What I learned from a year of not drinking
My history with alcohol and substances
For most of my adult life, I was a social drinker who grew up with a pot-smoking, sometimes heavy-drinking, and sometimes cocaine-using stepfather and a codependent mother. My biological father was an alcoholic. He died before the age of 60, and I suspect it was from heart problems or complications related to alcohol. We only met twice, and one of those times I was too young to remember.
Despite alcoholism in my genes and in my upbringing, any addictions of my personality went to more of the excessively healthy side: I was a runner, a vegetarian/pescatarian, and at times a workout fanatic. Drinking wasn’t something I was very good at, or even interested in. It was a social coping mechanism, an attempt to fit in.
On March 30, 2019, I gave up drinking. About nine months before that, in July 2018, I embarked on a “sober curious” experiment. This article conveys my experience with drinking and what I learned from the past year of not drinking; it is not meant to tell you how to quit drinking or how to determine if you should. I am reluctant to use the label “sober” because of its connotations; I prefer to say simply “I don’t drink.” “Sober” doesn’t sound very fun, and I’m still having a lot of fun!
As a side note: I did not participate in any twelve-step programs, and couldn’t tell you what the twelve steps are. I read them once and couldn’t get past the “defect” part — it’s simply language that I don’t resonate with.
College: Stupid is as stupid does
I started drinking during my second semester at Middlebury College. The first semester I was doing handstands at cross-country parties, hanging out in trees, and watching my roommate cope with her own addiction, though I didn’t know what it was at the time (she died of an overdose in 2015). By the second semester, drinking seemed necessary to have a social life and a reasonable explanation for anything outlandish I wanted to do. Throughout college, I stayed away from marijuana; I had grown up in a cloud of pot smoke and was sick of it.
Day drinking and multi-day binges were always beyond my realm of understanding. I’m a lightweight and spend much of my life identifying as an athlete. Having a drink in the middle of the day pretty much ruined it — I could literally not function if I started in the afternoon and kept drinking. After college, my friends would get together for long weekends and drink all day, for three or more days at a time. I would burn out after the second day and want to go home. Or just read a book, do something intelligent, and take a lavender bath. Everyone reeks after days of drinking.
Twenties: Social climbing vs. hill climbing
In my twenties, I worked at an advertising agency in San Francisco. I sometimes felt my attempts at career growth were hindered because I chose to run after work instead of drink. I saw the after-work drinkers getting promoted faster — perhaps it was the boys club, perhaps it was the drinking, but there was no networking going on during my forays on the trail. My upward mobility was hill-bound, not career-bound.
Thirties: Fashion and fitness
For most of my thirties I was on an anti-depressant for generalized anxiety disorder and an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder. After the breakup of a relationship that defined my twenties, I spent several years chasing crazy experiences, largely fueled by pot and booze. During the week, I would obsessively work out so that I could look amazing in wild outfits on the weekends. Even still, one year I ran the Bay to Breakers (a 7.2-mile race across San Francisco which at the time had 80,000 participants) in a circus costume in about an hour. I took a bus back to Divisadero and Fell (about halfway through the race) to people watch. It was my fourth time running it, and I had always thought Bay to Breakers was a RUNNING race in which people liked to wear costumes, not an early morning walking costumed keg party. So naive! All those years of runner’s high had blinded me. The other times I had stayed at the end to watch the winners get their medals, hoping I could suck up their speed.
Forties: Health and safety
At the time I started getting sober curious in my late forties, I was living in Dallas and the relationship with my boyfriend was winding down after nearly three years. He drank more than I did — sometimes he would come over with a bottle of wine and would be more than halfway gone before we sat down to eat dinner. He would often need a drink to “get in the mood.” I would keep wine around the house, but could rarely finish a bottle on my own before it went bad, even with a Vacu Vin. Wine was like a thought, a cultural convention, but barely a practice unless I had company.
What worried me the most was drinking and driving. He would drive his vintage Porsche home to the suburbs from my home in the city late at night. I would drive home from events in the city when he was traveling. During his six week trip out of the country in the summer of 2018, I went out on Bastille Day and drank way more than I should have and drove home, praying the whole way.
I had been inspired by the sober curious movement and a woman I met at Creative Mornings, who spoke about her journey to sobriety. Over the next few months, I became friendly with her after joining the co-working space she co-founded, and just simply knowing someone who didn’t drink was enough.
When my boyfriend returned from his global excursion, our whole relationship appeared in high relief. While I haven’t done an analysis of my ex’s drinking and am not going to label it (sometimes I would be the one who wanted a drink when he didn’t), our unhealthy dynamic had run its course. Then, I was faced with my own habits, and spent the next six months exploring how I behaved around alcohol with no influence but my own.
The sober curious stage
What I found was a culturally habituated mechanism that had no real benefit to my life. If I started out an evening out with the intention of only having one drink, invariably someone would push me to have more. At a celebratory work dinner, my glass would be constantly refilled. At one weeknight event, after I finished my one drink, a man I had just met kept trying to hand me another. I noticed he wasn’t drinking. I said, “the fact that you are insisting on getting me another drink when you are not drinking leads me to believe that I should not trust you because you are trying to take advantage of me.” He turned away in a huff, working his way through the crowd of women.
Drinking also made me sick. I came home from a work trip to San Francisco, where there was a ton of drinking at events, and got an awful, lingering cold. Even before that, I would notice that every time I drank, I could literally feel it poisoning my body — one drink was enough to feel the effects. My kidneys would hurt, it made me sleep poorly, sweating all night, and it made me extra anxious the next day.
When a lucrative work contract dissolved in January 2019, I felt lost. The company had planned to move me back to San Francisco. I was done with Dallas, had no job, and no idea what to do with my life. I needed 100% of my faculties to figure out the next step. That January I did not drink at all and had a few single drinks in February, when I decided to move back to the Bay Area without a job.
The last time I drank was about two weeks after I arrived at a sublet in Berkeley. A friend I hadn’t seen in years invited me to a bar in Oakland on a Saturday afternoon. He and his wife had about four drinks each over the course of two hours. I had one…and couldn’t finish the second. It was fun, it was stupid, and it was completely unnecessary. I was done. I drank a liter of water with Emergen-C and went on a hike. At that point, I think I had gone about a month at the most. Now I was ready. “I’m going to go a year,” I thought, “and see how I feel after that.”
What I learned after a year of not drinking
The urge to drink passes in about 30 seconds.
I can honestly say that I haven’t been tempted to drink, even when going to events or sitting at bars. I don’t miss drinking bad wine out of plastic cups at art events. White wine always gave me an allergic reaction, and if there’s red wine it usually tastes like grape juice anyway. At various times I’ve had fleeting desires for a drink, but they’ve never been when I’m a situation with alcohol — I would have had to go to the store, as I’m not someone who would walk into a bar alone. When the urge hits, I note to myself “I’m stressed and this is when I would want a drink” and go do something — like take a walk or watch an inspirational video. A deep breath or two reminds me that all is well.
There is no point in setting foot into a bar (unless you’re a writer collecting material)
I was in San Francisco one afternoon last June for a business meeting and a friend who’s sweet on me asked me to meet him afterward at Shanghai Kelly’s, a bar in Russian Hill. “I want to spend time with you,” he said. Half a dozen of his friends where there, watching hockey playoffs. He was already tipsy and drinking double vodkas. I chatted with his friends, happily drinking water in the balmy early evening when all of sudden there was a thud. Everyone turned toward the bar. The owner had passed out and hit his head. Soon the ambulance came, and the paramedics carried him out on a stretcher.
It was time for me to go. My friend followed me out, stumbling and apologizing for getting so drunk. I walked into the poke restaurant in front of my parked car. He followed me, ordered food, and I watched him eat, barely able to get the fork to meet his mouth, rice dripping down his chin. I drove him home and haven’t seen him since.
I repeat, there is no point in setting foot into a bar if you do not drink. People who truly value your friendship will make other accommodations for you.
Lack of hangovers increases productivity
For several years before I quit drinking, I had been trying to embark on a new creative venture, something that could shift the trajectory of my career. As a freelancer who works on lengthy writing projects with long term clients, anything else I do largely has to happen on the weekends. Now I never have a hangover as an excuse not to work on my own projects. I’ve been far more productive. In October 2019 I launched a new website and blog, and stared an email list in January 2020. I have a better relationship with myself and my creativity because I am not holding myself back by what I put in my body.
The choice not to drink will provoke a variety of reactions in other people
It can get dicey announcing your sobriety to people. I marked “never drinks” on my dating profile and got very few matches. When I changed it to “sometimes,” I got more. Every once and a while, I would get a “Yay, you don’t drink!” I did meet up with one newly recovering guy who was so deep in the throes of his first year of recovery — all that stuff about moral inventory and making amends — that was more like a therapy session than a date. He had also lied about his age and promoted his lumpy body as fit. Many alcoholics are experts in manipulation: bullet dodged.
There is a dire lack of cultural understanding of the choice not to drink for health or personal reasons. When you say you don’t drink, some people will automatically assume you’re in recovery, or perhaps belong to a non-drinking religion. People can get self-conscious and downplay their drinking: those who drink a lot on the weekends will brag about the fact that they don’t drink during the week. Other people will flat out admit their love of drinking. “I could never do that,” they might say.
On the other hand, you will give other people permission to not drink. The sober curious movement has sparked restaurants to offer delicious mocktails using the “shrub” concoctions they use in cocktails. I’ll tell someone I’m drinking a mocktail, and they’ll say, “That sounds great, I think I’ll have one too.” People will say, “I don’t drink either” and “good for you.” All these bits of support add up, ameliorating the pressure and judgment from the insensitive drinking bozos.
I own my joy (and my anxiety too)
The biggest gift that not drinking gave me is complete ownership of my emotions. If I’m feeling joyful, ecstatic, blissed out, happy, pleased, invigorated, or content, I know it’s because of what’s inside me. No substance gave me those feelings: they are mine! I was already on a path of chasing spiritual highs, and those continued. Perhaps this was easy for me because I had done so much spiritual work, as I understand that recovery is largely a spiritual process. I’m good with me, and now there’s more space for me. Alcohol squeezed everything into its own boundaries. As a spiritual being, I’m limitless.
Owning my joy means owning my negative emotions too. Without the crutch of alcohol to “blow off steam” or relieve anxiety (which it never did a good job of anyway), I became far more adept at taking care of myself.
It frees up headspace
I grew up as a vegetarian, so there is an entire swath of the supermarket that I don’t look at, a whole realm of ingredients I don’t think about. Once I took wine off the shopping list, I realized how much space trying to know about wine (and occasionally liquor) took up in my brain. There was a whole new swath of the store I didn’t have to think about, a whole realm of knowledge that I didn’t need to keep up with. I will miss going to wine country, but day drinking was never my thing anyway, so I’ll go for a hike instead. Then I’ll read a book, sew a quilt, maybe make an illustration and write a post on my blog. What a relief that I don’t have to pretend to know about wine anymore.
It saves money
I didn’t have expensive taste in wine, but I estimate I’ve saved between $500 and $1000 over the past year. I can do a lot of other things with that money.
It confronted me with my introversion
I moved to Dallas on my own and created a whole social life by meeting people (including my ex) at art-related, wine-fueled events. After half a glass of wine, I can talk to anyone. People thought I was an extrovert.
Standing in a roomful strangers with just a glass of water in hand is difficult for me. There’s no way around the fact that alcohol is an amazing social lubricant. I walk out of situations now because I’d rather be alone than try to converse with strangers. Since moving back to California, I’ve had to find other ways to network, which has resulted in higher quality relationships through spiritual groups and a co-working space, The Hivery.
By realizing what an introvert I actually am, I’ve been able to focus on my relationship with myself, and the things that I like to do, like writing, cooking, drawing on my iPad, fiddling in Photoshop, and taking long walks. During the current shelter in place due to COVID-19, I’m experiencing a creative renaissance. All the social distractions that once weighed on me are now eliminated.
I am free to be amazed every day
It’s like alcohol was a holding structure for the extrovert I wanted to be, but could not possibly be. In high school, I was always the smart kid, not the popular kid. At Middlebury, I was a small town tree-hugging creative nerd from a rural blue-collar family lost in a sea of super-smart wealthy and upper middle-class kids. At that time in my life, I had that inner sense of just being me, a little bit wacky, irreverent, and creative. But somehow that was not acceptable. Alcohol made it OK.
Thirty years later, I’m still that excited teen, full of wonder about the world, full of life, full of love. I feel much greater acceptance of myself, of the world, and my place in it. I don’t think there could be a better high — and I am totally comfortable reveling in this feeling on my own, or channeling it into writing, photography, or artwork. Better yet, I get to wake up every day with a clear head.
There is no reason to go back
There is nothing, absolutely nothing to gain. I am totally fine with me as I am.
As an alternative to “sober,” I’m going to use the label “teetotaler.” It sounds like someone tripping through life, happy with alliteration, perhaps looking for a playground with a seesaw.