As a young-ish adult living and working in New York City, I can say with confidence that drinking plays a major role in almost every social setting I find myself in. Work-related meetings are usually held over cocktails and I’m greeted with a flute of Champagne at nearly every industry event I attend. My weekend nights consist of hopping from show to bar to party, beer(s) and shot(s) in hand.
However, the older I get, the closer to death I feel the morning after one measly glass of red. Saturday afternoons? If I make it out of my house (or simply stand upright) before 2pm, it’s practically a miracle. My ability to bounce back after a “big night out” has become nonexistent. Is this what getting older is all about?
After giving it some thought on a particularly rough Sunday afternoon spent eating takeout under my covers, I decided that enough was enough: It was time to take a break from treating my body like shit, and I was going to give an alcohol-free lifestyle a shot.
I promised myself I would try this out for a full month—the first time I would ever go that long without drinking since I was probably 17 or so. I wouldn’t hide away and become an anti-social hermit or replace the bar with the gym (me? never!), but I would trade in my tequila soda for just the soda and see how things go.
I decided to start my no-drinking experiment after a lively Labor Day weekend. While my original plan was to begin on the Tuesday that I returned to work, I felt like such a steaming pile of garbage on Monday (nothing like wasting a holiday off of work with a hangover!), I decided to start right then and there.
A little backstory here. I never considered myself a heavy drinker, but a “social” drinker. I was someone that had a drink or two after work a couple days a week and allowed myself to “let a little loose” on the weekends, with a few drinks (and a couple of shots) on most Friday and Saturday nights. However, what I was surprised to discover was that my occasional habits were actually considered high-risk.
While I wasn’t chugging a flask on my way to the subway each morning or nursing a bottle of wine before bed each night, I was having more than one drink per sitting (as was pretty much every alcohol-drinking human I’ve ever come in contact with). “The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines moderate drinking that may result in beneficial health effects as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—and most people are surprised to hear that,” says Lauren Wolfe, clinical psychologist and co-founder and chief clinical officer or Annum Health. “On the other hand, highest risk drinking occurs when you have more than four or five drinks in a single occasion, and one incidence of heavy drinking per week is worse for you than light drinking three, or even five, days in a week.” I could, and was, easily downing four drinks over the course of an evening without a second thought.
With that in mind, my social life went on as normal—attending work events and dinners after office hours, meeting friends at bars and shows, and having generally pretty eventful weekends—sans drinking. Sure, I didn’t have liquid courage helping me be less socially awkward, but I made it work.
While it took at least a week to start noticing any real results, two weeks in, the physical changes were definitely there: I felt and looked significantly better. I was less bloated, my skin was radiant and glowing, and the bags under my eyes had vanished. My cheeks had de-puffed, and I felt lighter in general. There’s also something to be said about waking up in the morning without a throbbing headache and a wave of shame and embarrassment immediately swallowing you—it’s pretty nice.
But here’s the deal: It’s not all rainbows and butterflies and high-energy mornings like you might assume. Yes, my skin looked bomb, and I felt less bloated and gross, but I had barely any energy at all. And I was feeling pretty down.
A friend of mine who was also off the sauce a couple of years back warned me, “You’re going to feel feelings. Like, all of them.” And boy, was she right. When I first embarked on my sober journey, a bustling Friday night spent prancing around Bushwick, sipping seltzer and having worthwhile conversations that I actually remembered, was followed by waking up Saturday morning feeling empty, depressed, and unable to get out of bed—and this continued for weeks.
“The first month of sobriety will have its peaks and valleys, depending on the frequency of your drinking,” says Oriana Murphy, LCSW and addiction specialist from Sober College. “You may just experience an overall boost in self-confidence and well-being, but if drinking was your only coping tool, this could be the most challenging month of your life.” She goes on to explain that, as a social drinker, cutting it out completely can cause you to feel sluggish, down, and have trouble sleeping—even while you’re simultaneously less bloated and feeling lighter and brighter.
As someone that suffers from anxiety that I choose not to treat with medication (meds are great and helpful for so many people, but they’re just not for me), a vodka soda or a beer after work a couple times a week was my way of mellowing out and taking the edge off after a long day. Once I stopped doing this, my usual means of unwinding also stopped, leaving me in a constant state of feeling overwhelmed.
While this was obviously unsettling, feeling this way is another common symptom that comes with the territory of going sober. “This can be a combination of your body detoxing and a negative reaction to breaking a habit by setting a new thought pattern,” says Sanam Hafeez, clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. “You’re changing pathways in your brain. If you felt good and got pleasure out of going out drinking two to three nights per week, and then all of a sudden decide to cut out drinking altogether, it’s normal to have a physical reaction to this.”
However, as Hafeez suggests, this is a great time for exploring the root of all of the numbing and finding other outlets for dealing with stress. For me, it came through yoga (okay, so maybe I did hit the gym), taking walks, journal writing, and eating clean (with maybe some late-night slices of pizza or full blocks of cheese here and there, because life is meant for living). While these methods haven’t magically healed me, they’ve made a huge difference. My new, healthier lifestyle urged me to make more and more positive changes and adjustments.
Alcohol isn't necessarily always a bad thing, either. According to some studies, heavy drinkers and non-drinkers have a higher mortality rate than moderate drinkers (which, as I mentioned earlier, is one drink a day for women), as moderate drinking is thought to have some health benefits, such as a decreased stress and decreased risk for heart disease. However, with that being said, moderation is key. As Wolfe explains, “One incidence of heavy drinking per week [four to five drinks in a single occasion] is worse for you than light drinking three, or even five, days a week.” Still, one drink a day means one drink a day, and anything more, would not reap those health benefits.
If you’re ever questioning how much you’re drinking or getting down on yourself for how you feel after a night out, you may want to consider taking a little time off. While taking a break may have resulted in some not-so-fun feelings, it did open my eyes and force me to confront why I felt any urges to drink in the first place and try new and healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety.
Overall, taking a break from booze is an experience I definitely don’t regret—in fact, I’m still not drinking. While I can’t see myself making it through Thanksgiving without a glass of wine (attend an Igneri family gathering, and you’ll immediately understand), I don’t have any desire to down a few cocktails when I feel overwhelmed. I have a new appreciation for both alcohol and sobriety, and when I do decide to start drinking again, I’ll be approaching it in a more mature and controlled way—keeping up with my newfound love for yoga, but still enjoying a margarita here and there. It’s all about balance anyway, right?