Twelve months ago, aged 43, I gave up drinking. It wasn’t that I’d become too attached to alcohol, just slightly obsessed with exercise, having notched up ten half-marathons in three years.
I’d discovered that there’s nothing quite like the buzz of a finish line — and that red wine hangovers and running don’t mix.
Eradicating alcohol from my cupboards was the easy bit, however. Removing it from my friendships was much harder.
It seemed woven into the very fabric of all my most important relationships — especially those with women.
Back when the children were small, the "wine-o’clock" glass marked that precious point at which we gave ourselves permission to stop peeling Play-Doh off the walls and have a grown-up conversation.
As the kids grew up, wine became the glue that held us together through dates, divorces and disappointments. Through life’s ups and downs, my friends and I hugged, cried... and drank Prosecco.
But I was determined to give up drinking without losing my friends, and, resolute soul that I am, I think I’ve managed it. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way . . .
Give it time
We all play roles in our friendship groups: the organiser, the listener, the risk taker. When you stop drinking you create a new (and possibly previously unfilled) position. It will take the other women time to adjust.
When I first told my friends I had decided to back away from the booze, several said things along the lines of "but you’re the fun one". This was hard to deal with at the time as it suggested that I was only capable of being fun half cut.
But I learned not to take comments like this to heart. They only show fear among the others that they may be losing you.
I hope the past 12 months have shown my girlfriends that I’m still me — it’s just I can now drive them home after a night out.
Plump for the diet
When you find yourself clutching a glass of sparkling water in the midst of a fizz binge, you will be grilled, so be prepared.
Women insist you tell them why you’re not drinking and they will harass you for an answer, whether you feel like discussing it or not. But I have generally found that male friends aren’t interested in whether I drink or not.
A clinical psychologist friend tells me this supports the behavioural theory that men are what experts term "self regarding", while women are "other regarding". In other words, it matters far more to women than men what their peers are doing.
Rather than endlessly listing your reasons, I find it much better to fib. Saying you are on a diet or antibiotics is the quickest way to get people to change the subject.
Whines about wine
Newly acquired sobriety is extremely threatening to other women and you can expect to be cast in the role of the ‘wine police’ whatever you do. Friends who would once happily quaff a bottle or two in your presence will now treat you to a forensic analysis of what they have consumed . . . and when . . . and why.
You’re just going to have to grin and bear it, and be scrupulously non-judgmental.
Eventually, they will accept that you are not, in fact, hiding a breathalyser in your handbag, nor will you be counting the empties into the recycling bin, tut-tutting all the while. It just takes a while for your friends to realise this is about you — not them.
Turn up late
There are certain fundamental differences between drinkers and non-drinkers. The most prominent of these is that drinkers like to string a thing out . . . in order to squeeze in another teeny glass.
This will become apparent to you when you go out for dinner. The evening will start with cocktails, then the food ordering will take for ever while people peruse the wine list. There will be endless sendings-away of the waiter who has come to take your order because people are on their second gin and tonic, they haven’t even looked at the menu and they’re already starting to lose focus as the booze kicks in.
This can be frustrating, but there’s an easy solution — just skip the bits that don’t involve food.
Don’t turn up for the pre-dinner drinks at all, and get to the restaurant late. Get one of the others to order for you. You will miss nothing that won’t be repeated during the course of dinner.
. . . And leave early
An inescapable truth about a wine-free life is that you won’t want to stay up as late as the others do.
Studies have shown that — at least for the time people are actively drinking — alcohol acts as a stimulant (even if it has sedative effects later on).
This problem really bothered me at first. How could I maintain that female camaraderie if I was always the one sloping off at 10pm?
But here’s the revelation — nobody will even notice if you leave without saying goodbye.
It’s such a well-tested social trick that the etiquette-conscious French even gave it a name — "filer à l’anglaise" meaning "to leave English style".
Many has been the time I’ve nipped off quietly at 10pm, only for a friend to call the next day to say: "Oh and how about when so-and-so did such-and-such at midnight.’ The more people drink, the hazier they become about time.
Square the round
When the round is ordered at the pub, you’ll be forgotten because you aren’t drinking.
Don’t get huffy. After all, how much Diet Coke do you actually want to consume? And do you really want another of those ‘non-alcoholic lagers’ that taste more like something purchased in the solvents aisle at Homebase?
Instead of feeling slighted, see it as an opportunity to duck out of the round. You’ll spend a fraction of the money and it means you can get away when you want to without seeming as though you haven’t paid your share.
One that got away
Despite your best efforts, there may be someone who isn’t willing to accept the recalibration of your friendship group.
This isn’t your fault. If pulling the thread of alcohol out of a relationship means it falls apart then know that there was never anything you could have done to save it. Other than to start drinking again.
And if a friendship requires a mind-altering substance to make it seem fulfilling, ask yourself; was it ever really that healthy in the first place?