Alcohol-free in lockdown: Dry July and the WhatsApp group that got me through it

Andrew McUtchen: I'll be making mine a Heaps Normal, for now.
Andrew McUtchen: I'll be making mine a Heaps Normal, for now.  Photo: Supplied

By the time I realised what I had done, it was too late. I had posted on Instagram and secured sponsorship – exceeding my modest target in a day. I had started a WhatsApp group called "Alcohol-Free Anonymous". I had even stocked the fridge and pantry with enough alcohol-free beverages to last a Victorian lockdown, which, sure enough, happened about a week later.

I was all set to embark on what has been one of the weirdest months of my life.

But let's go back the group. My thinking here was that to go fast, you go alone, to go far, you go together. And there was no way this next month was going to just fly by. I was set to exclude something which – perhaps insidiously – had become more a part of my daily life than ever before. Thanks for that, 2020.

The first thing you will notice when you go off the booze with a bunch of buddies is that a natural spacing opens up between people, from most addicted to least. I know that's a jolting word – addicted – but we should be honest with each other. Alcohol is addictive.

Despite its cosy permissibility, alcohol is considered by the American Addiction Centre to be a podium finisher for its addictive qualities, with only cocaine and heroin ahead of it. To continue the sporting metaphors, it's just like we were taking on a marathon as a team, and some had trained, and some had not. At the back of the line are those grumbling and struggling. At the front are those talking, laughing, comparing their ultra-hydrated skin.

And ours was an unnaturally cheerful group if I'm honest. Our "doctor" – who else but actor Rodger Corser – kept the gags coming from day one, airing his concern that "alcohol was the only thing keeping his liver functioning". Lucky then, that the self-diagnosis was not from a health professional!

Actor Rodger Corser kept the jokes rolling in the 'Alcohol-Free Anonymous' WhatsApp group.
Actor Rodger Corser kept the jokes rolling in the 'Alcohol-Free Anonymous' WhatsApp group.  Photo: Supplied

Our Olympian, Michael Klim, didn't need fancy alcohol-free (AF) replacement therapy, he opened his account on WhatsApp with a shot of a slab of sparkling water – "keeping it simple" – and quickly followed up with a video of him powering through a Sydney cove in a kayak.

The pots-and-pans man in the mix, Ben Cooper, head chef of Chin Chin, seemed to cook his feelings, and commenced a month-long onslaught of mouthwatering home cooking creations.

There were, by the way, a cohort of less famous people in the mix, too.  Lucy Feagins, founder of Australia's most popular design blog The Design Files, and a good mate, Charles. Our contributions were mostly pictures of a cornucopia of AF drinks, usually with a witheringly critical review attached. Lucy's all looked perfectly styled, with elegant shadows and accessories. Ours were usually snapped in front of a TV screen of either footy, or later Olympics, and occasionally a barbecue when we dared risk the wrath of Ben.

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But pictures and light relief aside, the group was a godsend. A culture of openness was set early. We shared our wobbles, our "leave passes" (a genius stroke by the Dry July folks whereby you can pay $25 to have a night off not drinking) and the things that were helping get us through. Lucy shared a book recommendation that changed the game for me in the difficult first 10 days: This Naked Mind by Annie Grace.

Avert your eyes skeptics, because the messages inside the Alcohol-Free Anonymous bunker were overwhelmingly positive. The key topics in the chat were:

Mood: When you stop drinking, and get off the 9pm elation/5.30am despair mood cycle, your mood, like a boat rocked momentarily by another boat's wake, eventually stabilises. I'd started to think a pretty wavy mood cycle was my temperament. It was the alcohol. We all agreed that we had more tolerance than usual with the kids, and we were homeschooling at the time!

Former Olympian Michael Klim tackled Dry July with typical energy.
Former Olympian Michael Klim tackled Dry July with typical energy.  Photo: Josh Robenstone

Hydration: I knew alcohol was a diuretic, but I only really learned what impact that has when I stopped getting up to pee three times a night. My skin, so juicy! Being well hydrated feels insanely good. There's tons of research about how a better hydrated brain functions on a different level, too. I had no idea I'd get such a kick out of this.

Sleep: Surely one of the most common things you tell yourself as a drinker is that you won't be able to sleep without its pleasant numbing effects? And for a week or so, it's true. It'll be hard to endure the agitation as your body craves an alcoholic nightcap. But beyond that lies peace. And uninterrupted sleep. I can go a whole night without getting up even once. This may sound not very amazing. But for me, it's unheard of. The diuretic properties of alcohol are, it turns out, the worst thing about it. Lastly, the sheer lack of self loathing as you go to bed without a dry mouth and a mild hangover to look forward to. One of life's new nightly pleasures.

Energy: After a few beers, or half a bottle of wine, you're basically half in bed. Meanwhile, in AF life, I've surprised myself by nailing the Obama "second shift" of work he'd do on a daily basis from 8-10pm. My wife is thoroughly tired of the downside, which is me wanting to have teen sleepover-style chats at 11pm. But oddly, happily, this does recede and sleep happens quicker than I expect, every single night.

Chin Chin chef Ben Cooper cooked his way through Dry July.
Chin Chin chef Ben Cooper cooked his way through Dry July.  Photo: Alex Doctor

Social situations: Granted, I only went to one gathering outside of the house in July. A communion after-party at the pub. It proved to be something of a game changer. There was the king of AF beer, Heaps Normal, served ice-cold in tins at the bar. I nursed several over the night, and marvelled at how fun is at least as much about osmosis as it is alcohol. I had a ripping time, and my energy only increased over the night.

The final word on a very dry July in lockdown should go to Ben, from the group: "I think the long term goal is to be at a point where you take the drink, and the drink doesn't take you."

To celebrate this month to remember, I'll be making mine a Heaps Normal, for now.