The Next Round: What happens after you change your drinking?

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Not so sober birthday

How to have a sober birthday

The first sober birthday is a big test.

The first year of moderation or sobriety is all about doing things for the first time without alcohol (or with less alcohol). Your first sober birthday is a big one. It may be that, like for me, the past few years’ birthdays had become an excuse to drink as much as possible. Their aftermath being a mixture of guilt, regret and hangover pain. Somehow, we have been continuing to repeat the same mistake year after year, as if marking our birthday in this way was the law.

In the end I gave up two weeks before my birthday. I nearly looked at the calendar and decided I could not do the drinking workshop on that day because my birthday was a few weeks away. Not because I wanted to drink. I think in my heart I knew I had to stop. But I worried I would not be strong enough to resist and would fail.

Then I realised there would never be good day to give up. That I wanted nothing more for my birthday but to stop this vicious cycle. This destructive behaviour. With two weeks sober under my belt, maybe I could navigate this event.

Your birthday is totally within your control

The reality is, that of all the social occasions that test your resolve, this is the one event where you should have the most control. It is a celebration of your life, and convention dictates it is about making you happy.

But like everything else it has been corrupted. By places that want to give you money off for your special day to eat and drink, by friends who may decide how to celebrate for you, by your own desire to have another night on the tiles. If you think about it, you may find that the person who has least control of their special day is you!

Don’t underestimate how others use any celebration as an excuse to drink, and that their attendance is more about spending time with booze and not with you.

So this first sober birthday is important. It is a chance to practice taking back control. Like everything else about changing your drinking it is about practice. As this is an annual event you need to start practicing now. Asking for what you want and redefining the celebration on your own terms.

There is no other celebration event where you have the right to 100% call the shots. After all, this a celebration of your life. Why would you spend it doing something that harms you or makes you unhappy?

Making sure your sober birthday happens

Rip up the rule book. There are no rules, just conventions – type of event, time of day, length of event are all up for grabs. It does not always have to be late and messy.

This is a perspective shift. It may not stick in year one. It will by year two.

“Without alcohol, I thought I would never laugh until I choked again, never wear a pretty dress, never attend another party, never dance. I can still remember the moment that it dawned on me that I could still go to parties, I just couldn’t drink at them. A seemingly obvious realization, it completely shifted my perspective, like how I imagine babies feel when they discover their own feet.” XOJane


  • People: who do you want to see and really spend time with? Do they have to be all at the same place or can you make your birthday into several mini events? Do they all have to last many hours? Can a birthday treat be as simple as catching up with an old friend for a coffee? You want to reserve your precious time for people you want to be with, who support you. Don’t feel bad about ditching the rest on YOUR day.
  • Places: is there somewhere new you wanted to try? An experience or even in the first tentative year, something that supports your drinking goal? It is your birthday. Do it.
  • Things: you may have to rebuff boozy gifts (see below). For those friends you feel comfortable with you can make sure they know in advance that you no longer see alcohol as a gift. In fact you could ask them for their support for the next year as a present instead.

Beware the internal saboteur. It will be using the mantra that ‘you deserve to drink – it is your birthday.’ Plan your logic arguments ahead of time.

Remember this is a new skill you are developing. Feel free to avoid things that trigger. It does not mean next year (or even for your half birthday) you can’t party/dance/go to the pub ever again.

Build all of this into a sober BIRTHDAY WOOP.

My first sober birthday

I sub-consciously did all of these things.

I spent my birthday with my biggest supporter. They would never encourage me to drink. They spent time finding a nice restaurant for us to go to. I visited them and stayed in a fancy-pants hotel for just one night so I could use the luxury facilities. I invited my cousin who I spend little time with, but who I wanted to get to know better.

Despite the fact that we drank nothing alcoholic with the meal, the Italian food still came with free Limoncello. It created an emotional response in me. A mix of grief, relief (I wanted to say no) and belief (happiness that I was not drinking). I was with friends so it was ok to cry and explain this mixed emotion.

Rebuffing boozy birthday gestures

Here are some annoying and triggery things likely to happen on your birthday:

  1. You will get alcohol joke birthday cards. ‘Just like wine you improve with age’. Have some fun picking apart the logic. Feel no guilt about throwing them away. You can always keep the half with the personal message on (or photograph it). In fact you could write your birthday WOOP on the inappropriate half!
  2. Same with alcohol related birthday Facebook posts. To those who suggest meeting up for a drink, reply “yes let’s go for a coffee on Monday!” For the rest, you can hide the post using the little arrow on the top right of the post. It will no longer pop up in your stream.
  3. You will get given wine and beer by people who don’t know yet. Decide in advance what you will do with this. Nominate someone to give it to (a favourite cheerleader) or a local raffle?
  4. Drink invites can be difficult if you are planning a sober birthday. I always suggest practicing telling people you are not drinking. The more you do it, the easier it will be. On your birthday you could say things like:

“I am gifting my self a restorative birthday this year – so an early alcohol-free night.”

“I have decided that this birthday starts a year of not drinking for me – to see how it feels.”

“I am only doing things that improve my wellbeing this year, including cutting down drinking.”

“I have told you I am no longer drinking and today is no different.”

Make sure you plan your avoid, control, escape strategies just like any other social occasion.

Things to do for a sober birthday

Planning is part of the fun, and also a great distraction. Here are some ideas to start your local search.

  • Movie night (even two back to back)
  • Theatre, comedy or concert
  • Spa day, one day membership of posh gym
  • Day on your own visiting somewhere you have always wanted to go – a mini adventure
  • Museum, art exhibition, spooky street tour!
  • Sign up for an adult education course
  • Go to a talk, meetup, cooking class
  • Movie night in
  • Go on a mini-break or a walk
  • Do a health challenge.
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