I Quit Drinking And It Has Been The Strangest Experience
For the first time in 25 years I didn't have a glass of wine at Thanksgiving.
This was the first year in more than 25 years that I haven’t had a glass of wine at Thanksgiving. It was also the first year in more than 25 years that I actually stopped to consider whether I wanted one or not.
I quit drinking several months ago, and it has been a strange experience. It turns out that when you stop doing something that is marketed as a form of self-care, people think it’s weird. Some even find it threatening.
I remember a time when it was a red flag if you chose to drink alone. I can remember feeling conflicted about opening a bottle of wine on a Tuesday night if I was the only one home.
I wasn’t going to drink the whole thing, but it felt strange to open a whole bottle of wine just for a glass or two. But now, there are single-serving bottles of wine, Moscow Mule in a can, and even “hard” sparkling water. It’s super easy to justify drinking alone, and generally a given that you will indulge in alcohol with friends — to commiserate, celebrate or just bridge the week at Happy Hour.
Women are told that getting away with girlfriends to wine-taste is the ultimate ladies’ vacation. Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph even made a movie about it. Nearly every single fundraiser I am invited to advertises alcohol: Drinks for a Cause, Whiskey Wednesday, Winter Beer Fest. There are yoga classes featuring wine and chocolate, and I just got an email from my kettlebell studio advertising a “Brews and Bells” event. I mean, if you can pair exercise (another self-care activity) with booze, how bad can it be?
I didn’t stop drinking because I had what most people think of as a drinking problem. I have been drunk maybe three times in my life, all of them more than a decade ago. I never passed out or got obnoxious when I drank. I didn’t drive drunk. I didn’t drink all day long. I just drank almost every day as a matter of course.
Turns out, most people in my life didn’t see that as an issue. Having a glass of wine while I cook dinner every night is apparently not a problem. Having a second glass while I’m eating dinner … also not a problem. Ordering a glass of wine before even cracking the dinner menu or going out with friends solely “for drinks” is seemingly not a problem. But at some point, I started to notice my inner monologue, and how well it matched the ever-present marketing slogans:
“Mommy needs wine”
“Treat yourself, girl!”
“It’s been a rough day”
“I deserve this”
Self-care. How could it be wrong? But as someone who teaches and writes about mindfulness, it started to feel very, very wrong. The fact that I could spend time every day deciding what sounded good for dinner, or peruse a restaurant menu for 15 minutes — reading the descriptions and checking in with my body to see whether it wanted beef or chicken or pasta, but that I never, ever questioned whether a glass of wine sounded good seemed a little off. The fact that when a friend texted with good news about a new job or her kid’s acceptance to their college of choice and I instantly responded with “Yay! Let’s go get a drink to celebrate!” didn’t seem odd, until it did. Drinking had become a habit and not a conscious choice.
When I imagined what my teenagers and their friends saw and heard, I was even more alarmed. Not only do they see messages about alcohol as a form of self-care in the media, but they see the adults in their lives using booze as a way to unwind or make social occasions less fraught, and they’re told they can’t do the same. To be honest, teenagers have more steam to blow off than anyone, given the pressures on them every single day. Is it surprising that they turn to binge drinking? We joke about needing a drink at the end of a hard day, or being grateful that there’s booze at the family holiday with the insufferable, racist uncle. But is it a joke? Our kids are paying attention, whether we like it or not.
When I think about what self-care really is, it has more to do with being in my body than finding ways to take myself out of it. A massage, a scented bath or a long walk in nature are ways for me to disconnect from technology and reconnect the lines between my head and my heart. Booze takes the edge off in my head, but it doesn’t help me think about the impacts of a hard day, feel them in my bones, or process them in a way that feels productive.
When I started declining drinks at social occasions, most of my friends didn’t understand. Some wanted a compelling story (was I a closet alcoholic?). Others thought it was part of the hip new “sober curious” or “Drynuary” fads, and that it would soon run its course.
Still others lamented the fact that when we went out, they had to drink alone, which made them feel weird. Months later, when I still wasn’t drinking (or bringing my favorite bottle of red to book club to share), there was shock. Again, I was pressed to answer why. Drinking, at least the way I did it, was harmless. Right?
I’m not so sure. Yes, life as a single mom is hard. Life as a freelance writer is hard. Life with an aging parent is hard. Life in this political climate is hard. Maybe I do deserve some treat at the end of the day — a reward for simply making it through another day. Or maybe it makes more sense to be self-aware enough to know that wine never really did more than deplete my pocketbook and add to my calorie intake. It may have taken the edge off, but I was going to wake up to another day full of challenges whether I drank or not. For me, drinking wasn’t so much self-care as it was a way to throw a blanket over the pile of stress that had accumulated during the day and tell it goodnight.
For me, drinking was mindless, and anything I do without purpose or deliberation is unhealthy. I’m not cocky enough to think that I will stop doing everything that serves little purpose in my life (I still start to crave that first cup of coffee in the morning as soon as my eyes open), but at least this one thing no longer has a place in my repertoire of worthless habits.
Kari O'Driscoll is the author of the upcoming memoir Truth Has a Different Shape, published by CavanKerry Press.