ANTONIA HOYLE taught her daughter to mix her daiquiris – she turned to a sobriety school for women

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My heart pounds as I begin falteringly, ‘Hi, I’m Antonia.’ I try to focus on the other women I can see on the Zoom call, rather than my own face as it grows redder, and continue: ‘Next week, I’ll have gone 100 days without drinking alcohol.’ 

Then, to my astonishment, I start to cry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Since signing up to Tempest, one of a new breed of online ‘sobriety schools’, much of my behaviour has been wildly u­nfamiliar. I’ve learned ‘breathwork’ (deep breathing), studied the science of alcohol and scrawled messages of encouragement to myself in lipstick on my mirror. 

I’ve discussed my drinking with an ‘accountability coach’, and listened to stories from other group members whose lives have been marred by drink. While it might sound as if I’ve joined a cult — and paid £409 for the privilege — the upshot is that I haven’t touched a drop for almost four months. And, as a Sauvignonswilling cynic who has spent years scorning teetotallers and believing my life would be over without wine, nobody is more shocked than me. 

Tempest was founded by Holly Whitaker, whose book, Quit Like A Woman, helped character Miranda ditch alcohol in the Sex And The City reboot, And Just Like That. 

Antonia Hoyle (pictured) admits that heavy drinking was integral to her life as a party girl. The UK-based writer joined Holly Whitaker's group Tempest to help her drinking

Antonia Hoyle (pictured) admits that heavy drinking was integral to her life as a party girl. The UK-based writer joined Holly Whitaker’s group Tempest to help her drinking

It’s part of a lucrative sobriety industry that has emerged in recent years, mostly targeted at women, the demographic among whom — in the U.S. — dependency on alcohol is growing the fastest. 

The pandemic saw alcohol abuse surge, killing more p­eople in 2020 in England and Wales than in any of the previous 20 years. 

Alcohol doesn’t just cause cancer and heart disease. It destroys families and puts women in danger. Just half a glass of wine a day increases the risk of breast cancer, and last year researchers at the University of Oxford found that drinking any alcohol at all is harmful to the brain. 

According to the charity ­Alcohol Change UK, a quarter of us want to reduce the amount we drink this year. Celebrities from television presenter Susanna Reid to supermodel Bella Hadid have stopped drinking, while an increasing array of alcohol-free influencers on social media assure us sobriety need not mean a lifetime of boredom. 

Antonia is pictured here at university. She says that drinking became a near daily habit, she would down vodka and ricochet off nightclub walls

Antonia is pictured here at university. She says that drinking became a near daily habit, she would down vodka and ricochet off nightclub walls

Like many of us, my drinking habits began in my teenage years. The acrid bottles of wine I necked with friends in the park made me sick, but, as I was quick to learn, switched off my self-loathing. 

At university, drinking became a near daily habit. Downing vodka, I’d ricochet off nightclub walls and wander off with strangers, convincing myself, as a fully subscribed member of 1990s ladette culture, that I was in control. 

In my 20s, I’d gulp down goldfish-bowl glasses of Chardonnay after work with colleagues and regularly black out on weekend binges. I’d pass out on the Tube, regaining consciousness on the other side of London. 

Antonia is pictured here in her early 20s. She says her generation was the first to be peddled the myth that drinking was a vital part of parental aid

Antonia is pictured here in her early 20s. She says her generation was the first to be peddled the myth that drinking was a vital part of parental aid

I sported mysterious bruises and scars, but little about my behaviour raised eyebrows. It would have seemed stranger, in our alcohol-obsessed society, if I hadn’t drunk. 

Feeling increasingly anxious, I visited my GP, who didn’t probe me on my alcohol intake, but instead prescribed antidepressants. Eventually I ditched the citalopram, but kept up the drinking. 

After having children in my 30s, I drank less, but alcohol mattered more. 

My generation was the first to be peddled the myth that drinking was a vital parental aid. I had a loving upbringing where wine wasn’t part of my parents’ daily lives, but for me it was my crutch at the end of a gruelling parenting shift. 

In my 20s I’d gulp down goldfish-bowl glasses of wine

Boozy ‘mummy time’ was a phenomenon as aggressively marketed at mothers as Pampers and soft play, the concept ever more entrenched as my daughter, now 11, and son, nine, grew up. My social media feeds are filled with memes about ‘wine time’, and consider the messages on three birthday cards I received last year: ‘We are strong women, raising strong children, which is why we need strong drinks;’ ‘Brunch without Prosecco is just a sad late breakfast;’ and ‘People talk like there’s something wrong with drinking wine from a mug in your jammies by 7pm.’ 

Meanwhile, after watching me walk into a wardrobe at my 40th birthday, my daughter Rosie said: ‘I don’t like it when you’re drunk, Mummy.’ 

I felt guilty, but taught her how to make me doublestrength daiquiris during the pandemic nonetheless. 

Drinking was integral to my identity as the ‘entertainment’, the woman most likely to dive into a swimming pool at midnight or fall into a rose bush at a wedding. 

Antonia pictured here in her 20s at a part. She says that she was upset when her daughter Rosie said: ¿I don¿t like it when you¿re drunk, Mummy.¿

Antonia pictured here in her 20s at a part. She says that she was upset when her daughter Rosie said: ‘I don’t like it when you’re drunk, Mummy.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m always the drunkest,’ I’d reassure fellow guests at the start of a party, my imminent humiliation a gift to put them at ease. 

With my children, I was distracted, wanting to hear about their school day, but also wondering when they’d stop talking so I could get to the wine in the fridge. 

Any attempts to cut down didn’t last. I drank around four days a week, mostly at home, plenty of Sauvignon, but also homemade cocktails and tumblers of amaretto. 

My intake was above the Government guidelines — after a big night out I’d wake at 3am, heart racing and awash with remorse — but no higher than many other women my age, and not enough to prevent me functioning. In fact, the more I drank, the harder I worked to justify my favourite hobby. 

 It was my crutch at the end of a gruelling parenting shift

Until last November, when I felt so burnt out even an unsolicited email made me want to hurl my computer in rage. Putting it down to the demands of working motherhood, I took a month off. But I drank every day bar one in December — it was Christmas! — and felt more exhausted than ever. 

Despairing, I stopped drinking in January, and was struck by how calm I felt. I’d done Dry January before, but this time, instead of counting down the minutes until I could start drinking again, a little voice in my head whispered: ‘What if you didn’t?’ 

Perhaps my age — 43 — made me more mindful of my health, or maybe it was the fact that, like most, I’d drunk more during the pandemic. I dreamed of stopping for 100 days, long enough to learn to adapt to life without alcohol. But I knew I’d need support. 

Alcoholics Anonymous, which is free and has more than 4,400 meetings a week in Britain alone, felt like overkill. 

Antonia (pictured) explains Tempest¿s 12 coaches are members who have been sober for at least six months, and have completed at least four to six hours¿ training on techniques such as empathetic listening and motivational interviewing

Antonia (pictured) explains Tempest’s 12 coaches are members who have been sober for at least six months, and have completed at least four to six hours’ training on techniques such as empathetic listening and motivational interviewing

I didn’t — and still don’t — consider myself an alcoholic. 

So when I came across an interview with Holly Whitaker, a former healthcare executive who launched the New York-based Tempest in 2014 after overcoming her own heavy drinking, it felt like a sign. Whitaker views alcohol abuse as a spectrum, and alcohol — addictive to everyone — as the culprit, rather than the person drinking it. 

Tempest’s female-focused stance is in stark contrast to AA, founded by men in 1935, which maintains that alcoholism is an illness that can never be cured, and can only be treated with abstinence. 

Whitaker seeks to bolster the low self-esteem that often makes us drink in the first place. Crucially, she presents sobriety as a stylish, joyous lifestyle choice. 

To drinkers like me, not physically addicted and able to pay, it might sound an infinitely more appealing model. At £44 a month for four months, it’s not cheap. I also pay £233 for four oneon-one sessions with a Tempest accountability coach. 

My husband, who enjoys the odd beer without bingeing, is supportive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given I blacked out on our wedding night, he’s always argued that I’m happier sober. The children, too, are excited. 

 Drinking was integral to my identity as a party girl – I even blacked out at my wedding

I spend hours taking workshops that ask me to analyse my behaviour. Every week, new video lectures on everything from the science of boredom to making friends in sobriety are released. 

Several group Zoom calls are hosted each day, some available for all several thousand members, others for smaller, s­pecific groups — the over-50s, for example, or parents. 

At first, when I watch an initiation session that starts with meditation, I feel sceptical. 

Still, I assemble my ‘emotional toolkit’ — a collection of belongings and habits to help me resist the urge to drink. 

My first additions are herbal tea, unlimited chocolate and my vacuum cleaner, which help keep my 7pm wine cravings under control. Apparently I’m not alone — many people cite housework as a coping mechanism. 

Tempest’s 12 coaches are members who have been sober for at least six months, and have completed at least four to six hours’ training on techniques such as empathetic listening and motivational interviewing. Mine has years of experience, but Tempest stresses they are not therapists and urges anyone in acute addiction to seek medical attention. 

STRUGGLING WITH WINE O’CLOCK? TRY THESE…

TEMPEST 

From £26 a month, jointempest.com 

Launched as Hip Sobriety by Holly Whitaker in 2014, it was renamed Tempest in 2019. 

At the start of the pandemic, traffic to the site, targeted at anyone who questions their relationship with alcohol, increased by 400 per cent. Tempest uses a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy-style sessions, mindfulness-based practices and group calls.

SOBERISTAS 

From £49 a year, soberistas.com 

An online support forum mainly aimed at women and founded by former heavy drinker Lucy Rocca. It offers expert w­ebinars, a book club and a confidential chat forum. 

THE SOBER SCHOOL 

Course costs £497, thesoberschool.com 

Founded by Kate Bee, who runs a six-week course for women called Getting Unstuck. The programme features lessons and an online classroom. Bee posts advice on social media and blogs about the joy of not drinking. 

ONE YEAR NO BEER

From £59, oneyearnobeer.com 

An Online group aimed at both men and women, with 28-day, 90-day and year-long subscriptions for £59, £109, and £250 respectively, offering emails and videos and a private Facebook support forum. 

It’s strangely soothing to pour my heart out to a stranger. 

My first group Zoom call includes 75 other women of all ages, mostly American but there are British, too. Many look like mums I might bump into on the school run. 

Every morning, I am emailed a ‘daily affirmation’ — a brief recovery story written by a ­Tempest member — reminding me how grateful I am to be hangover-free. The more I learn, the more I feel a mounting sense of anger, and for the first time in decades it’s not directed at myself, but a world that refuses to take this drug seriously. 

Meditation and breathwork are apparently key to success. I fear I’m too impatient to ever fully benefit from the former, but practising regular, purposeful breathing helps regulate my sadness, stress and frustration. 

I practise it during two funerals. I do it when my son’s berating me for giving him broccoli. And even though I could sometimes scream for a glass of cold white wine, I breathe deeply and remind myself there is no need to anaesthetise with alcohol — and with every week, those cravings diminish. 

Not all my endeavours are successful. To encourage an improved self-image, one guest ‘trauma expert’ suggests I write words in lipstick on my mirror which I want my new sober self to encompass as part of ‘­mirror work’ — a practice in which you talk to your reflection lovingly. 

Feeling stupid, I scrawl ‘happy’ and ‘hopeful’ on the bathroom mirror. ‘It’s a sobriety thing,’ I mutter as my husband raises his eyebrows. 

Telling myself I’m doing well is more effective — like having my own personal cheerleader on tap. 

During another exercise, to compare my drinking personality with my sober personality, I realise my party girl persona was all a front. The problem is, I’m not sure who I am without alcohol. 

At the pub, one friend says, ‘Sobriety is a disease’, insisting I won’t be as fun if I stop. 

I’m mortified — she is voicing one of my worst fears — but my husband replies: ‘Actually, I think she’s more fun.’ 

After two months, I’ve put on half a stone from the chocolate, but my skin is smoother, my eyes whiter, my cheeks less ruddy. 

My lifelong insomnia largely disappears, I have more energy, improved focus and no longer fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. When a friend asks me if sobriety is addictive, I answer to my surprise, yes. At times, I feel positively high. 

By March, I’ve summoned the courage to speak on a group call, at a smaller meeting specifically for parents. I tell everyone how I thought motherhood would be intolerable without wine. 

 A friend voices my worst fear, will I be as fun without it?

In fact, it’s better. I’m not always trying to fob off the children so I can drink. I get involved with their strange superhero -themed hobbies and make it, hangoverfree, to their sports matches. 

As my family celebrates my 100th alcohol-free day with a fancy afternoon tea, scoffing our body weight in scones, I feel overcome with gratitude and the urge to remain sober. Whether I will or not is another matter, but I’d like, at least, to reap the benefits of sobriety for another few months. 

The cloak of self-loathing I’ve worn unquestioningly for most of my life has lifted, and I have s­obriety school to thank for that.

  • For more information on quitting alcohol, visit alcoholchange.org.uk

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