Diary of a sober shamer

Richard Piper | May 2021 | 9 minutes

From every day drinker and 'sober shamer' to CEO of an alcohol charity - read Richard's story.

2017. I’ve just received a phone call with the news I’ve been waiting for: I’ve been appointed CEO of the charity that will become Alcohol Change UK.

I tell my family, delighted. But my 11-year-old younger daughter looks incredulous. “Do they know about you?!” An embarrassed silence falls for a moment, until my wonderful partner says, “Your dad’s drinking is fine.”

But it wasn’t fine. I was drinking every day and had done for years. My entire identity was wrapped up in being a drinker of real ale, although I destroyed bottles of wine too. I would always be the first to suggest a trip to the pub for work drinks, and the last to leave. When the free wine flowed at events I’d be one of those people (and there are many of us!) always keeping an eye on how many people were drinking red and white so I could choose the colour where I’d get the most.

If I was going to be the CEO I needed to be, to support my team and to inspire real change, to have credibility, and to save and improve lives, then I had to address my own drinking.

If I was going to be the CEO I needed to be, then I had to address my own drinking.

I started tracking my drinking using our brilliant app and signed up for Dry January in 2018. (I’d tried the do-it-yourself version of Dry January in 2016, but without Alcohol Change UK’s insight and motivation I found that I was back to habitual drinking within weeks.) I joined our incredible private Facebook group, Dry January and Beyond, and learned so much from the 2016 and 2017 cohorts, and was so supported by my 2018 tribe.

While at an academic ‘drinking studies’ conference during January, I found there was loads of free wine – but you had to pay for soft drinks. I posted to the group that I was close to caving, and received a tidal wave of warmth, support and practical advice. “Just spend the £3 on your cranberry juice. You can’t fight both your cravings and the unjust ‘free wine’ principle. Beat your cravings first.” I spent the money, successfully managed the post-conference trip to the pub and stayed dry all evening. I got up at 7am the next morning, ran a 10k before breakfast, showered, and felt amazing.

Since then, I’ve taken total control of my drinking. I’ve experimented, trying every no/very low alcohol drink I can. I’ve read, listened, reflected and learned. I’ve kept achieving new badges in the Try Dry app. And I’ve watched with wonder as thousands of people have transformed their drinking with our support.

I’ve taken total control of my drinking. I’ve experimented, trying every no/very low alcohol drink I can. I’ve read, listened, reflected and learned. I’ve kept achieving new badges in the Try Dry app.

I now define myself as an occasional drinker. A weekly moderation pattern is not for me. Who says we need to drink alcohol every week? I am proudly “dry by default” but will have alcohol if there is an occasion where I feel I will genuinely enjoy it. Such occasions now seem remarkably rare! I still love beer and really enjoy trying the hundreds of no/ultra-low alcohol beers now available, many of them excellent.

I look back with some regret on my own drinking: the evenings I fell asleep while reading the girls a bedtime story because I’d had two lunchtime pints, the music festivals where I missed the music, the holidays where I was just not as present as I could have been, the health risks I exposed myself to.

But I look back with most regret on how I acted about other people’s drinking. I was a sober shamer. I made people feel bad if they weren’t drinking. I encouraged people around me to drink as much as they could (and as much I wanted to, so I didn’t feel like I was the odd one out). I ridiculed people who chose not to drink. I couldn’t understand them. I thought there was something wrong with them, when actually there was something wrong with me and my judgemental attitude. I regret that.

I made people feel bad if they weren’t drinking. I couldn’t understand them. I thought there was something wrong with them, when actually there was something wrong with me and my judgemental attitude.

Fortunately, I’ve changed. Some people don’t drink: over a fifth of the adult population and growing. Many people will choose not to drink on holiday, not to drink at your party, not to drink this evening, not to drink this month, not to drink after 10pm, or whatever. They don’t need a reason, and they definitely don’t need to give that reason to you or me.

Sober shaming often isn’t unkindly meant – it’s unthinking. Too often in the UK we admire heavy drinking and ridicule people who choose not to drink. This herd mentality makes it harder for people to change. Currently, if you try to not drink, you have to run in the opposite direction to the herd and put up with criticism and even anger. It can be genuinely upsetting. That’s one of the reasons why, contrary to the common myth, people do not have a totally free choice to drink or not drink. To choose not to drink is much harder than choosing to drink in many parts of our society.

We need a culture where people looking to make a change to their drinking have the full support of their colleagues, friends and family; and where they don’t have to endlessly explain why they aren’t drinking or pretend that they are. Let’s support people who are cutting back on or stopping drinking, just as we would support someone cutting back on or stopping smoking.

We need a culture where people looking to make a change to their drinking have the full support of their colleagues, friends and family; and where they don’t have to endlessly explain why they aren’t drinking or pretend that they are.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, people around the UK are excited to see their friends and family – but many are also nervous. Lots of us have made changes to our drinking over the past year and are unsure how those changes will be received.

So be a good mate. We can all make other people’s experience a little easier if we consciously, deliberately stop sober shaming and offer support instead. Who’s with me?

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