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'Why Christmas parties can be better without booze'

Ahead of Christmas party season, one teacher explains why she won't be hitting the bottle - and doesn't miss it a bit

Now that I'm no longer drinking, I don't have a touch of anxiety in the lead-up to the staff Christmas party, says Sarah Simons

Ahead of Christmas party season, one teacher explains why she won't be hitting the bottle - and doesn't miss it a bit

We’re all reaching the end of our rag. After a notoriously tough half-term, the Christmas piss-up provides essential team bonding.

And we should let our hair down. Teaching means constantly caring about other people’s issues. Whether that’s academic progress, pastoral care or aspirational goals, someone always needs help.

So having a night off and restoring the glint in your eye by getting shit-faced with colleagues is a charming festive treat. And after a few stiff ones, it’ll all come out, you know. Bottled-up gossip, controversial opinions and surprise flirtations.

I've had some epic end-of-term nights out with teacher pals, and a couple of regrettable ones, too. But this year it’ll be different.

My name is Sarah Simons and I’m probably an alcoholic. I dunno… What definition are we using? Let’s just say, I could help ‘em out if they’re short-staffed.

'I never stopped at just a few'

I bloody loved drinking. The ceremony of choosing the bottle, the sparkling stemmed glassware, the vintage cocktail shakers – all the accoutrements that turned a tipple into an event.

Even getting the temperature exactly right added to the thrill – the exquisite liquid on the inside of the glass, chilled so perfectly that gleaming droplets of water formed on the outside, bursting into tiny rivulets running down the bowl.

More than the ritual though was how a little glass of something would make me feel. There was an excitement in knowing that after a few sips I would start to relax. However, I never stopped at just a few sips or a few glasses.

'I could love or hate everyone'

When I’d had a drink (and when I say “a drink” I mean, on a big night out, two or three bottles of wine), I never knew which version of me would grace us with her presence. I could be a hurricane of reckless fun or an arrogant wanker.

I could talk your ear off with energetic bants, or be silently hostile. I could love everyone and tell them so, or hate everyone and tell them that, too.

The singing and dancing always came, but then the showgirl in me leaps out at every opportunity. So that’s not so much alcohol-related as the burden of being born with excessive pizzazz (I’m stifling a Minelli power-reach as I type).

I was never the clichéd vodka-on-the-cornflakes drinker, or the unaware middle-aged, middle-class functioning alcoholic who believes that if the wine is a bit pricey they are exempt from addiction.

'Hangovers for days'

In fact, in my last few years of drinking, I would only partake maybe once every couple of months, partially because I could never entertain the unholy torture of teaching with a hangover – and my hangovers lasted for days.

So my partying involved planning for recovery, as experience told me that an evening out would inevitably turn into an outrageous bacchanalian adventure.

Drinking helped me to get away from myself for a bit. But the hangover brought out a level of self-loathing that I couldn't handle.

It was clear that chasing the thrill was no longer worth the damage that drinking did to my mental health.

'Unacceptable lows'

I’d had countless “never agains” since becoming an enthusiast for anything that would keep the party going, starting at about the age of 15. But last time I got drunk, that had to be the very last time.

On that morning after, I had to piece together the night before like a broken plate, gathering fragments of memory from bar receipts and texts.

I knew my behaviour had descended to unacceptable lows as the night drew to an end, and I knew I’d been unpleasant – mouthing off – saving the most vicious insults for anyone who had misguidedly said anything nice to me.

The physical effects of a night’s binge drinking were increasingly dreadful with age, but the mental effects, the shame, which for me could take weeks or even months to dissipate, could plunge my manageable, low level of depression into a seriously debilitating extreme.

'Something had to give'

The guilt had got worse since becoming a teacher. My former showbiz world was heaving with big personalities who were only-just-holding-it-together. But, as a teacher, a responsibility of the job is to try and behave like a grown-up.

During that last hangover, I caught myself, just for a moment, alone in my hotel room, wondering if my son, my husband, my friends, everybody would be better off without me.

Loads of people have waded through a shocking hangover, but having those darkest of thoughts, however fleeting, was a line that I never anticipated I would cross. And that was it. Something had to give. So me and the booze parted ways.

'Being sober is an enormous relief'

I've been sober for nearly two years now. I wish I’d stopped decades ago. Every massive fuck up I've ever made in my life has had alcohol involved somewhere.

Of course, I still make loads of mistakes (who doesn’t?) but now I can analyse them, understand my behaviour, and try to learn from it.

Being sober is an enormous relief. I don't miss drinking. I don't crave alcohol or get tempted to have “just the one” when I'm with mates who are having a glass.

I'm not evangelical about knocking it on the head either. I wish I was a person who could drink like a grown-up, rather than a teenager whose parents are away. But I'm not.

'I felt strong'

Now, with medication, my depression is under control and I’m back to a happier version of my old self again.

I have loads of nights out, but more restaurant, theatre and cinema trips than going "OUT out" – though I have had my moments.

One particularly memorable alcohol-free “big night out” about a year into my sobriety was at a gay piano bar in New York with a fabulous friend who was working in the city.

After a hilarious, joy-filled night of dancing, singing and making loads of new pals, we tottered back to her apartment as the Manhattan sun rose. Every drink was on the house as my mate is one of Broadway’s leading ladies and a theatre icon to the club’s clientele, but I didn't feel left out by being on lemonade.

It felt good. I felt strong and powerful.

'Painting the town red'

And as the end-of-term socialising looms, I no longer feel a pang of anxiety about what trouble I might accidentally get myself into.

If I get myself in trouble, it will be on purpose. I’ll be painting the town with the rest of ‘em and even better, I’ll wake up without regret.

Cheers. Good health!

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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