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I didn’t drink for a year. Here’s what I learned in the process.

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The day I decided to quit drinking wasn’t particularly dramatic. I had been to a couple of low-key holiday parties the night before, and aside from drinking too much wine, I hadn’t done anything I regretted. But in the wee morning hours I woke up with a splitting headache, and by noon I still felt queasy on the way to brunch. “This is enough,” I thought.

Eleven months earlier I had scribbled out a list of goals for 2016, one of which was sheepishly penned in at the very end: no hangovers. When I wrote it, I thought sticking to the resolution would mean moderating my drinking. By the end of 2016, I realized the only way to achieve my goal would be to quit drinking altogether.

making resolutions 2016

Having “no hangovers” was one of my ambitious goals for 2016.

The morning after the holiday party wasn’t my first go-round at quitting, or even thinking that I was quitting “for good this time.” But this was the first time I decided that I couldn’t do it without a support system in place. So that afternoon I Googled, for about the twentieth time, the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that takes place in a church basement at 7PM on Sundays right around the corner from my house, and at 7PM that night, for the first time, I actually went.

For the next 12 months I maintained my sobriety. I found out I was pregnant about three months in, which made abstaining much easier, but I still attended meetings and did what I consider to be “the work of sobriety.” That is, figuring out what caused me to drink in the first place, why I felt so lost without alcohol, and how I could begin to untangle the knots that led me to believe drinking was the only way to feel feelings. By the fall I felt like I had really figured some shit out. With my baby due around Thanksgiving, I decided that when I hit the year mark on not drinking I would try to drink again, in moderation. I’ve been drinking for about a month now, and it’s going great. I’m actually able to drink a single beer, or a glass of wine, and not give in to the temptation to drink an entire bottle. This time, “no hangovers” feels achievable to me because I’ve experienced long-term sobriety. I finally have the tools I need to put the bottle down when it’s time to put it down.

I’m taking a different path than a lot of people who decide to quit and quit forever. It’s also a different path from those who recognize that they have a problem with alcohol but never take measures to curb their drinking. During my year of sobriety, I talked a lot about what not drinking was like to people who were considering quitting. And woah, there are a lot of you. I also got to know sober people way better because I sought them out instead of avoiding them. In the process, I gained a lot of insight about what sobriety is like, how people maintain it, and why so many people fear quitting drinking. Here are some of the big things I learned during the last year.

on the way to an aa meeting

Me on the way to my second AA meeting in January, 2017. I was nervous.

One of the first things people will do is reassure you that you aren’t the type of person who needs to quit drinking.

“You? Really? You never struck me as someone who had a problem.” People said this to me all the time. I didn’t drink white wine out of a coffee mug while pushing my child in a swing at the park, so did I really need to quit? When I rattled off my reasons for quitting, people still tried to convince me that I wasn’t “problem drinking” by their standards. But it was a problem by my standards, and those are the standards that matter.

Now I know that when someone tells you they quit drinking there is a single appropriate response: “Congratulations.” It’s not your job to tell someone you don’t think they have a problem. Conversely, if you’re the one quitting, it’s not your duty to explain yourself. You can reveal as much or as little about your reasons for quitting as you want.

It’s okay to talk to sober people about not drinking.

Before I spent a year sober, if someone told me they quit drinking, I avoided the topic of alcohol or sobriety with them. But you know what? Sober people like talking about their sobriety. When I wasn’t drinking, I was proud of the work I was doing and I loved talking about what I was learning, but people avoided the topic around me because they assumed it was a point of shame.

When you quit, it helps to have tools. But the tools are different for everyone.

Because I had tried to quit a few times before abstaining for a full year, I knew that I needed more than just my own resolve to maintain sobriety. Quitting is hard to do on your own. If you plan to quit, assemble some resources first. These are the people and things you want to have in place in case you hit a rough patch… and you’ll probably hit a rough patch. (Hip Sobriety has a great post about this called How to Build a Sobriety Toolbox.)

My sobriety toolbox included: occasional AA meetings (I did not work the steps or get a sponsor), yoga, meditation apps, friends I could call if I was having a hard time and needed to talk through my desire to drink at that moment, podcasts and blogs about sobriety, and a big list of ideas for things to do besides drink. Oh, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Sure, have a non-alcoholic beer if you want one.

Sure, have a non-alcoholic beer if you want one.

“Not drinking” isn’t just abstinence from booze. If you want to stay sober, it helps to engage in a bit of self reflection about how and why you drink.

Getting to the root of why you drink is as important as quitting itself. It’s the best way to make lasting, sustainable change. If you don’t address it, it will pop up again.

In order to maintain my sobriety I had to eventually face the idea that “quitting” wasn’t just “not drinking.” Let me explain.

If you told me I couldn’t eat cereal for the rest of my life, I’d probably feel sad for a few minutes about never getting to have Captain Crunch ever, then I’d never think about it again. But quitting booze? It felt like a death. If I wanted to get better at not craving a drink every time I encountered a trigger (stressful day at work, holiday party, that first warm day in Chicago where everyone is drinking beer outside), then I had to figure out why it was so damn hard for me to give up booze.

When I examined why I drank, I discovered a narrative I’d been running so long I really believed it even though it was comically juvenile and totally not true.

Why do I want a drink? Because drinking makes me cool.

People who drink are cool, so if I’m drinking, I’m cool. No one thinks I’m lame if I have a drink in my hand. I am immune to other people’s judgement so long as I am drinking.

Insane, right? Well, they say you don’t progress mentally past the age when you first start using. Therefore, my reasons for drinking were the reasons a 16-year-old girl might drink. Like a lot of teens, I started drinking in high school to fit in. I could create my own party just by being drunk, and that subversive behavior actually connected me to more classmates who wanted to party with me. So I learned that the way to connect with people is to drink with them. This got reinforced in college when my closest friends binge drank together while experiencing the drama of freshman year. Those who didn’t drink didn’t experience things as deeply as we did. So alcohol is the pathway to a deeper experience of life.

Let’s summarize:

  1. Drinking makes you cool. When you drink, no one will think you are lame, and better yet, it won’t matter what anyone thinks anyway.
  2. Drinking helps you connect with other people.
  3. Drinking leads to a deeper, richer experience of life that people who don’t drink will never feel.

When you realize the deep-rooted inner beliefs you have about drinking, it’s easy to see why quitting is so hard. Because I believe what I believe, if I quit drinking I will be lame, friendless and unable to experience life as deeply.

But spelling out those inner beliefs also gives you a chance to recognize how not true they are. It becomes easier to let them go, and then it’s easier to stop drinking.

Problem drinking isn’t a black and white issue, it’s a grayscale.

When I quit, I was surprised by how many people told me they felt that they, too, had a troubling relationship with alcohol. It’s like you tell someone you went to an AA meeting, and now you’re everyone’s alcohol therapist. What I learned was that most people thought of drinkers as grouped into two categories: alcoholics, and people who didn’t have a drinking problem. Alcoholics had to abstain from drinking altogether, and everyone else was fine.

But they weren’t fine, based on what they were telling me. If you drink, you’ve probably struggled with your relationship to booze at some point.  You don’t have to be hiding pints of whiskey in the work toilet tank to reassess your drinking habits. You also don’t have to identify as an alcoholic in order to seek help.

You don’t have to quit forever if you decide to seek help. There are lots of other ways to quit or moderate your drinking.

The predominant method for treating alcoholism is total abstinence, which means the second you admit to having a problem, you have to quit forever. This keeps a lot of people from seeking help. AA uses the phrase “one day at a time” to keep quitting from feeling overwhelming and impossible. But the idea that it’s supposed to be forever, that alcoholics can NEVER have a drink, keeps lots of people from doing anything to moderate their drinking. You can admit to having problematic drinking behaviors and not quit forever, and not quitting forever doesn’t mean you’ll go back to bad drinking behaviors or that you’re a failure.

You can also quit long-term and count your sobriety cumulatively rather than consecutively. Maintaining sobriety is difficult. I took issue with the idea that taking a single drink after 12 years of not drinking set your clock back to zero. This approach seemed counterproductive to helping people stay sober long-term when so many people slip up occasionally. It’s basically like telling people that a single impulse purchase at the checkout line will result in wiping out their entire life savings. Once that happens, why not just go on a spending spree (ahem: drinking binge)?

There are lots of approaches — and support systems in place — to help people maintain long-term sobriety or significantly cut back drinking, even just to moderate drinking or do a short stint in sobriety (like a dry January). Like dieting, quitting or moderating drinking is a process that involves hard work and therefore lots of mistakes. Find the approach that makes sense for you if you want to quit or moderate.

Other things to do besides drink, like hiking.

Other things to do besides drink, like hiking.

Quitting drinking gives you an excuse to stop doing the things you never liked doing anyway.

When I first quit, I made a valiant effort to still do all the things I did when I was drinking, only without drinking at them. Then I realized there were events I really didn’t like being at without drinking, and that it was okay to avoid those things. For me, this was house parties. I’m an extrovert (I think?). I love talking to people, but there’s something about house parties that I just hate. I’m great one-on-one or in small groups, but making small talk in a loud room with a bunch of people I sort of know because we have a couple of mutual friends is the stuff of my nightmares. To relieve the awkwardness, I would constantly lift a glass of wine to my face. That’s why I used to get very drunk at those things. Now I just don’t go.

You can have fun without alcohol.

It’s so easy to adhere to the narrative that all “fun” events have to involve booze. I started having fun without alcohol the minute I started thinking of things to do instead of drinking, rather than without drinking. This made me more likely to participate in activities that had absolutely nothing to do with drinking, like yoga, running, hiking, visiting a museum, etc. This caused a fundamental shift in the idea of who I was and what activities I enjoyed. I used to default to brunch, dinner, drinks. Now I’m totally open to meeting a friend for tea and then taking a walk… and not feeling lame about it.

Our culture is obsessed with alcohol.

When you’re the one not drinking, it’s suddenly apparent how much alcohol plays a role in everything we do. You wonder where we get the message from a young age that drinking is cool? Because we encounter that message several times a day, every day, for years. Adding booze is a quick way to make any event feel sophisticated, or at least less lame. It can’t just be networking, it has to be networking and cocktails. It’s not just a book signing, it’s a wine and cheese event at a bookstore.  Moms can’t just get together for a social event, it has to be moms and margaritas. We can’t just take a bath to relax, we have to take a glass of wine with us.

My favorite thing to do to expose the hypocrisy of these pervasive messages about booze is to replace the word “wine” (or whatever booze) with “cigarettes.”

Cigarettes and cheese. Networking and cigarettes. Moms and Marlboros.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

This culture of total acceptance of booze can be incredibly alienating to those who don’t drink. I used to be okay with marginalizing non-drinkers, but now I try to be inclusive by not assuming everyone consumes alcohol. After spending a year not drinking, I’m also conscious of how the assumption of drinking creeps into my language. Now, rather than say “grab drinks,” I’ll say “meet for coffee or a bite to eat.”

Hangovers really do suck.

When I quit, I wasn’t what most people would think of as a “problem drinker.” I didn’t destroy things when I was drunk, I didn’t drink alone during the day, I didn’t crash any cars or end up in jail. The trouble was, I was rewarding “not having a drinking problem” by drinking. As long as the infrastructure was in place to support having one more drink (we’re taking a cab, we have a baby sitter, I don’t have anything pressing to do tomorrow morning, I’m an adult for god’s sake), I would always have one more drink. Even though my behavior the night before wasn’t out of control, this why-the-heck-not attitude led to some wicked hangovers, which are no fun when you’re in your mid-thirties and getting your toddler dressed for daycare so you can make it to work on time to lead a client presentation. Not only are you sick and in pain, the anxiety is crippling. That’s why I put “no hangovers” on my list of goals for 2016.

In 2017 I hit that goal, and let me tell you, it was glorious. Some days I woke up at 6 a.m. and jumped into my work day, completing things early and then taking time off to go to a yoga class or a quick run before picking my kid up from daycare. I never wasted a morning with my head in the toilet. I never felt dread about things I’d left unfinished. I never had to stop myself from puking out the window of a car on the way to brunch. Most importantly, I never had to look at my kid and say, “Mommy’s not feeling so great right now, close the door please.” I have learned that the motivation to seriously curb my drinking stems from the knowledge of what a year without hangovers felt like. It was one of the best years of my life.

Drinking doesn’t make life better, or more vibrant.

I don’t feel like I missed out on a thing during the year I didn’t drink. In fact, I experienced more because I was awake for every experience. I had to critically examine long-held narratives that were holding me back in life, and destroy them. I finally stopped doing things I didn’t want to do, and starting doing new things I always told myself I wasn’t interested in, or was incapable of doing. I grew closer to the people in my life who stuck with me even though I was no longer sharing a bottle of wine with them, and learned that those are the people who stick around no matter what.

But the best thing I learned is that there is no more fun to be had by drinking that next glass. Novelty, romance, intimacy — these things diminish, not increase, at the bottom of a bottle. I am responsible for being present, being engaged, feeling connected. Booze cannot enhance those feelings. Only I can.

drinking steel reserve

Me, in 2003. I definitely identified as a drinker.

If I can quit, you can quit.

I was the kind of person who identified as a drinker. Drinking was part of the fabric of who I was. It was how I formed and maintained relationships, how I related to the world. I planned my life around my drinking. That’s part of the reason I realized I had to let it go, but it was why it was so damned hard to do it. So I know that if a person like me can do it, you can do it, too.

This is just the beginning.

One of my favorite catchphrases from AA (seriously I’m so obsessed with it I want a mug and a t-shirt and a poster) was “I’ll keep coming back.” In those quiet church rooms, after someone shared their story, they’d often end by saying, “thanks, and I’ll keep coming back,” with such practiced nonchalance that it took me a few meetings to decipher what, exactly, they were mumbling.

It just means this program is working for meand I am grateful for it, so I plan on continuing to show up. Because showing up is how it works. 

I might have resumed drinking alcohol after a year of sobriety, but what I learned while doing the work was so important that I vow to revisit it should I ever feel my drinking get off track again. I’m grateful for the year I spent not drinking.

Thanks, and I’ll keep coming back.

 

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