In this week’s podcast, Annie Grace and Ella St. John McGrande get stuck into a conversation about how they stopped getting drunk. They share experiences from their drinking histories and their individual journeys to finding peace in sobriety. You’ll find some highlights from the conversation below, but we recommend getting stuck into the full episode.
Who are Annie and Ella?
Annie Grace is the author of This Naked Mind, The Alcohol Experiment, and This Naked Life: 48 True Stories of Finding Freedom From Alcohol (you can find them all on Amazon UK, on Amazon US, on Amazon Canada, and on Amazon Australia). Annie’s career pushed her into drinking with clients in her late 20s. She stopped drinking in her mid 30s when she realised how much getting drunk or sipping wine on the couch at home was impacting her life. She found her own way to quit, and now she helps others to do the same thing.
Former French Teacher Ella St John McGrand is now a TV Producer on history documents, and a Mindset Coach. She coaches women in their 30s to overcome fear and live life fully. She stopped drinking in 2019 after binge drinking through university and the first decade of her career. She decided getting drunk no longer served her, and found a way to shift her mindset and enjoy a happy sober life.
Working in a world that normalised getting drunk
I wasn’t a drinker before I started a corporate job. My boss said going out to happy hour was a lot like going to the golf course, it was where the deals were done. I started my drinking career alternating between a glass of wine and a glass of water. Sometimes I would have too much and I’d start to feel drunk. I was really passionate about my career, I didn’t want to be that person. I might throw up a glass of wine just so I could drink more wine to keep up with colleagues. I didn’t even know alcohol was really addictive. To be honest with you I thought that a glass of wine was healthy for you. Fast forward a decade, and I was drinking two bottles of wine a night. I was buying it in a box so I couldn’t tell how much I’d drunk. There was something psychological about finishing one bottle and having to open another one.
I had two young boys at home, and work required me to split my time between the States and the UK. I had been trying to cut back because it was causing problems in my life. I didn’t know how. Every time I tried to cut back it actually seemed to make my drinking worse. I could take a week off, I could take a day off. But I would feel like I was missing out and I wasn’t happy. I was sitting in Heathrow Airport coming back from a big boozy trip when I realised I was bringing the worst of myself back home to my husband and my two boys. They deserved the best of me. I had to stop drinking. I decided to answer just one question. Why? Why is this so important when I’m so in control in every other area of my life? Why do I feel so sad if I can’t have this fermented liquid in a glass? That kicked off almost a year of research. I just went through every single reason I got drunk, I looked into all the studies. I asked myself if it really relaxed me. Does it really make things more fun? Does it really help my social anxiety? Does it really help me loosen up for sex? About a year later, I walked out of my office. I told my husband I was done with drinking. It’s been almost six years now. My book This Naked Mind was really just a very well edited compilation of my initial journals of all of those discoveries.Annie Grace
Stopped getting drunk
I started drinking in my late teens, especially when I went to university, because it’s the done thing. In the UK freshers week is a time when you really go hard, and you’re drinking to make friends. I never thought that not drinking wasn’t an option. As somebody who is quite a high achiever, and very academically driven, I thought ‘this is great, I can blow off all this steam, and make loads of new friends’. I got into a cycle of binge drinking, I blacked out quite a lot, got into some very nasty scrapes and situations. It’s all brushed under the rug, especially if you are someone who has it together in other areas of their life. People do cut you a lot of slack when it comes to your drinking, and this continued for a few years. I became more stressed when I was a teacher, I was blacking out on a regular basis. I transitioned into a career in TV and thought ‘I need to stop drinking, I’m going to be sober’, but I did it with sheer willpower. It only lasted six months. Last year, I reached a low. It wasn’t bottom of the ladder, but a low. It was at my friend’s bridal shower. I looked around and thought, ‘why am I doing this again? What am I getting out of it?’. I was back in this horrible cycle of feeling really bad about myself. I’m wasn’t performing as well as I could in my career, and I was also training to be a coach at that time. I was becoming very self aware. I just decided to stop. I read loads of books, read This Naked Mind and The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober. I realised I had to change my mindset around alcohol to see that it didn’t add anything to my life. I’ve never been happier sober. I use that principle and process to coach other women, not necessarily about their drinking – though drinking often comes up – but in other areas of their lives.
Willpower felt very forced. I felt like I was punishing myself for getting drunk or behaving badly because of alcohol. The thought was ‘I’m a bad person, I have to control this. I don’t deserve to have any more fun. I’m depriving myself of alcohol, therefore I can’t enjoy situations’. When it came to quitting that second time, I knew willpower hadn’t worked the first time. I thought about how I could make it easier. I love reading, so I challenged myself to change my mind. I figured if I just educate myself I would find some data and some facts that would convince me. I played to my strengths, and that really helped. It clicked in my mind that alcohol wasn’t adding anything to my life. It was the reason I was feeling so low. It didn’t make me funnier or smarter. I always thought I could speak French better when I was drunk. That’s not true, you can’t conjugate a verb when you’re hammered! It was all a lie. I started to have really good experiences, like going to my friend’s wedding, dancing and not falling over drunk, leaving at a reasonable hour. I realised it was better, because I was still me, and I was sharper. That’s when it became more positive. I was able to see what I was gaining from sobriety rather than focussing on thinking I was depriving myself of alcohol. That was the biggest shift for me.Ella
My experience was very similar. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario. If you go to an event like a wedding, and you are using willpower to avoid drinking, it can feel like a punishment for overdoing it. You feel a bit envious of everybody else who can just drink normally. But that mindset means you don’t have a good time. It fulfils itself, and you spend a lot of the occasion obsessing about the drink. But with a real mindset shift you can have a completely different experience. When I finally started to think differently, I had to challenge a lot of thoughts I had about me and drink. I thought I was a better networker. I believed I was more creative and had better ideas when I had a drunk brainstorming session. But then I realised I didn’t want to drink, even if it costs me my ability to network. It just isn’t worth the hangover. It’s not worth the feeling of not like myself, the can of worms it would open. My mindset was different. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, I didn’t feel deprived. I would go to a networking event and have the experience and find that I was better at it. Because guess what, I actually had to use my brain, I had to use my skills, I couldn’t just fall into some stupid conversation. I actually had to think very thoughtfully about people and how I connected with them. There’s always a connection point with another human if you just look hard enough for it. Suddenly, I was developing the skills to be a really engaging conversationalist, the skills to overcome social anxiety and break the ice. Feeling like you’re good at something that you thought was down to alcohol is one of the coolest experiences.Annie
Finding confidence in social situations
Now, I feel like I can enter a room and talk to loads of people. There might be some initial tension or awkwardness, but once you break through that you have better conversations. I find I get to the heart of the matter a lot quicker now. When I was drinking, a lot of my conversations were very much surface level, very superficial. Now that I’m sober, I find that I can connect with people much quicker and enjoy more deep and meaningful conversations.Ella
I find I’m quite intolerant of surface level conversation. I actually noticed this with a few of my friends who are really heavy drinkers. Their mindset was very much that in order to really let loose in conversation they needed a few drinks. They would almost avoid me until they’d had a few drinks, then they would come and talk to me. They didn’t need the alcohol to have conversation, they just believed that they did. There was a tiny little window of time where they were actually going to have a good conversation with you before they were drunk. And then they just become absent. I’d look in their eyes, and see that they’re not really there anymore. I did find myself almost intolerant of small talk. These days I want to hang out with people who are going to have meaningful conversations or good humour. I don’t want to talk about the weather.Annie
Women are socially conditioned to be caring and to be people pleasers. But I think if you also fit into the mold of being academic, or being successful, society really rewards you for that. I worked really hard at school and at university, which was seen as a real positive. So when you do things that are a bit subpar, or bad behaviour, people give you a bit more slack. People thought alcohol wasn’t really a problem for me, even though I was blacking out. I gave myself a scar rolling over in a club and landing on a wineglass and having stitches. I passed out on a beach and I could have drowned. But that’s all just fun Ella letting loose, she’s not always like that. There’s this idea that if you can control other areas of your life, you can control your drinking, and people want to believe that about you. So I think they give you a little bit more space. It’s not until you do something that they find terrifying that your behaviour is confronted. I also realised that everyone in my friendship circle was behaving in exactly the same way, it wasn’t unusual. It’s like a double edged sword, you’re kind of rewarded for being an overachiever, and having a successful career.Ella
Coping with difficult emotions
Often the thing that keeps us drinking is a need to avoid pain or difficult emotions. Our brains want to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy. Stopping drinking means you have to lean into discomfort and allow yourself to be present with emotions. You have to learn to delay gratification which is the opposite of seeking pleasure. I like to actually try to feel stuff on a schedule sometimes. When I know something is going on, I set aside time just to feel it and journal and release it, let it all out. The emotions are there, they’re going to come out anyway. I have this memory of my kids and I in a hot tub. They had balloons that they were trying to hold under the water. Eventually they would pop up. That’s like our emotions. Make time to sit with your feeling and lean into them, let it be difficult for an hour. Then treat yourself to something nice, whatever that looks like for you. You’re making time to process things. Avoiding feelings and numbing them with alcohol won’t work. They’re still going to be there.Annie
One of the many gifts of sobriety is having a new level of self awareness. I’ve only been able to look at that whilst being sober. You start to go deep and change those limiting beliefs and thoughts. Previously I just pushed them down. When you’re in a cycle of drinking or getting drunk, it’s too uncomfortable to reflect on yourself. Previously I really avoided thinking about my racial identity. Now that I have explored that I have a sense of freedom I didn’t haven before. I used to use to drink to hide and insecurities or discomfort. In sobriety, you have to look at all of that. You become more mentally prepared and more aware and have the tools to deal with things because you’re no longer numbing it out.Ella
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