Friday, February 01, 2013

Life without Wine, Whiskey, or Even St. Germain

I used to be deeply suspicious of non-drinkers. I assumed that everyone who categorically refused alcohol (who was neither a Muslim nor a former addict) was using their sobriety to guard at least one sordid secret.

Then months of deadline pressure, frequent timezone switches, coffee, and alcohol left my stomach in rebellion. After eliminating the other offenders one by one, I realized that I would have to stop drinking--at least for a while. Two months later, I am grateful to my body for forcing me to abandon what I thought were reasonable habits. It has been enlightening.

It was not that I was a heavy drinker. I would order a drink with everyone while dining out; I would have a few drinks out dancing or at a party. And if I was meeting a friend for a drink, of course I was not going to sit there and awkwardly drink nothing. Drinking was an important part of my life: not only did it enable me to participate in fulfilling social activities, it was a relaxing activity. Or so I thought.

I have discovered not drinking to help me have more fulfilling interactions with others: it forces me to be honest about how much I am enjoying myself. A small amount of alcohol can go a long way to mask the intolerable: a dull conversation partner becomes fascinating; 4 A.M. feels like 10 P.M. During the first nights out without alcohol, everything felt boring and exhausting. I spent a few weekends avoiding social situations--I was "too tired," "had other plans," or "might be out of town"--before I realized that I was going to need to learn to socialize sober. Since then, I have learned to enjoy myself in many situations where it seems like everyone else is drinking: karaoke nights, parties, and even New Year's in Montreal. If I am bored, I find a more interesting conversation topic or partner. If I am tired, I leave. There remain some situations that are unbearable without the appropriate anaesthetization: for instance, when people are sloppily falling over and spilling drinks on me. But this is not a situation I should be enjoying anyway. Sobriety provides a good barometer for determining when the night is over for me.

Being sober has also allowed me to explore other, more long-term sustainable, methods for relaxation. Well before I stopped drinking, I read that frequent alcohol use can cause or worsen anxiety and depression. While this idea caused me some amount of anxiety, I assumed my alcohol use was sufficiently infrequent to avoid this. I was convinced that the edginess I felt after a night of drinking was caused by sleep deprivation and stress from other parts of my life. If anything, drinking helped with that stress. When I stopped drinking, however, that edginess went away. After a late night out sober, I might feel tired or stressed from the week, but no longer that anxious buzz. In addition to helping me feel happier, sobriety has created space for more relaxation. I now have more time, money, and presence of mind for cooking, yoga, and meditation.This has increased my overall happiness and wellness.

To alleviate the some fears of those considering non-drinking: the most surprising thing has been how little it has changed the structure of my social life. Fortunately, it turns out that most people are less suspicious of non-drinkers than I had been. It helps to be with people who will not pressure you to drink. (But what kind of real friends would pressure you to drink after you tell them you stopped for "health reasons?") There is also no reason to tell people you are not drinking--and default assumption is that you are. Most people do not ask you the exact contents of that glass of water, ginger ale, or soda-and-juice concoction. (Nicer lounges often have delicious non-alcoholic cocktails. The other day, I had a lovely Sprite-based beverage with pomegranate and pineapple juices.) I have also come to enjoy talking about alcohol with my non-drinker friends: it is validating to discuss the benefits of not drinking and strategies for staying sober among drinkers.

I do not plan to categorically swear off alcohol forever: I miss my St. Germaine gin cocktails; I miss tipsy philosophizing over whiskeys neat. I expect, however, that when I do drink again it will be a far more infrequent indulgence. I have become too aware of the tradeoffs.

To my fellow alcohol-loving friends: you do not have to become an alcoholic or pregnant to stop drinking! Try it for a while. You might find that you like it.


CM said...

Hi Jean!
Really interesting article. I understand your point, but alcohol also opens the minds and helps removing the shackles of the habits (not sure it is the best world I am using here). I mean, everything is a question of proportion, but you need Dyonisus to balance Apollo. I know drinking is often used as an excuse to do anything (which is false), but from time to time, letting your "it" express itself is also healthy (and spares a huge amount of time on the psychanalist's couch). Don't you think?

Jean said...


Alcohol, like other substances, can be educational in showing us sides of ourselves that we did not previously have access to. You are right--alchohol is an easy way to get away from your habits and temporarily inhabit a different self.

It is, however, possible to learn from substances without making them a habit. There is no need to drink every day/week to learn what it is like to be this different self.

It is also possible, though more difficult, to adopt other practices that have a similar effect. Being more present and questioning your habits more can do a lot for being spontaneous. For a while I practiced saying "yes" to all things I had no good reason to say no to, with interesting results. Trying on other selves this way can produce longer-lasting changes and lessons because you are in more of a place to learn from what is happening.

NR said...

hey! This post truly resonates with me. Lately, I have been getting the worst headaches after drinking alcohol. Even with just one drink. And I don't think they are hangovers; my headaches come immediately after I drink and last for hours.

So I have had to limit the frequency with which I drink (not that I drink that often, anyway). In doing so, I've realized that I do rely on in as a "social lubricant". And, sadly, I've also realized how some people judge those that don't drink (sigh). However, my body appreciates it so much when I avoid it. I am considering completely cutting it out eventually.

I still have to learn to join my friends out when I know I'll be the only sober person. After reading your post, I might try to get better at that.

Hope said...

Well said, Jean. I've also recently cut out alcohol and found that much of you say is true for me as well. I'm glad to hear that this has been helpful for your stomach, your schedule, and your spirits.

Miss you!

Thoughts said...

Hi, Jean! Long time! I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing :-)

One thing that I've done (and am actually about to do again) is periodically go clean with my diet. In other words, about once or twice a year, I take 6-8 weeks off from eating crap foods, drinking alcohol, and consuming caffeine.

I've primarily done this to investigate how my diet impacts my sleep, energy, and productivity levels. I'm pretty convinced that consuming caffeine and/or alcohol is a case of a greedy solution leading to a local optimum of alertness and/or a happy buzz. The funny thing is that the utility of this optimum decreases each time that you visit it. Eventually, you hit "rock bottom" and quitting becomes the new greedy solution.

After oscillating between consuming oceans of coffee daily and extreme dietary asceticism, it seems like the real challenge isn't to quit everything forever but to find the Middle Way. So if you can find a balance when you return to your St Germain cocktails, let me know how you did it! I could use the help :-P

Anonymous said...

I also see a middle way here. You're describing a pendulum that swung too far one way and now it's swinging too far in the other way. Reliance on alcohol and sobriety by abstaining from drinking are both forms of dependence. The dependence is really the key. Be free to drink and to not drink to where it's implicit and natural, not a point of contention.

Jean said...

Wise words!

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