Life felt toxic. I remember feeling an intense lack of passion, purpose or direction and drinking became my distraction. What followed was a familiar cycle of self-inflicted side effects: awful hangovers, low mood and intense regret.

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With more of us at home this year and dealing with stress induced by the pandemic, it’s hardly surprising that many people are resorting to drinking alcohol to unwind. In fact, research shows that Australians have reported drinking more this year.

A recent survey from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation also found one in five Australians has regretted how much they drank in lockdown. A similar proportion has thought about reducing their consumption but is yet to take steps to do so.

If you happen to fall into that camp, perhaps my story will serve as inspiration.

After too many mornings marred with inevitable dread as my mind replayed scenes from the night before, it became clear that my relationships were suffering. I had stopped prioritising my partner in favour of a destructive social life. Something had to change.

So in 2013, I set myself a 12-month challenge. Three months in, that “aha” moment hit me.

There I was, sitting in my grey work cubicle, dealing with some tasks that seemed beyond me at that point in my career. But then it dawned on me – I felt far more capable of tackling them because my brain was booze-free, sparkly and clear. I felt a sense of clarity I hadn’t experienced before and I wanted to cling to it with both hands.

I haven’t had a drink since.

But that’s not to say I haven’t looked back. Going alcohol-free, for me at least, is one of those blurry grey areas. I felt both pride and fear. I know drinking isn’t for me because it dulls me – it brings me shame and shadow. But I wish it was different so I didn’t feel like such an outsider at every social occasion.

I was also pretty naive in that first year about what I was really giving up. Not only was I letting go of a lifestyle and friendships, I was also letting go of my identity – all of which had been built on blurry days and nights knocking back too many drinks.

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Saying goodbye to that was hard. And I felt judged. I remember a mate of mine saying: “Oh, you’re going to become one of those meme-sharing positivity dickheads”.

But I didn’t blame her for thinking that way. Because it’s true – Australians consistently connect socially with booze. We watched our parents do it, then we started doing it in our teenage years. For the majority of us, we don’t know any other way.

Still, more and more people are choosing not to drink according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. And as non-alcoholic bars spring up across the country, ‘generation sober’ – Generation Z – is beginning to embrace the sober curious culture.

So what’s life like since becoming the soda water guzzler at the table? My circle of friends has expanded into new worlds and interests that were previously off limits and my partner and I share a much deeper bond. I’ve also built a business from the ground up that fuels me more than a bottle of prosecco ever could. And while I won’t deny that a couple of drinks work wonders on both the relaxation and networking front – these days I can’t imagine not being drink-free for both my business and social life.

As for how other people feel when they find out I don’t drink – I’ve noticed we often become uncomfortable. Maybe people feel judged or defensive of their choices. I’m learning to navigate this by being open, honest, and showing that I’m generally pro-alcohol for other people, just not for myself. I don’t have a problem with you drinking, I just didn’t like the way it made me feel or act.

And perhaps as more people embrace initiatives like Dry July and this month’s Ocsober, non-drinking can move from a place where it is considered out of the ordinary, to instead encourage others to consider learning who they are without a drink in their hand.

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