What I learned from 30 days without wine

About a month ago, I woke up for the (approximately) 150th time this year foggy brained, exhausted, and lethargic. I made it out of bed after a cup of coffee, knowing that by lunchtime I’d feel somewhat better, that by the afternoon I’d feel better, and by 5pm, I’d feel fine: it would be time for a glass of wine to relieve the previous 8 hours of feeling like crap.

I wouldn’t classify these days as the rabid kind of hangover where pounding headache, dizziness, and nausea are involved. The kinds where you can’t pop a couple of ibuprofens and a drink cup of coffee and slowly make it out of bed.

No. Not that horrible kind.

This type of hangover comes from half a bottle, 3/4 of a bottle, sometimes a full bottle of wine. The kind of hangover where you can function, but not optimally. Where I might decide to hang on the sofa all day, eat greasy food, decide not to go to the gym that day, get work done tomorrow instead. The kind where I check out emotionally and mentally, until I can check back in with wine at 5pm, to relieve just how shitty I felt that day.

Enter the vicious cycle.

My drinking story is similar to many: I started sneaking beers from my alcoholic dad at 13. The first time I drank hard liquor my best friend had to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and almost died. We didn’t know what we were doing, and I did a lot of vomiting that night.

From then on in my teen years, drinking was always to get drunk. Vodka, Jack Daniels, wine coolers — anything we could get our hands on to get blitzed, we did. At 5"2 and 100 pounds, I couldn’t handle much liquor and spent many a night over a toilet or sink, vomiting. Recovering from hangovers was easy back then.

I never went to college and thus saved myself from entering the binge drinking culture. In my 20’s, I did drink: but moderately, some drinks out with friends, but rarely to get smashed. I’d learned my lesson with getting drunk, and hated puking and hangovers, which by that point the bad ones had gotten so bad for me that I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a day.

But that buzz from a couple of drinks? I loved it.

I loved going to cocktail bars in New York and asking the bartender to make me something new. I loved going to fancy restaurants and ordering Italian or French wine with dinner. I loved going to Rosa Mexicano for strong but delicious pomegranate margarita slushies.

These events became deeply intertwined with my identity of being a person who loves quality food + drink.

In my early 30’s, I met my husband. We both shared a love of cocktails and started experimenting with mixology at home. We’d share conversation and dinner over a couple of cocktails, a couple of times a week. No hangovers, rarely anyway. We got into the Trader Joe’s $5 wine, and would often share a bottle over dinner. I never wanted or needed more than that.

I never thought of my drinking as unhealthy or problematic back then.

Enter 4 years ago, when we discovered wine tasting.

The first time I came to visit a friend in Sonoma to go wine tasting: I fell in love. My first time at Gloria Ferrer, a glorious champagne house with an epic patio and views, my heart leaped a couple of beats.

I fell in love with the experience of toasting with friends, in the warm sun, with views of rolling hills, fields of grapes, relaxing into that first sip of world class bubbly.

That experience paved the way for more wine tasting. Wine started to become a staple, as vital as water.

As I graduated from Trader Joe’s $5 wine to knowing my varietals: the floral bouquet of a glass of viognier, a crisp glass of Chablis, and how I hated the oak in a California Chardonnay — my passion for wine grew.

I got to know the wineries, the winemaking process, and fell in love with all of it.

I didn’t know how dangerous it was, or how easy it is to slip into addiction.

Over a year ago, I moved to wine country. On a vineyard. My patio overlooks pinot grapes. The romance of wine in the hot sun with epic views was my church, and I worshipped it.

That said, moving to a new town and starting a business from scratch is a major life event. I moved with no income and a lot of stress.

Then the North Bay fires happened, some of it on our property. We recovered. But the weight of two major stressors increased my drinking by a lot.

Wine started happening nightly. What was once having half a bottle turned into wanting 3/4 of a bottle, or more.

Wine became the nightly 5pm habit, the thing we did on the weekend (wine tasting, wine on the patio, wine in the afternoon, more wine at night.)

Wine. Wine. Wine.

I drank to celebrate. I drank when I was sad. I drank when I was stressed from work. I drank to connect with friends.

Wine became life. I didn’t realize it was a problem. I loved and relished my newfound sophisticated taste living in wine country.

In a year, I gained 20 pounds. For my frame and being the same weight my whole life, this wasn’t normal.

But I stayed stuck in a rut of denial that wine wasn’t affecting me.

Despite the nightly 3am wine alarm, where I’d go over how much I’d drank the night before, calculate how bad I was going to feel the day, drink more water, feel guilt, shame, and promise I wouldn’t do it over again.

But at 5pm that very day, wine dissolved the sleepiness, the shame, the guilt, the anxiety and wine caused depression, and every other bad feeling life throws on you.

I learned to muffle my sadness, my anger, my happiness with wine.

It made me feel better. It made me feel normal.

It softened the edges and made life seem manageable.

Wine does all of those things…. until it doesn’t anymore.

Alcohol is an addictive substance, just like cigarettes, cocaine, or coffee. Any drug that targets the reward center of the brain can be addictive. Addiction is a spectrum from mild to severe and we all lie somewhere in there — The severe end being late stage alcoholism, where the addiction cycle has altered the brain enough that the addict lives for the substance first. The reward loop in your brain is closed, and you live for your addiction.

I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t drink to get obliterated, I don’t black out, I don’t have DUI’s and I don’t even make questionable decisions when I drink too much. I barely have those day long hangovers anymore where I cannot get out of bed.

In my 20’s, I would have considered myself on the mild end of the addiction spectrum. I certainly drank to numb and escape occasionally, but my drinking was contained.

In the last year, my drinking progressed from mild (a 3 maybe) to moderate (a 5 or 6 on an imaginary 10 scale.)

Waking up half your life with mild hangovers is not normal. Drinking all weekend long is not normal. Drinking half a bottle of wine every single day is not normal.

It’s the addiction cycle doing its thing, because wine is an addictive substance.

In the book Alcohol Explained, the author states that with each drink, a corresponding level of anxiety happens. Except this anxiety comes later, usually in our sleep and the following day, so we don’t make the connection that alcohol causes more anxiety than it relieves.

To relieve this anxiety, we drink again.

A month ago, I woke up with a face so puffy I could no longer deny wine was affecting me. The 3am wine alarm, the 20 pounds, the lack of motivation was not enough to break the addiction cycle. But my face was undeniably altered, and that morning, I decided to finally give up wine for 30 days.

30 days seemed like the proper start to explore sobriety.

I’d tried to do Whole 30’s I could never stick to because after a few weeks, wine was calling my name. I’d tried to do dry January, failing after a week.

I never in a million years thought I could break the cycle.

30 days later: I have. And it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

The first week, the cravings were intense and overwhelming. I read every book I could get my hands on to understand alcohol, what it does to the body, and why we drink so much as a culture. I got a sober coach. I listened to sober and gray area drinking podcasts nonstop. I joined two sober FB groups. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined not to fail after 9 days, and slip back into exhausting patterns.

I learned that daily wine use (even just a few glasses) shuts down your rem sleep, which means you are constantly sleep deprived.

I learned I was a gray area drinker: someone who doesn’t necessarily have a problem so bad that their life is in imminent danger. But that the addiction spectrum is a slippery slope when you’re dealing with an addictive substance, and that no one is immune to falling further down the spiral.

Not drinking for a month when you’re used to drinking for entertainment meant I had create new habits: I started going to pilates every day and falling in love with that. Where wine used to fill up my evening, I now read for hours.

I feel calmer and clearer than I have in years. I’m engaged in my life. I love the way my body and mind feel without alcohol.

I’m dealing with feelings I haven’t felt before — social anxiety I didn’t know I had because I was so used to relying on wine to help calm any nerves. And a host of other feelings I muffled with wine, not even realizing what I was doing.

I’m learning to identify my triggers — the things that make me want to drink. Like how when I’m hungry and have low blood sugar, I crave wine. This helps explain the 5pm cravings: I was actually hungry, and needed protein — not wine. Like the stress of a long day at work, where I have to manage more than I can handle sometimes. Like the social anxiety I feel when I meet new people.

Will I drink again? I don’t know. But I’m going to stick it out another 2 months.

One month is not enough time or distance to fully evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

One thing I know: I don’t feel deprived. I love waking up in the morning and going to pilates, and not having to drag through the day. I love learning new things and feeling engaged with the world. I love feeling clear and sleeping through the night. I love how much money I saved this month.

Until I can safely know that I won’t slip back into old habits, this is a way fine to live.

And putting it out into the world means: accountability.

When something snapped in me a month ago, I knew I could never go back. But I needed the tools and the awakening to change.

I used to think sober people were boring. But what’s even more boring? Hangovers. Threading through life. Constantly obsessing about wine. Throwing away hundreds of dollars a month.

Sober is not boring. It’s a gift, and I’m grateful I discovered it.