The Sober School
By Ann Chadwick
So you wake up another morning with that sense of dread, and type into Google. ‘Am I an alcoholic?’
Kate Bee, a journalist and TV producer, fixated on the question. She had become dependent on wine, but was surrounded by media types whose socialising circled around booze. Her parents weren’t problem drinkers, but they often had a glass in their hands at the end of a stressful working day.
“For me when I was really struggling to decide whether I was drinking too much I was very fixated on this label. Exactly how much do you have to drink to be an alcoholic?” she asks.
The Sober School is Kate’s social enterprise – an online virtual classroom offering six-week courses in sober coaching. It’s aimed at young women who are functioning, coping, but miserably dependent on alcohol.
“I don’t use the word alcoholic on the website because it’s such a turn-off to my audience, they just don’t want to hear that word and they have very fixed ideas of what alcoholism is – someone who drinks first thing in the morning and has lost everything.”
Although the 32-year-old feels the label can help many as a wake-up call, there are swathes of people who would run a mile at the idea of being an alcoholic. There are she says, ’50 shades of grey’ of alcoholism.
Kate had the idea for the Sober School a few years ago, but it wasn’t until she received a grant from UNLtd, the school for social entrepreneurs, that she turned it into a reality. Her site offers free guides and content and the course, daily lesson plans to support sobriety, with peer support from fellow classmates, who sign up from all over the world.
“My ethos is I really believe that you can change your thinking around alcohol and it shouldn’t be a thing on a pedestal all the time that you have to survive through will power, white knuckling it. My course is about finding other coping mechanisms and reframing the way you think about this very socially acceptable drug.”
“I think we’ve got this really bonkers upside down approach to alcohol in this country, if you don’t drink you’re considered boring, uptight, and uncool, and yet equally if you drink too much and can’t hold it together, that’s not cool either. It’s almost as if we’re saying being vaguely dependant on alcohol or turning to it when you’re stressed or want to have a good time, that’s okay. Those lines are really blurry for people. Especially for people like me.”
Kate believes young women in 2016 face unrealistic pressures: career, babies, relationships, looks – and alcohol is directly marketed as a conveniently packaged answer to it all.
“The reason I set up Sober School in the first place was because when I stopped drinking I started writing a blog, and I ended getting up quite a few readers and they really supported and encouraged me in those early weeks. I realised that there was this really hidden problem amongst women like me, in their 30s, so that’s when I had the idea of creating a solution.”
For people like Kate, who used alcohol as a crutch, she believes a cultural shift is needed.
“Anything like increasing the cost of alcohol will have limited impact until we change our attitude towards it, a bit like we have done with smoking. It’s really not cool to smoke anymore. We need this big cultural shift with booze.”
“I wonder if it’s a British thing– that stiff upper lip – we’re not good at talking emotions, so rather than facing the hell of having to do that we just drink through everything.”
Kate, who was an anxious, shy, nervous teenager first discovered how alcohol helped her feel less inhibited. As she grew older, she worked in a seemingly glamorous media job that was full-on, working all hours living in the centre of Manchester in a flat she hated, with no real meaningful, reliable friends. Apart from wine.
“I just felt like I was failing compared to my friends who were getting married, having babies, earning loads of money. It was a coping mechanism that helped me block out all of that stuff. Once you rely on wine for that, you can then find any excuse to drink, every bad day, every tiny thing will lead you to justify that you deserve a glass of wine. But for me it was never a glass, once a bottle was open, it was always all going to go.”
It was a simple blog that changed her life.
“I didn’t wake up in A&E, I didn’t leave my job, nothing catastrophic happened.”
She’d tried a dry January in 2013, and failed. That March, as her drinking escalated, she read about someone who sounded just like her.
“For the first time I had a light bulb moment. It was oh my God, this person doesn’t drink every day, which was just like me, but it made her feel the same way, and she stopped and it seemed to be worth it.”
Seeing the positives, rather than what she was ‘giving up’ helped, alongside a manageable goal – to go dry for 100 days.
“It was the best thing I ever did. It forced me to not think too far ahead, but to change my thinking and get to the end of that 100 days. By the time I got there, I thought I don’t really want to drink again.”
“I say to people on my course, there were three things that held me back, it was having no support network and feeling that sobriety was going to be completely awful and feeling totally bogged down in this idea that I’d have to give up forever. So when people started providing solutions to those problems, it helped me find a way forward. That’s what I want to offer with The Sober School.”
“My goal is to be frequently providing a space where people can get help fairly soon, and meet other people going through the same thing and work through a structured programme that hopefully at the end leaves them with six weeks of sobriety, a different way of looking at things, and they can make the decision whether to carry on or go back to drinking, and my hope is they won’t go back.”
As to her own life, she now feels she has the chance to find the best version of herself, to chase her dreams and be fully present in her one and only life.
She juggles a number of part-time jobs, lives on the edge of the Peak District, and has stronger relationships. “Sobriety is a good sieve for working out who should really be in my life.” She’s now been over 1000 days sober.
Kate Bee’s lessons from 1000 days sobriety:
-Not drinking is the right decision. I thought I’d start with this one because at first I wasn’t sure it definitely was. As you know, sobriety is generally painted as a boring, prudish, punishment – something that only needs to be considered when all else has failed. Surely learning how to live a full and happy life without relying on a poisonous substance is a good thing? Yes, it’s hard at first but it gets easier. Of course it does. If it sobriety required full-time, herculean strength I for one would still be boozing. As it happens, these days drinking seems as alien to me as smoking or taking drugs. I have lost the sensation of ‘needing’ a drink.
-The clearheaded, focused feeling of sobriety is addictive in itself. When I drank, I spent so much time simply treading water, going round in circles. I drifted from this idea to that, unsure of what I really wanted. Living free from fog and confusion day after day makes it so much easier to carve out a life you actually like.
-All the things that bother you in early sobriety will go away. I spent a lot of time at the beginning wondering if people would notice, wondering what to tell friends … I even started panicking about what would happen if I ever got married. Never mind the fact that I wasn’t in a relationship – I was preoccupied with what I would do about the toast on my wedding day! In early sobriety, thinking long term is really scary so my advice is don’t do it. Just trust that everything will work itself out.
-It’s easier when you get some help. Trying to get sober on your own is like attempting the Sunday crossword by yourself. You’ll struggle over clues that someone else will get straight away. So make it your mission to get out of your own head, soak up new information and seek out help. You are investing in yourself and your future. Keep experimenting. It’s not enough to say, ‘ok well this time I’m going to try harder’. If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll get the same results.
-Being quietly rebellious is really fun. Drinking is what people do to fit in. It keeps you under the radar, one of the sheep, one of the gang. Early sobriety feels like wearing a neon sign on your head and I for one, didn’t like it to start with. Yet after a while your perspective changes and being different feels kind of cool. We live in a world where supermarkets sell booze right next to the bread and milk. Every advert for wine tells you it’ll make your life better. By choosing to live sober I am rebelling against those messages and that feels good.
-We don’t need to drink in order to feel accepted and liked by others. Alcohol may appear to oil the wheels and turn you into a social butterfly but it’s never very authentic. It glosses over too much. We shouldn’t have to drink in order to stomach spending time with friends. I’d rather have the real deal any day.
-All the things that you think drinking provides you with are already inside you. That’s the real secret. But you don’t discover that until you take the booze away. You’ll also be rewarded with better skin, more energy, more money, quality sleep and a general sense of awesomeness. So hang on in there – it’s more than worth it.