Having grown up in their parents’ pubs, best friends Alex and Lisa were used to being around people who drank regularly. It was normal. But sometimes we can’t see the impact alcohol is having on us when everyone around us is drinking as well...
I met my best friend Lisa in the early 1990s when I was 13, and Lisa was 12. My dad was an entertainer on the pub and club scene, and he and my mum had owned pubs for most of my childhood. My dad drank heavily, but he functioned normally. Lisa’s stepdad was good friends with my dad, and also enjoyed a good drink. That’s how our parents met – we were thrown together and remained friends throughout our lives.
We drank together most weekends from our early teens. We taught ourselves to enjoy it, because we felt more confident after a drink. We wanted to fit in. Looking back though, we drank more excessively than any of our friends did, and Lisa recognises now how quickly alcohol became a crutch for every single social occasion.
As we entered our late teens, we worked in Lisa’s mum and stepdad’s pub. We were in our element and the customers loved us. “Get one for yourselves” was a line we frequently heard and indulged in. Our environment meant we were surrounded by alcohol and people drinking. We gauged our drinking on those around us so, comparatively speaking, we weren’t that bad.
Then suddenly Lisa’s stepdad passed away after a short illness. It turned out that he had died of liver disease. Around the same time, my dad suffered a major internal bleed, and although he lived for 10 more years, alcohol-free, he did eventually die of heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.
As we entered our mid-20s, and had settled down with families, the nights out became fewer but no less wild, and we would drink wine in the house every Friday and Saturday, binge-drinking on nights out. We would call each other the day after a night out, riddled with anxiety and beer fear, but would still tell each other we weren’t that bad. And yet we would go on spa breaks, to drink. We would go out for meals, to drink. We became each other’s supporter, and an excuse.
After a short spell in Cyprus for both of us, we returned to the UK and our marriages broke down – we kept each other sane over Skype calls with wine. As we both eventually met new partners and rebuilt our lives, we would still meet up and go out as often as we could. Our friendship circle remained, and as we had all grown up together, we didn’t notice alcohol taking hold of two of our friends who both lost their lives too young. We knew they drank a lot, but we didn’t see the destruction that alcohol had caused – in truth, it could have been any one of us.
We both remarried and our drinking was OK, as far as we were concerned. We had the occasional glass of wine with a meal, but we were both still binge-drinkers at weekends. We held down jobs, raised families, and lived otherwise healthy lives.
"We made a conscious effort to remove the stigma from the word sober, and advocated sobriety as a positive lifestyle choice"
One day, in June 2018, Lisa called me, hungover, to tell me she wanted to go sober for 100 days. She had downloaded The unexpected joy of being sober by Catherine Gray, and explained that she’d had enough of feeling anxious and miserable, and that she wasn’t doing what she needed to do as a parent.
Her success shone a light on my drinking, and I started to question it – I even made a few failed attempts at moderation. Then, fate struck and I found out I was pregnant. Not drinking became easy because I couldn’t. However, it wasn’t to be. At my 12-week scan, I found out the heart had stopped beating at 11 weeks, 3 days, and I had to go through surgery. I was grief-stricken and with the foetus still in place, I went straight from the hospital to the pub and drank two bottles of wine.
It wasn’t until a year later that I called Lisa with a crippling hangover, and told her I was doing 100 days off alcohol, for the sake of my mental health. Lisa had long since declared that she had stopped drinking forever, and had formed a sober social group with two friends she met online, called Bee Sober Manchester. Deep down I knew I had given up for good, too.
This is when The Sober Experiment was born. We both agreed that there was a perception that you have to be an alcoholic to quit drinking. The very reactions of everyone around us showed us that people didn’t realise how addictive alcohol is, and how harmful it can be. We decided there must be more people who wanted to stop drinking, but had no support unless they identified as a problem drinker or an alcoholic.
We made a conscious effort to remove the stigma from the word sober, and advocated sobriety as a positive lifestyle choice. We couldn’t believe the response as people joined our social media groups, eager to start their own sober experiment – we even made a podcast.
We wrote a workbook and journal, and recorded daily inspirational videos for people to carry out their own 30-day sober experiment based on what worked for us. We realised that by changing attitudes and mindsets, people were completing the experiment and staying sober. They didn’t want to drink because we were helping them find the positives in their sobriety. Instead of feeling as if we couldn’t drink, we didn’t want to drink, and neither did those we connected with.
We have now taken our sober experiment into workplaces to target people who are societies’ “normal drinkers” to encourage them, by demonstrating all the positives of sobriety, to take a break, reduce their intake, or quit for good – without the stigma of being labelled or labelling themselves alcoholic. We do this in a really fun way that works, and improves mental health, physical health and workplace productivity along the way. We have also started to go into rehabilitation centres to work with people ready to leave rehab.
The Sober Experiment and Bee Sober have merged to form an amazing Community Interest Company called Bee Sober CIC. We have members from all over the world, and support them with getting and staying sober. We also have an amazing team of trained mentors dotted all over the country (and one in the US), offering support and friendship to anyone who wants to live a fulfilling sober lifestyle.
We’ve both learnt so much about ourselves and each other along the way. We are both so resilient and strong, capable of anything we want to achieve – and our friendship shines through everything we do. Thanks to our own sober experiment, we are now touching the lives of hundreds of “normal drinkers” and showing them the flip side of the coin in a very positive way.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) counsellor says:
Alex and Lisa grew up socialising with alcohol in a drinking culture. They normalised their feelings about what they drank, but continued to binge drink at weekends. They lost friends to alcohol and didn’t see the damage it was doing around them. A turning point came when Lisa stopped drinking and Alex questioned her relationship with alcohol. The pair worked together to help themselves and others benefit from sobriety. Their story highlights the importance of having the right relationship with alcohol, not feeling societal pressure to drink, and to know that support is there.
To connect with a counsellor or find out more about acoholism and addiction, visit counselling-directory.org.uk