I’ve mentioned on here a few (dozen) times that I’m pretty much a non-drinker. At least that’s how I describe myself but it’s not really true the fact is an the regular I don’t drink at all. Now that hasn’t always been the case and it’s not true that I abstain completely either. Let’s get into the drinking that I do now since it’s a much shorter story. Since I decided to take a break from alcohol over 5 years ago I’ve had 4 drinks or parts there of, 2 while toasting at weddings and two at my sister’s bachelorette. This isn’t preachy or lecture adjacent even. I never even had a rock bottom moment to tell you about but I did know it was time to try something different. This isn’t a post about my story with alcohol but rather its at least supposed to be a post encouraging you if you’re also thinking about or trying to redefine your relationship with alcohol. There are some of my experiences in here but the whole point is to let you know what it’s really like to quit at least for now, and why it’s nothing like you think it will be.
My relationship with alcohol
When I started grad school in 2006 I was annoyed with the fact that all the department events centered around alcohol. I think I even wrote it on my first year entrance survey. Those events weren’t nurse a beer or two and talk science for a few hours they were all get sloshed and end up on the roof type events. The same was still true when I bought my house and moved into the city in 2008. Being a grad student really was an extended undergrad for most of my peers the lived within staggering distance in student apartments, didn’t own cars and still pre-gamed at least twice a week. I on the other hand had a house that I drove to and my own business in the evenings to pay for it all. So up until at least 2009 things with me an alcohol were pretty chill, wine sometimes too much at family functions and the odd glass here and there to help me wind down at the end of the day.
I had to be out the door every morning at 7:20 so I woke up at 7 and headed to the lab. At 4:30 I left and tutored 5 nights a week getting home at 10:30. Every second Saturday I’d get to sleep until 10 am. At the very moment I got home I had to leave again in 8.5 hours. I’ve always had a hard time sleeping so I fell into the habit of having 2 glasses of wine at night to get me to bed by midnight. That went on until about 2011 but then the glasses got bigger and then there was three almost every night. But that added up to over half a bottle of wine most nights and 22 drinks a week. Every second weekend or so I had a big night with one friend or another and by then I was getting so much harder to get up in the morning. That ticked on for a couple more years until about 2012.
The thing was I was doing no exercise my supervisor was virtually gone and I was running the lab. The inmates were fully in charge of the institution and it was all too much and too stressful. Hangovers were a thing now and I felt like crap in may own skin. The other thing that bothered me was a few times a year on a really big night I’d do something or say something to embarrass myself. But I kept telling myself just put your head down do what’s necessary and get your PhD. So that’s what I did.
The choice I made
About 7 months after I graduated in 2013 I was still in those exact same habits even though I’d promised myself years ago I wouldn’t be. I had cut back ever so slightly on the amount I drank and the hours. Around then I had thee big nights where my shitty mood and loose lips lead me to apologizing the day after to people I loved and I’d had enough. I reached the age where hangovers were real now like didn’t let up until the evening real. I felt crappy in my own skin and I’d recently turned 30.
It was a bit into January and I decided I needed a complete break for a while. I knew lots of people who had done a sober month, usually January, to lessen their drinking and ended up right back where they were by March. I figured I needed more than that so I decided on a year with no booze at all fully intending to actually enjoy One glass of wine a night a few times a week when it was all over.
What I thought it would be like
I worried so much about what it would be like and all the parts of my life that it would effect. Not to put too fine a point on it the whole idea scared me a bit. Here’s an exhaustive list of what I worried about the most in order:
- Would I ever sleep again
- What would people say when they noticed
- Did this make me an alcoholic
- Would I be able to do social situations without wine
- Would I crave alcohol
- What would people say
- What would I do to unwind
- How would I explain it if someone asked
- Could I even be around people who were drinking
What it was actually like
I spent a lot of energy on a lot! Like you can’t even imagine how much and virtually all of that was wasted energy!
- Sleeping while that was tough, wine had become my crutch to get to sleep and it took me about a month to fall into a routine hot camomile tea and melatonin helped a bit. For years I doubted the idea that alcohol actually ruined your sleep but it turned out to be true. As it turned out not having a good night’s sleep even four hours a night wasn’t that big a deal if you weren’t also dealing with the effects of alcohol.
- Pretty much no one really noticed unless someone pointed it out to them. My closest friends and family did which didn’t really matter to me but I doubt people on the periphery of my life even noticed now five years out.
- Years out now I don’t think it matters what you called the old me. For a couple of years at least, during a tough time I drank too much. I just realized that my life is much better without alcohol and should I decide I want a glass of wine then I will. Labels are for people with too much time and or judgement and I don’t really care.
- Dealing with heavy drinking parties turned out to be fine at first I just left earlier, now I don’t need to. At the first sign of drama though I’m out and now I’m not stuck there and sucked into it for the night. A couple of years ago I even left through the back door at a family wedding and literally no one noticed. Which is to say once the alcohol is really flowing in a given situation no one even remembers if you were there in the first place.
- Social situations were actually much better without wine. My fist drink always made me really lazy now I can go outside and play with the kids, clean up a bit or just depart early if it gets tricky. I’m not as likely to say the wrong thing and I never really missed it a all. Pro tip: I’m a former bartender and I pulled this trick a few times at the start. Ask for your favorite pop in a tall glass dressed with a lime. Your bartender will automatically click in that you want pop that just looks like a drink for you to hold. Or you can say something like “a vodka 7 skip the vodka and I’ll be drinking these all night.”
- I did crave alcohol a bit at first. It was pretty much gone within the week though and pretty soon I started to crave tea instead. It is important though to consciously choose a new drink which will help a lot with the habit.
- Most people didn’t have much to say on the subject and a few had a lot to say. The people that gave me a hard time were almost always pretty habitual drinkers themselves and usually when they had a lot to say they were drunk. Guess who looked like a fool in those situations, hint, not me! They would ask why, you never drank that much? And the like. Those people aren’t really asking about your drinking by the way they are thinking about their own. A couple of people have even fessed up and asked lots of insightful questions saying they wanted to cut back too. Others that have tried to cut back in the past, but didn’t don’t want to talk about it at all.
- It turns out to unwind I found lots of other things. I returned to my favorite yoga class at first, turned up my running, took on more tutoring students, kept a cleaner house, blogged, crushed candy and played stupid games. It turns out you’ll fill that time no problem and with better cheaper things.
- Sure I can be around people drinking even people that are totally ripped and totally happy. However if someone is getting sloppy and mean I don’t really have a tolerance for that anymore. Lots of people don’t realize just how mean they get after a couple of drinks.
So how do you know if it’s time for a break
I would say if you’ve ever thought about it it’s probably worth a shot. If you’ve done or said more than one stupid thing while drunk in the past year, about half the time you drink more than you intended, you’re over that 5 drink a week limit most weeks, you never have just one or there is even one reason (health, weight, money, etc) that your life might be better without alcohol it’s worth a good long break. All of the things that are holding you back from giving it a shot are really non-issues. Statistics bear out that most of the drinks that are consumed out there are consumed by people with some indication or another of alcohol use disorder. If you’re imbibing on more days than you’re not, you never take months long breaks on your own or there is even one situation where you can’t take it or leave it you could stand to take a break and see how that goes.
Alcohol is a drug and the unhealthy use of it is pretty accepted on out culture. Most of us who drink at least occasionally or habitually show some warning signs. People who are totally healthy drinkers can take it or leave it in every single situation. In fact they can pour a drink and not get to finish it and not care at all. They don’t have to have a drink with any meal, they don’t drink more than they planned or when they said they wouldn’t ever. Their drinking habits are not conditional on anything. Hard days at work, earning it after a tough workout or fights with your partner never mean you have to have a drink, nor does anything else. I’m sure they also refrain from opening bottles because it will eventually go to waste. If they decide to drink less for some reason, they just do and don’t have to think any more deeply about it than that. If reading these two paragraphs makes you uncomfortable at all then maybe it’s time for a break. If you want alcohol to be less a part of your life than it is now, a break is a great place to start.
If you want to try these things will make it easier
Other than someone you directly live with no one even has to know that you are drinking less or not at all. Even if you’re going for a year you can have a series of fictitious tummy troubles, early meetings, morning workouts, work to do later or commitments or errands later in the day. The existence of 24 hour grocery stores is pretty much made for this purpose. You can mix or hold drinks with no alcohol or even hold a real drink and never take a sip. Hell, you could even covertly pour some out. Really it’s no one’s business and lying in this situation isn’t hurting anyone.
Start now, If you’re not starting at the beginning of the year people are less likely to notice your new healthy habits. Take on a new challenge to hide it if you want, marathon training is way more noticeable than not drinking (joke but it is true). But that new hobby will also fill your time. What if some of this is hitting home but you’re not sure you need to go to any of these lengths. There’s an easy test you can do. Write down your drinking less goals, whatever would make you feel less antsy with your drinking. Things like x number of drinks on no more than y days a week. I won’t drink until 9 pm or whatever works for you. If a month from now you’re not there exactly then you my friend need to take a big ol’ break!
Develop some new good habits along the way. Find something to fill your time and a new drink to obsess about. I replaced an evening of sipping wine with diet lemonade and camomile tea honey picked near-beer, I wish he choose something cheaper, like water. Having something to sip and hold if you do experience cravings makes all the difference. So health wise full sugar soda is probably no better than what you were drinking before. For those hours you would normally be drinking you’ll want something to fill you time, it doesn’t have to be life changing at first. So silly games, knitting, watching tv are all fine. You could go for broke and take evening walks, getting away from home could be a good thing but you’ll probably want some mindless stuff too. Don’t worry too much about how your filling your time for now you can always make changes to that later when you’re bored with those first few ideas.
Avoid all the triggering situations you can. If you’re an at home drinker don’t go to the liquor store or isle. If you’re someone who drinks out of the house don’t go to places you used to drink. If you see your friends at the bar suggest you can’t go out due to some vague morning commitment but offer to meet them for supper first. Then you can pull that dressed up glass thing. Or do your best to hang with your drinking friends during the day. Finally give yourself a non-drinking budget at first even if your long term goal is to save money. Buy yourself rewards, sign up for a class or plan a vacation.
This is your choice and your life. Mostly what stressed me out at the time was all those questions about what other people would think. Notice no where on that list was what if I fail? My ‘plan’ at the time was to go back to drinking on some level mostly for all those reasons. To prove on some level that I was ‘normal’. I thought months out it would still be hard. What actually happened was it was hard for about a week, no one cared about my choice and if they did the consensus was ‘good for you’ and that’s it! A year out, no three months out, I didn’t want to go back to being an occasional wine sipper and my life was so much better. My evenings were more free to make more money, workout, do yoga, take up new hobbies, be more interesting and start a blog among lots of other things. I like that now honey’s kids can call me anytime, any day if they need a drive somewhere, they know I’m probably up and they NEVER abuse the privilege! People can count on my now after 10pm and for a while that wasn’t true. I lost those last icky pounds that made me feel bad and now I do triathlons. I feel great in my own skin and I literally kick ass plus look pretty dang good in a bikini heading ever closer to 40 which wasn’t true at 29.
Which is to say at the end of that year I changed my plan. I decided that I would not put my restrictions on my drinking at all but unless having a drink really and truly added to a situation I wasn’t going to have one. Occasionally that happens and I have a drink. But I never ever wanted to drive with even a drop of alcohol in my system again even if I was totally legal, I never wanted another hangover, just wasn’t worth it and I never wanted to apologize for something alcohol made me do again.
Why is it so hard
If you sit back and think about alcohol and our culture it’s pretty messed up. We don’t have a legal limit for driving and pot or opiates, we don’t serve lines of cocaine in a special building late at night and we don’t go to poppy fields for heroin samplings. Hell we don’t even go visit pot plants in the field and overall pot is probably less harmful though I hear CBD is now good for what ails you, ha ha ha. We don’t offer a selection of joints for people to enjoy during intermission at a play and meetings never involve sedatives and cheese, or do they? As crazy as those ideas sound they are all true of alcohol in our culture. Personally if you want to do any substance responsibly, well more power to you, though for some intoxicants it’s probably not that realistic. But who am I to say what anyone should do? We see people who smoke a J every night or take a sleeping pill everyday as playing with fire but a couple of glasses of wine a day, probably for the best? Sorry, but how f%#$ed up is that? I wouldn’t have always seen it that way but some distance has changed my mind. I could literally go on forever but you get the idea.
Because of how pervasive and accepted alcohol is in our culture we see it as a big step to not partake but 40% of adults have on average less than 5 drinks A YEAR! That’s not because 2 out of 5 of us are hardcore alcoholics either. I don’t do coke, smoke pot, take pills not prescribed to me, snort or inject anything, speed or go bungee jumping as a rule either and not drinking is just one more thing like that, no big deal! Atheists have a funny saying that they just believe in one less god than you, and not drinking is sort of like that too. Chances are I just take one less intoxicant on the regular than the person talking to me and if that’s a big deal for you, you’re the one with the issue!
I’ve realized that my not drinking is only an issue for me and after a week or a couple of moths it wasn’t an issue for me anymore either. Not on St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Halloween, any long weekend or even if I’m standing in a bar. If you want to take a break or re-define your relationship with alcohol then go for it. I don’t care if you drink a little or a lot, in front of me or even in secret. I also don’t care if you do anything else. I only care how you treat me, others around you and and maybe more importantly yourself if you’re putting something in your body that intoxicates you. With risk comes reward sometimes at least and for you if it’s worth it and you are responsible (enough) when you do then that’s cool with me. Fill your boots! But I promise if you want to try to make a change in this regard it’s not the big deal you think it might be.
Have you ever cut back on your drinking or something else? Was it as hard as you expected? Have you ever given up a bad habit only to find out it was easy?
Here are some links to resources you might find helpful