Moving to rural Andalucia in 2004 was the start of a new life for my family and I. The usual reasons being to escape the rat race, provide a better life for my son and have the opportunity to live in beautiful, safe surroundings which were far beyond the reach of our budget in the UK.
The decision was life changing in so many ways and the gamble paid off but now as I sit in my office/bedroom/ meditation space, I realize that my new life in Spain is really just beginning.
Eight months ago I got sober.
Before you stifle a yawn and imagine a middle aged lady drinking tea and doing crosswords every evening, you should know that although my story as a Brit living in Spain is my own, it is by no means unique.
We drink. We drink because we can, normal rules don’t apply here, we drink because it is acceptable, encouraged even, we drink to practice our Spanish, we drink to overcome loneliness and boredom, we drink to cope with the stresses of Spanish bureaucracy, we drink to be social, we drink because it’s fun, we drink because before we moved here we had that image of us sitting on our patio or by the pool with a glass of chilled white wine so we drink to live our dream.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized my drinking was becoming a problem, but around a year ago, drinking stopped being the social lubricant to my life and became something I relied upon just to get through the day and that’s when it got out of control. I was living my life from the bottom of a glass.
Before the daily sense of dread began to creep in, I was having a whale of a time, I loved my life and I loved my drinking. Here I was, ‘making it’ as a Brit with a young family. I had a job teaching English online that I loved, we were still here despite seeing many friends come and go, I was an inspiration to others, a role model, proof that you could really live the dream, I had a life that was the envy of many.
We had lots of friends, Spanish and English alike, but what I notice the most now is that while we could enjoy a relaxing ‘aperitivo’ with our neighbours and leave it at that, when with other Brits we just carried on drinking.
Any occasion turned into an excuse for cracking open the beers or reaching for our corkscrew. Trip to the market? Lovely, let’s finish off with a cheeky cerveza. School run? Great, we can fit in a couple of tubes before we get there. Power cut? Open the wine.
Sunny days meant beers on the patio or rosé with a picnic and being snowed in was just the ticket for whisky by the fire. Our local shopkeeper joked that he had to double his weekly order of Cruzcampo just for us and our friends and although I felt embarrassed, it was easy behaviour to get away with, the locals just thought it was what us Brits did.
Gradually though, it stopped being fun and I found I needed my liquid crutch to cope with everyday life. The Spanish lifestyle is not a whirlwind of parties and social gatherings, there comes a point when real life gets in the way. You have to make a living, you have to be a mother and unlike the Spanish mums in my village who have the abuelas, titas and primos to take the slack, life becomes hard, boring and just a little bit lonely.
It was great for a while, I kept it up, I was surviving. But slowly the cracks began to appear. When you’re out in the sticks in the midst of a harsh winter and there’s nothing to look forward to then you turn to your only friend – alcohol.
At least I did. I remember waking up one day with no recollection of having put my toddler to bed – did I even give him his tea? It became the norm for me to trudge through the day in a cloud of fog and self loathing. Trips to the woods, the pool or the park were postponed until Mummy was feeling better – so many broken promises.
After a particularly harrowing event, I knew that something had to change, I was wasting my life and the life of my family as I sunk further and further to the bottom of the bottle. I was sick of waking up in the middle of the night, heart hammering, crippled with shame, fear and self hate. So one day, eight months ago, I quit.
Quitting has been the best thing I have ever done but also one of the hardest. The most difficult thing in the beginning is what to do, where to go? Almost all social activities amongst the Brits here are centred around alcohol – quiz nights in pubs, house parties, G&Ts on the patio, so navigating your way through your usual pastimes as a sober person can be challenging.
Also there’s the social stigma. As a nation, alcohol is so intertwined with our culture both home and abroad that when you stop people assume there's something wrong with you. If it were sugar, cigarettes or gluten we were giving up we’d get a pat on the back but alcohol is the only drug we have to justify not taking.
In fact ‘coming out’ and the reactions from fellow Brits has been very demoralizing at times. The thing is though, it’s not meanness or unkindness, it’s just so foreign a concept – especially here because what else are we supposed to do all day other than drink?
Comments I’ve received have been things like, ‘oh, poor you,’ ‘life’s too short’ or ‘you’ll get over it!’
What I have noticed is that I am so much happier, I feel lighter and more present in my life. No more broken promises to my children and I really appreciate the spectacular beauty of the amazing landscape in which I am blessed to live.
It sounds cliche but it’s also true – there is nothing quite as magical or breathtaking as an early morning run through the woods or swimming with the fishes in our local pool. When you numb the bad, you also numb the good and that becomes so achingly apparent once you quit drinking.
This summer was my first sober in nine years and it has been by far the best. Because my husband and I no longer drink we’ve been to places and lived through experiences we wouldn’t have even contemplated being possible in the past. Finally I am giving my kids the life in Spain they deserve. On a personal note, I am fitter and healthier than I was in my 20s and 30s and I have a brand new career – all thanks to ditching the booze.
I am also encouraged to learn that I am not the only one embarking on a new sober life in Spain. One of my good friends is already a year sober and I have a few friends currently loving taking part in Sober October. One friend said to me the other day, “I can’t believe how much I don’t miss it, I don’t know how I kept it up for so long”.
If you’re worried about your drinking or even if you're just a bit curious as to how amazing your life in Spain could be without your daily tipple then why not give sobriety a whirl – you never know, you might enjoy it!
Gayle's tips on how to take a break from alcohol:
There are loads of delicious alternatives to alcohol out there so don’t think you have to survive on tap water. I am a huge fan of tea and if you like the preparation part of serving wine for example, then having fancy teas, a teapot and nice cups will turn an otherwise boring cuppa into more of an occasion. Swap your usual tipple for the alcohol free version or choose something different entirely. I have a friend who swears by coconut water and if you have kids, then by all means, steal their Cola Cao – it has healing properties! Above all, choose something you love drinking, just because you’re not drinking alcohol it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a delicious drink.
Be kind to yourself.
Especially in the beginning if you’re detoxing, or if you have a rotten hangover your body will be trying to get rid of the alcohol which can make you tired, grumpy, lethargic or just a bit not with it. This is good and it means you are healing so treat yourself as you would an ill child. Lots of naps, fresh air, warm baths, duvet days – anything to sooth and relax you and make you feel better and just a little bit special.
Often we turn to drink because we’re hungry and it’s far easier to down two cans of San Miguel than to make a proper meal. If you’re in the lethargy stage and don’t feel like cooking then have lots of snacks on hand. Obviously you need to try and eat as healthily as possible but if kale chips are not your thing then by all means you can eat cake, sweets and chocolate! Don’t worry about putting on weight in the beginning, just four beers is the same as eating 44 Oreos so even if you do eat a bit more than you usually would, you’re still not putting away the calories like before.
Move (your body).
If like me, you did most of your drinking at home, by the pool or on the patio then it’s important to get off your butt and do something different. I’m not talking signing up to daily cross fit but believe me if you just sit on the sofa twiddling your thumbs you’ll go crazy. Spain is a beautiful place to live so take advantage of that and get outdoors even if it’s just for a stroll round the village. Take the dogs for a longer walk, do some laps in your pool, walk along the beach or take a hike through the woods. If the weather is rubbish then use the opportunity to tidy your house. De-clutter, rearrange the furniture, sort through the garage or organize your wardrobe. This will get you off the sofa, give you something positive to focus on and help bust through your stress. You’ll also have a tidy house at the end – result!
Try something new.
Usually we get into a habit of doing the same old things, with the same people, at the same places. Taking a break from alcohol might mean you have to try alternative activities for a while, after all what’s the point in wasting away your afternoon in the pub if you don’t drink? Luckily most Spanish villages offer a whole host of activities that don’t involve drinking. I had no idea that there were pilates and aerobics six days a week at my local gym. Ask around, check out the groups in your area or the Facebook groups you’re a member of and see what’s on offer. It might be the perfect time to take up that hobby you’ve been meaning to do – guitar, photography, cooking, knitting, weight lifting (yes really!) whatever it is you do it will surely be more fun and healthier than chugging wine all evening.
Avoid the same old, same old.
This ties in with the point above but when you’re not drinking it is probably not a good idea to go to the weekly pub quiz, or your regular G&T meetups. While I am now quite happy at any event without drinking alcohol I did avoid bars at beer o’clock, house parties, barbecues and shopping trips that ended in a swift half on the way home. This is no way boring, nor is it punishment and you shouldn’t feel like you’re missing out. After all it is far easier to keep your resolve if you spend time with other sober folks in the beginning. It’s like practicing your Spanish; it is easier to do when you spend time with actual Spanish people and not fellow Brits, no?
Doing anything new and different from everybody else can feel lonely and isolating. Thankfully there is a wonderful sobersphere out there both online and in real life. Do a search on Instagram or Facebook and I am sure you’ll find a group that you like. The beauty of these groups is that you can be anonymous if you wish and they are full of people who are in the same boat as you and will only give you support, advice, guidance and love.
Practice what to say.
Okay, so you can’t hide in your closet for the rest of your life at some point you will want to go out and do the things you enjoy, spend time with the people you love even if there is alcohol all around you. I found it far easier and extremely liberating to come clean from the start. I told people straight off that I had given up drinking and that was that. You will get the inevitable whys and perhaps the odd comment, and it’s up to you what you say. Again I was honest and said that I probably drank too much and I was much happier without it. But if you’re not ready to ‘come out’ then you can say I’m driving, I’m on antibiotics, I drank too much yesterday, I’m trying to lose weight, I’m having a week/month off, I’m doing a 28/60/100 day challenge, I’m skint, I’m having a competition with my wife/husband/kids, I went to the pub last week and woke up three days later in Barcelona/Madrid (somewhere far, far away) you get the idea. Be honest if you’re ready, but if not, then choose something you’re comfortable with.
If you find that giving up booze for a while is scary, difficult or you just can’t do it then it might be an idea to get real life support which goes beyond popping into a Facebook group now and then. There might be AA in your area or similar set ups. There are courses online that you can check out – some are virtual, others are one to one. Read as many blogs, websites and books as you can. You are not alone and if I can do it then you most certainly can!
Gayle Macdonald lives in an extremely small village in the Granada region of Andalucia. She loves tea, playing guitar badly, occasionally running, Spanish rock music and meditating.
Read more of what it is really like to be sober in Spain, how to get through tricky times when giving up booze and other useful insights into living a sober life at her website and blog, sober-bliss.com