The Life-Changing Surprises That Come From Not Drinking for a Year

Feb 27 2017 Greatist

My name is Rachel, and I am not an alcoholic. (Hi, Rachel.) But I drank too much, so I decided to take a couple of weeks off. A couple of weeks came and went, and as I neared the end of a month, I still didn’t feel ready to jump back in. I was feeling better—my head felt clear, and I felt more in control than I had in a long time. So I decided to make it a full calendar year, just to see what would happen. Right now, I’m nine months in.

Most people go dry for a resolved month in January (kudos!), but the idea struck me, seemingly without warning, in early May of last year. My anxiety had started chewing away at random parts of my life over the last year or two, and everyday activities had started sending me straight into heart-slamming panic. So one afternoon, I was doing nothing more unusual than driving to PetSmart for cat food when I suddenly experienced crashing waves of anxiety, like a spaceship was going to zoom down at any moment and swoop me up. It shouldn’t be this terrifying to drive 20 minutes away from my house, I thought.

So I considered what, in my day-to-day life, I could change. Contributing to my anxiety that day was my hangover. I’d overdone it a little the night before, which had made me uncomfortable and physically ill, but more than that, it was interrupting my brain function. All those neurons and synapses were firing off fight and flight simultaneously, creating a mental cocktail for panic. In that moment, I realized there was no way to combat my anxiety without cutting out the booze in one hard line.

But my lifestyle was so steeped in cheap beer and sparkling gin and tonics that it was practically impossible to imagine fully separating myself from booze. See, my corporate career of nine years was in sales and marketing with one of those big, fat macro-breweries popular with hipsters, millennials, and celebrities who want to be seen drinking low-brow brew for a dose of street cred.

“We’re all just functioning alcoholics,” one red-faced boss said as we walked into a big stadium to negotiate a placement for the season. “Highly functioning alcoholics.” His shirt looked like he paid someone to wrinkle it, and he’d wrapped electrical tape around most of his fingertips in a bid to prevent him from biting his cuticles and nails down any more than he already had. He looked puffy and untrustworthy.

When he said those words about us, I felt like I was being force-fed a half-dead rat.

“I’m not like you,” I thought. And maybe I wasn’t. But the thought made it hard for me to just blithely go from happy hours to tastings to beer fests. In the beer biz, there was one irrefutable expectation, especially if you’re among the rare women: You have to be able to hang.

One morning, I met with a salesman to ride his route to try to sell his accounts on some new product we were pushing. He said he gets an early start, which I never do, so meeting him at a neighborhood bar in the morning was a stretch in every way. Still, it felt like a kind of adventure. Walking in, I realized that the bar was full from one end to the next—at 7 a.m. When a heavy glass tumbler full of Baltimore’s honey- and cinnamon-laced moonshine, which is called “Evil,” came at me first thing with a clink, I thought, “Ugh,” but tossed it straight down the hatch. It was just going to be one of those days.

Over the years, these days became less surprising and more and more common. Some salesmen lived this drink-all-day life everyday, so it gave me a strange sense of perspective. I could separate my drinking, a whole cut above the rest, and think, “I’m still not like you.” Comparatively, my relationship with alcohol was mild.

After I left the industry, I wish I could say I found greener or more holistic pastures, and at times I did, but I still drank. Drinking helps so much with everything from anxiety to stage fright… until it doesn’t. And when it isn’t helping, it’s one hell of a choker. But in the past nine months, I haven’t had so much as a sip, drop, shot, or beer since the day I decided to try this on. The closest I’ve come is the odd dream here and there where, for some ungodly reason, I drink a warm, cheap beer out of a plastic cup, or an awful, fruity malt beverage—and immediately regret my actions. I wake up feeling so incredibly relieved that none of it actually happened.

So here are my key takeaways, just in case you’re like one of the many people I encounter whose curiosity about going sober for a time comes from thinking about calling it quits too.

No booze means no hangovers.

I didn’t realize how amazing never, ever getting a hangover would be. Yes, it’s even better than the boozed-up confidence that encouraged me to wear that dress and dance at the soul night and talk to a boy. Not being hungover is gorgeous. The utter lack of hangover makes me feel like quitting drinking isn’t actually about cutting something out so much as putting something better in.

People aren’t really that scary.

OK, some people will always be scary, but without the social lube, the scary ones become apparent super quickly, and I can now move away from stranger danger like BAM instead of after half a dozen half-witted hangs in a dark bar, groping at intuition. Otherwise, people in grocery stores and audiences and meetings are just people instead of automatic heart attack prompters.

Sleep is amazing.

I get it now: Sleep is restful. My dreams are cray, but I had missed them so, so much. Pro tip: If I ever want a “sober drunk,” I just stay up way past my bedtime and get all the delirious feels that come with a little sleep deprivation. It really works.

Your appreciation for basically everything develops.

I used to get antsy at concerts, and I couldn’t really appreciate a day at the museum, knowing there was a beer to be had at the bar after. “Portrait, portrait, war sucks, portrait, sculpture—got it! Let’s go.” My attention span for things I cared about was diminished, and so was my capacity to love. Love requires all kinds of stillness, genuine curiosity, and wonder, it turns out.

Your social life will experience ch-ch-ch-changes.

If I kept yammering on about all the amazing benefits of not drinking for a year, you might not believe me, and you’d be right: Some things aren’t easy. A number of my friendships revolved around partying—it’s just what we did and how we spent our time. So some of those connections didn’t hold up without the crutch. Alcohol can really rev up an argument for some people, but it can also cast a spell and make you think a connection is stronger than it is.

Damn, does the mirror become your friend.

In my experience, suddenly ceasing drinking means you’ll lose weight. Your face will look less tired. That stubborn belly fat ceases to be stubborn when you stop feeding it. IMO, you could exercise less and still look better if you quit drinking. But if you’re like me, you’ll end up exercising even more because you feel like it, because it feels good to be physically strong. Before, I often saw exercise as a way to balance alcohol’s negative effects. Now it’s a simple matter of power.

My life has been positively affected by quitting drinking in all of these ways and more. Most of all, putting down the bottle has helped me to build confidence, and I believe that a lack of confidence causes all kinds of trouble: It makes Sally anxious, and it makes Jon want to sabotage himself and others around him. It breeds dark, ungainly urges.

When you feel bad about yourself, chances are that negativity and doubt are gonna express themselves one way or another, and whether you throw yourself a pity party or use them to try to make someone else look bad, they’re going through you—making you age prematurely, that surly look on your face stick, your blood spoil. In short, it’s not a good look.

Drinking can ease insecurity and boost a kind of false confidence that starts unnecessary fires and leaves a trail of meanness that burrows a not-so-charming perma-link in your brain. And this kind of damage is not easily undone. If instead, in the clear light of day, you confront whatever monster is living in your head or your heart and telling you, “You aren’t good enough,” you’ll be happier and have a more meaningful relationship with yourself and others.

In the end, I honestly can’t think of any good reason to drink anymore. The idea of the year off drinking was to change my behavior around, and relationship with, alcohol. I figured a year would be long enough to hold a variety of experiences—holidays, breakups, hopefully meeting the man of my dreams, rejections, sleepless nights, congratulations, throw-down fights—and that if I could manage all that without the hard stuff, I’d have a pretty good idea of who I really am, what I really want, and how to make it happen. And so far, it’s working.

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