I stopped drinking the week after my 28th birthday…
I have always had a complex relationship with alcohol. While no one would have called me an alcoholic, my hold on drinking was slippery, and I didn’t always feel in control. In my early twenties, I tried different approaches: counting my drinks, drinking only beer, drinking water in between drinks. These experiments would always inevitably fail for one reason or another: a bad day, a great day, a regular Friday night.
Ironically, I had never really liked the taste of alcohol, but I did love its effect. After a couple of drinks, I felt smarter, funnier. Boys at parties wanted to talk to me. Everything was exciting and sparkly. Fast forward to the morning after, and all of my insecurities were predictably back and louder than ever. They were cranky from a night of being silenced, and now they were accompanied by anxiety and a migraine.
Because I was educated, employed and only drank in social situations, I didn’t think I had a real problem. Alcohol was also connected to my sense of self as a young adult, and I remained desperate to figure out how to drink the “right” way. I couldn’t let go of the daydream of drinking red wine on a trip to Italy with my (hypothetical) fiancé one day, or toasting with Champagne at my future wedding. But these fantasies were far from reality. I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I usually spent Saturday mornings in bed with a throbbing head, unable to keep down Advil or Gatorade.
Finally, after a hangover-induced panic attack the day after my 28th birthday party, I realized that my body and mind were rejecting alcohol. The party was over. I knew that, for me, there could be no grey in-between area. I couldn’t trust that one glass of wine wouldn’t lead to more; I had to break up with alcohol.
The first few weeks without it were surprisingly hard. Parties and birthday dinners were uncomfortable; I struggled to remember how to socialize or make small talk without the ease provided by a few sips of wine. My mind would go blank in those early interactions, and I often found that it was easier to leave the party early. On those first few weekends, when I felt excruciatingly present in my own skin and tempted to reach for a drink, I would play the tape forward: where would that first drink lead? What would the ‘morning after’ look like? The image of waking up the next day with a headache and hefty dose of self-loathing was enough incentive to stick to seltzer.
I also started to realize how many social interactions revolved around alcohol in New York City. I was used to grabbing drinks with friends after work, splitting bottles of wine at restaurant dinners, and sipping rosé on summer weekends with girlfriends. I didn’t know what my relationships would morph into without alcohol, or how I would even spend my free time.
“I’m actually not drinking anymore,” I finally blurted out one night at a close friend’s birthday dinner. We were seated at a table of four, and the wine list being passed around felt heavier than usual.
“Is this like a hungover and not-drinking-again-until-next weekend situation?” One friend asked.
“No,” I replied, surprised at how loud my voice sounded. “It’s just making me feel really anxious and I need to stop.”
The girls exchanged brief looks. “Well, that’s great!” one declared, like a teacher leading by example. The others nodded before passing the bread basket and switching the subject to appetizers. They may have been surprised and confused, but it was the best reaction I could have gotten. Matter-of-fact, non-judgmental and loving. Over the following months, my close friends would check in — still not drinking? How’s that going? — before moving on casually to the next hot topic of the week.
But the conversation was harder with other people. One former drinking buddy seemed genuinely offended when I broke the news, as if I were shaming him personally. I struggled with these situations, not wanting to hurt people I cared about.
Among all the alcohol-free activities to which I had to re-adjust, dating was the weirdest (until it wasn’t). Every date I had ever been on in my life had happened over drinks. As one friend put it, “It’s easier to tell someone you have an STD than to tell them you don’t drink.”
On my first sober date, I made the mistake of not bringing up my sobriety until we were already seated. (I have since learned that this is news best disclosed early on, over text, to avoid any real-time awkwardness.) On that date, I ordered a Diet Coke, and my date seemed perplexed. I panicked and blurted three different excuses at once: “I’m just taking a break from alcohol, it’s been making me sick, also I might be allergic.” He blinked. “What about just straight tequila? That never gives me a hangover.” When I politely declined, he conceded and folded the drinks menu. “Okay, no worries. Let’s just get sangria.”
At a wedding a few weeks later, a guy I had a crush on shoved a drink in my hand. “You have to taste this mezcal. It’s my favorite.” I froze for a moment, staring at the glass. “I have to pee,” I finally said, after what felt like an eternity. I paced around the bathroom for a few minutes, praying to whoever was listening for the strength to walk away from that drink, and with it the attention I had been wanting from him for so long. There was an alternate universe in which I walked back up to him, drank the mezcal, and watched sparks fly as we waxed poetic about the smoky taste. When I got back from the bathroom he was gone; the moment had passed, and he didn’t even remember.
Ultimately, the best connections happen when two people feel comfortable not only with each other, but also with themselves. It took time for me to re-learn who I really was without alcohol, but time was something I now had in abundance. When you’re drinking, hours seem to pass by in the blink of an eye. One minute you’re sitting down to a late dinner, the next you’re tumbling out of a cab at 2 a.m. When I stopped drinking, I started experiencing every minute of my day, and I gained space for more meaningful activities.
Going to the movies, an activity I had always found boring when I was drinking, became something I loved. I went by myself, with friends, on dates. I saw more movies and ate more popcorn in my first year of sobriety than in the last few years combined — and I deeply enjoyed it. I also rediscovered my love of travel. With the clarity and space for planning that sobriety gave me, I took solo trips to France and Morocco and visited several new cities with friends.
Ultimately, giving up alcohol was the best decision I ever made; it feels like waking up in clean sheets every day. In a few months, I’ll be celebrating my 30th birthday and two years without alcohol. I had been scared that my life would end when I stopped drinking, but my alcohol-free life has given me more than I could have ever imagined.
Today, I make conscious decisions about every aspect of my life. I work for a wellness company that values yoga classes over happy hours. I read more books. And I’m in a loving relationship with a partner who respects my decision not to drink. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have occasional twinges; moments where I flash on that hypothetical Italy trip or Champagne toast and wonder how it will feel to have my glass be filled with water. But now, I have tools. I can remind myself that that sweet first glass of Champagne inevitably leads me to a much uglier place, and that quitting drinking has given me much more than martinis ever did. And for me, waking up with bright eyes, a quiet mind, and memories of the night before is worth every sip of seltzer.
Sarah Levy is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience getting sober, and works as VP of Brand Marketing at Splendid Spoon.
And if you who want to stop drinking but aren’t able to, and feel you may be suffering from addiction, you’re definitely not alone. Here are some resources:
* Alcohol Addiction Center
* Alcoholics Anonymous
P.S. On happiness, and “my boyfriend weighs less than I do.”
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)