Jenna Brown

Jenna Brown

Living Alcohol-Free in NZ is life-changing

For years I have yo-yo’d on and off alcohol.

It gave me what I thought was social lubrication; I had some fun experiences while using alcohol and some terrible experiences that caused years of grief, pain, and regret.

There are many addiction-related illnesses in my family, and I have always been hyper-aware of this. I have been desperately trying not to fall down the expertly carved genetic pathway.

I have participated in dry July, had months off all over the show, but when abstaining, I always had the feeling of missing out; I always had the feeling of dread that my life might be over if I’m forever sober. Like it wouldn’t be fun anymore. Ever. The great news is that it was all bullshit. That was just a mindset conditioned by a rich NZ drinking culture, the people I was hanging out with and my mindset.

My mindset around alcohol completely changed on the 23rd of September 2021. I recorded a podcast with a fellow Mum who described very similar feelings and behaviours that I had felt over the years. As we recorded, she celebrated her 1-year sober-versary, and something in that conversation struck a chord with me.

I never drank alcohol again after that.

Not only have I never touched alcohol again, but I have also not thought of drinking it, longed for it, sought any relaxation from it or missed it at all. Not even one bit. If anything, I have pretty indifferent feelings about alcohol and can’t imagine why I was chucking it down my throat all those years.

If you want to listen to the podcast I am referring to; you can do so here. But do that after you have read the rest of the blog.

Something has changed inside me, and it is so empowering. I feel liberated from alcohol and the weird little chains it had over me for so many years. I no longer need it in my life, and I feel a sense of calm acceptance that its time with me is well and truly up.

So it wasn’t simply one podcast conversation that got me to this point; I have been having discussions, therapy, and reading books about alcohol for years. The stars just seemed to align that day, and I will be forever grateful that they did.

I would love to explore some of the things I have learned on this journey with alcohol and share them with you. Maybe they can help you on your journey.

Let’s take a deep dive into the questions I have asked myself along the way.

Is alcohol a stimulant or a depressant?

Alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant. Mind blown.

What does that mean?

Stimulants and depressants affect both your brain and nervous system but in opposite ways. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?

At first, you will feel the stimulant effects of alcohol. Your brain is signalled to release the happy hormone dopamine. This will have you feeling energized and with a sense of happiness. Stimulants can also lead to increased heart rate, which can lead to aggression in some people. The stimulant effects of alcohol may also make you feel more impulsive and less inhibited than you usually would.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant

Once the initial stimulant effects have passed and as you continue to consume alcohol, it will start to slow down your central nervous system. Your body will start to experience the depressants as decreased blood pressure and heart rate as well as a decline in mental clarity. This will display as slow reaction times and slurred speech.

Your dopamine release slows, which can leave you feeling sad and teary. Large amounts of alcohol will reduce your reaction times, and you will start to feel sedated, sleepy and disoriented.

Basically, in large amounts, the alcohol switched from stimulant to depressant.

This slows your coordination, nervous system, thought centres and blood pressure.

Depression & alcohol use

Alcohol and depression can increase the risk of one another simultaneously.

If you face anxiety or depression, you may drink to improve your mood and reduce anxiety. Drinking can initially provide an hour or two of relief but will work to worsen your mental health over time and can spark a vicious cycle into alcohol abuse, guilt, regret and repeat.

Alcohol has long been used as a coping tool for people to cover up underlying issues, and it is vital to identify these and start working on how to release them to set yourself free from needing to hide your emotions behind a bottle of wine or a box of beer.

Anti-depressants and alcohol

I have been taking Fluoxetine (Prozac) for some time now. You can read more about my experience with that here.

I found that when I first started taking Fluoxetine, my desire to drink reduced noticeably. But then it started to creep back in slowly and returned to a daily 1-2 glasses of wine per day. You might think that’s not so much, but I have a very low tolerance before alcohol ramps my anxiety. I have now found that my tolerance is basically zero.

Taking Fluoxetine and not adding alcohol has made a huge, I can’t express how huge, difference to my overall mental health. I would no longer classify myself as depressed, and I believe both the anti-depressants and ditching alcohol have been the driving factors in my overall improvement.

Alcohol, stress & anxiety

The effects of alcohol induce anxiety and cause stress, especially during a hangover.

My experience of alcohol and anxiety went like this:

First of all, I will wake up sometime in the night, probably needing to use the bathroom and experiencing a major sugar crash. I will then start to play over in my mind the events of that night. Cue anxiety on steroids. Who did I talk to, what did I say, did I upset anyone, did I make a fool of myself or anyone else. I will lay awake wondering what is wrong with me, why I would do this to myself, and why I would act such a fool. My anxiety effectively chops down two gears at this point and hits the accelerator.

Finally, I will eventually get back to sleep, only to wake up again in a few hours and repeat the process in my mind. Very rarely have I actually done anything problematic whilst drinking. Still, you can guarantee I will play by play every second of every minute or every hour that I can remember. My stomach will be physically churning, my head pounding, my brain just an empty room with someone equivalent in intellect to the cookie monster running the computer show for the majority of the day.

My sensitivity gets dialled up to 150/100. I would say I feel embarrassed, but I think that is an understatement and mortified is a better description of the way I feel at this moment. I will feel like a terrible mother, partner, friend and ultimately a lousy human, one that doesn’t deserve any sympathy or love. I will berate myself the entire time and vow never to do it again.

I have previously written a blog about hang-xiety and how it made me feel; you can read about it here.

Drinking alcohol to socialise

This is an interesting one because I would drink on any social occasion I possibly could. When thinking about heading to a party, wedding, family dinner, whatever. I would be thinking about getting that first glass into me to loosen up and join in the conversation in a fun and exciting way.

In the past, when I have tried to stop drinking, I would avoid functions at all costs because I would feel too awkward, experience social anxiety and have thoughts like I couldn’t possibly have a good time, so what was the point?

Since quitting the booze, I have been to the pub, attended multiple functions in situations with people I would usually always drink wine with. Was I nervous about heading to the events? No! Shock horror. I didn’t feel any sense of being the odd one out, getting shit from my friends or family or feeling like I was missing out on the fun.

It ended up being quite the opposite and a real eye-opener for me. All that time I spent thinking alcohol made me funnier, more exciting and more able to communicate in a social situation was absolute rubbish. A fairytale, I was telling myself. I had approximately a 190% better time NOT drinking. I went to a pub, one of my best friend’s hens night and a big 50th birthday bash and not once did I have any feelings of regret at being a non-drinker.

The conversations I had were meaningful. I remembered them the next day. I didn’t have to rush off at any point due to temptation, but I was very aware of the conversations as they headed down a slippery slope to drunk town. It was like an out of body experience at times, observing and taking it all in. Not in a judgemental way, just in a purely curious way. It was empowering. I felt free.

Your brain on alcohol

Many of the symptoms of being drunk come from ethanol, reducing communication between your brain cells.

Binge drinking behaviour can lead to blackouts & memory loss, leaving us in scary and unsafe situations. Alcohol also creates difficulty walking, blurred vision, and long term abuse can lead to irreversible brain damage.

It is commonly known that alcohol can damage your liver. Your liver is the organ chiefly responsible for breaking down alcohol into harmless byproducts and clearing it from your body. Prolonged liver dysfunction such as cirrhosis resulting from heavy drinking can harm your brain, leading to a severe and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy.

Hepatic encephalopathy can cause changes in sleep patterns, mood, and personality; psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression; severe cognitive effects such as shortened attention span; and problems with coordination such as flapping or shaking hands (called asterixis). In the most severe cases, patients may slip into a coma (i.e., hepatic coma), which can be fatal.

What does alcohol do to your body

The effects of alcohol vary and are influenced by your gender, weight, alcohol tolerance, body chemistry and the amount you consume. Some people may experience higher stimulant effects, and some may experience higher depressant effects.

Alcohol is the second most calorie-rich nutrient after fat. Beer has a similar number of calories as soft drinks, and red wine has twice as much.

Alcohol is a diuretic. It causes your body to remove fluids from your blood through your renal system, which includes the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, at a much quicker rate than other liquids. If you don’t drink enough water with alcohol, you can become dehydrated quickly.

These are some of the effects alcohol an have on your body

  • shrinking brain
  • blackouts
  • dependance
  • heart damage
  • liver damage
  • pancreatitis
  • frequent diarrhea
  • infertility
  • sexual dysfunction
  • malnutrition
  • diabetes complications
  • numbness
  • behaviour changes
  • hallucinations
  • slurred speech
  • cancer
  • lung infections
  • fatigue
  • stomach distress
  • birth defects
  • thinning bones
  • changes in coordination
  • muscle cramps

How long does alcohol stay in your system

  • urine tests can detect alcohol 12-48 hours after your last drink
  • breath tests can detect alcohol up to 24 hours after your last drink
  • alcohol can be detected in your hair for up to 90 days

This is different for everyone depending on age, weight, gender, metabolism, medications, liver disease and the amount consumed. Still, it is a bit of an indicator of its lingering effects on your system.

Am I an alcoholic

I think the term “alcoholic” has been Hollywood-ised, and we can be led to think that we do not have a problem if we are still employed, have a home and a family. This is not necessarily true.

There are many dangers of alcohol addiction and alcoholism. Addictions can form due to numerous factors such as mental health & genetics, social environment and family history with addiction.

If you are unsure if your drinking is OK, then that is a giant red flag. I don’t think it is about the amount or the frequency; it is about if it sits well with you or not.

However, sometimes it is nice to have a second opinion, and if you would like to take a test to find out if your drinking habits could be problematic, you can do so using the Alcohol NZ test below.

Can you have a happy life and not drink alcohol?

Yes! You can. You can have a much better life without alcohol in it.

During another podcast episode, I spoke with a woman who has been 20 years sober and is loving life. She still parties, goes to festivals, dances on tables and is a ball of fun. If you want to hear more about her story about how and why she quit drugs and alcohol 20 years ago, you can do so here.

I had the very same worries. As I have mentioned above, I didn’t want to be left out, feel awkward or not enjoy life anymore. I was unsure if I could still live “business as usual” without it. The thing is, you can’t. But that’s not a bad thing; it’s a fantastic thing. Once you are free of the grips of the alcohol monster, you no longer place its meaning and necessity in your life at all.

It might sound strange, but it kind of drops away from your awareness. Using a mindset technique to become a non-drinker is a game-changer, and it takes away any hold that alcohol has over you.

The sleep benefits of quitting alcohol

Since alcohol can reduce REM sleep and cause sleep disruptions, people who drink before bed often experience insomnia symptoms and feel excessively sleepy the following day. This can lead you into a vicious cycle that consists of self-medicating with alcohol to fall asleep, consuming caffeine and other stimulants during the day to stay awake, and then using alcohol as a sedative to offset the effects of these stimulants.

I did find my sleep was interrupted for a week or so after I stopped drinking. It was harder to fall asleep no matter how much I worked or exercised to wear myself out. I guess this is some type of chemical response as the alcohol leaves your body. Either way, it was short-lived and well worth the hassle.

After two weeks had rolled around, I slept like an absolute log.

No 3 am anxiety, no waking up with guilt or regrets, just peaceful uninterrupted and restorative sleep. It is now consistently glorious. If you suffer from sleep issues and drink alcohol, you will find that becoming a non-drinker will hugely benefit you.

How to quit alcohol

Change in energy levels after quitting alcohol

A lot of the low energy experienced when quitting drinking alcohol is caused by the consistent dehydration and poor sleep you have experienced; keep your water intake high and rest when you need to.

You can help your body avoid post-drinking fatigue with regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and, of course, staying hydrated.

If you have been drinking for a long time and are now accustomed to your alcohol-induced sleeping patterns, this may likely look a little different now as your circadian rhythm changes. Try to let go of rigidity around timings, stay flexible with the changes, and set up new cycles.

Your body is transforming.

It will need rest to repair itself from alcohol-related damage.

Your energy levels will bounce right back in time, better than they have been in years.

Sugar cravings after quitting alcohol

Yes, alcoholism and sugar addiction are related. But how?

Eating sweets have the same effect on your brain as drugs (like alcohol) do. 

Consuming sugar can activate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, both of which play roles in controlling mood, pleasure, and the reward pathway in the central nervous system.

Alcohol is served to us accompanied with sugar because drinking pure ethanol would taste gross and probably kill you. Adding sugar adds to the addictive nature of alcohol.

When you quit drinking, your body can go into sugar withdrawal and start searching for that dopamine hit using other sugary food and drink products.

You don’t have to let this happen; being aware and mindful of it allows you to make healthier choices. Of course, you can indulge now and again but don’t switch out one bad habit for another.

Weight changes after quitting alcohol

Quitting alcohol should stop you from gaining weight, but it depends on what the rest of your lifestyle looks like.

If you start eating larger amounts or aren’t eating nutritious food, your weight might stay where it is. Quitting alcohol along with a nutritious diet and regular exercise is going to be a winning formula for losing any excess beer belly that you might have accumulated on your travels.

In the beginning, I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Focus on removing alcohol from your life first, and then start working on the other stuff.

What to do with your extra time in the evenings when you quit drinking

There will be a few areas of your life where you will need to create new rituals and routines. How exciting!

You have all this extra time and brainpower to fill with whatever you want!

Now is the time to set some cool new habits, pursue hobbies, craft, read, garden … anything that your little heart desires. I can highly recommend adult colouring-in books and fine-liners.

It is essential to pick something and give it a go.

If you aren’t keeping your mind busy in the early weeks, the whispers of alcohol may toy with you.

Setting new rituals such as a fancy glass filled with your new favourite (non-alcoholic) drinks will also do the trick when that witching wine hour comes along (for me, it was 5 pm). I pour a Kombucha in a fancy glass now and crack on with making dinner.

Some great books about alcohol that I have read and recommend are:

I would also recommend using a free alcohol app on your phone. I use one called Alcohol Addiction. I popped my quit date in there and the amount of money I spent per week on alcohol, and it just shows me a running total which is interesting to look at now and again. Naturally, it also means I can take myself shopping now with all the savings.

Alcohol alternatives

My favourites are:

  • Kombucha
  • 0% Heineken (if I am going to a party or a bar)
  • Sparkling water with lemon
  • Herbal Tea

There are loads of alcohol-free beer options, alcohol-free wine options and even top-shelf alcohol alternatives like Seedlip. I haven’t found an alcohol free wine that tastes any good yet, but I haven’t looked seriously into it and have only tried one.

I like to have an ice-cold 0% “beer” at a part for nostalgia’s sake, but I would be just as happy with Kombucha.

The unexpected joy of being sober

There have been many unexpected benefits of being sober.

Some of my favourites are

  • cost savings
  • health and fitness benefits
  • less embarrassment caused by alcohol induced conversation
  • increased focus on work
  • exploring new hobbies
  • no more hangovers
  • no churning stomach in the mornings
  • no foggy brain all day
  • no using coffee in the morning to wind up and alcohol in the evening to wind down
  • feeling more in control of my life and choices
  • not waking up through the night with anxiety, guilt or regret
  • setting a positive example for my daughter

In general, I feel like I have reached a new phase of growth in my life. I am happier, have more time for the things I love and feel like I can contribute more to those around me as well as take care of myself.

Quitting alcohol has been a life-changing decision and I have no regrets.

I would love to hear about your journey with alcohol, pop your comments below.

Resources used to help write this artice:

Disclaimer: The J Word NZ and its media content are created based on my own experiences and opinions, as well as those individuals who share their stories with me. I do not have any formal medical or mental health qualifications. If you are experiencing any issues with mental health, please consult your doctor or a medical health professional for advice.

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