How do you juggle a career as a successful Strategy Director, with being a writer, dad of two, accomplished musician AND successfully changing your relationship with alcohol? I asked Rhys Williams, who has managed exactly that, if he’d answer a few questions about his journey with booze, and for any advice he might have for those in need of a little inspiration. Here’s what he had to say:
You’re almost six years alcohol-free, is that correct?
It’s almost correct. I’ve had the odd glass of champagne at people’s weddings and the occasional glass of wine with a meal, but recently, I’ve become less comfortable doing even that. I used to see it as a personal freedom thing – drink is not the boss of me – but actually, I’m choosing to exercise my freedom by not drinking at all these days.
One thing I can absolutely say without fear of contradiction though is that I’ve enjoyed 1,995 consecutive hangover-free days.
What inspired you to give up drinking?
It was a cocktail of circumstances if you’ll forgive me the inappropriate metaphor.
I was diagnosed with a long-term illness that needed nine rounds of surgery to fix. I was prescribed antibiotics just before Christmas, but I didn’t take them because I wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol with them (the pack promised hallucinations and palpitations if I did). I couldn’t contemplate Christmas Day without booze. This turned out to be a really shit move. My illness took a turn for the worse and I ended up in A&E on New Year’s Day. That was the trigger for stopping.
But if I’m totally honest, I’d been moving in that direction for a long time. The illness just gave me a cover story that allowed me to deflect some of the social pressure. It’s still how I explain it to people. I just tried it out on you – did you buy it? Digging a bit deeper, my mother stopped drinking in 1992 and then my brother stopped in 2011. It’s impossible not to question your own drinking when two people close to you choose that path. And also, in hindsight, when I was drinking, I wasn’t doing it in a healthy way. I didn’t drink alone, I didn’t drink every day, and I didn’t drink in secret. But I never drank without drinking to excess, and I didn’t like the things I did when drunk or the way I felt the next day.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed in yourself, your life and your relationships since you stopped drinking?
It’s happened in phases.
The first phase was the easiest in lots of ways. I was ill, then I had surgery, then I recovered, and for all that time, I was housebound and not drinking. I didn’t tell anyone I was stopping – I just did it. Then, I told people I was stopping for a few months because of the illness (when in fact I was stopping forever because I wanted to). The real turning point was when I went away with my school friends for our annual trip to watch Wales play rugby away. It would normally have been the booziest weekend of the year for me (against some stiff competition) but that year, I did it sober. The experience was a revelation. Instead of feeling excluded, or isolated, or like a party pooper, I enjoyed it more than I’d ever done before. It was exactly the same, only I didn’t fall over, lose my phone, get lost on the way home or feel like death the next day.
I thought I was home and dry (again, forgive the metaphor). But in fact, the next phase after that was the hardest, as I started properly adjusting to life without alcohol. By the end of my first alcohol-free year, I was really miserable. It was like living life with the lights on for the first time. Suddenly all the bad stuff I’d been blocking out with booze was impossible to avoid any more. I took an online test to see if I was depressed or not. If you got a score of more than 40, they told you to seek help. I scored 63. The only question I’d not got ‘full marks’ on was the one about self-harming and suicide. I went to the doctors and got prescribed Sertraline. Shortly afterwards, I started therapy.
It took another whole year to stabilise. My mother died that year and I think that prolonged the process in some ways and hastened it in others. But by the end of that year, I had found a new balance and that’s where I am today.
I feel like my behaviour and my moods are much more consistent now. Before, I used to behave in a certain way then try to post-rationalise my values to fit what I’d done. Now, it’s very simple – I behave according to my values, and when I do things, it’s because I mean to do them. It’s done wonders for my self-image and confidence. I’m less anxious. I’m attempting stuff now that I never would have been brave enough to try before. Physically, I’m fitter, leaner and healthier. Since my last round of surgery, I’ve lost over three stone and I’m lighter now than I was at school. How many middle-aged dads can say that?
But the biggest change is: I’m miles happier with my life and with myself. I look at myself in the mirror and think “You’re not perfect, but you’re alright.” I can’t stress what a step forward that’s been.
How has it affected your relationship with your children?
It’s hard to say because, for most of their lives, I’ve been sober. But thinking back, I think I’m more patient and more tolerant than I would have been when drunk or hungover. They might say different.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout the journey?
First, dealing with pressure from those around me to start drinking again. That’s where the cover story helped – you have to be a pretty callous friend to tell someone who’s just had surgery that they should top up their analgesics with some strong continental lager.
Next, dealing with me and the changes I experienced as I adjusted to life without alcohol.
Now, genuinely and honestly, none at all. I’m totally happy with where I am and comfortable with the path I’m on. It’s been the best choice I’ve made in my whole life I think.
You’re a strategist and writer by profession, so have you noticed your working mindset is influenced by your lifestyle change, or vice versa, or a bit of both?
I’m doing better at work than ever – because I’m just much more comfortable with who I am and the qualities I bring. I think I’m nicer to be around (though I can still snap or get annoyed – I haven’t morphed into an angel) so my work relationships have improved a lot. I’m getting more done, because I’m not turning up hungover or still drunk, god forbid. I can’t say that my work has influenced my lifestyle change much – though I have set myself some stretch goals and KPIs for 2018, rather embarrassingly.
I heard through the grapevine that you’re an accomplished musician outside of work, have you noticed any changes in your creativity after you’d changed your drinking behaviour?
I was really worried about somehow losing my songwriting mojo if life got less troubled and complicated. But that turned out to be a complete red herring – I’m more inspired and creative than ever. Since stopping drinking, I’ve been played on Radio 2, 6 Music, and Absolute Radio and been A-listed twice on Radio Wales. It’s not a coincidence.
The drinks choices available to those who choose not to drink are rapidly growing, as is the mindful drinking scene (people who choose to moderate, take some time out or not drink at all) in general. What are your thoughts around why this is happening?
I think as with anything like this, it’s about demand. If people want to buy things, then other people will try to make them or sell them. That’s why it’s important to keep requesting good alcohol-free options.
Do you have any predictions for the future of mindful drinking?
Just that I think it’s going to grow in profile and popularity as more people realise the benefits and talk about them.
What do you think have been the biggest, or most noticeable, shifts in social attitudes since you stopped drinking?
This is a hard one to judge, because like everyone, I see things primarily through the filter of my own experience. I can say how attitudes to me have changed. People who used to question my choice now accept and celebrate it. Not one of my friends ever challenges me about my drinking or lack of it now. It just is what it is.
Do you have any nuggets of advice to someone who is thinking about changing their relationship with drinking?
First, try it. Don’t worry in advance about what the effects will be or how long you can keep it up. Give it a go, experience the difference, then work out a longer-term plan after that.
Second, be explicit with people that it’s a choice you’re making and ride out that first wave of peer pressure. It won’t last long – and to be honest, it’s your life so just do what you want anyway.
Third, be prepared for a bumpy road as you get used to the change. That’s totally normal. Things may get worse before they get better. But as you hit every obstacle, you’ll be resolving things that at the moment you may be denying, ignoring or masking through your drinking. Once you’re through to the other side, everything will feel miles better than you could imagine now.
Finally, remember to be nice to yourself. For this to stick, it has to be a better and an easier path than the one you’ve left. So instead of beating yourself up, think instead about how you can treat, reward and care for yourself as much as possible. Life’s pretty miserable if it’s just about denial and abstinence. Think about what new experiences or opportunities you can now embrace, and go for them wholeheartedly. Concentrate on the new pleasures you’re moving towards, not the old pain you’re leaving behind.