My Year Without Booze: Why we need to get the balance right

By Jill Stark

What’s the place of alcohol in our lives? When does fun become a habit too hard to break? And how are the culture, alcohol companies, Australian sports and even our friends lined up to make laying off the booze enough harder? In this edited Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Jill Stark tells all.

Alcohol and drinking are so much a part of our cultural and national identity that it can be confronting to have a conversation about its place in our lives. But the reaction I’ve had so far to my book, High Sobriety: My Year without Booze, suggests that it’s a conversation a lot of people are ready to have. That’s not to say that booze is inherently bad – but I certainly think that as a community, there’s a growing sense that we need to work more on getting the balance right.

High Sobriety came about by accident. It came after 20 years of weekend partying that started when I was an awkward teenager growing up in Scotland – a land where teetotalism is a crime punishable by death – and ended with a hangover that felt like it might kill me. I didn’t intend to stop drinking for a whole year, and I definitely didn’t plan to write a book about it, but that’s what happened and I’m so glad it did. To my great surprise, it was the most rewarding year of my life.

Hello Sunday Morning: Life without alcohol

It started in 2010 when I met Chris Raine, a young man who at the age of 22 decided to give up drinking for a year and write a blog about it. The blog turned into Hello Sunday Morning, an online movement encouraging people to take a break from booze for 3, 6 or 12 months. When I first met Chris there were less than 50 bloggers writing about their experiences of life without alcohol. Today there are more than 9,000 people signed up in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

What Hello Sunday Morning and my year without booze taught me is not that life is fundamentally better without alcohol but that you can soar to great heights when you make that commitment to yourself. I learned to run, I found my singing voice, I found an inner strength I didn’t know I had, and of course, I made a dream come true and wrote a book.

I learned a lot too. I learned that alcohol is something I enjoy, not something I need. I learned that my confidence and self-worth can’t be measured in standard drinks, and that taking booze out of the equation forces you to be fearless. And I learned that it is possible to slide along the floorboards on your knees and rock out the air guitar to Bon Jovi while completely sober. Dancing without a drink to loosen me up used to be a terrifying prospect, but now I know that most of the time everyone else is too blind to notice what you look like. I found that knowledge quite liberating.

And I discovered that the liquid confidence I used to rely on to make me socially competent may in fact be little more than a placebo. A number of experiments suggest that the way we act when we’re drinking may have more to do with the expectations we bring with us to the pub than the physiological effects of alcohol. Psychologists have shown in several studies that groups of people who were told they were drinking vodka started to display certain behaviours – becoming more confident, flirtatious and uninhibited – even when they were actually only drinking tonic water. When we think booze is our social elixir – a way to give us a sense of belonging and self assurance – then it’s no wonder it’s easier to reach for the bottle than to fly sober.

When I took it away, I felt naked. It was confronting to realise how much I’d relied on alcohol to get me through difficult situations. But slowly, I learned that the way I’d been using booze was not always conducive to a fulfilling social life. Without alcohol, I could see that sometimes a bad party is just a bad party. And when it comes to the dating scene, sobriety was illuminating to say the least. Some guys, when learning I wasn’t drinking, recoiled in horror, which I think is perhaps instructive of the type of guys I may have been attracted to when I was drinking. Sober, it’s much easier to spot the blokes who are interested in you for entirely the wrong reasons.

Among the other lessons learned in my booze-free odyssey were that being drunk at the footy doesn’t make Hawthorn play any better. The only excuses some people will accept for you not drinking are I’m pregnant, I’ve just come out of rehab, or sobriety is one of my parole conditions.

The truth about binge drinking

While I once used alcohol as a way to unwind after a stressful day at work or to block out difficult emotions, that’s really not a great long-term strategy. Having a few drinks might help take the edge off but the next morning those edges are sharper and cut you deeper. It’s rewarding to realise that without booze you’re a lot more resilient than you’d given yourself credit for.

From a health perspective, I discovered some shocking truths about binge drinking. One in five cases of breast cancer is directly linked to drinking. As someone with breast cancer on both sides of the family and a long history of binge drinking, I realised that I was playing a high stakes game of poker with my health.

But my ignorance of the facts is not uncommon. Cancer Council research shows that only 9% of Australians are aware of the link between alcohol and a range of cancers, despite it being a group one carcinogen – putting it in the same category as tobacco, asbestos and UV radiation. Part of the problem, public health specialists told me, is that we are a nation in denial about our drinking habits. Getting drunk at the weekends is the social norm for hundreds of thousands of Australians. When you opt out of that culture, as I discovered, it can be challenging. I was told that not drinking was ‘Un-Australian’ and that my year without booze would be a ‘year without mates’.

How alcohol companies have cosied up to sport and the Anzacs

Why is drinking such an integral part of Australian culture? It’s a complex question with no easy answer, but in the book I explore the ways that the alcohol industry has helped foster the notion that being an Aussie means having a drink in your hand. Just like the tobacco companies before them, multinational alcohol companies have been quick to associate themselves with every pastime our culture values.

Sport has become a huge marketing platform for the industry. All of our major sporting codes are backed by booze. Whether it’s Australian cricket team captain Michael Clarke wearing VB on his baggy green cap, or the AFL’s 100-year partnership with Carlton Draught, or the Wallabies sharing a rum and Coke with a 7-foot-tall talking polar bear, alcohol is entrenched in our sporting culture. Young people are influenced by that association: this exposure to alcohol advertising from an early age desensitises them, making them more likely to start drinking. This is particularly the case if their sporting heroes are the ones promoting booze. This is the reason that alcohol advertising is banned on television in peak children’s viewing hours, before 9pm. But here’s the rub – live sporting telecasts are exempt from the ban. That’s a pretty big loophole.

The link between sport and drinking is not just at the elite level. Research from the Australian Drug Foundation shows that a third of 13- to 17-year-olds had engaged in unsupervised drinking at their local sporting club, where grog is often the reward for on-field success. Twenty per cent of 18 to 20-year-olds drink more than ten drinks each time they go to their sporting club, and half of all members drank at dangerous levels on each visit. I interviewed young men who had grown up in this boozy sporting culture – for many, getting absolutely plastered after games was seen as an initiation into manhood. They talked of drinking games where they had to down 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes, and footy trips where the biggest boozers were celebrated as the biggest heroes.

It’s not just sport. The notion that Australia is a country built on booze – which when unpacked doesn’t actually withstand scrutiny – is bolstered by the industry. We see it in VB’s annual Raise a Glass campaign, commemorating Anzac Day. There’s no doubt the campaign’s for a good cause – it’s raised nearly $3 million for war veterans since it was launched in 2009 – but you have to wonder how much goodwill these ads buy the brewers. To have your brand associated with the most enduring symbol of nationhood, the Aussie digger, has got to be worth its weight in gold from a marketing perspective. Every time you knock back a beer on Anzac Day, you’re doing it for your country.

Young drinkers and ‘Mommyjuice’ mothers

Alcohol companies have also been shrewd in tapping into potential new markets. We’ve seen it with alcopops – known in the industry as the ‘binge drinker’ category. Some years ago an alcohol marketing executive told me in an extraordinarily frank interview that these sugary, brightly coloured drinks were deliberately designed to mask the taste of alcohol to appeal to the younger, unsophisticated palate. Arguably young people have always been risk-takers and many will drink before they’re 18 regardless of what products are on the market. But how many of them are drinking earlier than they otherwise might have, simply because the industry has made alcohol so appealing and easy to drink?

I interviewed a number of mothers with young children for the book. Although they thought their alcohol consumption would dip once they had children, many of them were using alcohol as a way to cope with the stress of motherhood – even though, for some of them, it was a counter-productive strategy. (Toddlers have little regard for the need to be quiet when you have a hangover.)

Some alcohol companies are now looking to mothers as the next growth market. Online parenting communities are signing mums up to wine clubs, promising bottles delivered directly to your door. ‘No more dragging the screaming toddler to the bottle shop having people look down their nose at you,’ one website reads. And in the United States, not surprisingly, things have gone a step further. There you can buy ‘MommyJuice’ – a range of wine spruiked with the slogan, ‘Tuck your kids into bed, sit down and have a glass of MommyJuice – because you deserve it.’ The battle for the Mommy dollar is so fierce that a rival company, Mommy’s Time Out, recently tried to convince a court, unsuccessfully, that MommyJuice’s use of the word ‘mommy’ to sell wine was a trademark infringement. I’m all for market diversification but it troubles me that women are being targeted in this way. Is drinking really such an intrinsic part of motherhood that mums are being convinced they need a bottle of wine to survive it?

Not drinking ‘social suicide’ for youth

Creating a sense of belonging and identity through their products is very important to alcohol companies – particularly when it comes to young people, who are increasingly being marketed to through sport, music festivals and on social media. And it’s working. A 2008 study from the University of Wollongong showed that 90 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds who were shown a series of alcohol adverts thought the drinks would help them have a good time. More than two thirds felt that drinking would make them more confident, sociable and outgoing, while 70 per cent said that it would help them fit in. Half thought the drinks would help them succeed with the opposite sex and 60 per cent said it would help them feel less nervous.

The young people I interviewed backed up this research. Many of them said they wished they didn’t have to drink to have a good time, but that it would be social suicide not to. Many were getting drunk for the same reasons I was – for confidence, for belonging and to deal with difficult emotions. It’s the only way they know. Yet, we can’t just point the finger at the industry for that. The more I explored the issue, the more I realised that young people are a product of their environment. They have inherited a culture that implores them to drink at every juncture. The headlines might focus on alcohol-related violence and youth binge-drinking but really, this is a problem we all own a part in. For many young people I spoke to the pressure to drink wasn’t just coming from their peers, but from older people. Their parents teach them that having a drink is the way to unwind after a hard day’s work. Their colleagues give them a hard time if they don’t hit it hard at Friday night drinks, and their sporting heroes are backed by booze and their music festivals sponsored by alcohol companies, headlined by pop stars who belt out songs celebrating getting wasted.

In that context is it any wonder they drink in the way they do? What’s heartening though is the number of young people who are choosing another way. The numbers are still small but every year the percentage of young people who are either delaying their first drink or abstaining altogether is growing. And groups like Hello Sunday Morning are becoming more popular. As HSM founder Chris Raine says, ‘It’s easy to get swept up in a drinking culture. Sometimes you just need a rope to pull you back to dry land.’ This is how you change a culture – one person at a time.