Why I’m Breaking Up With Alcohol

Or, how I'm learning better ways of taking care of myself

I have always had a romantic relationship with alcohol. When I was a child, we used to vacation with my grandparents, and my favorite time of the day was cocktail hour at 5 o'clock when all the adults sat down together, had drinks, and talked and laughed. My sister and I provided the entertainment and shared cocktail-themed food: shrimp cocktail and cocktail peanuts. That was my introduction to the glamorous, convivial world of drinking.

In college, my friends and I created our own cocktail hour. We went up to the roof at sunset and called it "The Sunset Watchers' Club." It was a time to relax and shift focus from the day's responsibilities to the evening's less structured and more fun activities.

Evenings are still my favorite time of day. Relaxing at dusk with a glass of wine while catching up with friends and family, and cooking dinner is one of my favorite rituals.

I love the way alcohol makes me feel limber and loose and warm and chatty, and I love how it marks the transition from day to evening. But sometimes (more often than not), after that first glass relaxes me, I want to stay that way. So I end up having a second glass or even a third. I'm especially likely to overindulge when spending time with friends because I don't want the night – or the good times – to end.

When I was pregnant with my daughter six years ago, I gave up alcohol easily, substituting seltzer and fruit juice mocktails for my early evening glass of wine. After she was born, I drank moderately because I was nursing. But a couple years later and after she had weaned, I made my way back to my old habits – having a glass or two of wine (maybe three) with dinner and occasionally more at moms' nights out or date nights.

I'm the mom who always provides wine and beer at kid birthday parties because adults should get to have fun too, right? I have wall art that says, "I drink coffee because I need it and wine because I deserve it." And that pretty much sums up my beverage choices and my life in general during my daughter's toddlerhood.

I wasn't worried about my drinking habits. My standard approach to a new mom friend was, "Let's get together for wine!" There's a thread on my local mom's group Facebook page that starts, "Don't let me drink alone!" It features a photo of a glass of wine, and the responses are filled with photos of the glasses of wine that moms are drinking, at home with their kids. Other posts are all about the stress of being home with kids all day and the glory of wine. Facebooking together while drinking means no one has to drink "alone." My drinking habits hardly seemed unusual.

But about eight months ago, I realized I was feeling really run down. By the end of the day, I had no energy left. Getting dinner on the table and putting my daughter to bed were just too much. I'd have to rest on the couch halfway through the evening. So I joined a local gym, went to a nutritionist, and started taking better care of myself. And then I noticed that after going out and having a few glasses of wine, I felt sluggish the next day and my workouts were more difficult, so I stopped drinking the nights before workouts.

Once I was consistently not drinking a few nights of the week, I realized that the quality of my sleep was improving. I hadn't slept well for five years (since my daughter was born). I guess I got used to terrible sleep and forgot to expect anything different.

After a few nights of not drinking, I realized that I felt more refreshed, and I started remembering my dreams. I also noticed that on the nights I did drink, I'd fall asleep quickly and then wake up in the middle of the night. If I'd had too much to drink (or even just more than one glass), I would lie in bed feeling anxious and worried, having out-of-control negative thoughts, like: "Why did I drink that third glass? Alcohol raises risk of breast cancer, and my cousin died of it. Is that a lump I feel?" or "I have to get up and do that presentation tomorrow! What if I'm hungover?" The hangovers seemed worse too – as little as two glasses would make me feel draggy and groggy the next day.

A trip to Australia with a much younger colleague was a turning point for me. We only had a week in Melbourne and decided to see as much of the city as we could. Several nights we went out for dinner and drinks, and I noticed that even though we hadn't gone overboard, the next day I'd feel like I'd been run over by a truck, and he'd be fine. On that trip, it finally sunk in that the level of drinking that was fine for him was hurting me. 

Before the holidays, a friend told me she was going alcohol-free in the new year and asked if I'd like to join her. I made a mental list of the pros and cons.

Reasons for drinking alcohol:

● It's fun and relaxing.
● It helps me deal with stress (temporarily).
● It seems daunting and scary to give it up, especially in social situations.

Reasons for NOT drinking alcohol:

● Better sleep
● More energy
● Less stress in the long term (no more middle of the night anxiety attacks).
● Getting get rid of that belly roll (maybe).
● Setting a better example for my daughter.
● Saving money.
● No more hangovers.
● Generally a good move for my body and mind.

So I decided on a trial separation with alcohol in the new year.

During the holidays and leading up to the ball drop, I drank plenty. But on New Year's Eve, I stopped and was in bed before midnight. I haven't had a drink since.

The hardest times for me have been the evenings. I am experimenting with new kinds of nonalcoholic cocktails that can serve as a stand-in, but they don't give me the warm, bubbly feeling. Then again, they don't give me hangovers, either. Going out with friends has been difficult at times, especially when I have to explain my choice. I usually find people assume I had a greater problem with alcohol than I did or get defensive as if I'm judging their choice to drink (which I'm not).

But I've gotten through those awkward moments by talking about how I'm trying to make healthier choices, and going to the gym at 6 o'clock in the morning isn't compatible with drinking. And sometimes I skip social events if I think it will be too tough not to drink or simply don't feel like explaining myself.

Here's what I know: I feel much more emotionally stable when I'm not drinking. When I do drink, I tend to feel "all or nothing." There are more highs ("What a fun night!"), but there are also more lows. ("This is the worst hangover ever! I'm never drinking again.")

I've had to go through some uncomfortable feelings that I really would have liked to numb with alcohol, like stress from work or family. But it seems like the feelings pass more quickly if I just let them be, instead of trying to relieve them with a glass of wine or three. (I also find they come back stronger later when I do that.)

Who knows where I'll go from here. Maybe I'll slip up in my commitment, or maybe I'll raise a glass on New Year's. Right now I'm just discovering that, for me, not drinking is a way of taking care of myself, not a way to deprive myself. After 25 years of enjoying cocktail hours and buzzy sunsets, I think I'm finally learning that exercise and spending time with friends and family are much better stress relievers than alcohol ever was.

Read about how to evaluate your drinking and whether you should consider making a change.