycle, to see sobriety as something exciting” says Watkins. “I promise you a life can exist where you won’t want alcohol anymore, and it feels good.”

For further advice on looking after yourself in your twenties, click here.

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