In early 2020, a mysterious virus (one that maybe is not so mysterious now) attacked my husband’s heart and landed him in the ER. He was sent home after two days with anti-inflammatories and the advice: “Don’t get sick again.” We stopped drinking, temporarily, we thought — my husband because he could barely pull himself out of bed, and me to be supportive.
Most of my adulthood, I fell squarely into the social drinking camp. I didn’t drink every day, but most. When I drank, I didn’t stop at one, but usually before five. Most weeks, I stuck to my plan of not drinking Monday through Thursday (er, Wednesday). Only sometimes did I succumb to an oh-what-the-hell half bottle on a Monday playdate. It was a rare occasion that I was incapacitated by drinking. I kept it all going — two young kids, a full time job, a social life.
So I was surprised when, after about three weeks of sobriety, changes began. Over the months, they have amplified to the point that they have become not just changes but reasons that staying sober is worth it. Here are some of them.
Reason #1: I am sleeping better than I have in years. When I first stopped drinking, I woke up every night sometime between midnight and one, heart and mind racing, unable to fall back asleep. But as the sober days went on, I fell back asleep faster and faster, until eventually the wake-ups stopped altogether. There’s a chance that finally getting some damn sleep led to my positive changes almost as much as quitting booze did.
Reason #2: I have more resources. I have more time, more energy, a bit more money. It’s as if I’ve discovered a secret personal stockpile of mojo. Because I have more to give, I am more generous and patient. I kick the soccer ball a few extra times with my younger son. I spend more time listening to my older son tell me about the book he is reading. It doesn’t bother me as much when a deadline drops in at work. I don’t mind as much extra runs to the grocery store, cleaning up spills, waiting in line at the post office. Interestingly, even as I have more resources, I seem to want less. As I’ve lost the gaping hunger for greasy food to fill the void in a physical hangover, so too am I losing the hunger for online shopping or bad TV to fill the void in an emotional one.
Reason #3: I feel great. I start each day ahead: hydrated, not nauseous, no headache. I’m ready to go. There is such pleasure in this. And while I won’t belabor the obvious point that alcohol is not great for a person’s health, it does feel like a pretty big deal in 2020 that overdoing the booze can lead to lowered immunity. Celebrity trainers like Harley Pasternak and Shaun T attest that drinking makes it a whole lot harder to achieve health and fitness goals. And while perfect fitness isn’t necessarily a goal of mine, feeling better is.
Reason #4: I am less debilitated by anxiety. Before I quit drinking, my anxiety was an omnipresent part of my psyche and even my body, a weight on my chest that only drinking could alleviate. And when I wasn’t drinking, whether my last drink had been five days or five minutes ago, there was the inescapable, generalized panic. I never thought I could get rid of it, and I never associated it with drinking. But now, while the anxiety isn’t gone completely, it’s reduced to a mild hum that I often forget altogether. I sometimes imagine what my anxiety would be like during 2020 if I were still drinking. I think I’d basically need to stay drunk in order to survive.
Reason #5: I experience everything more fully. I have been shocked to find that life is actually more fun without booze. Who would have thought! I have moments of spontaneous joy, spontaneous laughter. I think a big reason why this is possible is because I also feel all of the pain and all of the grief. Certainly, 2020 has provided plenty of opportunity for those things. Not only do I feel everything more fully, I know that what I am feeling is real.
Reason #6: My relationships are better, especially my marriage. My husband and I fight a whole lot less. On Friday nights, our longstanding tradition used to be mixing up a batch of martinis. And whereas in our honeymoon days the martinis would lead to wild sex; after kids, the martinis would lead to wild fights. It was like we were literally mixing up a batch of liquid-argument. I suppose one could assume that the alcohol helped us surface deeply held resentments, that it was us, not the alcohol doing the fighting. I used to believe that, but I’m not so sure anymore.
I’ve come to believe that alcohol doesn’t just dampen inhibitions, thus giving us fuel to voice what we are really thinking — it also changes our perceptions of reality, making us more combative, frustrated, and rigid, and less likely to empathize with others. In the end, I realized it doesn’t matter if it was the alcohol causing my husband and me to fight, or it was the alcohol lowering our inhibitions so we felt empowered to fight. The end result is that by not drinking, we fight less, and we feel better about each other overall.
Reason #7: I am more creative. And not only that, I get sh*t done. Author Brené Brown, who has been sober for more than 20 years, has said, “I can’t separate anything powerful or good in my life from my sobriety.” My experience has been fully this. Put another way: drinking in no way helps me to create what I want to create. Instead, every drink makes those things harder to achieve.
If you enjoy drinking, I’m not here to judge. If the pros outweigh the cons for you, go for it! To be sure, there are things I miss about drinking. Like, sloshy socializing. At least at first, it was crazy hard to hang without a wine buzz. I miss the event of having a drink. I miss a fresh glass of bubbles on a holiday morning. A Friday night, that first sip of a martini (before the liquid-argument aftermath). That cheeky fourth glass at the bar with a friend I’ve known forever. I miss the instant escape, the booze-fueled moments of euphoria where it seems like none of my problems matter. Those feelings of we-are-on-the-same-wavelength-and-I-am-invincible.
But I’m learning that ultimately what I want are not things that alcohol can provide — ultimately, I want connection, self-care, safety, rituals, and peace. Many of us are missing these things. Alcohol temporarily masks the pain of this, but in the end, makes them harder to get. And though abstaining may seem like the harder route, for me it’s the truer one.