I sipped my last chilled vodka with lime last September. There wasn’t a lot of pomp when I bid farewell to cocktails. I didn’t want to broadcast my decision because I’d unsuccessfully tried to go long stretches before. Usually I made it a couple of days, maybe a few weeks. When I started this time, I didn’t know how long my booze break would last. Maybe a month, I figured.
That 30 days turned into more than a year. Although I miss the instant relaxation that comes when alcohol hits the bloodstream, I don’t long for what came after: occasional hangovers, interrupted sleep and feeling inexplicably sad when I woke up. I realized I was having a drink or few every day — and although it wasn’t wrecking my life or my health, I wanted to know what would happen if I stopped.
Booze is everywhere
It becomes painfully obvious that alcohol is everywhere when you try to avoid it. I could get wine at my hair salon, booze made an appearance in every show I watched on Netflix, and my social media accounts were flooded with pictures of cocktails and jokes about how the time between coffee and wine is the “scariest part of the day.” There was free alcohol at work events and children’s birthday parties. Even my gym had a bar.
To be honest, I think I was finally able to quit drinking because I joined my husband — a teetotaler since high school — on a sabbatical, moving to a small town in Colorado for a year. With miles of mountains to explore and my friends back in Chicago, it was easier to dodge happy hour drinks, brunch drinks, networking drinks, movie drinks, game-night drinks. You get the picture.
Although the first 48 hours were the hardest, it took about three months for my cravings to go away. And six more for me to quit thinking about drinking. Alcohol was my off button, a signal that it was time to unwind. That association was etched into my mind like a well-defined bike path. It took time, but eventually not rewarding my brain with a drink every time I felt stressed helped me stop compulsively reaching for one.
Although my social life took a hit, avoiding places with alcohol for the first few months was a huge help. Identifying my other triggers was equally important. I paired a lot of activities with drinking: reading, cooking, cleaning. If I wanted to replace an old habit, I knew I needed to create a new one. I’m prone to anxiety, so I started meditating every time I felt my nerves tense up, even for a few minutes at a time, rather than reaching for a glass. I also grabbed a coffee or herbal tea when I felt a cocktail pang. Surprisingly, the switches helped quell my cravings.
I have a history of depression, so I assumed that was why I was always sort of sad in the morning. It’s a chicken-or-egg question, but chronic alcohol use is linked to depression. Although booze increases happy chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine in the short term, drinking to relieve your mood often has the opposite effect the next day. And the day after that. I found myself caught in a vicious cycle of trying to drink away the melancholy.
With alcohol-free nights, the morning light took on a more positive tint. It wasn’t that I was blissful all of a sudden, but I definitely did not feel as gloomy. It was as if a veil had been lifted. This shift was evident within in the first couple of days.
My anxiety was harder to tame. When dousing it with a couple of glasses of wine wasn’t an option, it increased. Irritatingly so. I tried to pinpoint my concerns. Was it my job? My health? Did the cat look sick? Were my bills paid? I couldn’t figure it out. And without alcohol, I was forced to wear my worries like a really heavy coat in summer.
But instead of giving my anxiety what it wanted — momentary liberation with a drink — I channeled Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist who created the Unwinding Anxiety app. Brewer says to think of cravings like a teary child who wants candy. If you don’t give in, they eventually stop crying.
After a week — and a lot of meditation — my anxieties stopped yelling so loudly. And every subsequent week, they have gotten quieter. I drank to keep my nerves under control. I was certain this would help prevent the problem from spreading. But it offered only a temporary reprieve, like pressing the pause button. Although I still experience moments of high anxiety, sitting with the discomfort helps it pass.
Boredom has benefits
When you’re used to drinking every evening — whether alone or with friends — you get a lot of time back when you give it up. I not only spent actual time drinking, but I also wasted time thinking about drinking. Did I have wine at home? Should I buy the expensive vodka? Was I meeting someone for a cocktail after work? Do I need to find which place has the best happy hour?
With my new sober afternoons and evenings, I didn’t devote any energy to procuring alcohol. Instead, I found constructive ways to spend my time. I went on a lot of hikes, exercised every day, read more books, learned how to make sourdough bread, cooked a lot of meals from scratch and finally learned how to cut my hair.
Because I was not a binge drinker, I always scoffed at the idea that a couple of drinks would interfere with my nighttime slumber. Maybe I had a drink a little too close to bedtime, but didn’t think it affected my sleep.
But I didn’t know the meaning of sound sleep until I quit drinking. Even if I had only a single glass of wine, I would wake up around midnight. Then again at 3 a.m. And I was usually thirsty and had to go to the bathroom. According to the app I use to track my snoozing, going a long stretch without drinking has increased my deep sleep. I also have no problem staying asleep for long periods or getting up with the sun.
People wanted to know why
Almost all of my friends drink, and they are used to me being right there with them. When I ordered something without alcohol — a choice they always noticed — some reacted with confusion and concern. They all wanted to know why. Depending on the audience, I had an arsenal of (honest) responses, including: Alcohol affects my sleep. Red wine gives me a headache and puffy eyes. It’s making me sad. I need to get up early and go to the gym. I’m trying to save money. I’m giving my liver a break.
When those answers didn’t suffice, I would have to lay it on the table and explain that I felt as though I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, one that was stunting my ability to face my anxieties head on. I confessed this sparingly, because it often made people uneasy and prompted copious assurances that I didn’t have a problem.
My sobriety made some people uncomfortable. They wanted to know when I planned to drink again. Studies show that the safest amount of alcohol to drink is none, so that’s what I plan on sticking to. Although there are obvious physical health reasons to avoid booze, I mostly plan to abstain for my mental health. Not drinking won’t cure my anxiety and depression, but a year without it has helped me feel better than I thought possible. And you should taste my sourdough bread.