Photo courtesy darrel ayer 2009

I Quit Drinking Booze During the Week

And it’s been both good and bad for me. 

We all know the guidelines on drinking alcohol “moderately” for women: no more than one drink a day, which is not to be confused with drinking an average of one drink a day (like drinking three drinks on Tuesday but nothing Monday, Thursday, or Friday). Maybe you also know the 20 questions from Alcoholics Anonymous that you’re supposed to ask yourself to determine whether or not you’re an alcoholic: Does drinking affect your sleep? Does it affect your relationships? Do you drink because you’re shy? And if you’ve ever looked those up, you probably know that if you answer “yes” to even one of those, it’s an indicator that you may have a problem with alcohol.

But if you’re like me, in spite of knowing all this, you’ve still gone to happy hour to celebrate small victories; you’ve still had that second glass of wine at dinner; you’ve still met your friends at a brewery after work on a Tuesday because it’s on the way home; you’ve still excused yourself from dancing until you could get that third cocktail into you. I’ve lived in the NYC metro area and I’ve lived in the arid West, and the culture of drinking is the same in both places, whether you’re taking a subway home or driving yourself. It’s usually what you do on a first date; it’s what you do to cool down after work; it’s what you do to celebrate; it’s what you do to mourn; it’s what you do to think or not think. It’s just what you do. You end up having at least two drinks a night, maybe three, and it’s rarer that you spend a night not drinking than the other way around. Of course, all of your friends are the same way, and you all hold down steady jobs and have successful relationships, and you’ve been doing this since college, so it’s ok, you think. No one has cirrhosis, or ulcers; no one has a serious DWI; no one has any real reason to knock it off.

You talk about it, though. “I should quit drinking so much,” you say after you order that second Manhattan. Your friends nod and raise a glass to you. “I can’t imagine having to give it up for that long,” you say to a friend who is pregnant and hasn’t had a drink since she learned she was knocked up. She nods knowingly, as do all your nearby girlfriends. She takes a sip now and then but you all admire her restraint. Your friends go through diet phases and swear off drinking, but it doesn’t last very long. One stressful day at work, one bit of bad news, and you’re back to the booze, or the beer, or the wine.

I Should Quit, But…

I had plenty of reasons to quit drinking, and I thought about it very seriously, but because all of my friends were drinking, I kept going. In fact, I figured I had more reasons to drink than not to: I moved to a tiny town 150 miles away from my friends and family and bought a house, all for a new job that fell through. I dated the wrong guy. One of my neighbors ran over the dog I had adopted. I got a letter from a good friend telling me he was giving up on fighting his terminal illness, and it was time to say goodbye. I turned 30 and lived alone in the middle of nowhere. Two beers with dinner or another glass of wine felt like something I deserved, whether I was alone watching Battlestar Galactica in my tiny country home waiting for my job to end, or back in the big city with friends on a weekend.

In the Fall of 2012, after the job ended and I moved back to the city to live with my parents and start over again, I started dating someone I really, really liked. We had gone to high school together and always flirted with each other, but had never been single in the same place at the same time. Finally things worked out, and we started dating. And I fell in love.

After a few months, it became apparent that there was something majorly different between us that caused him quite a bit of strife: he’s not a big drinker. He’s half Asian, and he metabolizes alcohol very differently from me. He doesn’t get drunk, or at least not for longer than 20 minutes; instead, he gets very sick. He’s never gotten that social boost from alcohol we all know and love. He’s always felt a little left out that he couldn’t really enjoy drinking. And on top of all that, he’s a doctor in the ER, so he understands the problems of alcohol from a very hands-on perspective.

After a particularly boozy New Year’s Eve weekend, he finally told me how my drinking made him feel, and, in a very honorable moment of true passion, I swore off drinking during the week.

Promises, Promises

It stuck for about two weeks. Then I was tapped to be the Community Coordinator for a local kickball league, which meant playing kickball and dodgeball and going to the requisite bars afterwards. Drinking now felt like part of my job. But I limited my intake, at least – I’d have one drink instead of two or three, which was a big step for me. And there were nights I didn’t drink, which was another big step, even though they were few and far between.

Then that close, beloved friend with the terminal illness died. All I wanted to do was go out and drink with my friends, all the time. I wanted to get flat out drunk and bawl until I couldn’t cry anymore. I wanted not to have to feel what I was feeling. So I let things slide. I fell off the wagon. While I was still consuming less than I had been, it was more than my promised no drinks during the week.

My boyfriend called me out on it. “What happened to not drinking during the week?” he asked me. I had no good answer.

He was angry.

And he was right.

I had promised not to drink at all during the week, and even though I had some pretty great-looking “reasons” to be drinking, those reasons pointed to a dependence I wasn’t willing to admit I had.

Also, it meant I had prioritized drinking over his feelings, and when I looked at it that way, I realized I needed to realign those priorities if I wanted to stay with him.

So I re-promised, and re-set myself.

That was in late February, and I think I can look back and make a few statements about what the last four months of not drinking during the week have meant, for better or for worse.

Physical Effects

I still don’t sleep very well, which means my insomnia is not entirely due to alcohol. I can notice a marked difference in my ability to sleep when I do drink versus when I don’t, but the reasons I’m not sleeping are not just that wine stimulates the hypothalamus. There’s something else going on, and I have to address it.

On that note, the effects of sleepiness are just as bad on driving as the effects of drinking. This is really scary. I notice now that if I’ve only had four or five hours of sleep, I have the same bleariness and lack of real acute control at nighttime that would make me refrain from driving for fear of a DWI. While I’m not afraid of a DWI at all now, I’m very cautious about my ability to drive while tired.

Positively, I’ve lost five pounds. I haven’t changed anything in my diet or exercise routine except not drinking during the week. Also, I have definitely realized that craft beer gives me gas. It’s not sexy, and while I do miss that IPA at the downtown brewery, my gut is not bloated and I don’t feel like I need to hide due to farting.

While the end of those tummy issues is something to celebrate, my skin isn’t noticeably different. I still have breakouts, sadly. Also: the cramps from my IUD are pretty much the same. This probably means it’s time to give up coffee, dairy, and sugar, which I’ll probably do… someday… but, really, will you begrudge a girl a latte once in a while?

Finally, I do still wake up in the morning with a headache. I’m pretty sure I’m dehydrated all the time, or that I have severe allergies. But at least I know it’s not booze. I can cross alcohol off the list of things that cause me certain problems, and go to find the root cause of my remaining physical ailments elsewhere.

Social Aspects

God help me, I really was stupid when I was drunk, and so is everyone else. I see this very clearly now. Maybe the liquid courage helped me meet new people and forge bonds with them, and maybe those bonds were really important. My dancing skills, my stranger-approaching skills, and my karaoke bravery have all hit rock bottom. These days, I have less to talk about with drunks, which I miss. But I’m learning how to make up for that, and instead of pouring alcohol on my social anxiety problems, I’m addressing them.

The fact is, booze really accentuates my mood. Since I’m mourning the dead, this is really important. If I have two or three drinks, I’m prone to crying, and it’s the kind of sadness that has no bottom to it. Avoiding the abyss is important when you’re prone to depression and when you’re grieving, so avoiding alcohol has been really good in this respect. I have quit crying randomly in public. That was embarrassing. Perhaps I’ve lost a bit of authenticity or social vulnerability because of this. Maybe people like me less. But I’m a lot less likely to find myself in the bottom of the pit with no way out.

To be honest, not drinking does make it harder to express my emotions. The first time my boyfriend told me he loved me was on that boozy New Year’s Eve, but he didn’t remember it, because he was in that 20 minute window of drunkenness. Since I’ve quit drinking, he’s quit drinking, too, which means I haven’t had any marriage proposals lately (he proposed at least three times when we were drinking). But it also means he hasn’t had as many inexplicable, explosive emotional outbursts from me, and I think this is a worthy trade off. Also: we both remember when we say important statements now, which is pretty damned important.

Of course, the main issue with not drinking during the week, and drinking less on weekends, is that people really do bond over booze. My friends and I are connoisseurs, and being able to taste the newest sour at the local brewery or go to a wine tasting matters to us. This has been hard to deal with.

Not Preachin’

I haven’t lost any friends yet. I do get a raised eyebrow once in a while when someone close to me hears that I’ve quit drinking during the week because they don’t know if my reasons are solid, but I think I needed the external push from my boyfriend to really get on the right track. Plus, of course they miss me being drunk with them. I miss it, too. It feels judgy of me. How could it not?

I do still go out. I order a soda water with lime so I don’t look out of place, and if someone I don’t know well asks me why I’m not drinking, I say it’s because I can’t sleep. That usually makes them lay off.

I’ve learned that I’m not an evangelical teetotaler, and I like that. My friends would probably benefit quite a bit from not drinking, but I can’t tell them so. I don’t judge them for drinking, because I can’t lie: I miss it. But whenever they talk about not being able to lose those last five pounds, or how stressed out they are, or how sleepless their nights are, or when they have a problem with a boyfriend, I realize not drinking might solve quite a few of those issues. They just have to come to that realization for themselves. It took me a push from loving someone who doesn’t get the same kick out of drinking. Who knows what it could take for them?

There’s Gotta’ Be Something More

The biggest takeaway for me is that not drinking is not a cure-all. As noted above, I’m still grieving, I’m still sad, I still have work issues, and I still wake up with a headache. My skin isn’t better, my relationship with my boyfriend still has pitfalls, and I still experience social anxiety.

But I think I’ll probably keep on not drinking during the week, and possibly cut it out even further on the weekends, into the foreseeable future. The benefits outweigh the pitfalls for me right now. It’s almost shocking to me that I didn’t do this before. I’m sure some of you who quit drinking or never drink are shaking your heads, because these benefits are obvious to you. I’d like to raise a glass (of iced tea) to those out there for whom the benefits are a bit more subtle.