It was a beautiful, crisp winter morning and there I was, sitting on the floor of my bathroom draped over the toilet, alternating between addressing a horrible hangover and the anxiety I felt trying to remember exactly what level of embarrassment I had achieved the night prior. It was in this moment that I decided perhaps it was time to reassess my relationship with alcohol. Four years later, I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Like many, I was no stranger to Dry January or other “detox” journeys. But during those times, when I was abstaining from alcohol, it was always with a focus on “flushing toxins from my system” or to “reset for the new year” or some other Instagram wellness theory. I’d never really made any effort to think about why it was that I drank in the first place, or how I felt about drinking in general. I did it because that’s what everyone else did. My hometown had a pretty heavy drinking culture, and although my family never really drank hard liquor, wine was always available and was to be enjoyed in large quantities. Going to college only emphasized the idea that this was what was expected of everyone. The norm. And so, I found myself drinking every weekend and reliably having a glass of wine with dinner (and maybe also before and after) without much thought. Sure, the hangovers weren’t fun, and I was increasingly finding myself feeling horrible anxiety the day after a night of drinking, but in 24 hours, both would pass and I would actively try to forget those feelings, leading me to repeat the process over and over and over again.
But there was something different about that last hangover that finally broke the pattern. Rather than try to push my anxiety and embarrassment aside, I decided to really sit in it, think about it and address it head on. For me, that meant deciding to be completely sober for a time as I rethought years of drinking habits. I didn’t set a specific timeframe for myself, like 30 days or two weeks, but instead decided to hold back until I felt like I had a true grasp on what was going on inside whenever I reached for a drink.
What I ended up realizing was that the only reason I drank the way that I did was because of the social expectations set before me—I drank because that’s what college kids do at parties, because that’s what people do on dates, because that’s what families do at the holidays. I didn’t know whether I wanted to stop drinking altogether forever, but for the time being, I was much happier being sober.
Not drinking is a deeply personal choice that has had a deeply personal impact for me. But because drinking is such a social activity, it took a while before social gatherings felt normal. Conversations about the subject were almost uniformly awkward. What I really wanted when I first went sober was to be able to talk with others as a way to try to work things out, but virtually none of the people I told knew how to talk about it. Coworkers wanted to know if it was still OK for them to drink near me at work events (yes, go for it) and relatives wanted to know if I was pregnant (a thrilling proposal for them) or perhaps struggling (alcoholism does run in the family), but no one really knew how to broach those options or if it was even OK to ask. I remember one relative, who barely drinks themselves, asking with a concerned look on their face why I wasn’t drinking, and seeming relieved that it had nothing to do with some kind of “moral high ground” teetotaler mindset.
Drinking habits are somehow a very intimate thing to discuss, and reactions seemed to fall into one of two camps: those who wondered if there was a medical reason for my sobriety and those that felt judged or somehow personally attacked by my choices. But regardless of the awkwardness of others, being sober made me feel so much more in touch with myself, which was honestly an even more wonderful consequence of not drinking than the lack of hangovers or anxiety.
Since that morning I found myself draped in toilet paper, I’ve alternated between periods of not drinking and drinking, depending on what I feel serves me best in the moment. Imbibing with intention, let’s say. I won’t get drunk just because it’s New Year’s or because I’m on a bachelorette weekend getaway. If I’m going to drink, it’s because I want to savor a particularly weird sounding cocktail or because this already delicious cheese would taste even better paired with a glass of wine.
Like any relationship, mine with alcohol has its ups and downs. Sometimes we’re on good terms, others not so much. The important thing is that I keep checking in, keep diving into the the intention behind why and when I drink. Because that is the thing that keeps making a difference.