Don’t get me wrong, I love that my sleep and mood have never been better. And I haven’t had a hangover in more than two years. Plus, I weathered the White Claw shortage unfazed. But when I could sit with friends as they shared a bottle of wine, without a hint of alcohol anxiety creeping in, I felt unbridled relief.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. I know it took a few months for my most palpable cravings to pass, which I managed with mindfulness and a lot of rooibos tea. And, as I’ve written before, I was viscerally aware of booze for the better part of a year. I couldn’t even go to Target without hearing the siren call toward the vodka; inconveniently for me, it’s near the ice cream.
But somewhere along the way, living without alcohol — a feat I thought might actually be impossible — became effortless. It’s like I forget about it. And now, I can get my peanut butter and chocolate in peace.
So what changed?
My brain, it turns out. And if you’re a regular drinker struggling to skip the spirits, you might need to give yours some time to adjust. That’s because alcohol can cause long-term changes in the nervous system. They can go away, but it happens slowly.
“It’s not minutes. They take months or years,” said Richard Miller, a professor of pharmacology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
That may sound dramatic, but the brain is constantly in flux. It’s how you adapt and learn. The physical basis for how we remember things, including behaviors like drinking, is through electrical exchange — one nerve cell spits out a neurotransmitter, another feels the effects, Miller said.
Alcohol gets its point across with an unnatural amount of dopamine, which some people respond to more strongly than others. This activates what’s called the reward pathway. Miller told me that food and sex do the same thing, but less aggressively. Drinking also taps into your GABA-A receptors. GABA-like drugs, such as alcohol, produce inhibitory effects — essentially making you feel less anxious.
And when something makes you feel good, you’re prone to do it again. This process is what helps strengthen your connection with alcohol.
“The brain changes in a way that’s kind of like a memory,” explained Miller. “And so what happens is this nerve pathway becomes kind of locked in place, and then other parts of the brain start to change in response.”
One of those parts is the amygdala, or your emotional processing center. When you disrupt this area with alcohol, you may end up in a bad mood when it leaves your system, said Miller. Eventually, you might find yourself drinking to repress those feelings. That’s what I did.
On the extreme end, alcohol-related brain changes can lead to debilitating mental and physical dependence. For me, it meant a surge of stress and nervousness, especially around things that hinted at my old habit. Miller told me that’s because alcohol leaves a kind of memory “residue” around anything I did while drinking. These painful reminders — a sniff of my friend’s shiraz, for example — can be so strong they trigger a relapse.
But not everyone has the same experience. Your genes, environment and overall alcohol use affect how much and how quickly your brain will respond and change. I have friends who have no problem sticking to one glass of wine. Some are daily drinkers who breeze through Dry January every year.
It’s possible my genes make me more receptive to alcohol. I have a history of depression, and more than one member of my family has struggled with substance abuse. Both increase my chances of developing an alcohol-use disorder.
Cues were a huge stumbling block to my sobriety. But I figured if could I learn to drink, then I could unlearn it. And when I went long enough without booze, those associations faded. Miller said my newfound ease around alcohol is probably because the actual hard-wiring of my brain is gradually going back to normal.
That means my cues and cravings faded.
I stayed out of bars as much as I could for the first year and a half, more so after I realized how unpleasant they felt. A few months after I quit, I sipped a club soda alongside my beer-drinking friend. I thought it would be fine, but something felt off. It’s not that I thought I would drink; it was the smell that bothered me. Alcohol has a particularly strong scent, one that often provoked an urge to drink. That’s not surprising, because memory and odor are closely linked.
But the last time I went into a booze-friendly spot, I wasn’t flooded with craving. It was more like nostalgia for something I used to enjoy with friends. The familiar fragrance still elicits a certain kind of longing, but the memory isn’t strong enough to pull me back in.
Theaters are another former trigger. I used to have some kind of alcoholic drink with every film, which was easy because I could order wine with my popcorn. And I felt antsy as I sat through the first several shows sober. But I couldn’t avoid movies. My husband and I love them. So I set out to form a new connection. Even though I’m not that into soda, I started experimenting with those self-serve drink machines. And now I crave something different: Cherry Coke Zero with a hint of lime and vanilla. Whether that’s healthy is another story.
A lot of people want to know if I go out less. The answer is yes. But it’s not because I quit drinking. Socializing has always been a bit tricky for me. I’m an introvert who prefers to be in bed by 10 p.m. But everyone else seemed to love crowds and staying up late. So I drank my way into extroverted nights out.
But going booze-free gave me an excuse to live the daytime life I’ve always wanted. And it’s not one that I find socially awkward. But that’s by choice. Instead of parties, I meet friends alone for coffee or in small groups for dinner. Or I invite them to do something active, like indoor bouldering or a nature walk. By now, most of them are used to the switch.
Some even appreciate the sober space. One friend told me she doesn’t always feel like drinking — it’s not easy being the lone abstainer, and I can relate to that. She likes that we can just sit and talk. And my conversations are a lot more meaningful, and well-remembered, when alcohol isn’t involved.
I used alcohol as a short-term solution for my stress, and over time, it only made my worries worse. I wasn’t diagnosed with generalized anxiety until years after I’d started keeping wine around all the time. And now that I’ve quit, that constant rumble of restlessness is mostly gone.
Drinking doesn’t make everyone feel bad, but for some people, the same alcohol-induced brain changes that bring pleasant effects can make negative feelings worse.
“Alcohol interacts with the GABA system in the brain, which is also linked to anxiety and depression,” said Miller. “Hence, alcohol abuse may lead to an exacerbation of these symptoms in people who are already prone to these disorders.”
My connection with alcohol probably won’t ever completely go away. Miller lightly cautioned that if I ever drink again, my brain will probably remember it pretty quickly. But understanding that may help me avoid it.
“Even a long time later, if you get into the wrong situation, you may be tempted to go back,” said Miller. “Having that knowledge is a very powerful thing.”
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