Food

“Why I Gave Up Drinking — And How It Changed My Life”

Why I Quit Drinking — And How It Changed My Life

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
* Alcohol.org

P.S. On happiness, and “my boyfriend weighs less than I do.”

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)

  1. Jessie says...

    Thank you for writing this. I’m 40 years old and no longer drink alcohol. It started with stopping wine (I’m allergic to sulfites), then beer (I would stop drinking it half way through thanks to my daughters distracting me with something) and I never really liked hard drinks. Like you said I never really liked the taste just the effects. I do miss it at times, but how I feel after I drink some (headaches immediately that don’t go away) isn’t worth it. I’m very fortunate that my husband, family and in laws all understand why I don’t drink anymore. When we get wine from guests coming over, I just say thank you, and open it for all others to enjoy.

  2. Annonymous says...

    I would argue that it is NOT easier to tell people you have an STD than it is to tell them you don’t drink. Sobriety is not contagious, and if it were, it’s affects are notably more positive for those who “catch it” than not. People living with STDs often struggle with depression and feeling unworthy of love. I wonder if the person who made that comment to the author has experience in telling their dates that they have an STD, or if they were just using the stigma of STDs to make their point. If the latter is true I think it proves my point of how different these two experiences truly are.

  3. Katey says...

    For those of you who are intrigued by a sober life, I highly recommend looking into “Join the Tempest” at jointhetempest (dot) com. I’m not a drinker and I’m not a graduate of The Tempest, but I follow Holly on instagram and even that has been empowering. For example, from the site, “You don’t need an online questionnaire to determine whether or not you have a drinking problem. The only questions you need to ask are (1) Is drinking getting in the way of living my dreams in this one life I’ve been given? and (2) If so, how much longer am I willing to settle for that?”
    It is a great question. AA isn’t for everyone. Rock bottom needn’t be the barometer for identifying a drinking problem.

    • Ben says...

      Louder for the people in the back!

  4. Yolanda says...

    I stopped drinking when pregnant and again when it just didn’t do anything for me. One part of my family is all about drinking, every facebook post is an ode to alcholic berverages. The adult children have been encouraged to drink and do so with abandon. I come from a family of alcoholics and to see this happening to a new genration is alarming. I have no problem with people who drink now and then but drinking to excess ongoing is not something I want to be around. No one has mentioned the monetary cost of drinking, all that money down the hatch…..

  5. Wow, I seriously loved this read. It’s so true we just drink in social settings and we think it’s alright… but we never pay attention to how much we are drinking. I would really appreciate if you would check out my blog. It’s all things random..I even added short stories. Just real talk and normal people living their lives.

  6. L says...

    It was with such sweet naiveté that I first read this article and thought, “I’m so glad I got my drinking under control; I’d hate to have to give it up like this. It sounds impossible!” Cut to: exactly one week later, sitting in a bar alone at 11:30pm on a weekday nursing two beers after many glasses of wine at book club. I woke up the next morning with a debilitating hangover, and while watching my one-year-old play at the park decided – I’m done. (Childcare while hungover has got to be one of the circles of hell.) I feel an incredible sense of relief. And I’ve found such support in this story and these comments. This has been an easy decision so far, ten days in – but I know it’ll get hard, and I’ll keep returning here for inspiration and comfort. Thank you COJ <3

    • CEW says...

      It’s rough at first! I was a near daily binge drinker. Took about 6 months to know I was truly “free.” Zero desire to drink nowadays. I love having so much more time on my hands!! It also helped me take control of my mental health again.

      Even if complete sobriety isn’t your goal, good luck to you! Give yourself 6 months, and reassess. :)

  7. Bethley says...

    This article beautifully articulates why I stopped drinking 18 months ago. I think the “Rose all day” and “mommy needs wine” culture is out of control and a disservice to women. There is so much great space in life when it’s not filled with alcohol.

  8. Jenny says...

    I identify strongly with this article. I haven’t given up drinking completely. But after my recent divorce, I quit keeping alcohol at home. I’m conscious enough of how others perceive me that I’m not tempted to get drunk or even pretty tipsy around other people. But I had been drinking too much when I was by myself at home. Now I limit my consumption of alcohol to only one drink, only when I am out with friends. I don’t go out very often, so I frequently go a week or more without a drink. At first, I felt almost naked without alcohol. I never needed it in order to socialize with others. But I needed it to take the edge of the pain I was feeling. To give me respite from waves of grief and anger that were exhausting me. To help me block out the guilt I felt when I rested at the end of the day instead of doing work or chores. Yet I knew that there is no way around grief and anger, that the only way to heal is to go through those emotions rather than around them, and that I was prolonging my pain by avoiding it. I had left my marriage to find freedom and control over my life, and now I felt enslaved to alcohol. When I stopped drinking at home, I felt emotionally naked and raw at first, but then I felt free and powerful. Right now, “one drink with friends” is working for me. When friends come over, I tell them that if they want alcohol, they need to bring their own and take what’s left when they go. I join them in having one drink, and that’s all. But I also know that, if “one drink with friends” starts turning into more, I can give it up entirely. I am no longer afraid of or saddened by the thought of life without alcohol. As a lover of Italy, I, like the author, do feel wistful at the possibility of Italy without wine, if it comes to that. But Italy has many other charms and lots of seltzer. And freedom with seltzer is better than wine without autonomy.

    • kim says...

      I just got back from 3 wonderful – alcohol-free – weeks in Italy. It was my 4th trip there, and the first since giving up drinking. Guess what, when you sleep better and don’t consume so many wine calories, you can eat even more pasta and gelato!

  9. Yohana Gonzalez says...

    i loved this post. I gave up drinking almost 6 months ago, and what she says about awkwardness around people who does drink (and are not your best friends) it’s totally truth, i have been in situations where people don’t invite me to things because i don’t drink (lol i know, it’s stupid). But the way i feel health wise (body and mind) it’s amazing and i will not give it up. I have also find people who enjoy to do non alcoholic activities or just respect my decision of not drinking in social events. I think it’s a great way of living but i also respect people who also enjoy a glass of wine.

  10. Jen M. says...

    I’ve been thinking about this article for days. When I read the sentence, “While no one would have called me an alcoholic, my hold on drinking was slippery, and I didn’t always feel in control,” my stomach dropped in recognition. I’m not sure I’m going to (or need to) commit to never drinking again, but I do need to commit to a reset. I told my husband tonight that I’m calling it quits for a few months, at the very least. Thank you for this article.

    • Erica says...

      As a pregnant woman, I thank you for this link.

  11. I lovvvvvvvvvvved this. As someone who gave up drinking around their 28th birthday as well, this was a life changing (possibly life saving) decision for me. In a world filled with “wine o’clock” and ‘rose all day” t-shirts, it’s refreshing to see this message instead. Thank you cup of jo! If anyone’s just getting started, I recommend the “Home” podcast, Laura McKowen’s writing on Instagram, and thetemper.com for a collection of sober writers and essays.

    <3 <3 it made me so happy to see this.

  12. I really loved and appreciated this post. So many things you said were all too relatable and made me laugh out loud. I have had a complex wrestling match with alcohol for years and have often considered casting it out of my life completely. Thank you for sharing this and I hope Cup of Jo will feature more articles on this topic. Xoxo.

  13. J says...

    I really love this post. I think it’s so important to highlight women who are making life changes and doing things differently, especially if it helps break down the stigma surrounding issues for which people are often embarrassed to seek out help — like addiction, mental illness, etc.. That being said, I think it’s equally as important to note that simply choosing to get sober on one’s own is not possible or very likely for the majority of people with addiction problems. I’m 15 years sober now (have been clean since I was 19), and there is no way I could have done it, or continue to do it, without AA. In order to transform my entire life, I needed more than just willpower and a change of perspective. I rely on a sponsor, a support system, and steps/tools that help me cope with the underlying issues that caused my drinking and drug use in the first place. Excessive drinking is not a problem in and of itself; it’s a symptom of a bigger issue, and although I love this one woman’s story (and I know this isn’t a sobriety blog) it would be great to see content that addresses this and encourages those of us who can’t simply “make the choice to stop,” to seek out the extra help they need.

    • Laura Rogers says...

      Yes to all of this!

    • Melissa Luebbe says...

      Thanks J!! Beautifully written. So thankful for the gifts of AA.

    • megs283 says...

      Yes! I love that this article is counter-culture. It’s eye-opening for many people, and thought-provoking for others.