I spent 22 years as a problem drinker. Here are 10 things I’ve learned since I quit

As the sober years mounted up, I realised that drinking was a symptom of something bigger underneath

Illsutration of alcohokl being emptied out of bottle. Illustration: CSA-Archive/Getty Images
When I had my first drink the anxiety and self-consciousness I thought was just my personality melted away. Illustration: CSA-Archive/Getty Images

The first alcoholic drink I had was a lemon Hooch in a gay club called the Palm Beach in south London in 1991. For the first time in my life the anxiety and self-consciousness I thought was just my personality melted away. A decades-long whirlwind of partying, hangovers and self-destructive behaviour ensued, all fuelled by trauma and self-loathing. That was until I finally realised too much was enough and that I needed to stop. Ten years ago, after 22 years of problem drinking, I shared a bottle of champagne with a friend and put the bottle and the glasses in the recycling bin. I haven’t had a drink since. These are 10 things I’ve learned in those 10 years of being alcohol-free.

Having a problem with alcohol is not about alcohol

As the sober years mounted up, I realised that drinking was a symptom of something bigger underneath. I’ve rarely met an ex-drinker who didn’t have anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, usually caused by experiences growing up.

For me, it was growing up gay in the 1980s, reading that people like me didn’t have a future. I’ve seen hundreds of people with different stories but with the same outcome: straight men and women who didn’t feel loved, trans people who were bullied, people whose parents beat them, or shamed them about their looks or weight, or sexually abused them ... the list goes on and on. Dealing with problem drinking means dealing with what’s underneath. It’s terrifying at first but eventually you’ll come to see it as the bravest and best thing you’ll ever do in life.

There can be clues

It took me a long time to realise I had a problem, but there were clues along the way. I remember reading an interview in Q magazine years before I stopped drinking in which Elton John talked about how he got into recovery. He said he looked down at the Alps from a plane and was reminded of the heaps of cocaine he’d snorted. Drugs weren’t part of my thing, but I related to the bit where he talked about feeling irritable and always unhappy when he had no reason to be.


I ran from these signals. I wish I hadn’t. You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Some of the most amazing people are sober. It’s worth listening to their experiences. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.

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The best thing about stopping drinking is that you get your feelings back

And the worst thing about stopping drinking is that you get your feelings back, so the saying goes. If drinking is about dulling pain, when you stop, it comes flooding back like a tsunami. Decades of repressed memories came crashing in. The time a teacher slapped me when I was eight for something I didn’t do, how it felt when my ex cheated on me, a person who bullied me in one of my first jobs, and about a million other resentments – but also the things I’d done: guilt about a joke I made to a schoolfriend that came out wrong and made them cry, relationship mistakes, the time I nearly slept through a photo shoot with Daniel Radcliffe ... Gradually you learn how to deal with emotions in a healthier way than just running from them. (Yes, I did go back and apologise to that schoolfriend.)

I’m not the freak I thought I was

A great therapist I met at a retreat told me it’s normal to use “things” to dull emotional pain. “It’s just human nature,” she said, and that really helped me realise my worst fears weren’t true – I wasn’t uniquely mad. Life is stressful and we all screw up and we all sometimes use things to control how we feel – alcohol, sex, smoking, undereating, overeating, cleaning, shopping, apologising, underearning, overearning, drugs for some people, countless other things. When I got sober, I realised dysfunctional coping mechanisms are everywhere. Life is hard. No one’s perfect. Understanding that I was just another member of the human race and giving myself a break was life changing.

Lots of men are in a lot of pain

As a gay boy who wasn’t traditionally masculine, I grew up scared of straight men. And sometimes I still am – some men are scary. But in recovery, I’ve heard big masculine straight men open up about parents neglecting or abusing them, being cheated on, or just growing up feeling not good enough because of the pressures in society. I’ve seen them break down in tears because they’ve hurt people, or hurt themselves, and I’ve seen many make amends for mistakes they’ve made and become amazing fathers, partners and citizens. Three-quarters of those who took their own lives in 2022 in the UK were male. [In Ireland, 80 per cent of those who died by suicide in 2021 were men.] My book Straight Jacket helped start a dialogue about the mental health impacts of homophobia in the gay community, but lots of straight men really struggle, too.

You don’t have to tell everyone

At an extended family event quite early on, a family member asked what people were drinking. When I answered, “Just a Diet Coke, please,” my sweet dad, in front of everyone, chirped merrily: “Yes, he’s an alcoholic!”

You can say you’re on medication, are allergic, that you just don’t drink any more – or don’t say anything and just say, “No thank you.” But if you do decide to tell people you have – or had – a problem, know that you can’t take it back. Not drinking is a minor note in my life now but there are still judgmental people out there. It’s good to take your time before you decide how to navigate a new reality.

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There are a lot of firsts

Your first sober birthday party, Christmas, maybe your first sober date, can be nerve-racking, but you absolutely can do it. I sweated buckets before my first sober wedding. I thought my friends’ best man would point me out and everyone would laugh at me, like in Carrie, but no one cared or even noticed. People are much more concerned with their own lives than yours. Learning how to be social without alcohol is a bit like going through puberty again. You will have times when you slink off to bed early thinking you’re a loser and everyone else is having a better time, despite the fact some will end up cheating on their partners and throwing up in their boots. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it. It’s a real joy when you realise you are one of the lucky ones.

You get what you give

There’s a song in the musical Avenue Q about being depressed and isolating yourself called There Is Life Outside Your Apartment. It really resonated with me. Wanting to not take part, stay cool, or project an untouchable image to people is part of the problem. When I first went into recovery I did the bare minimum. I’d arrive at the last minute and be the first one out. When no one talked to me I saw it as evidence that everyone else was horrible and unfriendly.

As soon as I got over myself and started to look people in the eye and have conversations, people responded. It’s a cliche but you get out what you put in. Now, I say hello to my neighbours and look people in the eye. I cannot tell you how much better it makes me feel. I still have anxiety but I’m able to address some of the other things that cause it that I could never see before.

Society lies to you

My transformation has been far bigger than just experiencing mornings and having more energy. I’ve developed more compassion and a better understanding of what leads people to destroy their lives. It is rarely all their fault. Modern life pushes dysfunction on us like a dealer. Despite the millions of broken relationships, bodies and lives, booze is everywhere.

In our Instagram culture, we’re encouraged to never go deeper. I worked with a man years ago who looked as if he had a perfect life. He was handsome and popular; on Facebook he had lots of pictures of himself laughing and surrounded by happy people. When he took his own life, I realised there were lots of other things going on. I didn’t know he always carried cans of lager in his bag the way an asthmatic carries an inhaler. It suits those who profit most in this world for us never to get real and tell the truth.

You cannot do it alone

Whatever causes addiction is a hateful b*****d. It makes you believe you are worthless and unlovable. It makes you stoop when you walk down the street and believe that the world is better off without you.

About four years in I got a call from someone I knew saying his friend couldn’t stop drinking and had tried to kill himself – and as I was sober would I meet up with him to see if I could help? I was happy to – but I was worried he wasn’t going to make it. He was in a terrible way, shook constantly and attempted suicide again afterwards. But I shared the advice and support I’d been given, and other people did the same.

Today, he, too, is several years sober, newly married and with a successful new career. The most surprising lesson I learned in these 10 years is that life is about being vulnerable, bringing your walls down and letting the people who care about you care about you. There’s a saying: nobody else can do it for you but you cannot do it alone. There is help out there when you ask for it. Thank you to my friends and family who have been by my side. – Guardian

Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: Overcoming Society’s Legacy of Gay Shame is published by Black Swan (£10.99)

  • In Ireland and the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie.