The Christmas party is in full swing when I arrive, bottles of wine strewn across tables, gossip being swapped, laughter reverberating around the restaurant. As I prepare to socialise with guests I’ve either never met or haven’t seen for months, my nerves are compounded by the fact that I’ve walked in late and alone.
This is the moment when I’d normally grab a glass of wine, those first ice-cold sips transforming me from awkward introvert to fearless, feisty partygoer.
I always saw my role as the entertainment at a get-together; the woman most likely to make an idiot of herself for laughs.
That was reliant on alcohol intake, of course. In fact, I had barely been in a social situation (festive or otherwise) sober. I had no idea how to engage with party guests without the anaesthetising self-detachment that came from sauvignon, not least during the festive period when everyone reaches their raucous, celebratory peak.
Antonia Hoyle opens up about staying sober – for the first time – during the famously tipsy festive season
But this time, when the waiter asks what I want to drink, I say: ‘Glass of water, please!’
This year, for the first time, I’m choosing to stay sober throughout the festive season.
Five hours later, I’m driving home, singing Fairytale Of New York at the top of my lungs, relieved, reminiscing on all the fun I’ve had — and relishing the fact that I won’t be hungover tomorrow. Nor, indeed, any other day for the rest of this year.
If you think a sober Christmas is an oxymoron, I understand. The unspoken rule that drinking this month is not only normal but expected is one to which I have, until this year, fully subscribed.
Last December I drank every day bar one, and most afternoons. My alcohol consumption escalated with every opened door on the advent calendar, but my sense of giddy abandon was accompanied by altogether less welcome 3am wake-ups and regret.
When others are drunk, they barely notice I’m not
So in January, burnt out, I stopped. Just for a month at first — I was a Dry January cliche — but I felt calmer, so I carried on. One month became two, and I grew so entranced by the benefits — more confidence, greater resilience, improved focus, the list goes on — I kept going. And going.
To my astonishment, nearly 12 months later, I am still completely sober. After three decades of enthusiastic, erratic and at times disastrous boozing, not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips.
The experience has been life-changing. My perception of myself altered, the shame and paranoia I wore unthinking for decades was replaced with a sense of pride.
Over the course of this year, I have changed from a woman whose identity was defined by alcohol, who viewed the prospect of a party without bubbly as unthinkable, to one passionate about the benefits of life without it.
And yet . . . now Christmas is here, my euphoric booze-free bubble is being buffeted by an avalanche of alcoholic temptation. For a fortnight, I have fantasised about pouring a Baileys or an amaretto over ice. As much for the festive ritual and numbing effect as for the flavour, which was always a secondary concern.
Mocktails are enjoyable but they are never going to be able to replicate that buzz.
It doesn’t help that alcohol is everywhere I turn. The wine I’m offered at the school Christingle; the groaning supermarket aisles selling festive liqueurs; and even the Christmas ‘On the Piste’ jumper worn by the man next to me on the train.
I feel the pull of a festive tipple during my hour spent detangling tree lights, previously unthinkable without alcoholic assistance; and when friends count down the days until they can down tools and ‘DRIIIIINK!’.
But I’m not planning to partake because if there is one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s this: just as alcohol (falsely) promises to shield us from pain, it also dulls feelings of joy — and nowhere is joy more plentiful than at Christmas. Far from retreating under the duvet with a festive family selection box, I’m ready to party more.
Nonetheless, this will be my first sober Christmas since I was a teenager, when necking cider (I know) in our local pub on Christmas Eve was a highlight of my festive season.
Party time: Antonia pictured at university, where her already heavy drinking intensified in December
Later, when I was a student at Edinburgh University, my already heavy drinking intensified in December, when New Year Hogmanay celebrations meant boozing into the early hours, then staggering home at 5am from house parties I could barely remember, hosted by people I hardly knew.
Drinking to blackout most weekends in my 20s, I found alcohol a way of escaping a nagging feeling that I was never good enough, as much as a means of entertainment.
Just as alcohol falsely promises to shield us from pain, it also dulls feelings of joy
Then there were the drunken office party humiliations. Take the time I flung my arms around an unsuspecting colleague on the dancefloor and told him I was in love with him (I wasn’t). Or the time I fell asleep on an important guest’s lap at another work Christmas party for two whole hours at the end of the night. Or when I got so drunk I emailed my boss to resign — and had to beg for my job back the next day, shamefaced.
After one office party in my 20s, I woke the next morning so hungover that when I went off to interview a soap star, I was too disorientated to remember questions.
‘You’re still drunk!’ he guffawed, amused rather than appalled because, what the heck, it’s Christmas.
Motherhood moderated my festive drinking but it still felt medicinal — more so, perhaps, to deal with the stress of Santa’s imminent arrival and the constant whirl of buying, baking, wrapping and decorating that the facade of family perfection required.
The rest of the year I rarely drank more than three or four times a week, but come Christmas I’d crack open a bottle on a Monday if it was December 1, and drink most evenings for the rest of the month, carried away by enticing options I’d never normally consider.
Mulled wine, to help me hang the decorations. Baileys, gulped like hot chocolate. Champagne at parties, as an alternative to the wine I knocked back on my sofa.
TEMPTED TO HAVE A TEETOTAL CHRISTMAS? TRY ANTONIA’S TIPS
- You don’t owe anyone an explanation. An ‘I feel happier without alcohol at the moment’ answer has helped me, but a straightforward ‘no thanks’ when offered a drink is also perfectly acceptable.
- Seek out children for sober inspiration. They don’t need tequila shots in order to storm the dancefloor.
- When possible, drive to a party. Not only will you have a failsafe justification not to drink, the flexibility of being able to leave whenever you want will help alleviate any sober anxiety.
- If you’re wondering whether to accept that drink, imagine what will happen if you do. Visualise waking up at 3am, the headache the next morning and the sense of dread as to what you said last night. Do you still want that cocktail?
- Follow sober influencers on social media if motivation flags — @thesoberschool and @sassysobermum are two of my favourites.
- Swap Baileys for a herbal tea; a glass of cava for a non-alcoholic prosecco. Pour it into a champagne flute even if you’re in your pyjamas — half the joy of alcohol is the sense that you’re treating yourself.
- If in doubt, ask questions. It’s hard to feel self-conscious when you’re listening to others talk — and drunk people never stop.
The first few sips were bliss but the rest of the evening would pass in a blur. And with every day I felt more hungover, more overwhelmed by all the festive chores I had yet to complete and the fear that I’d jeopardised my career or turned myself into a social pariah among school parents at parties.
On the Big Day itself, I’d progress from mulled wine to bubbly before lunch, followed by wine and liqueurs afterwards, barely sentient by the evening, let alone put in a strong performance during our annual game of Articulate!
So this year, on New Year’s Day, head banging in pain after drinking prosecco until the early hours, I knew I needed a break. For the first few months, I apologised for my sobriety as if it were an insult to the host. ‘I know it’s stupid, I thought I’d just give it a go,’ I’d mumble as I turned down prosecco for tonic water.
Sometimes, subconsciously I think, I found myself acting drunk, raising my voice or tying napkins on my head at dinner parties, desperate to convince friends I was still exciting.
Admittedly, there has been the occasional disappointed comment — ‘I want drunk fun Toni back’ and ‘What a waste!’ — but even though they voiced my greatest fears, I was relieved rather than offended to hear them. Far better that people say what they think to my face than criticise me behind my back.
Lots of friends told me I didn’t have a problem and surely I could have ‘just one’. They were right. I didn’t, and don’t, have a problem with alcohol, insofar as I drank no more than many other women my age.
But the longer I stayed sober, the more I saw alcohol not as a life-affirming substance that some unfortunate people can’t cope with, but as an addictive toxin that affects everyone who drinks to a greater or lesser extent.
And, yes, I probably could have one drink. But as someone who has never done anything by halves (be it drinking, exercise or work), limiting myself to a solitary glass might feel like a perpetual exercise in self-denial.
Even those people impressed by my sobriety can still react as if I have voluntarily abandoned a life support system.
‘Good for you, but no way I could do it,’ one man spluttered into his pint at a party last week.
A woman I met at another had recently downloaded the Drink Less app to log her alcohol consumption, only to delete it within days after exceeding her weekly recommended units: ‘At Christmas, it felt a bit depressing!’
Another said she’d sunk a couple of cocktails before arriving because if she hadn’t ‘there would be ‘too much me’ ‘ — which can sum up sobriety.
Without the comfort blanket of alcohol, I often feel raw, vulnerable, exposed. But I have discovered that if I brazen out the first awkward (OK, terrifying) half hour of a party, the evening quickly becomes more comfortable.
Clutching a non-alcoholic prosecco, I could be mistaken for a drinker — and when others are drunk, they barely notice that I’m not.
Watching the inebriated from a sober vantage point has been an anthropological eye-opener. To my astonishment, I realise some friends I’d always assumed were getting drunk at a similar rate to me were, in fact, only sipping a couple of drinks all evening.
A few drinkers — my favourites — shower compliments and indiscretions. But others simply repeat themselves, unaware that it’s the third time they have told me their shed door is faulty or their son has won a scholarship.
Prior to stopping drinking, caught in a spiral of self-loathing, I was convinced I was the only person with low self-esteem. But watching eyes glaze over and secrets being spilled as alcohol takes hold, I have realised that everyone, no matter how outwardly confident, is vulnerable. Without doubt, I have become more compassionate this year as a result.
I had worried that nobody would want to talk to me but, as the year progressed, I found I actually had more to say.
As a drinker, parties were never primarily about the people I would see but the justification they offered for seeking oblivion. Without drink, I found I was so much more interested in mingling. And the more I connected with people, the more my confidence grew.
Once I accepted that nobody cared what I looked like, I even — shockingly — started to dance.
The journalist gave up alcohol earlier this year – after trying out dry January. She is now embracing her first Christmas period without any tipples. Stock image used
“I’m dancing and I’m sober!” I roared to my brother
At a summer family wedding, I bopped all evening. ‘I’m dancing and I’m sober!’ I roared, delighted, to my brother.
Since then, I have flung myself around at a ceilidh with nothing stronger than apple juice for Dutch courage and hollered Take That’s Never Forget at the top of my voice at a friend’s 40th.
Far from sloping off early, I’m often the last to leave; when you’re not digesting a substance that dulls the nervous system, it turns out you have more energy. My husband — a take-it-or- leave-it drinker — has been the biggest supporter of sober me. He told people at a recent party that I was not only happier without alcohol but more fun.
The longer I have socialised without alcohol, the more I have realised that everything it offers is an illusion.
Alcohol releases artificially high levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that signals we are doing something pleasurable. Yet the high only lasts for 20 minutes — at which stage we crave another drink to replicate that elusive first-sip feeling.
‘Alcohol is a sedative, a depressant. It inhibits or depresses nerve activity, making us feel dulled,’ says William Porter, the author of Alcohol Explained, an analysis of the physiological effects of alcohol. ‘Our cognitive ability is reduced.’
Our brain tries to counter this effect by releasing chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol, which leads to increased brain sensitivity that can last for days.
‘The overstimulation that kicks in after alcohol wears off can leave you jittery and you may find it harder to concentrate,’ says Porter, adding that alcohol also increases the heart rate, which leads the brain to tell you to rest: ‘In this way, drinking robs you of energy.’
Indeed, a study last March found just one alcoholic drink a day could shrink the brain.
But while the health risks of alcohol are undisputed, only as a non-drinker have I fully appreciated the societal damage inflicted, especially at Christmas.
In the space of an hour this week, I came across a vomit-blocked sink in a bar, a man swearing at a ticket inspector for telling him he’d bought the wrong train tickets, and a couple having a slurred, expletive-ridden fight. I write without judgment — I’m guilty of worse — but the unedifying side-effects help me withstand the pressure to drink this month.
And standing my ground has so far proved exhilarating. ‘I can’t believe I’m drunk and you’re not, for the first time ever,’ one friend told me at a party this week, insisting that she was proud. And not just because she would no longer need to keep prodding me awake in the taxi on our way home, but because ‘I can see how much you’re getting out of it’.
Going sober isn’t a festive silver bullet. I still have meals to plan, presents to buy and no idea how to fit in all our guests.
But without the alcohol-induced fog, nothing seems insurmountable and I haven’t cut back our Christmas schedule. If anything, I’ve turbo-charged it. I’ve accepted every party invitation, knowing no social occasion will wipe out the next morning or dim my enjoyment of my children’s excitement.
On Christmas Day I’ll wake up hangover-free and experience every moment unfiltered, from rowdy dawn stocking-opening to my dad and I losing at Articulate! again (some things I don’t expect to change).
So bring on the parties, the cheer and the human connection. Sober me wants to celebrate.