There was no cataclysmic rock bottom for Kirsty Mulcahy and Liana Harkins when they decided to stop drinking. Instead, their “grey area” habits had seeped into their lives leaving them with anxiety and a gnawing sense that there was more to life than blackouts and the booze blues.

Both women now run online and real-life communities that help sober curious Scots explore living without alcohol – no easy feat in a country that feels steeped in a culture of drinking with alcohol acting as a social lubricant and glue that bonds families, friends and colleagues.

A stressful corporate job, three-day hangovers and almost constant self-criticism drove Mulcahy, 42, from Edinburgh, to put down the bottle for good on December 27, 2017.

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She gave up drinking in her late 20s after the breakdown of a relationship. She sought help at Alcoholics Anonymous but found it didn’t work for her, instead finding the resolve to go cold turkey almost two years ago.

She said: “I wasn’t ready to do it then. One of the biggest concerns for me about stopping drinking, from my 20s up until now, was how much I would miss out on. How would I do holidays? How would I do weddings?”

HeraldScotland: Kirsty Mulcahy stopped drinking almost two years agoKirsty Mulcahy stopped drinking almost two years ago

It’s a familiar refrain from those considering cutting down – how would they cope with big nights out and stress-inducing family gatherings like Christmas?

Mulcahy’s solution was to lay low for the first three months and hire a personal trainer, ploughing all the money she saved on alcohol into her fitness.

Eventually she ventured back to the pub, nursing an alcohol-free beer, and was reminded of how much she loved hitting the town.
She said: “I realised that I could actually go out all weekend and feel great on the Monday. 

“A catchphrase we use a lot in the group is that we gave up one thing but we gained so much more – great mental health, money, confidence and time.”

Mulcahy launched her group, Sober AF, in March this year. She and her team organise events and meet-ups for people already living alcohol free or thinking about it. Through social media accounts, Mulcahy receives messages of support and enquiries about how to get sober from all over the world. They signpost people to charities and helplines if they need extra support and have been welcomed into a close-knit community of online sober influencers.

The last 22 months have not been without their challenges, a “hellish” break-up being one of them, but Mulcahy never turned back to the booze.

She said: “My life has changed completely a million times for the better. I have been through some hellish times and I’ve come out of them and the thing I’m most proud of is that I didn’t once go back to alcohol. 

“There’s no downside, now I’m living the best life I can and I’m a fully present mum.”

Liana Harkins, 34, from Glasgow, was inspired to set up Sober Buzz after connecting with Mulcahy online. She stopped drinking eight months ago, on February 17. 

Like Mulcahy she was a “grey area” drinker – not classed as alcoholic but someone who suffers shame and embarrassment over their drinking and wants to change.

A mother of a three-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter, Harkins thought her drinking habits would change post-babies. 

She said: “I was a bit of a party animal in my 20s and then I had my son and everything changed. I think I thought I would just get a stop button and naturally slow down.”

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Sober through her pregnancies and beyond, she didn’t return to her pre-baby habits but found that when she did drink with friends she was blacking out and feeling awful for days after, and was concerned she was experiencing post-natal anxiety. 

She said: “Deep down I knew something was wrong but everyone around me told me I was fine.”

It was when a close family member got sober that she started thinking seriously about making lasting changes. Taking part in 2019’s Dry January, a campaign to encourage drinkers to press pause for a month, her anxiety completely disappeared and she gave up for good in February.

HeraldScotland: Liana Harkins runs Sober Buzz in GlasgowLiana Harkins runs Sober Buzz in Glasgow

She said: “I knew from watching him that it wasn’t a miserable existence. I had to see someone with my own eyes get sober, I don’t think I would have done it otherwise.”

There was a surge of interest in both groups last month thanks to Sober October, Macmillan Cancer Support’s annual drive to encourage people to go alcohol free for 31 days which has raised more than £2 million.

While there has been a drop in alcohol consumption in Scottish teenagers and young people, more than one in four people (24%) drink at hazardous or harmful levels (defined as drinking more than 14 units per week), according to data from Alcohol Focus Scotland.

Alcohol sales fell after the Government introduced minimum pricing in 2018, the same year that alcohol-related deaths rose to 1,120 – the equivalent of 22 people dying each week.

For Harkins, like Mulcahy, giving up alcohol has given her so much more than she has lost. 

She said: “You just need to surrender to the truth about your relationship with alcohol and what it does to you. It’s like being in a toxic relationship – you keep going back and then one day you’re done. You fall out of love.”