The Cynic's Guide to Sobriety

Because we live in a sodden society

The Cynic's Guide to Sobriety

I've been away plying my trade and visiting long-lost kin among the endless howling voids of Australia's Gold Coast, and have only just returned to civilisation. Now, I collect my scattered wits, trying and failing to wrestle some cogent sentences out of the black matter of my brain. Luckily, my old mate JJW is here. The JJW stands for Jackson, James, Wood. He's a good sort, Wood. After 11 years of sobriety in a society that looks aghast at mere moderation, he has some reckons, and he asked if I'd like to publish his latest as a guest piece.

Of course, I did. Take it away, JJ(W).

It’s been a hot minute since I last wrote about alcohol. Surprisingly, the thought of problem solving with booze hasn’t come up in the rolodex my lizard-brain inner-monologue flips through when trying to prompt a response from sober JJW. Spoilers: alcohol is not good at solving problems.

Even when the thought does pop up, I have 11½ years of sobriety to ponder on and help me navigate some of the truly terrible spanners the universe has thrown into my life over recent years.

Because of this long running streak of sobriety — surpassing philately as the longest thing I have ever stuck with — people often ask me something like: got any tips on cutting back the booze / how do I stop drinking alcohol?

A digital collage centred around an illustration of a sober person sitting at table looking sad as people are drinking heavily.

Spoilers: alcohol is not a good way to solve problems.

Most recently, a friend — who we’ll call Shitkicker McGee — reached out seeking advice:

Can you offer any guidance on how to reduce/stop drinking? It’s something I would like to do, but I’m not quite sure where to start. I would really appreciate any thoughts that you can share!

Because I am currently in a very productive mood where writing is helping me get into states of flow and process aforementioned spanners, I thought I would tap out my reckons for Shitkicker and share them with you all in the hope it helps you reconsider your relationship with alcohol and/or support you in your sober journey.

To get into the mindset, I went back and read some of the things I wrote in very early sobriety. You can go read them here on The Wireless and Ours and listen to a segment on RNZ where I talked about alcohol and other drugs.

I stand by everything I wrote/said back then. My only thought, with 10 years hindsight, is I should have given the people who got married a heads up about using the dude from their wedding as an example. Sorry team, it was a lovely wedding, and although I haven’t seen you in years, I still think you’re both aces.

(No sorries to the fuckwit who accosted me about not drinking and then passed out in the shower though. Fuck you.)

One passage from this piece stuck with me:

I’m not quite sure why I need to have a drink in my hand to make others feel comfortable. But I am comfortable with taking the time to explain why.

So in that spirit, here are

JJW’s top ten tips for turning tenacious tipples to teetotaling tranquillity

1. Sobriety ain’t for everyone

Stopping alcohol is hard. In the west, we live in an ‘alcogenic society’. Booze is everywhere. It is brewed into our shared culture, from birth to death we celebrate and commiserate with alcohol. We medicate and mediate with it, it’s glorified and demonised. And, because of capitalism, there are very few places / times when alcohol isn’t on sale or straight up being offered to you. So being realistic about your own ability to stop is first and foremost.

For me, it was a simple decision. Alcohol made it easy for my brain to be like: hey, throw that spanner into this good thing, really wedge the fucker in there. But many people who I chat with try sobriety, and discover they don’t have a problem like I did. Which is great for them. They were just going through a tough patch, but the breather from booze helped them reevaluate and reconsider.

2. Make a commitment to yourself / loved ones / close friends

Peer pressure can be good. Making a commitment to yourself is a great place to start. But I don’t think I could have sustained sobriety for so long without the love and support of my family and friends. When I first told people I had stopped drinking, they were like: finally, lol. Thanks team.

But seriously, from that day forward they supported me to make and maintain this very positive decision — remembering and nurturing sobriety and generally being kinder mental health wise. You can’t lose because if people react with anything other than support I would suggest they might not be that good of a friend.

3. Remember: one drink isn’t the end of the world

As per above, there ain’t no getting away from alcohol. So if you do happen to find yourself halfway through a boozy beverage, don’t sweat it. Just like having one Tim Tam doesn’t mean you have to consume the whole packet, one drink is unlikely to harm you too much. It’s excess which is the problem.

The trick is to be mindful and kind to yourself. Which is fucking hard, especially if you’re experiencing a patch of bad mental health. But if you do happen to have a realisation earlier in the evening — before things get out of hand — you do have some agency to switch to the waters, leave the party, or whatever it is you need to do to look after yourself.

Also, if it does turn into a bender: FUCK IT. Start again tomorrow.

A digital collage of lots of different postage stamps surrounding JJW drinking a milkshake.
Philately and milkshakes.

4. Be upfront with people that you’re not drinking and be honest with them if they ask why

There is no point making excuses or trying to hide it. You miss the opportunity to have a conversation and reinforce why you’re not drinking and/or may never drink again. Obviously this is situation specific, I don’t tend to unload on waiters in busy restaurants by yelling: WHY ARE YOU OFFERING A PERSON IN RECOVERY A GOD DAMN DRINK, YOU SICK FUCK. I just say no thank you, and move on. As per point 2 above, if someone doesn’t support you, fuck ‘em. Go straight to point 5, do not pass go, and …

5. Don’t be afraid to be rude

I am empowering you to stand up for yourself and be strong in the face of people who don’t support you. I give you permission to treat anyone who actively encourages you to drink with extreme hostility. Life’s too short to fuck around with knob heads like ol’ mate who ended up in the shower covered in his own vomit. Perhaps their brains are so addled by alcohol they cannot conceive of a world where people don’t rely on it.

As much as I complain about people who do not get it, most people do. Coming from New Zealand, and living in Australia, the chances are everyone you know has a story of a friend or relative whose life has gone awry because of alcohol.

6. Find decent alcohol-free drinks

Things have gotten better in the sober-safe beverage market in the ten years since I wrote the piece in The Wireless. There are so many great alcohol-free beers and wines available now! You don’t have to just drink coke, orange juice and/or water. There are great kombuchas, shrubs, seltzers, and other low sugar soft drinks too. At my sister-in-law’s wedding they specifically bought a case of non-alcoholic bubbly, and people just started drinking it because it was delicious. At my brother-in-law’s wedding earlier this year they had two alcohol-free beers available and heaps of people were smashing them. Happy days!

7. Get out of your head (in a good way)

One of the biggest things I have learnt over the past wee while, and this applies to all things in life, is pretty much no one cares about anything not directly affecting them. Ergo, hardly anyone will notice you’re not drinking and even fewer will actually care. It’s very self indulgent to assume people are so fixated about you they pay attention to what you’re drinking. Get over yourself, Shitkicker!

Also don’t get out of your head in a different way. Changing from alcohol to cannabis — or anything else — probably ain’t going to make you happier either. As an aside, I’ve also noticed many people in recovery rely on sugar. The plus side of sugar is you’re not likely to piss yourself while dancing on a table at your work Christmas party. Sugar is still pretty unhealthy though, so proceed with caution.

8. There is no tip 8

But here is a picture of a Kōkako eating a pūriri flower.

A Kōkako eating a pūriri flower.
by Stefan Marks on Flickr and used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

9. Track the data

I have a sober days counting app on my phone. As of today it’s at 4232. That’s a whole heap of days. Whenever lizard-brain says “mmmmm you could have a bottle of champs, yeah boiiiii” I flick it open and check my run streak. Pretty good incentive to stay on the wagon.

I also regularly use an app called How We Feel which is made by psychologists to help people identify and keep track of, you guessed it, how they feel. Bonus is it helps your mental health in general. No lizard brain, I don’t want to snatch that nice police officer’s pistol. Not today. I will, however, open up How We Feel and log I am feeling jittery.

Speaking of logging. Log your exercise in whatever fitness app you use. Log the books you’ve read wherever you do that these days (don’t use GoodReads). Or the movies you’ve watched in Letterboxd. Chat about your latest stamp finds with other philatelists on Canadian Stamp News.

Keep a diary. I now write a diary every day. I record my general mood for the day and specifically three good things / something I am grateful for. I take a moment to reflect, gain perspective, and breathe through the big feels. And fuck, it helps.

By not having hangovers and getting decent sleep, it is surprising how much extra time you can carve out in your life. These are all amazing wonderful things. Make sure you remind yourself about them because our brains are wired to look for negativity. Celebrate cool shit and, if you’re feeling like you might have a bender, go remind yourself hey: life is actually kinda okay sometimes.

10. Get help (if you need it)

Remember, these are just the opinions of some dude who yells his unhinged thoughts into the ether of The Internet. It’s definitely not medical advice, and if you’re seriously struggling (with drinking, mental health, addiction, or similar) there are heaps of services available, online, in-person, professional, or group.

I’ve been seeing the same psychologist for +7 years now and we’ve hit a good rhythm. I take my meds. I do exercise. I let them help me reframe my thinking, and use all the psychological tools available. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is something you can kinda just do on your own once you understand the basics. I don’t think I really understood CBT — despite seeing psychologists on/off since I was 17 — until Blindboy explained it in his podcast. I can’t remember the exact episodes, but it was quite early on. He puts it in easily understandable words while embracing you in the warmth of his podcast hug.

I don’t go to 12 Step meetings anymore, but they were (vaguely) helpful in early recovery/sobriety for something to do which wasn’t drinking. Plus, 12 Step forces you to make amends to people who you might’ve hurt while drinking/drugging. So, if I didn’t do it at the time when I was working the steps, please accept this heartfelt blanket apology for being a see you next tuesday. Twelve Step isn’t particularly evidence based, and can be incredibly toxic, and (as per point 1) sobriety ain’t for everyone. Hence why I don’t particularly recommend it, but there is no harm trying it if you go into it knowing it’s not a panacea.

What I would recommend are the loads of services/groups out there which can, and will, help. My favourite NZ-based one is Living Sober. Whatever you choose, just make sure it is evidence-based.

You really can’t go past self care, being kind to yourself, exercise, being part of a community (I’ve selfishly built my own here, in this newsletter, and here in the real world), talk therapy, and eating healthy. Boring, yes. Effective, totally.

An illustration of JJW sitting at a table looking bored as people pass out and spew from drinking.
Illustration by Rhiannon Josland, originally for Ours.

Thanks, Shitkicker for the prompt. I hope this helps. Always here to talk if you need it and that extends to anyone out there who is reading this. Hit me up by replying to this email and/or smashing this button.

Some final thoughts

Does all this make me a wowser? Probably. By any and all measures alcohol creates significantly more harm than benefits. Should we ban it? No. But we really need to change the playing field in terms of following public health advice around what evidence-based changes can be made to reduce and prevent harm.

We also need to better fund treatment and addiction services to help people. Drinking (or drugging) is not really the problem — plenty of people hold down jobs while getting on the beers (and/or nose beers). The anti-social aspect of addiction is a symptom of a deeper malaise in our societies. Fix economic inequality, build strong communities, get people active, smash capitalism, yadda yadda yadda. You know how it goes. But for now, perhaps start by switching out your next beer for a non-alcoholic one.

Cheers to you!

Stay safe, stay sane



Josh here again.

Imagine, for a moment, your most incorrigible, pernicious habit. Imagine that it has a powerful psychological and physiological hold on you. Imagine that it is tacitly or overtly encouraged by practically all of society; an endless sea you have no choice but to swim in.

Imagine stopping.

Imagine staying stopped, for any length of time. A month. A year. 10 years. More.

And yet, you remain sober.

That's what many recovered and recovering alcoholics manage, and they have all my admiration. Everyone has something – often small, sometimes not – that they'd like to stop or start doing consistently. Those who achieve sobriety after alcoholism have achieved this, over much higher stakes than many of us will ever face. Nothing impresses me more.

Well done, JJW old mate. I'm proud to be your friend.