As we nudge toward Christmas, sober Kiwis give their tips on navigating abstinence at a particularly tricky time of year.
In the early days of Dane Robertson’s newfound sobriety, when he was asked by partygoers, “Why aren’t you drinking?”, he’d tell them straight.
“I was a d***head on the piss,” he’d say.
“You don’t want a drunk Dane to come out, because he’ll probably try to steal your wife.”
It was both humour and truth.
“It helps to solidify the reasoning for yourself and for other people,” he explains.
As Christmas looms and the famously tipsy season sets in, it can be a triggering time for those trying to curb or quit their drinking.
It’s a foreign notion for some to forgo beer or bubbles at Christmas, but 15 per cent of New Zealanders don’t drink and won’t drink at all throughout December.
Robertson, 36, says it’s still possible to have a merry time and it doesn’t have to be a big deal.
He gave up drinking eight years ago to support his wife Libby Robertson, who was an alcoholic. Libby shared her story with NZME last year for Dry July.
Dane has a family history of addiction and “wasn’t a good drunk”.
Sobriety is now a normal way of life for the Pāpāmoa couple, who own Parradiigm, a workplace wellness business, but the first two years of sobriety were the hardest for them, particularly when socialising.
“Men, especially, would try to egg you on to drink,” Robertson, a rugby player and mau rākau [a Māori martial art involving weaponry] participant says.
Eight years on, his sobriety is unanimously accepted by his mates, but his advice to those starting is to have a “game plan” before going to a party.
Firstly, think about what you’ll do there to keep yourself busy, like helping to cook.
Secondly, bring your drinks. In the early days of his sobriety, he favoured sugary drinks like Coca-Cola, ginger beer and energy drinks. Now, it’s zero per cent alcohol substitutes.
Three: Plan an excuse to escape the event if needed. And finally, make plans for the morning after. “If you don’t have plans, it can be easier to be influenced to ‘just have one’.”
Despite being sober for eight years, he occasionally thinks about alcohol.
Situations still arise that would suit “getting pissed right now”, but the “reasoning as to why I’m doing this will always remain the top priority”, he says.
“Sure, there’s the slight entertainment of the fantasy of that life, but it’s never beyond it. It’s a fleeting thought, and then it goes back to, ‘Screw that’.”
‘It gets easier’
Dan*, 63, is also a happy former drinker.
He drank heavily for 40 years before giving up six years ago due to criminal, health and relationship repercussions.
“Time does make a difference. It gets easier,” he says.
He tends to avoid parties, however, and prefers festive invitations that involve an activity.
“Picnicking, going for a walk, swimming at the beach. All of that takes precedence over just sitting there drinking.”
He also likes to be a sober driver because it’s accepted by partygoers “immediately”.
It’s also accepted when you say you have health issues. He had a triple bypass at 59.
He still has fun, giving the example of playing beach cricket.
“You can be pissed and falling over doing it, or you can have a really good time playing without drinking.”
Thinking through the drink
Mount Maunganui addiction specialist Dr Tony Farrell says of the 15 per cent of people who don’t drink, millennials and Generation Z are leading the way.
“They know how poisonous and carcinogenic alcohol is, and there’s a bit of a movement there.”
Cardiac risks are also high and often peak in December, with medics labelling it “holiday heart syndrome”. Excessive festive binging can lead to atrial fibrillation (a chaotic heart rhythm) even for those without a history of heart disease.
Farrell says those receiving help for alcohol dependence will be guided by their treatment provider regarding managing triggers and risky situations over Christmas. Some will be on medications to reduce cravings and induce unpleasant side effects if they relapse.
For others, the general advice is to “think through the drink” (AKA plan ahead), as Robertson and Dan advised.
Announcing you are not drinking helps to commit you to the goal, Farrell says.
“Communicate effectively and plan that communication so you’re ready for that person who says, ‘Oh, c’mon’.
“‘Really, no, I’m not going to have some today, thank you’. Try to just make it a low-key thing. It’d be good to normalise that behaviour.”
Severe alcoholics are people who drink every day, but you can have an alcohol dependence without feeling that daily need, Farrell says. “It’s about loss of control.”
As a side note, when it comes to choosing non-alcoholic drinks, he cautions being “very aware” that beverages such as kombucha can contain more alcohol than what is depicted on the label.
“In general, less than 0.5 per cent is low-risk. However, a drinker can get quite sick if taking a drug prescribed for alcohol dependence such as Antabuse if there is any alcohol in the drink at all.”
Socialising while sober
For Rotorua’s Kirsty Watt, 44, there was no big reason she gave up alcohol four years ago, but when she did drink, it was all or nothing.
Her advice for navigating sobriety during the holiday season is to know you don’t have to agree to attend work functions or barbecues if they make you feel stressed.
Sobriety also opens the way for creating new traditions. Why do we need to drink champagne at Christmas? Why not “raspberry and Coke?”
Fellow teetotaller Renee*, 51, grew up in a household where her parents didn’t drink, so it was never a focus, and when she did drink, it was only socially, especially while travelling.
“Now, I gravitate towards people who drink minimally,” she says.
Her tip for parties is to mingle with a full glass.
“When someone asks if you want a drink, you can say that you’ve just got one. That way, no one knows how much you didn’t drink, and you are being sociable.
“If I’m going to an event, I usually leave when people get too tipsy,” she says.
“By that stage, the main event is over anyway.”
* Some names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
Carly Gibbs is a weekend magazine writer for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post and has been a journalist for two decades. She is a former news and feature writer, for which she’s been both an award finalist and winner.