Photographed by Jessica Nash.
"I can't wait until you can drink again," my boyfriend admitted in frustration. It was day 26 of my crack at Dry January, and we had found ourselves embroiled in yet another argument. This time, a seemingly innocuous mess in our shared living room had caused me to fly into a rage.
In truth, I couldn't wait either. In the month since I'd undertaken the challenge of removing alcohol from my life, I'd become a monster. The mere notion of conflict sent my anxiety levels skyward. Every last nerve was a live wire, my emotional state on the verge of collapse. And, if I was going to feel miserable, so was everyone else.
When I made the decision to claw my way back onto the proverbial wagon, I hadn't anticipated profound results. Sure, recent articles have detailed significant, unexpected health benefits associated with abstinence from alcohol, but really, so many stories of drastic dietary changes offer little more than sensational headlines. "Drinking Three Litres of Water a Day Took 10 YEARS Off My Face." "How Giving Up Sugar Can Take 20 Years Off Your Looks." This wouldn't be that kind of story, I thought. But, at least my experiment couldn't hurt. Except that it did. Because the truth tends to do that.
My experience with alcohol is a complicated one. Where I grew up, an insular community in Wisconsin, alcoholism is neither seen, nor heard, nor discussed. And, temperance? Not exactly a virtue. In fact, Wisconsin has some of the weakest DUI laws in the country: It’s the only state in the U.S. to not criminalize a first drunken-driving offense, and it was only within the last several years that a fourth infraction became a felony. So, yes, drinking culture is pretty deeply engrained in my consciousness.
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
On a personal level, my mother had never been a big drinker, though she would enjoy a beer to help her unwind when she returned home from work. My father, on the other hand — his issues with alcohol are my family's best kept not-quite secret. A blue-collar laborer who spent his nights working in a paper mill and days graciously tending to the needs of the family, he was the quintessential loving provider who also happened to while away much of his leisure time in the company of booze. The days when I'd arrive home from school to find him intoxicated, empty beer cans stacked in our recycling bin, were regular occurrences. Meanwhile, arguments about his behavior were met with the standard denial. "I just want to spend real time with you," I'd try to reason. But, he'd counter, "I'm an adult, and I know what I’m doing.”
As I left home and entered college, I refused to let myself suffer the same fate. Statistics for the children of alcoholics (or COAs) are grim, after all — according to researchers, offspring of alcohol-dependent parents are four times more likely to become alcoholics than non-COAs. So, I largely abstained from the hard stuff until my sophomore year, and even then, I monitored my behavior to ensure that I never found myself dependent.
But, that all changed in August 2012, when my father died of a heart attack. It was eight months after I had moved 1,000 miles away to New York City, leaving behind my family and lifelong friends. So, I turned to my buddy bourbon for solace. In fact, I spent months in that mode, bellied up to the bar several nights a week while I cried into a rocks glass. When the first of the year rolled around, though, I resolved to change my habits. No more watering holes, fewer tears. So, I poured myself a drink and wept at home instead.
Despite this, I never saw my approach to alcohol as an issue. A cocktail wasn't something I felt I needed. I didn't crave the booze; I simply loved the release. A post-work beer was symbolic, a closing bell on the day's labors. Besides, my habits seemed more acceptable than those of other people my age. I had never passed out at a bar, thrown up in public, or even fallen asleep on the train home because of my drinking. I rarely even went out. The only time I ever did shots was to calm my nerves before getting on a plane, treating hard liquor like a "healthy" alternative to Xanax.
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
But, now, without it, I was lost. In this particular sober experiment, I found myself becoming increasingly agitated as the days ticked by. I could still be around alcohol easily — my boyfriend, a professional bartender, has a well-stocked bar cart readily positioned in our living space. But, surrounding myself with people who were actively drinking put me in a frenzy. As my friends chatted over cocktails during dinner, I could feel myself growing envious of them. They seemed at ease, carefree. Or, as a companion enjoyed a beer during a football game, I sat quietly, stewing over the day's trials and gnawing my fingernails until they bled. The most minor of stressors would consume me until I'd lay awake at night, mind swimming. I no longer had my emotional flotation device, and I was barely keeping my head above water.
In the 31 days since I started my “anti-booze cruise,” I'm three pounds lighter, approximately $400 richer, and fully aware of the fact that I'd somehow forgotten how to cope with my emotions in a healthy way. While others turn to meditation or therapy, in the past two years, I’ve resorted to a drink or two — but typically no more. Which was why I never considered that my habits had become cause for concern. I couldn't possibly have alcohol issues, I thought. I rarely consume to excess. And, that seems to be the trouble with how the public views alcohol-use problems in general. We tend to focus on a more commonly accepted definition of alcoholism, for which we ask, "How much am I drinking? Am I dependent?" It's rare, though, that we wonder, "Why am I drinking?"
To be clear, I do not consider myself an alcoholic. But, I can recognize that my emotionally motivated drinking could lead to larger issues down the road. And, with that in mind, I’m now focusing on treating my mental triggers. I’ve taken up yoga and meditation more seriously, and I’m forcing myself to weigh the severity of my stressors before letting them consume me. I've also learned that emotional honesty is critical to maintaining my mental health.
Yes, since the calendar flipped over to February, I've had a drink or two. I don't plan to give up drinking as a result of my exercise in strict sobriety. Because, going forward, when I do have a cocktail or tip back a pint, it won't be because of my anxiety. And, it certainly won't be because of my sadness or guilt or anger. I’m in control now, not my emotions.