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.