A couple of years ago I was in a sticky-floored nightclub in Birmingham getting a late drink. A mate was buying me a cocktail. I don’t much like nightclubs, or cocktails, but I was going with the flow. I had just made a documentary called Drinkers Like Me. The idea of it was to point out that just because you are not waking up in a shop doorway or drinking sherry in the morning, you may well still be drinking more than is good for you and have some dependency issues.
A woman, very well refreshed, tottered towards me and shouted: “I fookin’ loved your drinking programme.”
This kind of thing happens a lot. I thanked her for the compliment, but wondered if she had slightly missed the idea of the film. Sensing my thoughts, she added: “I did sober October.”
“Oh, great,” I said. “And what are you doing now?”
“Can’t remember November!” she said delightedly, and off she went.
I had to hand it to her, this was a good line. Obviously I don’t know anything about this woman – it might have been her only drink between October and Christmas – but it does point to the danger with periods of abstinence such as dry January or sober October: you can quickly end up back where you started, or worse. “Of course I don’t have a problem with booze,” you’ll speciously claim, if challenged. “I didn’t touch a drop for a whole month and it was fine.”
If it is not your intention to moderate your drinking in the long term, it possibly is fine, up to a point. It may be this was your way of proving to yourself that you are in control of your drinking rather than the other way around. On that, I am sceptical, but if you have been off the bottle for a month without totally going to pieces, it probably does indicate that you are not so dangerously dependent on alcohol that you experience significant physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop. (Hopefully the dangers of that would have been spelled out to you before you embarked on sober October.) If you can manage a month off it, that suggests that you could, if you wanted, cut down full-time.
To achieve that, come the end of this month, you will need a plan. Only last night, in the course of research for a book I am writing about how to drink less, I had a Zoom call with eight drinkers from the UK, Ireland and Canada, who had gone through a period of abstinence with a view to cutting down permanently. One had stayed dry; the others had changed their drinking with varying degrees of success. They had all gone about it in different ways, but they all agreed on one thing: that before the end of sober October (or whatever) comes, you need to have decided on a plan of action.
I could not agree more. I have now cut down my drinking from between 50 and 100 units a week to between 10 and 30. I have not achieved this through any period of abstinence. In the past, such periods did not work for me long term. At the end of the 46 days of Lent, I would swear blind: “I will not go back to drinking like I was before.” On each occasion it took me around 10 days to go back to drinking exactly like I was before. I now realise that was because I had not thought things through. What the plan is matters less than merely having one. To be clear, therapy involving some exploration of the underlying psychological causes of excessive drinking can be useful. But that is a different conversation. Here, I am talking about day-to-day practical steps.
What has worked for me is slavishly counting my units, monitoring what I am drinking. I use the brilliant Drink Less app for this. You can also log your mood, calories and so on. You get to see where you are at; the units tell no lies. It has helped me identify which drinks I really want and enjoy, and which ones I can do without. Between now and Christmas, you could set yourself a number of weekly units that you do not want to exceed and try to stick to that. Importantly, if you feel you cannot get down to the 14 units a week recommended by the NHS, that is not a reason to give up the whole endeavour in desperation. The medical evidence is that anything you can do to drink less will benefit you; marginal gains are available here. Cutting down from 50 to 30, for example, is well worth doing. Getting down closer to 14 can wait until the New Year.
No two drinking stories are the same, and neither are reduction strategies. I have spoken to post-abstinent drinkers who, having lost interest in alcohol completely – often through talking therapy – just have the odd glass of prosecco every now and then to be sociable. Others, like the comedian John Robins, remain extremely keen on drinking, but bring their numbers down by undertaking to have so many dry days a year and sticking to that, no matter what. Robins marks these days on a big calendar.
Other ideas I have come across include: only drink on alternate days; only at weekends; never at home; only at home; dilute your beer with soda water; make the first two drinks of your night out alcohol-free; make the last drink of the evening alcohol-free because there is no point having more booze as it will only take effect when you are asleep anyway; don’t drink before you go out; don’t drink when you get home; only drink with food; drink as much water as wine. The list goes on.
I appreciate underlying causes need dealing with – but in the meantime, whatever works for you, works. If it doesn’t work, don’t give up, for heaven’s sake – forgive yourself and try again. If it still doesn’t work, try another tack.
Geoff Jein, co-host of the Wet and Dry podcast, had not drunk for more than a year when I spoke to him, but was nevertheless planning to go back to drinking. “I’m still working out what kind of drinker I want to be,” he said. Nicely put, I thought – a really important question to ask yourself. My answer is this: I just want to enjoy the drinks I do have all the more for drinking fewer of them. I’m getting there.
• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist