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What Happened When I Stopped Drinking

So you know what to expect

It’s embarrassing how difficult this was for me, a health and wellness professional, and how deeply deluded I was about my own drinking. If you’re struggling to change your relationship with alcohol, maybe my story will help.

I quit about 3 and a half years ago. I don’t have an exact date because it wasn’t a hard stop. It was a slow capitulation to a reality I didn’t, at the time, want. It began with a diagnosis…scratch, that, it began with a violent but random illness response to alcohol. It turned out to be histamine intolerance, but the diagnosis doesn’t matter here. Everyone has their own reason.

At First I Thought I Could Manage It

Drinking made me sick, but only sometimes. As little as one glass of red wine could have me puking for 8 hours the following day, or two rocky glasses of my favorite sipping tequila would give me nothing but a warm buzz and sweet dreams. The next time, the effects would be reversed: no problem with red wine, but my old friend, tequila, would slam me. Being a scientist at heart, I experimented. I altered variables, ran hypotheses, made observations,  and collected data. All I could confidently conclude was my body was responding to toxic overload, and alcohol was one of the toxins. Maybe I could manage it, right?

The next phase of my journey had me scrutinizing my diet, my environment, and my emotions for all forms of toxic strain. I eliminated certain foods. I had blood tests. I meditated more. It got very, very complicated. So many variables! Did the oysters make me sick, or was it the beer? Wheat was graded “yellow” on my food reactivity report; if I ate less bread could I drink more wine? The constant analysis was exhausting.

As I reluctantly gained awareness of the potential costs of drinking, holding a drink was like holding a revolver with one in the chamber. Would this one get me? Even when I did drink, more and more of my psyche was occupied by alarm bells in my head, making it hard to enjoy, or even get, a buzz.

The Shocking Talley

Every opportunity to drink became a choice point. And there were many choice points. My husband and I enjoyed opening a bottle of good wine as we prepared dinner each evening. Sometimes, if dinner or conversation were especially good, we’d open another. If the weather were nice, as it usually is in coastal Virginia, we’d precede dinner with a cocktail outside. Sometimes after dinner, we’d enjoy a fine port while we watched the moon rise. We loved our Friday night “rut,” as we affectionately referred to it, of cocktails and appetizers with neighbor friends. Special occasions were planned around special alcohol. Dinners out always began with an exploration of how the bartender could delight us. Travel involved trying new bars, breweries or local cocktails. We had themed cocktails for an event or a season. Work events involved alcohol: conferences, golf, dinners with clients.

It was all in fun.

As I inventory all these routine drinking rituals, I am still surprised and embarrassed. Alcohol was so woven into my social life. How did this come to be? In my childhood, I saw my parents drink wine at special occasions and martinis on the weekend. They never made a big deal about alcohol, and I internalized that drinking was not taboo. This served me when I got to college because, while my friends went crazy with their new-found freedom to drink, it wasn’t as important to me as paying rent and making grades. Still, looking back at the parties and best memories, alcohol was always the reward, the pinnacle, the point. Even as a waitress, I rewarded myself with a cold draft beer at the end of my shift. To this day, that first frosty sip flips a switch in my brain that says, “work is done.”

As life got better, so did the booze. We now stocked top-shelf liquors and highly-rated wines. Some of the most expensive bottles were held out for “special occasions,” reinforcing the connection between alcohol and celebration.

My norm was, on average, during the week, a minimum of two glasses of wine each evening. Except for the exceptions, and I sought excuses for the exceptions because that meant more laughter and friends and celebration. See the trap? And then there was the weekend. It’s hard to even guesstimate a “norm,” but my recycle bin on Monday morning was always full of wine bottles, liquor bottles and beer cans.

Even more shocking: I didn’t see it. It was my “norm.” I was otherwise healthy, so I convinced myself it didn’t matter. I was functioning, even high-performing.  I was not addicted. I was not an alcoholic. Drinking was associated with laughter and friends and celebration, so how could it be a bad thing?

Cost/Benefit Analysis Began to Tilt Toward Sobriety

If we just say a can of beer has 150 cal, a glass of white wine has 75, red wine has 125, and liquor has 100 per shot, the math is staggering. In red wine alone, I was consuming more than 1750 calories per week! That’s without factoring in my weekend consumption, which was higher.

And what did all this cost financially? Much of the beer and wine was buried in our grocery bills and restaurant tabs, both of which went down by almost half when we quit drinking.

And then there are the health costs. Not long ago, Dietary Guidelines RECOMMENDED 1-2 alcoholic beverages per day (these same recommendations made people think they need to drink cow milk…don’t get me started!). Since then, science has solidly rebuked the theoretical benefits of alcohol. Although revised  nutrition guidelines no longer suggest alcohol benefits, the public has largely not caught on.

We now know the health costs of moderate alcohol consumption include:

  • Higher risk of stroke, heart failure, aortic aneurism and hypertensive disease;
  • Shorter lifespan;
  • Increased chance of cancer;
  • Liver disease and liver cirrhosis;
  • Harm to fetus and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome if consumed while pregnant;
  • Alcohol abuse and addiction which affects more than 6 percent the US population;
  • Death: about 90,000 people die of alcohol related causes each year in the US.;
  • A genetic component that make a person more or less likely to consume alcohol.

The Social Shift

I didn’t know even of that then, but I did recognize that every drink in my hand represented a choice to pollute myself or not. And someone was always putting a drinking in my hand: every evening, some lunches, many work events, all weekends.

At first I found ways to play along. Holding a drink without drinking it. Working with the bartender for tonic and lime to mimic vodka tonics. Sometimes I just drank, and kept my illness private the following day.

I felt embarrassed, weak, like I couldn’t “hold my alcohol.” Supremely uncool. I resented that friends were having fun while I was puking in the bathroom. Once, after sharing just a bottle of white wine with a friend, I was so, so sick the next day I had to reschedule a flight home at my expense. She went home.

Then I “came out,” thinking I could enlist their support. I drank sparkling juices in pretty glasses during cocktail hour. I brought Pellegrino and lime wedges to parties instead of fifths. Responses varied, but were generally aghast, telling me how awful this was for me, and how glad they were not to have a problem, averting their eyes, and moving on. Various degrees of peer pressure were applied. Not all my friends aligned with my new path. Without fanfare or goodbye, some of them just disappeared. Or maybe it was me who disappeared because (and I am loathe to admit this) they weren’t as funny or attractive without the glaze of alcohol. Well, of course, neither was I.

The fact is, and I own this, it was me who changed paths. I left them. When I changed my relationship with alcohol, I changed all my relationships surrounding alcohol. For me, this was the toughest bond of all–the social ties around alcohol. I think of my lost friends lovingly. I remember our good times fondly. I miss them.

There are still a few friendships–old and new–with people who drink. Can drinkers and non-drinkers be close friends? After three-plus years, I’m still figuring this out. I think it has to do with truth, willingness to face truth, and whether alcohol is being used to avoid personal truth or the truth of the relationship. We will see.

And there were some unforeseen surprises: friends who also “came out” as non-drinkers. People who had silently slipped away into their own reasons for quitting, who resurfaced and reconnected in fresh ways. We get together over tea or coffee, or meet for a walk, and discover new things about one another.

And best of all, a whole world of new friends: wonderful, high-performing individuals with whom alcohol doesn’t even enter the picture. They show up to celebrate successes with cheers and hugs. They expose their vulnerabilities to heal them. They’re excited to discuss books and history and poems and music. I am learning a lot from them.

Sex and Marriage

There was another closely impacted by my realignment with alcohol: my husband. Part of our match was our almost exact relationships to alcohol as escape, ritual and intimacy enabler. Alcohol was backdrop and foundation to many aspects of our home life and interactions. It was joy-giving. Its rituals were comforting. Drinking was a positive in our life together, associated with fun and laughs and prosperity.

When I stopped drinking, he didn’t. For a while, this worked. He supported me by making sure I had fun and non-alcoholic choices. Since I felt his support and approval, I happily fell into the role of supporter and designated driver for him. Because alcohol was so woven into our daily rituals, when our rituals changed, his drinking gradually declined. It was an us-thing that wasn’t as much fun alone. Plus, he started CrossFit, and then distance running. He got a fitness device (Whoop) that translates his biometrics to performance data, including strain and recovery. When he saw hard evidence that even a moderate amount of alcohol measurably diminished his performance for around 4 days, it was gave-over for him. If alcohol impacted his physical performance so drastically, what was it doing to his money maker: his brain? As an engineering executive, he is committed to developing himself to the highest level of his profession, yet he was hamstringing his creative and cognitive functions. He couldn’t continue the self-sabotage.

We had to find new ways for ourselves and, honestly, it was a little awkward. Once the protective veil of alcohol came down, we were two geeky introverts who now had to clearly communicate our needs and vulnerabilities. Making it worse, this process coincided mercilessly with age-related changes in our bodies. It was pretty raw and, without alcohol, there was no place to hide. We uncovered misperceptions of one another. We admitted desires. We dropped pretenses. We laid out our fears. After close to twenty years together, we looked at each other anew, and fortunately, still loved what we saw.

We recently gave away all our alcohol. It hadn’t been touched in more than a year, and I coveted the cabinet space. We felt gleeful and giddy as neighbors carted it away–joyful closure on that chapter in our lives together.

The Pivot Point?

As I write about this progression, I’m trying to pinpoint when my reluctance to quit drinking became a desire to quit drinking, because that is where I am now: I feel free to drink if I want to, but at each choice point, I simply don’t want to. It helps that my husband is in alignment, and we have rearranged our evening and weekend social practices. It helps that some of my friendships have deepened without alcohol, and new friends came along. It also helps that non-alcoholic beverage choices have improved.

But the pivot point?

In the beginning, I was deeply vexed by the question: what do people do, if not drink, on a Friday night? Alcohol had been the keystone of my weekends since I was a teenager. I truly knew no alternative.

Now, Friday comes, and we assemble with music and good food, good conversation and, sometimes, good friends, maybe games, maybe a movie. Fridays look a lot like they used to, but now we don’t even think of drinking.

Somewhere along the path of sobriety, the scales tipped. The cost of social approval became higher and the value diminished. I wanted to be known and liked for my true self, my sober self. I had to honor a growing preference for a good book in bed over a group of friends getting shit-faced in my living room.

I searched my journals for a clear pivot point. The closest I found was this, about two years ago: “…I’m getting tired of standing out on this windy bridge between two lands, citizen of neither. Really, one has cast me out and I have not fully entered the other. What real choice do I have?”

The “Truth”

One of my all-time favorite lines is when the Wizard tells Dorothy and her friends, who are accusing him of lying, that, he only told the lies people wanted to hear (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum). As if the one being lied to is complicit in the lie.

Drinking enabled me to be both liar and the one lied to. I had woven a whole web of justifications around alcohol as a lifestyle. The truth is, my drinking wasn’t just occasional, and it wasn’t benign. It was almost daily, in some form, for decades. Ouch.

I had my reasons. Everyone does.

For me, alcohol obscured truths I wasn’t ready to deal with, so I believed lies that served me. The steady drip of alcohol in my life allowed me to pretend to be much more outgoing and far less sensitive than I really am. Drinking was a survival tactic, delaying, until I was ready, dealing with the more difficult aspects of self and early wounds that would need to see daylight to heal.

Apparently, I was ready. Body and self are driven to wholeness like plants are drawn upward to the sun. Healing is in every cell of our body, every atom of our being. It’s no “coincidence” that histamine intolerance forced my hand at a time I was supported by strong home, stable career, and loving relationship.

For decades of my life, I learned of myself in the presence of alcohol. Now I am learning in its absence, and I like what I’m finding.

The absence of alcohol is strengthening my commitment to my values. I value a strong, healthy body. I value presence, my own and others’. I value beauty and kindness. Without the distortion of alcohol, I find I am unwilling to make in-the-moment choices that compromise what I value. These values are expressing themselves more and more keenly, taking form in the purging of belongings, minimalizing, simplifying, and going plant-based.

In the absence of alcohol, I find I value real humor, real conversation, and real intimacy, not the half-ass stuff that suffices when you’re drunk.

The absence of alcohol highlights where I have been willing to compromise—even harm—myself for the approval of others. Without the numbness of alcohol, this realization hurts, and I just won’t do it.

In the absence of alcohol, I am more rooted in my natural tendency toward introversion. Alcohol allowed me to fake extroversion, socially and professionally. My confidence doesn’t come as readily, now, but when it comes, it comes from some place deeper, truer, more solid.

In the absence of alcohol I am, perhaps ironically, less fearful. By facing my fears of illness, aging, and inevitable life changes, I feel more prepared and able to handle them. This, facing fears, is at the heart of my reasons for drinking and, simultaneously, the antithesis to it. I couldn’t face my fears while I was drinking, and I can’t avoid them now that I’ve stopped. Funny thing is, like Dorothy, I needn’t have feared. The way home—to my indestructible self—was always within me.

Dorothy had to discover she always had the power to go home. So did I.

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