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Soon to turn 40, Shea Steinkellner is a husband, father of one and physiotherapist living in Melbourne. The past five years has involved considerable change: the start of life as a dad, the heartbreaking loss of his own father to cancer, the trauma of watching his mum battle alcohol addiction, and the decision to take a year off drinking. He reflects on his sober-curious journey, the benefits and challenges of going alcohol-free, and offers advice for those considering changing their own relationship with alcohol.
Like many people, I often made New Year's resolutions, with varying levels of accountability and success. But for 2021, I went big, and this time followed through… I went a year without alcohol. It was part experiment, part personal challenge, but also part response to having a parent in the grips of alcohol addiction.
The idea to give up booze for a year took shape during the second half of 2020 when I found out my music man-crush, Paul Dempsey, was taking part in Dry July to raise money for cancer research — I donated to the cause but also decided to join him and go sober for the remaining three weeks. I’m pretty certain this was my longest dry spell in more than 20 years!
My drinking history was that of a fairly typical binge-drinking young Australian, especially one from the country. It started with underage drinking at parties and the local footy/cricket clubs during my high school years, to enjoying the newfound freedom of being away from home at university. After uni, I revelled in Melbourne’s pub and bar scene and then moved to London aged 26, where I fully embraced that city’s drinking culture and the backpacking lifestyle. Post-London, I moved into a share house in inner Melbourne and with two party girl housemates and getting back to playing footy, my weekend binge drinking continued.
Things started to change in my mid-30s. My mates were now spread all over Melbourne or had moved back to the country, while most had expanding families with multiple kids. Therefore, there were less occasions to drink with them, especially to excess. I then got married, and we welcomed our daughter in late 2019. My wife rarely drank through our whole relationship, due to her genetics delivering an angry full body rash if she did. Her friends also weren’t big drinkers, so apart from the occasional event or catch-up that turned into a bigger session, I was probably tending to only have one or two drinks a few times a week at home.
This gradual change in my drinking habits no doubt contributed to the three weeks off being quite easy to get through. Life at the time was also a big reason why, as with a nine-month-old at home and Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns, opportunities for socialising were even more limited!
The sober stint kickstarted my sober-curious journey and it was during this period that my wife and I watched Shaun Micallef’s brilliant mini-doco series called ‘On the Sauce.’ It was an eye-opening look into Australia’s drinking culture, and it led me to reflect on my own drinking history and behaviours. Some of the stories (that I could remember) of being shitfaced and doing questionable things didn’t seem quite so funny anymore, while other memories brought feelings of shame. It also made me question how much I really enjoyed some alcoholic drinks I regularly consumed. I knew I liked beer, both the taste and experience of having one with a mate, but did I really enjoy wine and whisky that much? They were both drinks I started consuming later in my adult life, which I had observed from a young age being a part of everyday family life at home. They also feature so heavily in society, whether on TV or on menus, that it’s almost like you would be strange not to drink them as that’s clearly what ‘normal’ adults do!
I started to seek out more information on the alcohol-free movement, finding a great podcast called ‘One Year No Beer’ and reading the book ‘This Naked Mind’ by Annie Grace. ‘On the Sauce’ introduced me to Sobah, a First Nations start-up company producing alcohol-free beers (AFBs) out of the Gold Coast. More research led me to find online shops dedicated to selling only non-alcoholic drinks; I started sampling more AFBs from Australia and overseas, finding a bunch I really liked.
Aside from the lifestyle changes, the other reasons behind the decline in my drinking and the decision to go a year alcohol-free were due to my health and family. I had concerns about my brain health and memory, and with a history of head injuries, concussions and dementia on both sides of the family tree, I figured a year off drinking couldn’t hurt. As mentioned previously, my wife rarely drank, so I started to feel more awkward drinking at home solo. I also decided I didn’t want alcohol to be seen as a normal part of home life by my daughter, like it was for me.
Family brings me to the most significant reason behind why my drinking had been reducing, why I took the year off, and why I have only occasionally had a drink since. My mum sadly passed away in November 2022 due to chronic liver disease, a result of her alcohol addiction. We became aware of the seriousness of the situation in 2018 and the next one-to-two years involved multiple failed attempts at detox and rehabilitation, plus long stints in hospital due to medical issues caused by her drinking. Once the extent of mum’s alcoholism was known, we as a family stopped drinking in mum’s company, hoping this might be an example for her to follow. Unfortunately, she would continue drinking while with us, and also on her own, largely as a coping mechanism for her struggles with mental ill health.
In late 2019 whilst mum was in hospital in a very serious condition, my family and I, at the insistence of mum’s medical team, had to make the brutal decision to place mum in a nursing home. Practically we had no other choice in terms of her wellbeing and safety, but she was only 63. Watching on helplessly while your mum slowly kills herself with alcohol is more than enough motivation to reconsider your own drinking.
Aside from dealing with my mum’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, COVID-19’s continued impact, and the juggle of work with parenting a full-on little person, 2021 would throw another considerable challenge my way — the loss of my dad due to cancer. While the end came quicker than we thought, the build-up was horrendously stressful, trying to deal with the imperfections of the public health system during ongoing visiting restrictions. All this meant we felt robbed of time with him before the end. While others used alcohol to deal with this loss and stress, I managed to stick to my alcohol-free plan and I actually felt being sober through that time helped me cope better.
There were other definite advantages through this sober year. The most obvious one was the complete absence of hangovers. Some people can handle hangovers okay, but that was not me, something my dad often pointed out if we caught up on a day when I was battling! I realised being hungover was not a badge of honour anymore, but rather it impacted negatively on my ability to be present and interact socially. The lack of hangovers also meant my ability to be present as a husband and father were significantly enhanced. I’d seen enough hungover parents in a world of pain trying to manage toddlers and preschoolers to know this was not a desirable situation.
A commonly reported positive by-product of quitting drinking is much-improved sleep. It’s hard for me to judge this, given I had a little person at home who may or may not sleep through the night. However, I have no doubt I coped better with the interrupted sleep without the negative effect of alcohol. Sleeping adequately and not being hungover also meant I had more energy and enthusiasm for other pursuits, especially exercise-related. I got more into running, finally ticking a New Year's goal to participate in a proper fun run, while sticking to another goal of having a hit of golf at least once a month.
One aspect of going sober is the challenge of telling others and the anxiety around what their reaction might be. My experience with this was varied. On one hand I was genuinely relieved by how unfazed and supportive some were, particularly my schoolmates, for whom drinking was a normal part of life growing up in the country. But I do recall an awkward night out with some of my best friends when I found sharing my alcohol-free plan really difficult. They were all pretty boozed, so it was hard enough interjecting into the conversation, but when I finally did, my news kind of got lost and I didn’t really get the support I was hoping for. Not all social events where others were drinking went this way however, as my wife and I attended a wedding sober and had an absolute ripping night!
There has been increasing coverage in mainstream media in the last couple of years on the potential benefits of reducing drinking or going alcohol-free. If you are considering changing your drinking habits — giving up completely, taking a break or trying to cut back — I can certainly recommend watching, reading, or listening to some of the content out there. I found the experience so rewarding and was lucky to go alcohol-free quite easily, but I’m acutely aware this is not the case for many. Arming yourself with information could be a great first step.
Another resource I have a great affinity with is Hello Sunday Morning, an Australian not-for-profit organisation that aims to help people improve their relationship with alcohol. I actually ended up participating in their inaugural Kozi Moonlight Challenge fundraiser in March this year, which was a brilliant event climbing Australia’s highest peak with other like-minded people. Hello Sunday Morning also has an app called Daybreak, which is basically an anonymous online community of people supporting each other in their endeavour to change their relationships with alcohol. I was so lucky to have my wife encouraging me in my exploration of an alcohol-free life, but for those who may not have this type of support, perhaps Daybreak could be that for you. Joining in one of the many alcohol-free events such as Febfast or Dry July is another option worth considering. Fundraising or doing a personal challenge, whether solo or with others, could be a catalyst for more permanent change.
The range and quality of alcohol-free alternatives, especially beer and spirits, has improved significantly since my first dabble in 2020. Unlike a few years ago when options were either non-existent or pretty mediocre, a stack are now available in bottle shops, on supermarket shelves and in hospitality venues. Craft and bigger producers alike are getting on board and alcohol-free is the fastest growing sector in the drinks industry.
As for me, I’m still working out what my future with alcohol is. After my year off, I decided in 2022 I would try occasional drinking. This turned out to be mostly at special occasions, while on holiday, or if there wasn’t another option available. There was only one occasion, the AFL Grand Final which I attended with a mate, where I had more than two alcoholic drinks in a day. I found that I started to prefer AF options — through the first half of this year, I would have had less than 10 alcoholic drinks.
As the range of alcohol-free options continue to improve and become more readily available at venues, my gut feeling is I will give up alcohol completely in the not-too-distant future. While I do have many great memories that involve drinking, I don’t think it’s for me anymore, nor do I think I will miss it.