HERE is Clare Pooley’s description of a bad hangover. It’s the day after her birthday, her brain seems to have “shrunk to the size of a marble, and it’s banging off the sides of my head like a game of pinball”. The noise being emitted by her three young children and the dog is not helping. When someone rings the doorbell she realises she’s still in her nightie, ducks out of sight of the window and stays there, despite her daughter shouting loudly: “Mummy, what are you doing on the floor?”

What she really wants is a drink. The kitchen clock says 11am, and a voice in her head tells her: “If you drink in the morning, you’re an alcoholic, right?” But still, she retrieves an unfinished bottle of wine from the cupboard and reaches for a mug (she doesn’t want her children to see her with a wine glass at this hour). It’s only after she’s knocked back the wine that she notices what’s written on the mug: “The World’s Best Mum.”

This particular hangover is described in Pooley’s new book, The Sober Diaries. It’s a ghastly story, but also funny, in a tragic way, and probably familiar to many parents. Maybe not the reaching for wine at 11am, but the guilt and self-recrimination, the torture of recovering from a night of drinking, with children around.

Loading article content

When I talk to Pooley it’s almost January, the driest month of the year, a time when some of us hunker down to 30 days of herbal-tea-drinking. It’s also well over three years since she last had a drink. For on that hungover morning, as she stared at that mug, Pooley decided something had to change. Unable to remember the last time she’d gone a whole day without wine, she told herself she had to stop completely. She’d done Sober October and Dry January before. This had to be a longer-term commitment.

It’s hard for many of us to imagine giving up alcohol even for a month, particularly during cold, dark January. Drink, after all, is a key element of our culture, the oil that lubricates our social lives, makes us funnier, more relaxed, relieves our stress. Or that’s what we tell ourselves.

Pooley argues that it’s not like that. Her book– How One Mum Stopped Drinking And Started Living – is based on her mummywasasecretdrinker blogs, and describes her first 365 days of living without alcohol. During that period, she also became a cancer survivor.

On day 232 of her alcohol free-life, Pooley was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. “I am so glad that I was sober,” she says now, “because if I’d still been drinking I would have used alcohol as a way of getting through the stress of that period, and that’s really not a good way of dealing with it, particularly with children around. I would have ended up crying in front of them. I would have found it very difficult to stay calm.”

Back in 2014 then she stopped drinking, Pooley imagined it would be a “huge sacrifice”. “The way I saw it, my fun life was pretty much over and now I had to grow up and be a proper adult and it’d never be as fun again. The party’s over.” She hadn’t anticipated that this part of her life would end up being better than the past. “I thought it was going to be much more dull and boring. And actually my life is way more exciting than it was five years ago.”

This is quite a transition. Pooley, as a young woman, knew how to party. Working in advertising in London in the 1990s, she writes, she “burned the candle at both ends, and in the middle”. She describes her young adult self as a kind of Bridget Jones figure. In fact, at one point, when some documentary filmmakers were looking for “real-life Bridget Joneses”, they called her. Reluctantly, she agreed to be in a scene shot in a Chelsea restaurant, got “tanked up with booze” on the free bar, and found herself, to her horror, the lead voice in the trailer, uttering this line: “Look. I’ve got a great job, a really cool car, and I own my own flat. Why on earth would I need a man to make myself complete?”

By 2014, however, the alcohol wasn’t so much fun. She was now, she writes, a 46-year-old “boring, podgy, middle-aged housewife, alone at home with the chores”, having her own little “party for one” with her wine glass.

Pooley tells me this has been her third sober Christmas and now she can’t believe she ever did it while drinking. “It’s so much easier without alcohol because you wake up in the morning with loads of energy. You’re much more even-tempered and less likely to have one of those festive rows. When I used to get the children’s stockings ready on Christmas Eve I’d always do it with a glass of wine and I would end up putting some of the presents in the wrong stockings.”

Reading Pooley’s description of her alcohol consumption of around a bottle a day – the expensive stuff, so she could think of herself as a connoisseur, not a lush – it’s hard to resist totting up one’s own intake and, in my case, telling myself it’s OK, I’m not in that league. But I do know a fair few people who knock that much back and it doesn’t seem, to me, that extraordinary. Just a bottle a day. Wondering if I too have a skewed view of alcohol, I read up on the recommended weekly intake of 14 units, and am slightly shocked to learn that this constitutes less than a bottle and a half of wine, or five pints of beer, per week.

Pooley’s former consumption isn’t that much higher than many people’s; 16 pints a week is average for middle-aged men. Men are more likely to drink than women. But women are catching up and the highest earners, according to the Office of National Statistics, are most likely to binge-drink.

Pooley has friends who regularly ask her when she is going to start drinking again. “I think if people thought that I’d obviously had a big issue with alcohol, they would completely understand. But a lot of my friends didn’t and think it’s a bit peculiar.” Some of her friends didn’t realise how much she was drinking. “But also a lot of people were drinking just as much as I was. And it’s very normalised amongst mothers, so all the jokes you hear on Facebook about wine o’clock and mummy’s little helper, make drinking on your own and drinking daily seem normal and acceptable. I think that’s part of the problem.”

In fact, so great a crutch has alcohol become for mothers that there’s a whole genre of blogs and books, such as Hurrah For Gin! and Why Mummy Drinks, dedicated to the joke of how parenting is so stressful there’s nothing to do but turn to drink. Pooley finds these writers “hysterically funny”and says if she’d been writing a book five years ago it would probably have been one of these “wine o’clock” tales.

As it is, what she wrote was a story about her first year of not drinking, and how, in the middle of all this, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease, she observes, is “linked with alcohol consumption”, and would have begun developing while she was still drinking.

She has been cancer-clear now for two years. “Fingers crossed,” she says. “What that whole episode taught me was to get things out. Because until then I hadn’t told anybody about quitting drinking. I kept it quiet and didn’t put my head above the parapet. I didn’t want anyone to know and judge me. After I got through the whole cancer treatment I realised that life is short and you can’t go through putting things off and being really timid. I was brave and courageous in a way that I’ve never been before.”

The Sober Diaries is a misconception-busting book, which draws on Pooley’s extensive research. For instance, for those who thought that alcohol was the antidote to their anxiety, the medicine that alleviates it, Pooley is out to demonstrate otherwise. “I genuinely thought,” she says, “that alcohol helped when I was feeling worried or anxious and it was only after I did some investigation into the way your brain chemistry works that I realised it was the alcohol that was making me feel anxious in the first place.”

She imagines that she will never touch another drop. “I can’t really see why I would have another drink. To start with I think if I did I’m not sure that I would ever be able to drink moderately. I think there are two sorts of people, people who are naturally moderating, and people who are a bit all or nothing. I’m very much in the latter camp.” Her husband, she says, is of the former type, and now restricts his drinking to weekends.

Though she hasn’t lost friendships, some people haven’t invited her to a party since she quit. “It’s a shame because I think I’m a better party guest than I ever was before. But there are people who find it uncomfortable when you’re not drinking.” For nearly a year, in fact, she tried to pretend she was drinking and would hold a glass of tonic masquerading as a G&T. “When you tell people you’re not drinking it always creates a reaction,” she says. “Everyone wants to know why and they assume you were pouring vodka on your cornflakes at breakfast, or that you’re going to be judging them and their drinking.”

Dry January is, she believes, a useful idea. It’s the one month in the year when it seems almost normal to give up alcohol. In fact, Alcohol Concern estimated that around three million people would attempt an alcohol-free start to the year. “That means,” says Pooley, “that you can go out and socialise without people thinking it’s weird that you’re not drinking. It’s funny that alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking.”

And giving up alcohol has many benefits. “You often lose weight, sleep better, your skin and eyes look better. There are a number of immediate benefits. But actually I found the big benefits of being sober came much later. People don’t understand these benefits because there is such stigma around alcohol addiction that nobody ever talks about it. I hope that as more books like mine come out, more and more people will shout about the benefits of not drinking, so people won’t be scared about taking the plunge. They won’t see it as being the end of their lives as they know it, but as the beginning of something more exciting.”

But can life after alcohol really be as fun as Pooley makes out? Her book includes a fantastic description of the day she attends a Game Of Thrones themed party, dances wildly, but sober, and is told by everyone how great she looks. “Yes,” she enthusiastically asserts, it is. “But, of course, it’s difficult to persuade people of this. I certainly wouldn’t have been persuaded before I gave up.”

The Sober Diaries is published by Coronet (£16.99). Clare Pooley will be talking about her memoir at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells on January 31,