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What Happened When I Gave Up Drinking In A Town Known For Booze

The surprising thing I discovered.

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Chiara Ghigliazza
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For many years when I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, the city of New Orleans was a siren call for reveling in — even celebrating — that toxic union. So, I wondered how a recent trip to the Crescent City would be without booze.

I have been alcohol-free long enough to be comfortable in my skin as a nondrinker, but how would that work in New Orleans? Blurry visions of past trips ran through my head. Trips that included making out with a man who wasn’t my boyfriend, waking up in a hotel room that wasn’t mine, getting chewed out by a dad for being obnoxiously loud in the hotel hallway well past midnight, falling asleep while a guy played drums by my head because I was so hungover, walking around in damp pants after using an alley as a bathroom and, oh, the vomit. But such fun, right?

At the time, those moments of drunkenness seemed like fun. But after a while, the moments became regularities. What was once a few drinks to make social events palatable became two or three before the event even started. What was once the fun drinking of a young professional finding my way became a daily craving as routine as my morning alarm. What were once memory lapses and headaches turned into blackouts and hangovers. It is hard to say which was worse: not remembering what I’d done or said the night before or the brain-rattling hangovers that made my nerves spark like fire.

One day, it simply all became too much. No job loss, no DUI — just an emotional emptiness so vast that no amount of alcohol could ever fill it. I had a choice: Drink myself to death or find another way. And, on that day, I decided to put down the drink. So far, almost 11 years later, I have yet to pick up another.

So, how was the alcohol-free trip to New Orleans? What I discovered was a fresh awareness. Viewing the city with a clear mind let me see things I’d missed before. I noticed the cornices on buildings built in the 1800s. I heard the clang of a streetcar as we walked in the garden district. I watched the escaped golden party balloons dance in the wind outside our hotel window. I remembered each bite of crawfish beignets and peppermint bark donuts. I traded time I would have previously spent in bars for an education at the world-renowned National WWII Museum. My restaurant bills were cheaper, and I wasn’t constantly needing a bathroom for all the beer I had consumed.

My interactions with people were different, too. I was present enough to be annoyed by the rude young kid sitting next to me at the Saints game. But I wasn’t bolstered by so much liquid courage that I expressed my annoyance to his mom, which only would have made things worse. I pitied the cute guy in front of me who was too wasted to know what was happening on the field (instead of joining him in mutual drunkenness).

In the mornings, I woke up exactly where I thought I would be with no doubt where my phone and wallet were. I did no mental machinations about how the night ended up, because I remembered it all. I didn’t need a late checkout, and I savored my coffee — as opposed to chugging it to ebb my pounding head.

Without alcohol, I have experienced life-changing events: a new career, the birth of a child and the strengthening of my marriage — for all of which I’m eternally grateful. But similarly meaningful are the small moments one can recognize and enjoy only with an unclouded brain freed from thoughts of the next drink. And the Big Easy, I’ve found, has as much or more to offer me now as a nondrinker, and I’m sober enough to both recognize and appreciate it.