My Struggles With Alcohol

What I learned after giving up drinking alcohol.

I never consider myself an alcoholic, but I know that I am better off without it in my life.

I was born and raised in New York City, so I grew up faster than a lot of other people my age. I was taking NYC Public Transportation to school since the 6th grade, been going out to eat lunch during the school day since the 5th grade, staying home alone on the weekends while my family was at Fire Island since I was 15 and having a lot of other responsibilities and freedoms that not many other teenagers were given. I didn’t have a license so my parents never worried about me driving home drunk or getting into a car with a drunk driver; I always had an emergency twenty dollar bill in my wallet for a late night cab home so I wasn’t walking the streets alone — this is way before Uber and high tech cell phones existed. My parents trusted me. And I may have taken advantage of it, but what teenager hasn’t. I just happened to do it a lot earlier than most given my environment.

Alcohol has always been in my life. I remember summer nights, my dad sitting on the deck at the beach house with a cigar in one hand and an after dinner drink in the other. My brother and I were allowed sips of beer at the dinner table when my parents were around. And I grew up on Fire Island where my friends were working at a bar since they were thirteen. I don’t exactly remember my first real drink, but I’m sure I was at Fire Island with a group of friends, a few stolen beers from our parents, hiding on the bay away from town where someone might see us. I don’t remember if I liked the taste of alcohol or if I just drank it because my friends did. I don’t remember when it started to be an every night thing for me to go out and drink. But I do know that I was 15 when I had my first drink and 19 when I had my last.

I grew up fast — I had my first job at the age of 13, I had straight A’s in High School, I was a responsible daughter and friend, and I liked drinking socially. I can honestly say that I was never the person who enjoyed a beer alone or a cold cocktail while I was getting ready for a night out with friends. But I drank excessively when I was out. I drank so much that by the time I was 17 and 18 years old, I was still sober after finishing a 6-pack of beer by myself. It was normal for me to go to bars in NYC to drink and by the time I went to college, I was drinking every night, even if I had class early the next day. Now I know this sounds out of control, but by the time I got to college, I was the most responsible drinker out of anyone I knew. Most of the students I met had rarely drank, so they got to college and started drinking for the first time. They were out of control. They felt the effects of alcohol and went wild. I on the other hand had been drinking for 3–4 years already so I didn’t see the need to go to parties every night or drink during the week just because we could since our parents weren’t around. So as scary as it is that I was drinking at such a young age, I grew up a lot faster and probably saved myself from a few intoxicated nights that led many of my friends to the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.

I remember the day I wanted to stop drinking. I had just woken up from a 12 hour nights sleep which was the result of a 3 day bender. It started innocently as an all-nighter to finish a school paper and then turned into partying late at night because I finished the paper and then it turned into questioning how long I could actually stay awake for. Why would I want to see how long I could stay awake for? Because I was drunk and that was what my drunk mind thought was a good idea. I woke up from that sleep and looked around my dorm room and saw empty bottles and cans of beer, cartons of orange juice and handles of vodka. Shot glasses were strewn across the floor and red solo cups filled my garbage can. Pizza boxes lined the hallway outside my room, the crust of half eaten sandwiches from the dinning hall were on plates on top of my desk. And there were probably 5 empty packs of cigarettes in my jacket pocket. I could barely remember the night before, let alone the past 3 days. I knew I needed a break. I knew my life couldn’t continue like this and if it did I would end up failing out of college, or worse.

I got up that morning, showered and went to the dining hall for a breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, sausage on the side, a bowl of lucky charms cereal and a muffin to go. This was the breakfast of a hangover. I decided that morning that I would stop drinking for a few days. I never felt like an alcoholic, but in that moment I knew that I was dependent on it. I had to break this co-dependent relationship for my own health.

The hardest thing that happened when I stopped drinking, even just those first few days, was my friends stopped hanging out with me. I wasn’t invited to the parties, no one wanted a sober person around to bring down the mood. I started to fade away from my group of friends. I was starting to realize that my need to drink was more of a need to fit in. I was drinking habitually because my surroundings made for it, but once I let go of that behavior, the relationships were forced to change because my environment changed.

Being in my Sophomore year of college, losing friends was very difficult. It was also a very slow transition so I saw it happening in real time and was able to see the changes that were happening. During those first few days, I felt very lonely. Alcohol was a part of my life and I was learning that it was the biggest part of my life. I was drinking to keep my friends, drinking to handle stress, drinking because I was happy, drinking because I was sad, and I was losing myself to the habits. It was during these first few days of sobriety that I met Ryan. We were neighbors in the dorm, but because I was so focused on my group of friends and was in an alcohol daze every day and night I never spoke to him before. But once the fog lifted, I started to see people outside of my core group of friends, the friends who were only bound to me by our shared experiences with alcohol. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ryan did not drink. I believe now that I was drawn to him because I was seeking support and guidance through this new experience and looking back I am so grateful for him coming in to my life when he did. Had I not met Ryan, I might have had a few sober nights and then started drinking again and never been able to quit again. But Ryan’s friendship, which blossomed into a relationship, proved to me that I could have things in my life that were not centered around drinking. When I had a stressful day, or a good day, rather than spend it drinking, I spent it talking to Ryan and telling him what I was feeling. I wasn’t suppressing my emotions anymore, I was expressing them in a true and authentic way.

My story is much longer past these first few months of giving up alcohol, but it follows the same theme — I lost friends, I gained friends, I lost part of myself, and gained a new sense of self worth. I found that I was much more than the alcohol I was drinking and the parties I was going to. I was having experiences that I could enjoy and remember and I was finding meaning in relationships that supported me and guided me. I learned to get a buzz from things other than alcohol — things that really excited me. I started to have real conversations rather than the same intoxicated ones that centered around how many drinks we’ve had, what party we’re going to next, what late night food we want delivered (pizza or Chinese are always the only option), and how crappy we’re going to feel in the morning. I repeated this over and over again that I forgot what it was like to have new experiences, real conversations and authentic connections.

My success in life might not have been possible had I not stopped drinking. I wouldn’t have graduated college, let alone get a scholarship for my Masters Degree. When I stopped drinking alcohol, I grew up just as fast as I had when I was a teenager. I had to find myself and I had to do it quickly so that I didn’t become overwhelmed by the emotions of sadness and defeat. I had to separate myself from certain situations and people in order to make better choices so that I wouldn’t feel the desire to drink. I also had to find confidence in myself that would allow me to go and try new things and meet new people without alcohol. Alcohol was my suit of armor; I could do anything I wanted and get away with it because I was drunk. But being sober meant taking credit for every action; it meant knowing and understanding everything that I did or didn’t want to do and owning everything I said. I had to build up my confidence in myself so that I wouldn’t let not being drunk define who I was as a person.

Now, 10 years later, I am able to go to a bar with friends and not drink because I focus on the relationship and the conversation rather than the drinking. By choosing to be with friends in situations that don’t involve alcohol, or choosing to focus on the relationships even in an environment with alcohol, I am able to grow up and decide what I want to do, when I want to do it and where I want to do it. Not drinking shouldn’t eliminate me from anything, I just choose what I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore. There are also so many other things that can be done that don’t revolve around alcohol. And the friends that matter most to me don’t have a problem doing these fun things with me even if alcohol is not front and center. And if I go out with friends, I know my limits — I don’t stay out too late, I know when to go home, I know when I am going to start feeling uncomfortable when people get too drunk. I remind myself that I am not being left out, I am just choosing a different path that for me is the better option.

When I quit drinking, I lost a lot of weight that I had put on in college when the late night drinking turned into late night eating. When I stopped drinking, I didn’t need pizza every night to soak up the alcohol, Chinese food at 3am and a bagel/muffin for breakfast because I am hungover. I started to eat better, I started to want to work out, I started to feel good in my body. I was treating myself better and I was becoming a lot happier and more confident in myself.

This is how my health and wellness journey began and I never look back with regret. I don’t miss drinking alcohol, and if I wanted to start drinking again, I could, but I choose not to. I don’t feel left out being sober; it is part of my identity now and I’ve learned to embrace it.

If you struggle with alcohol dependency, seek help, find support, change your habits, find what is triggering your need to drink and change it. Find happiness in other experiences, embrace new friendships and don’t be afraid to let go of what doesn’t make you happy or stronger.

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Originally published at www.balancedlife-leslie.com on June 15, 2016.