Should people in recovery drink low and alcohol-free drinks?

Low and alcohol-free products are becoming increasingly available on drinks menus across the UK. Sales of low and alcohol-free beer alone jumped 28% in the year to February 2019, compared with the previous 12 months.

For those in recovery from alcohol addiction, the availability of low and alcohol-free drinks poses a simple question: will these products help or hinder my sobriety?

We asked two members of the recovery community on both sides of the debate to share their experiences.

If you are considering using low or alcohol-free products as part of your recovery plan, it is recommended that you consult with a healthcare professional about the right path for your treatment.

In Defence of Abstinence

By @SobrietyMatt

I am a very sensory guy, always have been. As a young child I was either repulsed by textures or drawn to them. The same applied to sounds, smells and colours. My memories, like most of us, are triggered easily by the senses; the smell of Conifer trees or fresh mint takes me right back to my grandparents’ house in the 1980s, and I only have to hear the ticking of a clock to be transported back to my childhood home, sitting by my mum in front of the fire. When these things happen it’s a blessing – a rush of comfort and nostalgia washes over me and I treasure those moments. Then there are those times when my senses trigger other, less desirable memories.

When I first quit drinking I had to keep well away from all drinking-related places and things. The sound of a bottle of beer popping open and the satisfying ‘tsshh’ as it rushes up the bottle neck to meet you, the bouquet of a deep, rich Burgundy or a spicy Shiraz, the sound of ice cubes being stirred in a bubbly gin and tonic and the scent of lemon as you raise the glass to your mouth.

There would have been a time when I couldn’t write that paragraph for fear that I might succumb and rush out to the nearest bar for a drink. Thankfully, today, I don’t have to do that and I know where it will lead – but boy, those feelings are intense. You might ask that, if I now no longer feel the need to drink when my senses are overloaded with drinking triggers, why do I not just enjoy the odd Alcohol Free (AF) gin and tonic or beer?

The truth is, I never really drank for the taste. I was fond of a glass of wine – the first one at least – but ultimately it was the feeling that alcohol gave me that I was chasing. I wanted what alcohol could give me; confidence, solace, antithetic or comfort. That was really all it was ever about . Now, I don’t know if having a cold AF beer on a sunny evening after work would lead me to obsessing about alcohol again – I have never tried, but having avoided all alcohol related triggers for over a year I have found plenty of other drinks that I enjoy the taste of more or that quench my thirst perfectly, and simply do not feel the need to try.

What could be gained from having AF drinks? I am not drawn to the taste, my drinking friends have been incredibly supportive of my sobriety and are happy to be led by me when deciding venues or events that we attend, so I have never felt particularly like I’m missing out. I stopped drinking in pubs years before I quit drinking, simply because I found waiting at the bar a frustrating waste of drinking time, so I don’t miss that culture at all. What I do know is, there is plenty to lose from picking up an AF drink.

Today, as I said, I do not need to drink. My sobriety is very much based in the day and I live by the “One Day at a Time” mantra of AA.

I also know that that can turn on a dime.

When tomorrow becomes today it could be a very different story indeed. All of those sounds and smells, that I associate with alcohol, could trigger my brain to recall its former ‘solution’ at just the point when I am subconsciously looking for one, and when that drink hits the back of my throat and the feeling that alcohol gave me is not there, I know I would want to go and seek it. Or maybe not, I have not tried after all – but it is just not worth it.

No, I am perfectly happy with my Elderflower and sparkling water, good coffee or cool raspberry lemonade. I enjoy the taste of those much more than I ever did beer or wine. Today, I do not feel the need to offer a nod to my drinking past by picking up a mocktail, today my drinking past is a tool to help other alcoholics stay sober and that is it.

Just for today.

@SobrietyMatt blogs about his experience of recovery at Misery Contest.

Why I chose to drink non-alcoholic wine after detox

by Diane Goslar

At the Alcohol Treatment Centre I tried controlled drinking and failed miserably. Years later matters had deteriorated so much that, in order to survive, I had to go through detox and subsequently I needed to decide which route gave me the best chance of my remaining abstinent.

You know, it isn’t easy to be abstinent in our society where drink is so important and prevalent. After much thought I decided to use non-alcoholic wine. The treatment centre staff were very much against this – they thought it would swiftly lead me back to drinking alcohol. But I insisted. You try celebrating, commiserating, or just going for a fun night out with friends without alcohol. It isn’t easy.

When you detox, there is so much you have to think about giving up. You have to decide if you are going to keep your old friends, who probably drink, with all those difficulties and temptations that rear their heads. This can be especially hard if, like me, you are the only person in your friendship circle who doesn’t drink. Or you can decide to make a new set of friends – safer friends – with the same problem as you have and hope that these new friendships will flourish with their common base of alcohol problems. I decided that I would stick with my old set of friends – some of them know of my alcohol problems and that I now have to be abstinent and some of them don’t.

I cope with not being able to drink alcohol by drinking non-alcoholic wine or non-alcoholic beer, which look the same.  Maybe I want to look the same partly because of stigma. That’s something I hope to avoid – especially when I am just enjoying myself with my friends.  I admire those who can sit happily sipping mineral water whilst the rest enjoy their wine or beer but I can’t do that. I want to be seen as an integral, fun person in the group, not a dampener on others, and I have a horror of appearing pious. Anyway, non-alcoholic wine and beer works for me and I feel part of the group when I am drinking it.

Because I can’t drink alcohol at all, I would never use both alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine. The latter replaces the former. Using that latter option makes me feel like I don’t stick out from the group – it means I can socialise and feel comfortable. It saves me from looking differently to others. The fact that my non-alcoholic glass of wine looks the same as the glass of alcoholic wine of the person sitting next to me is the whole point of why I drink it. I want to be a part of the group and this helps me to do so while remaining sober.

I’m not advocating this usage for all or saying that it may help others to keep abstinent or control their drinking – that’s for each individual to decide. But these are my thoughts and I intend to continue on this path which helps me to remain abstinent.

Diane Goslar is a Member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Addictions Faculty Patients and Carers Liaison Group

This blog was published with the permission of the authors. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.