#parent | #kids | “If you’ve been drinking for 20 years, what’s 90 days without as a trial?” – Kate Gunn on choosing a sober life


Sitting in her Greystones home not long after a bracing sea dip, writer and digital marketer Kate Gunn, 47, is nervous, she says. You would be too if you’d just written a book called The Accidental Soberista, highlighting what an alcoholic bunch we Irish are, chugging our wine, beer and spirits like camels at a desert oasis.

That, by the way, is exactly the kind of prickly response she is dreading. “It’s such a weird topic that people get really defensive about it. I’m tackling a topic that people don’t like being discussed,” she grimaces.

Who, us? Not liking to read about how much better our lives, relationships, mental health, focus, skin, sleep and parenting skills would be if we could just step away from the pi gri? As if we would begrudge someone whose 30-day alcohol-free challenge led to what the press release calls “a life of unexpected bliss!” Especially when Kate isn’t even a reformed alcoholic — she was a normal drinker before, she says.

“I think people get very defensive about it because we’ve spent so long not looking at [our drinking] at all, so it’s not even in our mindset to consider it. I know that because I was one of those people.”

A potted history of Kate’s drinking: she started at 16, “trying to get into pubs at the weekends”. College life, when she studied sociology and English at Maynooth in the 1990s, was “very drink-orientated” with “all-day drinking sessions”. After graduating, she worked in a couple of multi-nationals where the culture was “work hard, play hard”.

She would go out drinking “a couple of nights during the week, a couple of nights at the weekends”. However, Kate says she was “never one of the people in the group [about whom] people say, ‘oh, mind her’ or ‘watch out for her’. I would have been kind of in the middling-level of drinking.”

Travelling in her late 20s was again, very drink-orientated, she says. She met her now ex-husband, Kristian, they settled down in their 30s and had three children — Kaya, 16, Marley, 14, and Baxter, 12.

“Early on when the kids were very young was when we kind of got into the every day phase. I’d say we would have had probably a bottle of wine between us every day for a couple years.” It was “just at-home drinking when the kids were young — we wouldn’t have gone out very much”.

Sometimes, Kate would have a dreadful hangover after two glasses of wine; then she might have a big session and “get away with it — It was like Russian roulette what would happen the next day”.

She remembers an occasion of vomiting so badly that she burst a blood vessel in her eye.

“Kristian said, ‘You know, you should really think about giving up drink’ and I was like, ‘As if! Don’t be ridiculous.’ It wasn’t in my headspace to think that alcohol was something I could give up or do without.”

When her marriage ended some seven years ago, Kate began socialising more — “reconnecting with friends and doing the whole pub thing again”. She met her current partner, Aodhán, and they had a year of “just normal drinking in pubs and restaurants before we went on the dry”.

Why the dry? Kate’s ex started it, when he stumbled on the One Year No Beer website and signed up for a 90-day challenge. She initially scoffed but soon noticed that it really suited him and he flourished with it, she says. Her brother Liam was so impressed with Kristian’s transformation that he quit drinking too.

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“I think people get very defensive about it because we’ve spent so long not looking at [our drinking] at all, so it’s not even in our mindset to consider it.”

Then Aodhán’s GP recommended he ditch booze for a month to see if it improved his heartburn, which, incidentally, 60pc of the Irish population suffer from. He decided he would and Kate was in a quandary.

“We’d only been together for a year and I didn’t want that situation of a sober person seeing you drunk and making you put up your barriers.”

Kate told Aodhán she would quit drinking with him “on the understanding that it was 30 days and then back to normal. And that was the start”.

That was October 3, 2016. The book does not shy away from her struggle to stay on this self-imposed wagon, redefine herself in social settings and slowly reflect on half a lifetime spent casually boozing.

It is full of sucker-punch observations.

“Drinking in our culture is so ingrained that most of us don’t stop to question it,” she writes, having earlier remarked, “If you don’t find it easy to give up then it’s pretty clear you’re drink-dependent”.

The greatest challenge was other people’s perceptions: “Alcohol is the only drug that people don’t congratulate you for giving up.”

The tone is more matter-of-fact than smug. Her first alcohol-free weekend was “really boring… a nightmare”. She and Aodhán avoided pubs and couldn’t even imagine eating in a restaurant without ordering a bottle of wine. When she finally began meeting friends, Kate says she felt “really uncomfortable because I wasn’t used to being out without a drink. You don’t know yourself in those social situations without that crutch”.

The good news was that she “immediately noticed clarity in my head and more energy. All of the benefits that people talk about came quickly to me. Within the space of that 30 days I was like, yeah, I feel really good. This is interesting.”

She had also taken up physical challenges — “so you’ve got something else to focus on” — such as training for triathlons.

As the last day of abstinence approached, Kate began thinking about the bigger “magic number” mythologised in sobriety circles. “I thought this is probably the only time in my life that I’m going to be able to get to that 90 days so I might as well do it now.”

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“I don’t know anyone who’s given up drink that regrets it.” Author Kate Gunn. Photograph by Your Story Photography.

One month off the drink became three. While Kate’s friends were “pretty good with it”, her sisters do a great job of representing the reader’s viewpoint in the book.

“They were really put out because it was changing everything,” says Kate. “We have a really close family and would have done a lot of Sunday lunches and all the big occasions — Easter, Christmas — together. We loved that. And I think they felt that was being threatened by a few of us opting out of the drinking part.” (Aside: Both sisters have since taken gargle holidays; one was just off it for Lent.)

Strangers posted over-sensitive comments online when Kate wrote an article for the Irish Independent in January 2017 with the headline: ‘I have done 100 days alcohol free, saved €1,000 and dropped a jean size — could you do a year with no beer?’ In that article, she estimated her previous weekly drink-related spend at €70 which one poster interpreted thus: “€10 a day and she says she’s not an alcoholic, yeah right”.

Kate knows very well that a vodka vacation is “not for everyone”. But having come of age in the throes of ladette culture — “when drinking was a badge of honour” — she wonders whether more people of her generation have ever really stopped to think about it (Millennials seem more openly #SoberCurious).

The book describes her first holiday with Aodhán nine months into their prohibition, when they finished a portion of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Ducking into a tapas bar, Kate saw the wine bottles lining the walls and impulsively wondered aloud whether she would order a glass. In the end she didn’t — it was her closest call.

What would have been wrong with having that glass of wine with her pimientos padron?

“Nothing at all,” she laughs. “But within the space of 60 seconds my mind was going, would one glass be enough? What if we ordered a bottle? What if we had half a bottle each — would that be OK? It wasn’t going to be one glass.”

She lives by the maxim that it is easier to hold your principles 100pc of the time than it is to hold them 98pc of the time.

“It’s so true because to me moderation would be harder. Your headspace would be filled up with thoughts like, will I drink tonight? What are my rules around drinking? Is it not to drink alone? Is it not to drink in the house? Is it to drink once a month? That just wastes energy and headspace. Whereas if you don’t drink, you don’t drink and that’s it.”

Kate cannot pinpoint when she stopped wanting a tipple, but it “wouldn’t even occur to” her now. “The physical dependency is gone quickly but the societal one or the individual one isn’t,” she says. “Learning who you are without it takes a long time.”

The sober socialising got easier eventually. Kate recommends ordering a good non-alcoholic drink to “feel more part of things”, rather than nursing a drab and conspicuous sparkling water. Her non-poison of choice is Guinness Open Gate Pure Brew, and two of these beers keep her going on a night out. At home she’s partial to a can of Wicked Wolf or a Seedlip non-alcoholic gin and tonic in a nice glass with “posh crisps” on the side.

Tesco’s Nosecco does the job if an occasion calls for bubbles but Kate has yet to find an alcohol-free wine that’s to her taste. “The whites are OK but you’re definitely left with a thin taste at the end and you feel like you’re missing out, whereas with the other drinks, you don’t.”

Sales of low- and non-alcoholic beers soared by 60pc in Ireland in 2018. A Drinkaware survey published last May found that while one-quarter of Irish adults reported drinking more since Covid-19 restrictions came in, the same number actually reported a decline in alcohol consumption.

Almost one-third said they had made “positive changes” to cut down or even cut out drink. For that cohort, Kate has some more practical advice for when socialising (hopefully) resumes post-pandemic.

First, make sure your friends know if you still want to go to the pub. “Myself and Aodhán noticed that people assume you don’t want to go out if you’re not drinking, which is understandable but at the same time crazy because you go to the pub to see your mates.”

If you think friends will give you a hard time, get one onside first to casually back you up when the slagging starts —’She’s grand, leave her alone!’

When you feel ready to leave — for Kate it’s usually around midnight like Cinderella — just go. “I think it’s a mistake to try and hold on longer. Nobody cares and nobody notices. Just slip out the door.”

Warning: Do not offer lifts home or you will be accused of rushing people who want another drink. “It’s a minefield,”says Kate.

Kate used the I’m Done Drinking app to calculate money saved, and she still siphons it monthly into a pension fund — “or you could get a new wardrobe for yourself”.

Her greatest support is Aodhán, right there beside her on the sober rollercoaster.

What if your partner isn’t on board?

“I know people who have tried it and felt pressure from their partner to drink — ‘This is what we do and you’re ruining it!’ That is really difficult when you are already doing something difficult. I’m not sure I would be able to do it. Having your partner in on it is probably why we both succeeded.”

Those people out there drinking more since the pandemic might be wondering how anyone can get through this grim reality without alcohol.

“How can you get through this WITH alcohol?” retorts Kate in her book, noting elsewhere that when it comes to anxiety, alcohol “presses a pause button on the problem, which comes back even stronger once the alcohol wears off”.

All right, all right. How would she have felt as a younger mum drinking half a bottle of wine a night if someone else had written this book then and challenged that habit?

“I would have said, ‘You do your thing, I’ll do mine’. So I totally understand people’s reactions to it from a defensive kind point of view.”

Now the dewy-skinned poster girl for a hangover-free life has come full circle. “Maybe we just need to give it a go, that’s what I would say to everyone. If you’ve been drinking for 20, 30 years, what’s 90 days as a trial? And if it doesn’t work out for you then, grand, go back to your previous habits. Or you might just decide to drink a little bit less which might impact on you in a better way. You’ve literally got nothing to lose by trying it.”

Instead of fretting about the deprivation of it all, she says to focus on the “many positives that come out of it. I don’t know anyone who’s given up drink that regrets it.”

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The Accidental Soberista by Kate Gunn is published by Gill Books on April 2, 2021 at €14.99

Sunday Indo Life Magazine



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