Published On: August 25, 20221202 words6.2 min read


One day in 1996, when she was 32 years old, a traffic cop stopped Hlengiwe* because her taillight was not working. This was after a Christmas lunch, around 6/7 pm.

“The cop asked if I drank some wine. I said, ‘No, I did not drink wine.’ He asked me to stand on one leg which I successfully did. He probably could smell the alcohol on my breath, and he asked me to blow, and promptly told me I was over the limit. I told him that I did not have wine, but ciders and his question was specifically about wine. Needless to say, he was not amused with me and gave me a ‘stern’ warning.”

I laughed when Hlengiwe told me this story. I first met her a year ago when she wanted to chat about her drinking habit. She told me that she grew up during the turmoil of the Soweto Uprisings in 1976. I heard how she and her friends would drink quarts on the trains in KwaZulu-Natal. I too am from KwaZulu-Natal and like Hlengiwe, I too had my first taste of alcohol around the age of 17.

Reasons for Drinking, then Quitting

When I met Hlengiwe, she had just discovered Tribe Sober. It was the year that South Africa was still in lockdown for Covid-19 and many people were looking for therapy or a connection of some sort.

I smiled when Hlengiwe told me about her Autumn Harvest and gemmer (ginger) habit – it reminded me of my own university habit of a R1 bottle of Tassies before we even started our night out on the town in Grahamstown! Luckily for Hlengiwe, her drinking habit never consumed her, and she was able to stop drinking for long periods – such as for 5 to 6 years when she fell pregnant and had her daughter.

The trauma of separation and divorce from her husband brought alcohol back into her life – she was only 30 years old, and things were tough.

Hlengiwe is frank about her drinking: “Truth be told, I was never proud about being a drinker, probably because I grew up in an all-girls Catholic Boarding School.  I joined the school at the Primary level and alcohol was actually frowned upon.  My mother does not drink and never did. My late father drank, not moderately.”

Then, around late 2019, she began to feel tired, and this wave of fatigue just got worse in 2020 during the hard lockdown and continued until 2021. Hlengiwe deliberately only bought two bottles of wine the day before hard lockdown (when alcohol was banned in South Africa) as she had always avoided buying bulk alcohol. She learned to only ever buy enough alcohol for immediate consumption because “I am a binge drinker when I drink.”

Coming to Terms with Needs and Values

During the lockdown, she came face to face with her feelings about alcohol and it bothered her that it was a habit and that she needed alcohol. Being forced to take a break from booze started to become a challenge. The only negative effect was that Hlengiwe turned to sweets and chocolates to satisfy her sugar cravings and gained too much weight.

Hlengiwe notes that she did not put rules in place about her alcohol consumption but when she had a nervous breakdown some years ago, she stopped drinking for a full 3 years. “I was warned about the effect of alcohol on my mental wellbeing; therefore, I started being cautious and aware of my drinking then.”

“On a personal level, looking back, I think I lost the plot when I started drinking just to do the house chores during the holidays when I did not have the help around. I would drink alcohol just so that I could finish the ironing or even clean the house, do the cooking – even watching tv and reading. Then the reading habit declined.” Something had to give.

Then, when she was on medication, she was told that 1 to 2 glasses of alcohol should be fine. In retrospect, says Hlengiwe, that statement was not true. “Alcohol + medication is dangerous.”

Hlengiwe discovered Tribe Sober on the internet, around August 2021, when she surfed for a support system other than AA. She urges other people who want to stop drinking to reach out for support, support, support, and podcasts.

Do the Work!

“I have listened to all Tribe Sober recordings (some of them twice) and still listen, keeping track of new releases,” smiles Hlengiwe. “When Janet mentioned her blackouts in one of her podcasts, I realised that I had somehow had a similar experience but I did not know it at the time.  All along I had thought that blackouts referred to drinking to a point of passing out while still socialising and so on.”

Good point. We learn every day more about our drinking, our reasons for our drinking, and what the effects are on ourselves and those around us!

Hlengiwe joined the 2021 Spring Challenge and remembers that her dry mouth symptom was the worst – and of course the cravings.  “The dry mouth pushed me to increase my water intake, which was not so great prior to deciding to cut down on alcohol. Alcohol-free gin helped too but I started developing a sweet tooth – which I am slowly cutting down on. I started about 2 weeks ago to reduce my sugar intake… The highlight was hitting the first 112/3 days through the Spring 66 days challenge – that was the first in 16 years!”

Swimming Instead of Drinking

Hlengiwe turned to movement, she started to swim. “Taking up swimming was just a cherry on top as an alternative to drinking. I used to hit the pool most evenings and use the steam room/sauna – and by the time I left the gym, the alcohol retailers would be closed.”

She now loves swimming regularly at her local gym, jogging, and hiking with friends. She is firmly in touch with her values: independency, humility, kindness, respect, and spirituality.

“I want to be an alcohol-free pensioner,” smiles Hlengiwe, who retires from her long-term corporate job in 2 years. She won’t stop working, of course, and is studying online to ensure that she can continue consulting into her old age.

Hlengiwe has some tips for people who want to stop drinking or at least tone down their alcohol intake a bit: support, podcasts, and quit lit. Read Annie Grace’s The Naked Mind, read Alcohol Explained, and listen to all Tribe Sober podcasts. Join several Facebook groups to connect and share. Not a day goes by without Hlengiwe reading something on her sober groups.

She agrees that we need to play the movie forward if we even think about having a drink: what will be the consequences? Health is wealth and we can all set goals to be sober forever if we really want to.

Money spent on swimming lessons instead of alcohol is always worthwhile – after all, you can’t drink and swim!

*Names have been changed.

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