What I Learned from Taking 30 Days Off from Drinking
Yesterday was the last of 30 days of me being alcohol free. I haven’t had a drink yet today, but I’m no longer holding myself to not drinking. I decided to take a break from drinking because I realized that my “I smoke when I drink” line had ceased to mean that I don’t smoke that often and had started to mean I drink a lot to accompany the cigarettes I want. It had become hard for me to have a drink without a cigarette. So really, I took the month off to stop smoking. I was surprised by what I learned.
- The forced break made me realize some things about when and why I drink. I drink whenever I am having an emotion. I’m happy — let’s get a drink. I’m annoyed — give me a drink. I’m upset — let’s drink. Not having the option
forcedallowed me to sit with the emotion. When people describe alcohol as taking the edge off, they mean feeling those emotions just a little bit less. I mean, life throws a lot of emotions at us. I don’t think I even realized how often I feel things! Or how much I experience feeling things as exhaustinga burden. You know what happens when you have an emotion and you don’t drink? I know some people drink because they are self-medicating serious mental health issues, and for them, the emotion does not pass. But in my experience, the emotion eventually passed. And sitting through it was ok. I had some difficult life things to work through this month and I managed. I don’t even want to say it was better without alcohol, but it was different.
- Sometimes I drink because I just want something cool and refreshing, and it turns out that other cool and refreshing drinks do the job. I drank a lot of Trader Joe’s French Market Pink Lemonade and flavored seltzer waters. Since they are carbonated, it’s harder to drink them fast–though they don’t quite encourage the slow drinking of an alcoholic drink. But they are refreshing and they do feel like having a drink as an occasion because they are more special than water, which is what I normally drink when I’m not drinking alcohol. But I also realized how much I have drinks out of habit, just because that is the thing to do at a particular moment and when that wasn’t on the table, I started to think more about whether I even wanted alcohol, or the experience of having a drink.
- Not everything was solved. I do think I became more “regular,” and I had significantly less cramping around my menstrual cycle. I also sometimes suffer from heartburn, which was significantly lessened during this month. These changes might have been from not smoking at all as much as from not drinking. But I did still get the gnawing empty stomach feeling even when I had eaten. My sciatica didn’t go away. My hamstrings are still tight. I had headaches. Not that I expected not drinking to solve all of these things. But I don’t want to suggest that it is a cure for everything.
- I didn’t necessarily feel sharper. I was really hoping for this, for feeling sharper. Sometimes when I am drinking regularly I find that it is hard for me to find the right word. I wasn’t miraculously always able to find the right word this month. I still got distracted. I was working my way through a book (Cinzia Arruzza’s A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic) over several weekends this month, and it was still hard for me to sit down and push right through. Not because the book is not interesting, mind you, but because I wasn’t entirely focused. It was hard for me to shut down my brain’s cycle of all the things I had to take care of.
- While I still struggled to focus, I did find myself less anxious. Interactions or occasions that previously would make my heart clench and my blood pressure rise seemed less likely to do that. Even though I realized when I was having emotions more often–and I had some times to celebrate and some times to cry this month–I also felt more even keel.
- I did feel more awake and alert. Getting up in the morning was easier. Perhaps this is just obvious.
- My skin feels better. I had read that this happens because you are more hydrated and so I really wanted this to be the case, so maybe I’m not a good judge, but I do think the color in my face is more even and I have fewer red blotches under my eyes and around my nose.
- Working out was still hard. I thought my breathing would just become easy somehow. The weather was getting nicer so I was running more. It turns out that mouth breathing can be a cause for a scratchy throat and that if you push too hard you can still end up with symptoms like exercise-induced asthma.
- I notice other people’s drinking habits. I really wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get through the thirty days because I had several dinners and parties where there was drinking going on and I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. But what I realized at those events is just how much of a habit getting the next drink and always having more to drink is especially in social settings. We call it a social lubricant, but I started thinking of alcohol as more of a social shield. Could we still talk to someone else without a drink in our hand? Turns out having ginger ale in my hand did the same work for me.
I’m not “getting sober.” My birthday is this week and I’m looking forward to a drink. I do think not drinking has made me more aware of how I use alcohol and of how we collectively use alcohol. I do think not drinking has made me wonder whether I need a drink or just if the social expectation is that we have a drink in a particular moment. I also learned that not having alcohol doesn’t change the circumstances around me. Life is still life. The world remains the world. But it does make you see it more clearly.