If you’re one of the 3.1 million Brits who have just embarked on a Dry January, you’re probably already in the grip of Foma. That is, Fear of Missing Alcohol. Contemplating the cold, miserable month ahead, Foma hits with the realisation that there will be no nicely numbing glass of red to rub the edge off a trying day at the office, or turn down the volume on the kids.
Perhaps you think a life without alcohol is bound to be dull and monotonous. It will mean the end of your social life; people will think you’re a weirdo, must have a “problem” with booze, or, worse, that you’ve become judgmental. Foma tells you it will be impossible to “switch off”; that you and your partner will have nothing to talk about. And as for dating, forget it.
I can list these fears easily because I spent the best part of a decade confronting my own Foma. I came of drinking age in the era of the “ladettes”, with Zoe Ball and Sara Cox photographed every night skulling pints and being held up as feminist role models. On TV, Sex And The City established pretty pink Cosmopolitan cocktails as a surefire way to get more sex, while Kate Moss falling drunk out of the Met Bar and Tracey Emin stumbling off the set of a Channel 4 debate were the epitome of grungy glamour.
As a rookie journalist in London, I couldn’t help but notice that the up-for-it, outspoken women I saw killing it career-wise could drink male colleagues under the table. If I wanted to be popular, successful and attractive I, too, would need to get myself “piss-fit”. Before long, I was sinking Absolut Citron martinis and pints of Stella with the best of them. And so my “cocktail girl” persona was born, one that culminated in a summer where I edited a glossy magazine in Ibiza, with my name on every club guestlist, and a fistful of free drinks tickets to fuel the fun.
The cracks began to show in my mid-30s. Having landed a job as features editor on a glossy weekend supplement (not this one), deadlines had got very real. I was consumed by almost constant, teary anxiety. I would wake in the middle of the night in a panicky sweat, heart pounding. I found myself drinking more to paper over the gap between appearance and reality. But a big night out would make my self-esteem plummet and my anxiety shoot even higher; I found myself beginning to question – privately – whether the booze was part of the problem.
So I began to take extended breaks from drinking, noticing not only how much more productive I was without a hangover, but how much calmer, more optimistic and self-assured. The question got louder, until it was impossible to ignore: would life be better without alcohol? But booze was so interwoven with both my personal and my professional life that the idea of giving it up completely was, well, unthinkable.
Hello Foma, and all the fears that come with it. Fear of being left out. Fear of life becoming boring. Fear of being judged. Fear (whisper it) that I might have a problem with alcohol.
If you’ve been teaching your brain since, say, age 15, that alcohol is a prerequisite for feeling comfortable in social situations, removing said substance is going to freak you out. Drinking is what we Brits do. And the “good times” we’ve all experienced when drinking can’t be denied. Oh, we were wild! Carefree! We were dancing on the tables, for Christ’s sake! But as for whether we were… happy? The abject misery that typically follows this kind of revelry would suggest not; rather that we are simply switching off stress by burying our heads in a salt-rimmed sandpit strewn with empty beer bottles and crumpled cocktail umbrellas. (This in turn feeds into another aspect of our Foma: how the hell will we tackle whatever daily stressors – from a job we hate to money worries or a failed relationship – we’ve been trying to escape by drinking?)
As I opened my eyes to all this, I became what I called “sober curious”. I began to investigate not only the impact that alcohol was having on my productivity and wellbeing, but the underlying reasons why I was so attached to it. Each time I was presented with an opportunity to drink, I would ask: why do I feel the need? How will it make me feel – in a few hours, tomorrow morning, three days from now? Is the fleeting buzz really worth it? What feeling am I using this drink to experience less or more of? This internal process of self-inquiry saw me steadily drinking less and less.
I embarked on a succession of what I call “sober firsts” – my first sober Saturday night, dinner date, birthday party, wedding; those occasions when choosing not to drink can make you feel like a monumental killjoy, not to mention the most awkward person on the dancefloor.
What actually happened, to my surprise, is that the more I “felt the Foma and did it anyway” (including hosting a sober New Moon rave at an island festival on Croatia, and sitting at dinner parties, feeling as square as Ab Fab’s Saffy, while everyone else cracked on), the more I discovered I didn’t need alcohol to be confident, to let loose, or feel free. I didn’t need alcohol, period.
My sober curiosity cranked into high gear after I moved from London to New York, where wine gets ordered by the glass as opposed to the bottle, and people are less likely to make you feel as if you not drinking has ruined everybody else’s night. Over time, I found myself socialising more during the day. I discovered the joys of alcohol-free beer. I also found that it helped not to make a big deal about not drinking, and also not to lie or make excuses about why I wasn’t. If anybody asked, I simply replied: “I’m seeing how it feels not to drink.”
I had a watershed moment when I attended my first sober hen do (in Liverpool, no less) last spring. The bride-to-be, one of my besties, almost hadn’t invited me as she’d assumed it would be my idea of hell. But there was no way I was going to miss celebrating with her. When I saw the karaoke bar on the itinerary, I told myself that would be the point at which I took myself home to bed. In the event, I was having so much fun with her prosecco-popping posse that I happily tagged along; they could barely get me off the mic. From the pictures that circulated on social media, you’d never know I was the only one not drinking. The resounding conclusion I came to is that the only thing you miss out on by not drinking is… getting drunk.
Many Foma fears are grounded in truth: there will be awkward small talk. Your friends will think you’re being a total bore and won’t let you forget it. But whether you’re just in it for Dry January or considering a more lasting overhaul of your drinking habits after a particularly boozy party season, one thing is for certain. On the other side of Foma, you will emerge feeling more clear-headed, calm, confident and courageous than ever. Not only are you removing a toxic depressant from your system, by facing your fears head on, and proving them wrong, you can’t help but feel a boost.
Even at the height of my “cocktail girl” years, I was always secretly in awe of the sober person at the party – the DJ friend who stuck to soda and stayed out as late as everyone else; or the colleague who bypassed the wine at work events yet was still well-liked. Looking back, it’s obvious that part of me admired the fact they didn’t require a drink to fit in and feel at ease. That actually, I would quite like some of that quiet confidence. And anyway, even Kate Moss is off the sauce these days, having celebrated a year booze-free in October. And if she can do it, why can’t you?
How to beat ‘fear of missing alcohol’
Beware ‘euphoric recall’ Describing our tendency to remember only the good times, euphoric recall is likely to kick in when contemplating yet another sober Saturday night. Instead of focusing on what you’re “denying” yourself, shift your perspective to what sobriety is cultivating in your life.
Play it forward Ask yourself: how will drinking tonight make me feel in an hour? By the end of the night? Tomorrow? How will my mood and productivity be affected in the days to come? Honest answers to these questions will help you to abstain.
Embrace sober firsts The temptation when faced with Foma is to cancel your social life until further notice and/or you’ve worked out how not to drink without feeling like a total loser. Rather, RSVP “yes” to each invitation that comes along (especially to weddings, hen dos, big birthdays and weekend getaways) and prove to yourself that you do not need alcohol to socialise. Each event will help to rewire your thinking about drinking.
Drink this instead When you feel like you’re drowning in soda and lime, try alcohol-free beer, tonic water with bitters, or a Seedlip mocktail – all grownup options that have a pleasing placebo effect.
Don’t judge It’s virtually impossible. But how those drunken idiots who used to be your friends choose to waste their weekends, flush their youth down the toilet, and poison their bodies with toxic chemicals is none of your business. Keep how good you feel to yourself.
• Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington is published by HarperCollins, at £20. To order a copy for £16, go to guardianbookshop.com.
If you would like to make a comment on this piece, and be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email [email protected], including your name and address (not for publication).