A Journey Out of Alcohol

Words by Diego Guirola

The 11th January 2014, like most other weekend mornings, I woke up with a terrible hangover. The colossal kind. But somewhere I had made a tiny degree of change that was mounting, and would put me on a trajectory to a completely different place.

Bingeing

The night before, like most other Friday nights, I headed out to meet a few friends at a local bar. It was a 25 minute walk from my house and too long for me to go without a drink on a Friday night. I had drank half a bottle of wine and some left over scotch before I left the house. I was drunk by the time I got there. The binge drinking had been having an effect on me for quite some time, and being drunk was no longer fun, however I just couldn't stop once I had started.

Before diving deeper into my ‘blind drunk’ stage that evening, one of the last things I remember as I held a bottle of Sierra Nevada Ale in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was confessing to a friend that I didn’t want to do this anymore. It was a small glimmer of self-awareness that was quickly doused by schooner after schooner of beer at the next bar.

My memory after that is made up of short snippets of dark scenes. One involving spilling someone’s drink at the bar as I tried to make my way through the crowd, and mumbling something incoherently to a friend I had bumped into before being kindly asked to leave.

Beer bottles canva

The Morning After Realisation

The next day I woke up with a thumping headache, heavy lungs, kebab sauce down my chest, a scraped knee and still wearing my clothes from the night before, smelling of cigarettes, Pure Blonde and a slight hint of Davidoff Adventure.

As usual, I jumped out of bed in a panic to search for my wallet and phone. But putting off checking my bank balance for fear of knowing how much that hangover had cost me. I was now 31 years old, and had been following this routine for the previous thirteen years. Relieved that I had found my phone, I reached for a panadol then started scrolling through the news of the day—desperate for anything to take my mind off the pain my body was enduring.

The first article I read was that Daniel Christie, the victim of the coward punch in Kings Cross over new year’s eve, had passed away. I didn’t know Daniel but perhaps in my heightened emotional state, the story touched me deeply. He could’ve easily been my brother, my friend, or me on any given weekend.

After navigating my way out of the house that afternoon like a vampire on a day pass, I headed off on my weekly pilgrimage to Oporto for my burger, chips and coke, feeling low and depleted of energy. I went to a small neighbourhood park for a few hours with some music to lie in the sun and to ride out the hangover.

As I watched the world happen around me, a world I was increasingly missing out on during weekends, I was struck by an intense feeling of grief and decided that things needed to change in my life—starting with a break from from alcohol for at least a few weeks. That glimmer of self awareness hadn’t left me.

Aware of the Ugliness of Alcohol

The following weekend I headed off to see a friends’ band at the Factory Theatre, determined to stay sober the whole night. On the way, I walked into a pub to use the ATM. Before I made it to the machine, I had an ugly confrontation with an aggressive drunk much larger than myself who blocked my way and tried to pull my headphones off me. He had caught me by surprise, and my natural instinct told me he was probably someone I knew, until I registered his alcohol-induced anger and threat in his expression. Someone saw this and started walking towards us, and again, my instinct told me he was coming to protect me from his out of control friend, but instead started yelling at me something I couldn’t make out over the sound of the music and loud banter around us.

I managed to grab my headphones, and, fortunate to be standing near the doorway, ran away fast while hearing glasses smash on the road behind me. I knew that reasoning with them would’ve proven fruitless—I wouldn’t have stood a chance with these guys, not with their level of intoxication.I got to the gig just in time to see the band, but I was shaken and in no mood to stay out. After a quick chat with my friend Karl, I decided to call it a night.

Following these incidents, I reflected a great deal on my own drinking habits and the overall binge drinking culture I was surrounded by—one I was undeniably a major contributor to. While I was never violent, I was a part of this culture that was being discussed heavily in the media at the time, that seems endemic in our society. The culture that took Daniel Christie’s life.

Need for Drastic Action

I realised the next day that a few weeks of abstinence was not going to be enough. I needed longer and was determined, more than ever, to lead a healthier life. I had told myself this many times in the past, but I had finally reached such a low point that I knew I had no option but to take a drastic measure and turn my life around.

That small glimmer of self awareness that struck me on that night out with friends was something that had been resurfacing continuously, getting stronger each time and harder to ignore. Desperate for inspiration, I spent hours reading online blogs of others who had quit alcohol for long periods of time, and eventually came across Hello Sunday Morning. An immediate sense of relief swept over me like a tidal wave with the realisation that I wasn’t alone. There were so many people out there just like me, aware of the detrimental effects binge drinking was having on their lives and a strong desire to change.

The time had finally come to stop kidding myself, stop being all talk, and start making real, tangible changes to truly improve my life and start living the change I wanted to see in myself and in the world. I signed up to a twelve month HSM; a pledge to take a year off alcohol.

Navigating Life Without Alcohol

The first few weeks were full of confusion. How would I do the time in the land of unknown sobriety, or would the time do me? Would I crumble at the first party I attended? Or worse, would I become a social recluse? While the HSM website got me in touch with others facing the same issues, giving me a platform to share my experiences and receive support anonymously, I still had to face the outside world.

Whether we recognise it or not, alcohol plays a major part in our lives. It’s with us most weekends at parties, social events and first dates, to name a few. It’s a security blanket and a tool we have convinced ourselves helps us ‘unwind’ and ‘relax’ and gives us a sense of confidence that sobriety cannot.

Some advice I was given at the start was to find something to replace alcoholsomething I could clutch onto and refocus my energy on. I had joined gyms on and off in the past, never committing. I had tried boot camp in the previous year but found myself only going once a week; after a massive weekend of bingeing my body would not be ready for any form of exercise until the following Wednesday, the money was mostly wasted.

Three weeks into my twelve months of abstinence, a colleague at work convinced me to join CrossFit. I cautiously joined, and despite a shaky start, to this day have never looked back. It became my clutch, and the new-found energy propelled me deeper into the world of sobriety. It opened me up to a whole new group of people whose lives did not revolve around drinking excessively on weekends.

Coming Out to Friends

In the first three months, I kept a low profile, trying to avoid any triggers that might suddenly break my resolve, and concentrated solely on my fitness.

As I started telling my close friends of my decision to stop drinking, many were surprised (and probably relieved) as they had no idea alcohol was affecting my emotional state but conceded I usually drank too much too fast on most occasions. I had lost count of how many times I had been refused service at a bar, made a fool of myself at a work event, been kicked out by bouncers or had my best mate make sure I was safely in a cab. Hearing these stories wasn’t just embarrassing, it was deeply hurtful. The truth is, people are more what they hide than what they show.

Knowing I couldn’t hide from the world forever, I slowly started going out again, which included taking a trip with friends to Daylesford we already had planned. Facing these situations was an extremely confronting experienceI was forced to confront my insecurities without alcohol.

I was forced to meet new people, forced to entertain myself and forced to hold conversations at parties and work events without the false self confidence alcohol had given me since my late teens. I was now compelled to be my natural self, and to get to know the guy behind the booze. What I was doing was rebellious. I was rebelling against a social norm that most people don’t give a second thought to. That part strangely felt great.

Having Time For Friends, Life

As the year passed, this became less of a challenge, and I realised I was no longer abstaining from the sauce; I was no longer restraining myself from something I enjoyed doing. Instead, I was finally liberated from it. The heavy role it had played in my life up until that point became apparent. A distressful realisation, only eclipsed by the excitement of the journey I was now on.

In contrast to my initial fears about how this would affect my social life, the experience gave me an opportunity to nurture and improve my relationship with close friends. One even commented how I was finally keeping my weekend breakfast commitments, as opposed to using my hangovers as an excuse to cancel in the last minute.

I set fitness goals throughout the year to keep me motivated and participated in the Tough Blokes Challenge and in the Melbourne Marathon, events that had previously seemed so foreign to me yet now filled me with a buzz and ecstasy like never before.

Connecting Meaningfully

With new people I would meet, I started becoming more selective as to who I let into my life and I found myself building more meaningful relationships.

Dating was by far one of the biggest challenges. On almost every first date I had to reject an alcoholic beverage, and the conversation would inevitably turn to alcohol. I had to tread carefully between explaining the reasons for my twelve month break, while not coming across like someone with a drinking problem who might scare off a potential boyfriend.

Most people were ok with it, and one guy even texted me a few weeks later thanking me for introducing him to HSM. He told me that after our conversation he had recognised he had a binge drinking problem and had signed up to take a 3 month break and wanted to express his gratitude.

That text made my day. To know I could’ve potentially helped one person make a positive change in their lives was almost as exciting as scoring a second date (which unfortunately, never eventuated).

New View on Alcohol

It’s now been six months since I completed my one year off the booze, and my relationship with alcohol has changed for the better. While it didn’t turn me into a teetotaller, drinking has taken a backseat. It’s now a choice (it always had been), and the majority of time I choose not to drink. I treat alcohol differently now. I don’t see it as something I need, or more importantly, something I deserve.

The most common question I was asked before the end of my twelve month commitment was whether I would celebrate the end of it with a ‘massive night on the piss’. Perhaps at the start, I thought I would. But as time went on, I became aware that one of my biggest problems was that, like most people, I had always treated alcohol like a ‘reward’.

Drinking to reward ourselves or others is a normal practice we have witnessed adults do since we were kids. I no longer view alcohol like that. I deserve much better. When I reached my twelve month mark, I celebrated with a close friend who had supported me every step of the waywith an early breakfast and a kayak around Manly.

Back in Control

I have reclaimed my entire weekends, and life is far more exciting. While I learnt that avoiding booze isn’t a silver bullet solution to fix all your problems, it certainly puts you in a better physical and emotional state to deal with them.

I am more serious about my health and fitness than ever before, and am pleased with the way I treat my body. I’m no adonis, but I’m proud of my gains at CrossFit, my strength and my mental focus, clarity and drive.

The benefits have extended beyond health. I am now in control of my finances and those soul crushing bank balance surprises are a thing of the past. I’m also saving for a deposit on my first home, a dream I never thought possible.

The lesson it has taught me has been life changing: you cannot change what you refuse to confront.

Diego's story has been featured here:

New York Times, 'Experiments in Sobriety'

Daily Telegraph, The Stranger's Death that Saved One Man's Life

Hello Sunday Morning's video about Diego: