Sobriety and Mental Health: Making Changes

World Mental Health Day falls in the second week of Sober October – fitting, given that the links between a more sober curious lifestyle and better mental health are undeniable. Jon Wilks, Co-Founder of REAL, recalls the changes he experienced a decade after going sober.

In the years since I’ve been involved with REAL, I’ve written on numerous occasions about my past experiences as a heavy drinker. At the height of my issues with alcohol, it threatened to completely derail my life. Getting beyond those issues was not easy, but once I felt I’d put a comfortable distance between myself and my drinking days, I knew I wanted to do something that might help other people. My involvement with REAL is a direct result of that.

One of the things that we celebrate most enthusiastically here at REAL is that clear-headed, energy-filled lifestyle – a sober-curious life lived unadulterated and undrunk, full of inquisitiveness and fresh experience. It’s a lifestyle that chimes vividly with me because I recall so acutely how the exact opposite felt.

In April 2007, I was three months into my 30th year. I had a young son, a wife I loved very much, a fascinating job, and I was living in the balmy South of Japan. On paper, everything looked great. And yet I could barely get out of bed. Quite literally. I was floored by two “situations” that appeared to feed off one another. As I lay in bed, missing work deadlines, repeatedly failing to live up to my familial responsibilities, I was in the midst of a depression that had gripped me in my mid-20s and never really lifted. Quite how I’d found myself quite so waylaid had a huge amount to do with the second of the situations: I found that the best way to be “me” (or, at least, the person I thought was me) was to go out and drink four or five pints until I felt I was the life and soul of the party.

“I was fresh into my 30s, everything to live for, but with the blankets pulled tightly over my head.”

You could add to that a third dilemma: when I was sober, I was anxious. Not just worried, mind you; I would get severe fight-or-flight panic attacks without warning. Trains, planes, crowded places, enclosed spaces… they all became situations to avoid. The only way to calm my nerves, it seemed, was to find a bar and have a drink. Or to stay in bed. And so that’s where I found myself. As I say: I was fresh into my 30s, everything to live for, but with the blankets pulled tightly over my head.

It seems strange to say this with hindsight, but the conversation around mental health had barely begun in 2007. It certainly wasn’t a common topic of conversation where I was living, at any rate. And the idea that avoiding alcohol might help things… well, that seemed almost unheard of. I stumbled upon that clear-headed, newfound energy quite by accident.

“When we discuss issues with alcohol, we lack sufficient wording to explain the full spectrum of what that might mean.”

Here’s a thing I’ve learnt during my time writing for this website and recording episodes of The REAL Podcast: when we discuss issues with alcohol, we lack sufficient wording to explain the full spectrum of what that might mean. I didn’t fit with the stereotypical image of an alcoholic (I wasn’t pouring myself a drink over breakfast, for example), but I had a deep level of dependency. I couldn’t go out and have a pint without it becoming four. But there was no language with which to describe what I was going through. If I wasn’t alcoholic, what was I? There was no label. Without having a way to speak about it, it simply became something I never spoke about at all.

As I say, I’ve written about this in numerous places, and I subsequently hear from people who are, quite commonly, from my generation. I came of age in the early-to-mid 90s. Britpop ruled. If you weren’t “having it large”, you weren’t anyone at all. By the mid-noughties, quite a number of us were starting to feel that the ability to “live forever” might be all hype. These days, on occasion, I’ll read articles by journalists who managed to make it into their 40s before it caught up with them and sober curiosity kicked in. I’m always amazed that they were able to last that long. They must have had much stronger constitutions! But I’m glad that they’ve managed to discover that sense of clarity and renewed energy, too. It’s an incredibly welcome thing.

“Without having a way to speak about it, it simply became something I never spoke about at all.”

There’s no question that alcohol and good mental health are unhappy bedfellows. Take a look at this article on the Drinkware website. Better still, here’s a direct quote…

“Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect. This means it’s not always clear whether drinking alcohol causes a person to experience symptoms of depression. What we do know is that alcohol affects several nerve-chemical systems within our bodies which are important in regulating our mood. Studies show that depression can follow on from heavy drinking. And that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood.”

And it doesn’t even have to be “heavy drinking” before we notice it taking a toll. I think each of us have enough lived experience to be able to know that alcohol can slow you down. Think how sluggish you might feel the morning after a couple of midweek glasses of wine, or how tired you feel the morning after a mini-session (aside from anything else, alcohol, being a diuretic, may make your midnight trips to the bathroom more frequent, resulting in interrupted sleep). I remember joking that the blood in my veins must’ve been 70% proof. I’m sure you’ve thought the same. Even if it’s not quite that strong, it lingers in the system and can knock your immune system.

Now, we’re not advocating that people quit alcohol altogether without good reason. This article is entirely about one person’s experience, and we’re all different. However, a little bit of balance can go a long way. With all of the above in mind, it’s easy to see why a period of abstinence might make you feel more refreshed, which may, in turn, lead to a better sense of mental wellness.

“Maybe don’t drink for a bit, yeah?”

As far as my experience goes, as I mentioned earlier, I accidentally found my way to stopping. In those first few weeks of my 30s, I began experiencing a heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). The doctors weren’t sure whether this had more to do with my alcohol intake or my growing anxiety disorder (which the arrhythmia only served to exacerbate), but they surmised that they probably fed each other, and that neither were doing me any good. In order to deal with the arrhythmia, I was told to cut back on the booze. (Or, to put it in the surprisingly casual words of one doctor I was sent to, “I can’t be 100% sure your heart will keep beating through the night. Maybe don’t drink for a bit, yeah?” )

And so I stopped. That indirect wake-up call certainly helped, but what helped the most was having a supportive family and wonderful friends. I quit alcohol at the beginning of April, 2007, and my particularly good buddies went out of their way to keep me strolling onwards every time I passed a bar. I became something of a connoisseur of non-alcoholic drinks, quickly surmising that there was almost nothing out there that excited the palate, and that boredom could easily lead to the edge of a slippery slope. Hence my involvement with REAL. While I can’t claim that David has found a cure or an antidote, keeping yourself interested and inquisitive can certainly help distract the mind from other possibilities.

Which brings me back to that sense of clarity and renewed energy. While I didn’t quit alcohol in an attempt to improve my mental health, my mental health certainly improved as a result. I got out of bed, for starters! And I believe it’s no coincidence that I received a series of promotions within the following months. By the age of 32, I was a magazine editor for Time Out, having moved abroad to experience more of the world. It’s almost impossible to imagine how that happened within such a short space of time, but I’m certain that giving up booze re-awoke a passion for life, a sense of inquisitiveness and a drive that had long been put to sleep.

Note that this article is very much the experience of one person, and that issues with alcohol should be taken seriously at an individual level. If you feel that alcohol is affecting your mental health, head to the NHS website for alcohol support.

For further articles on experiences relating to sobriety and mental health…