Charlie Allen woke up still wearing his tuxedo on the morning of 14th December 2021. He’d hosted a big Christmas dinner the night before. Now he was in his friend’s house in south-west London, hungover and wondering what he was doing there.
Allen, now 30, had already been feeling disillusioned with the non-stop drinking culture he’d experienced in London since moving in from a small rural town. ‘I really didn't want to go from having client drinks on a Wednesday, to seeing my friends on a Thursday, then going out on a Friday, to do the same thing on a Saturday, and then have some wine and a roast on a Sunday,’ he says. ‘I describe it as a psychological rollercoaster. I got fed up of riding that wave.’
Recovering from his hangover, Allen realised that he wanted to reduce his alcohol consumption. But at the same time, the idea of going ‘teetotal’ didn’t appeal to him. He liked drinking. And so, two weeks before Christmas, he decided to go ‘99% sober’.
Sometimes referred to as ‘dry by default’ or ‘mindful drinking’, Allen uses 99% sober to describe a lifestyle in which he only drinks on special occasions: a weekend at Glastonbury, or an evening with his girlfriend’s parents. On those occasions, he’ll drink as much as he wants (and prepares himself for a hangover the next day). Outside those occasions, he describes himself as sober.
A growing group of other, especially younger, men are making the same decision. Instead of restricting themselves with ‘drinker’ or ‘non-drinker’ labels, they’re placing themselves somewhere in between. Although there’s a lack of scientific research to support the 99% sober movement, it follows the broader trend of people seeking lives with less alcohol. In 2019, 20% of people in England described themselves as ‘non drinkers’. This compares to 17% in 2015.
After he declined a celebratory shot at his company’s annual performance lunch, Allen's CEO approached him to support his decision. He says that hundreds of others have asked for his advice since he wrote about his experience online. Some of his friends teased him at first, but after realising that he was serious about it, they stopped. On a recent pub visit, they ordered him a coke before he'd arrived.
Lawrence Keltie, 32, was also surprised by his friends’ reaction after going 99% sober in January 2022. The day before a recent wedding, he texted them in the group chat to warn that he wouldn’t be drinking. To his surprise, none of them cared. He drank a single glass of champagne at the reception. Unlike Allen, he restricts himself to one or two drinks on the occasions that he does indulge.
Keltie says he would drink alcohol once or twice per week. But once the pandemic started, the frequency increased. He'd drink a beer or two every evening, as well as a bottle of wine with his wife on the weekend. This consistent consumption led to headaches that would affect his work and cycling performance, which frustrated him. ‘Every time I had a beer, I would wake up the next morning feeling like shit,’ he says.
Keltie reduced his alcohol consumption over a few months. When we last spoke, he hadn’t drunk anything since a local beer festival in the summer. The next time he planned to drink was on Christmas Day, for which he'd bought a bottle of wine to share with his wife.
The proliferation of low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks helped a lot, says Keltie. At a recent client lunch, he started with a glass of wine from a bottle that his boss had ordered for the table, and followed it with a non-alcoholic cocktail. He started rating the bars in his area based on the selection they offered. He also ordered non-alcoholic beers for his office fridge (which colleagues sometimes drink too).
Dr Richard Piper, CEO at the charity Alcohol Change UK, says that becoming 99% sober presents an effective means to manage alcohol consumption. He does, however, avoid prescribing specific programmes. It’s this ‘all or nothing’ approach that he believes people can find too restrictive.
‘The UK’s relationship with alcohol has gotten completely out of hand for many people,’ Dr Piper (an ‘occasional drinker’ himself) tells Men’s Health. ‘We’re like this big group of chimps. We want every chimp to be in the group, and we don’t like the chimp that’s not. People feel threatened by that.’
This culture of ‘sober shaming’, as Dr Piper labels it, is a problem because scientific research has linked alcohol to at least 60 medical conditions. Those conditions include mouth, stomach, and liver cancers, as well as liver disease, depression and stroke. These conditions are especially prevalent among men, who are twice as likely to die from alcohol-related conditions as women. Before its closure in 2021, Public Health England estimated that alcohol misuse costs the UK £21 billion every year through crime, healthcare, and lost productivity.
Some medical conditions, including several cancers, have a ‘linear’ relationship with alcohol. According to Dr Piper, this means that those who drink twice as much alcohol will double their risk of contracting the conditions. The majority of alcohol-related illness, though, expresses a ‘curved’ relationship with the volume consumed. This means that the risk only becomes significant when drinkers pass around 14 units (about six pints of beer) per week. Beyond those 14 units, the risk rises rapidly. At 28 units per week, 3% of people will die from an alcohol-related condition. At 42 units, 6% will die.
For this reason, going 99% sober can almost eliminate someone’s risk of contracting an illness from his alcohol consumption. ‘Drinking very occasionally, your body will be able to process that almost entirely without long-term problems,’ Dr Piper says. But he also explains that drinking small amounts over longer periods, like Keltie, reduces the risk much more than drinking large amounts over a short period, even if infrequent. That’s in part because the body develops a tolerance for it.
Dr Piper says that Dry January, the campaign managed by Alcohol Change UK, is actually designed as a ‘liberation campaign’. Dry January is intended for those who want to become 99% sober, as well as those who want to become completely sober. The period of 30 to 90 days without alcohol can help to reset a participant’s brain, according to Dr Piper. ‘It resets the associations, resets the physiological addiction,’ he says. Focussing too much on the prospect of a life without alcohol can put people off.
Allen says it’s important that people prevent unplanned drinks from derailing their commitment. He recalls one night when he and his girlfriend found themselves at a barn dance in the Lake District. He hadn’t planned to drink, but the band was playing music he liked, and he chose to indulge. ‘You know you've slipped up,’ he says. ‘That doesn't make a difference. Dust yourself off and go again.’
Becoming 99% sober has improved his physical and mental health. He lost 8kg over the past year, achieved his first half-marathon podium finish, and ran his first ultra-marathon. He also says that his relationships with friends and family have become stronger.
Allen set up a running community called Run Social in January 2022 to help himself avoid alcohol-related activities. The free-to-participate community, which is designed with sobriety in mind, has now grown to 724 people in London, Manchester, Aberdeen, Brighton, and Bristol. Allen is now planning a Run Social trip to Switzerland next year. Drinks not included.
‘It's not about making people feel like they can't do something,’ Allen says. ‘It's about making people feel that they can do what they want to do, and empower them to make their own selfish decisions. Usually that’s not encouraged.’
If you would like advice about managing your, or a friend’s, drinking habits, Drinkline provides a free and confidential helpline on 0300 123 1110 (available weekdays 9am - 8pm, weekends 11am - 4pm.)
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