Why I don’t miss alcohol

I probably live in the world’s worst city to avoid alcohol. Within a 15-minute walk of my home in Edinburgh, I can count at least eight pubs or bars. In one direction. It brings a whole new meaning to 15-minute cities – and not exactly the one urban planners might endorse.

At this time of year especially, when Scotland’s streets shine with wintry rain, there would be nothing better than returning warmth to soaked toes with a dram. Except I have given up alcohol. For me, January, December and every month in between in 2024 will be dry.

This admission is not one I make lightly in print for all the world to judge. I can already hear the shouts of “killjoy!” and “what a bore!” Some people barely bother to mask eye-rolls. Grown men have even performed an inelegant moonwalk away when, upon rejecting a glass of wine, I have explained I am teetotal. Some have simply not believed it. At a business lunch in London, one entrepreneur still poured me a glass of red “in case you change your mind”. He may as well have thrown £25 out of the window.

My decision to give up was purely a lifestyle choice. After having my son, I found drinking became less and less pleasurable. Even wine with dinner would leave me with a migraine – and days of remorseless anxiety. Many parents will know the wretchedness of running around a playground after small children while nursing a hangover.

Initially I aimed to cut down. Then I simply stopped bothering. One glass no longer seemed worth the after-effects.

In the UK, where alcohol is still the lifeblood of so much social interaction, choosing a life without alcohol in my age group – I have now hurdled 40 – is still relatively uncommon. Generation Z are more comfortable with it. In the last NHS health survey on drinking, 77 per cent of women aged 35-44 said they had consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months. For 16-24 year old females, the percentage was 58 per cent. Corresponding numbers for men were higher, but still, the generational difference is clear.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why younger Britons are more comfortable with a non-drinking culture, says Andrew Misell, a director at Alcohol Change UK, the charity behind the Dry January campaign. Factors may include Gen Z socialising more online and a greater awareness of physical and social health. Some may be rejecting their parents’ habits. How very rebellious of them. 

By contrast, older generations can feel peer pressure to drink socially. The Eurosport and TNT Sports presenter Orla Chennaoui, who has discussed giving up alcohol on Instagram, told me that when she stopped eight and a half years ago, “peer pressure, and that embarrassment almost at explaining that I wasn’t drinking any more, was definitely one of the biggest challenges initially. I remember hiding in a toilet for most of the night once when I found myself next to a man I’d never met before who kept insisting I must be pregnant, an alcoholic or both!” Now, she says, “I’d have a witty retort to hand or a better way of dealing with it, but some people can be incredibly rude.”

Sometimes it is easier not to have the conversation. Non-drinkers always worry they will be thought of as less fun. Thankfully, when I told a colleague this week that I was teetotal, I was heartened when he joked: “Really? But you are still funny.”

My close friends and family have been largely supportive, although my dear mum still offers me champagne at Christmas and on birthdays. Then again, a lot of them also have small children or are runners like me, so periods of sobriety were not uncommon anyway. In wider friendship circles I have, though, been missed off invitations for cocktails.

Has life improved? Immeasurably. Fewer migraines, far less anxiety. I have now become one of those annoying early-morning runners who manages to run five or 10km before the rest of my family stirs. Although I always ran, I would often need a couple of hours – or even a whole day – to psych myself up. My skin, which has never been brilliant, is less blemished.

Another pleasant side effect has been an ability to stay out socialising for longer. I once feared weddings, as the free-flowing pre-dinner fizz would cause me to flake out early. This summer I danced energetically at a dear friend’s celebration until the wee small hours.

As for those atmospheric Edinburgh taverns, all is not lost. Some have started to stock good non-alcoholic takes on gin, once my preferred tipple. There may be some hope for my rain-soaked toes after all.