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Traveling While Sober

I am blessed (or cursed, depending on the day you ask) with a job that allows me to travel frequently to major cities in the U.S. For most of the day during these trips I’m occupied with job-related tasks, but evenings are usually free, and I often add a day onto the beginning or end of my trip to enjoy whatever city I’m in. I’ve also taken two trips internationally since giving up alcohol – to Portugal and Brazil – and nearly went to Japan a few weeks ago but canceled due to concerns over COVID–19 (coronavirus). Of course, PLEASE play your part in socially distancing to “flatten the curve” for the time being – I only hope to offer an ounce of virtual escape with this post.

Batalha Monastery (Portugal)
Batalha Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

I’ve also found myself in some truly challenging scenarios for a non-drinker. In Portugal, I attended a wedding at a winery in the Douro Valley and participated in the harvest, even stomping the grapes. I was in Rio for Carnival, and in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. These were all self-imposed challenges, and in some cases, big ones. I’m not recommending that everyone exploring sobriety should attend rowdy, drink-heavy celebrations when they travel. But being able to avoid alcohol at these events was deeply empowering and eye-opening for me – so I thought I would share what they felt like and how I dealt with emotions as they came up. 

In some situations in life, you just have to suck it up and do things that make you a bit uncomfortable, or left out. The wedding in Portugal was only three months into my sobriety, and wine was my thing. Talk about hard – snipping grapes off the vine and macerating their squishy, yummy bodies in a two hundred-year-old stone tub – then not being able to taste it! Yes, I know – first-world problems – and perhaps the most woe-is-me, privileged-sounding sentence I’ve ever written. But obviously, that was hard in the moment. 

Douro Valley views (Portugal)
Douro Valley Views (Portugal) by Dana G

What’s more, I was not experienced yet in talking about my sobriety. I still sounded uncertain, and the few times it came up, people looked at me oddly for turning down a glass of wine and pouring a soda. We were literally at a winery, at the source, and I was turning down the nectar of the gods. It was probably even a bit rude, as far as modern-day social dynamics go, and in the perspective of those who didn’t know about my past experiences.

But this was a family event, and our trip involved all kinds of sight-seeing up and down the coast of Western Portugal. We visited cathedrals and shorelines galore. It was worth feeling a bit of discomfort over a couple of days in order to celebrate the profound love of some of our closest family friends and experience so many of Portugal’s historical wonders.

Bucaco monastery (Portugal)
Buçaco Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

When traveling with friends as a sober person, you have to make compromises. The reality of the modern world, at least in cultures like mine, is that most people drink. The non-drinker is the odd one out. When planning our trip to Brazil, I was most excited about going to the Amazon. I grew up on that wondrously addictive video game “The Amazon Trail”. I could probably have spent weeks in the jungle without wanting to come home, but seeing as I didn’t want to travel all by myself, I needed to weigh my own desires with what my travel companions wanted to do and see. So we went to one of the most exciting celebrations of culture and color and excess in the world – Rio’s Carnival. 

Sambadrome Procession (Brazil)
Sambadrome Procession (Brazil) by Dana G

We had plenty of opportunity in Rio to go sight-seeing and wander the beautiful coastline, but we also went to several wild street parties called “blocos.” I preferred the ones with music, dancers, and other welcome distractions to the fact that I wasn’t drinking, yet was surrounded by people who were – often very young, reminding me of my carefree and careless past. We never spent more than a few hours there at a time because my friends are amazing and supportive (and, thankfully, getting older like me – ready to leave parties at a “reasonable” time). My one friend often says she’ll turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t leave a party by 10 or 11 p.m. My kind of woman.

Mardi Gras was much different, but only because I went with my mother, who also wasn’t drinking. We spent most of our time strolling up and down Royal Street – one road down from Bourbon, which we only visited once or twice. We were more focused on appreciating the history, the architecture, and the food – and, yes, the people-watching – in the French Quarter. I rarely felt a strong sense of longing to be part of the party, and maybe that’s because I was much further into my sobriety than I was on my other trips. We also did a ton of walking, rather than standing in one place, so I didn’t have a chance to get too “in my head” about what I was missing.

Cafe Amelie (New Orleans), edited with Prisma
Cafe Amelie (New Orleans), edited with Prisma by Dana G

Now, to think a little more deeply about how I’ve felt on these trips. To be honest, in the first year of my sobriety, I had mixed feelings at major drinking celebrations. I’ll start with the negative ones. If I was stuck somewhere for long, I’d feel resentful, thinking about how I could be doing other, better things with my time like writing or reading. That’s still sometimes the case.

The intense stimuli around me can cause another wave of emotion that arrives almost as if carried on the scent of wine. I’ll miss being a “part of the party” and in the same mindset as everyone else, in that truly carefree and euphoric place. I’ll feel stuck with an energy drink or a soda that isn’t doing anything, not really – besides keeping me awake and giving me a little more energy so I can stick it out and socialize.

Rio Carnival (Brazil)
Rio Carnival (Brazil) by Dana G

If I’m standing in one place, especially in a crowd, the smells and sounds of wild bars and parties can conjure vivid memories of very negative things – blacking out, being unsafe, hangovers, injuries, and more. External stimuli can cause a tug-of-war in which I’m both drawn to the things I’ve given up and repulsed by what I know was associated with them. If I’m really feeling stuck somewhere, I’ll try to make space for myself by focusing on something that distracts and interests me (the beautiful colors and costumes of a festival, people-watching, the lovely architecture) and to remind myself that I will be able to return to the safe space of my introverted “me time” soon enough. No craving, no discomfort, is forever.

Buçaco Palace (Portugal)
Buçaco Palace (Portugal) by Dana G

Once I’m on the other side of those situations, the positive feelings start to emerge. I realize that I made it through one of the craziest parties out there without drinking. I stood there, I talked to a person or two, I often felt really good and happy – and I didn’t need alcohol to get me there. I also don’t have a hangover or any injuries or regrets to speak of (or, more likely, hide and let fester inside me). Getting through these events is a really intense kind of medicine that helps me heal, as I’ve come through the gauntlet and shown that I’m more powerful than the “pull” of alcohol. Something a former version of me couldn’t have imagined. Really, who but a masochist goes to Mardi Gras for anything but to drink?

Traveling to events such as these requires a careful balancing act that might not be wise for everyone early on the path of sobriety. I could have easily caved in Portugal or Brazil. But I know other people who’ve had similar experiences a few months into their sobriety, so it isn’t unheard of. It really depends on whether you have a desire to test your willpower, the nature of your cravings and urges, and the confidence you have in your ability to find determination from within when in uncomfortable environments. For some people, this just isn’t the best way to prove that they’re strong. They have better methods to prove that to themselves, or no interest in putting themselves in uncomfortable scenarios when it isn’t necessary.

Escadaria Selarón Mural (Brazil)
Escadaria Selarón Mural (Brazil) by Dana G

I’ve put myself in these situations because of how empowered I feel after overcoming the social expectations and my own urges in high-pressure drinking environments. It makes me feel less like I’m missing out on the world, and that I can overcome anything. It takes a great deal of vulnerability, but that’s a prerequisite for courage and fulfilment, according to Brené Brown. I also get a chance to experience the things outside of alcohol that make these events so culturally important. The music, the community, the food, the tradition. Alcohol just happens to be one factor mixed into many cultural traditions. It’s probably there to stay, but if I can ignore it, I can appreciate the other parts of the recipe. 

It’s like a vegetarian at a dinner party where chicken pot pie is the only thing being served. They can choose to eat it and pick out the chicken, but they are still going to get some chicken bits (at a drinking party, that might come in the form of wine splashed across their shirt). Still, they get some tasty carrots and potatoes. Sometimes I choose to avoid the pot pie entirely, and there are many perfectly good reasons for doing so. At other times, I don’t feel like eating alone.

Rio Negro (Brazil)
Rio Negro (Brazil) by Dana G

If you are inclined to challenging yourself like I was or know that you might end up in drinking environments despite not planning or wanting to, here are a few pointers. You’ll probably have times where you recall fondly what you’re missing. Focus on the negative consequences you’re also missing out on. Don’t forget that you can usually opt out of attending an event if you aren’t up for it. Before you arrive, determine your travel and sightseeing priorities and make them known. There may be situations where you want to ensure you have an “out” or an opportunity for down time – or can at least balance experiences in less comfortable environments with site-seeing and non-drinking activities. 

Batalha Monastery (Portugal)
Batalha Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

Figure out what you’ll say if others ask why you aren’t drinking. You can have more than one response ready for people who ask you in different ways. Some people may make you feel more comfortable and willing to open up than others. Having travel companions who respect your needs and who drink responsibly – or, at least, fairly responsibly – makes a big difference. Finally, determine your go-to beverages in restaurants, on airplanes, and in other environments, and get excited about them.

And don’t forget that in the end, you might save a lot of money – and feel refreshed and empowered when you return home!

–Dana G

Cabo da Roca (Portugal)
Cabo da Roca (Portugal) by Dana G

Rebuilding Identity

“Identity is a series of reliable vectors that is you.” This is something the leader of the recovery group I attend said during a discussion about how our sense of identity shifts when we stop drinking. It immediately resonated with me. Identity includes a range of personality traits and behavioral trends that define the person we – and others – perceive ourselves to be. And while many of these are fairly stable, others can change over time. Identity is not some single thing we “are” that remains constant. We are continually perceiving, learning, changing, growing, stumbling, recovering, and healing. We are on a series of paths all at once. 

Social science has tested many theories on identity, which involves self-concept – “the sum of a being’s knowledge and understanding of their self… includ[ing] physical, psychological, and social attributes, which can be influenced by the individual’s attitudes, habits, beliefs and ideas.” Our self-concept intersects with social identity, cultural identity, professional identity, gender identity, religious identity, and many other dimensions. There’s also a difference – and a dynamic balancing act – between individual identity and the collective identities (as well as social roles) we form in groups.

mural of people dancing and having fun
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Identity is “an ever-evolving core within where our genetics (biology), culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.” Identity is a feeling. Identity is a sense of singularity, and a sense of belonging. Identity is how we define ourselves – what we can do, what we have, what we like, what we remember, who we are. Identity is a complex beast, and it’s different for everyone.

When people quit drinking, their identity is often dealt a blow, at least initially. Many people (certainly not all) who have an alcohol problem get wrapped up in a self-protective feeling of being likable and funny, their perspective restricted to the seemingly good qualities that emerge when alcohol relieves them of anxiety and inhibition. Their self-concept is one of a person who parties and is easygoing and fun to be around. That’s certainly how I thought of myself. This may become a role they play in their social circle, a form of identity that they, and often their peers, admire and value. Over time, it can come to dominate their sense of identity, diminishing their recognition of other factors that make them who they are.

woman standing in front of colorful joker paintings
Photo by Court Cook on Unsplash

I absolutely had a phase of identity confusion when I quit drinking. And it’s related to why I started in the first place. From mid-adolescence onward, part of me was trying to be someone different, someone cooler than the dorky middle schooler at my core who was passionate, perhaps even obsessive about things like art, music, writing, and Lord of the Rings. I had anxiety and difficulty socializing with people who I thought were cooler than me – the athletic and popular kids who I thought were “normal” and had everything together. 

I drank in part to suppress that feeling, to be able to socialize with anyone and everyone, and to open up without inhibition and still feel accepted. In college, I somehow managed to balance being very into art and poetry with hard partying. I suffered from powerful feelings of loneliness, and used alcohol to join the ranks of what I thought was normal social interaction (binge drinking) to escape from that feeling. Alcohol made me feel connected to people, as well as highly energetic and attention-worthy. It validated me. After college, I lost my creative and intellectual outlets, along with the everyday proximity of my drinking buddies. I used alcohol to reward myself and relieve anxiety related to my everyday work and loneliness.

woman looking at crystal ball with upside down reflection
Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

When I stopped drinking, change became inevitable. I found that I didn’t want to spend as much time at bars or drinking parties. I couldn’t be that same, easy-going, funny person – at least at first – and my identity took a hit. For many people, this can feel like a tremendous loss at first. Some of my friendships were forced to evolve, and I broke away from a couple of them. I maintained those in which the bond revolved around more than drinking. I found ways to connect with my friends through other aspects of my identity and theirs, such as shared interests. I got better at asking questions about other things in their lives, at making conversation. And for the friends that stuck with and supported me – which was, luckily, most of them – I think our friendships have grown deeper.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. If you make the most of your sobriety, you start to renounce the building-blocks of identity that aren’t serving you – destructive activities, negative people, and self-talk (internal dialogue) that are toxic. By keeping your mind clear and letting it rewire, you’ve made the space for critical self-awareness – recognizing and challenging distorted thoughts and moving past ingrained mental obstacles. You start to distill the good from the harmful aspects of your personality and begin to develop new dimensions of identity and social roles. Rebuilding your identity can move from an undesirable, gargantuan effort to a long-term practice that brings you deep joy.

hand painted in rainbow paint colors
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

If you quit drinking, or even cut back, pieces of you that have been subdued but are truly consistent with your essence can return. I dove back into my suppressed passions – art, music, writing, and trying to help people who are hurting. I shifted from an identity of “drinker” and “partier” into one of “poet,” “supporter,” and, of late, “blogger.” These aren’t just new ways to label yourself – they are the things you do and care about, put your heart into, and spend your time thinking about. They become important, just like alcohol once was. I finally started to learn what true confidence was, and how different it felt from the very opposite, negative feelings I had let fester inside me for so long.

Though this isn’t the case for everyone, you may recognize yourself getting more introspective and open when you moderate or quit drinking. But one of the burdens of being open is that you realize many other people are not. Some people just aren’t accustomed (or driven) to being introspective, or can’t articulate it. And if you talk too much about yourself or what you’re going through, you’ll become tiresome to the disinterested. Your own openness might make you feel alone, until you find other individuals or groups where introspection and sharing are the “norm.”

people with long shadows walking on a road
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Journaling and talking with others going through the same thing may help you to make sense of your emotions and new realizations. For many people, openness and sharing are critical to healing – which is why joining a recovery group can be so helpful during the transition to sobriety. Additionally, participating in activities and social groups based around common interests can reinforce other facets of the self, and even introduce new, long-lasting pursuits and values.

Rebuilding your identity is not easy. It’s not a straightforward process of continual upward growth. Just as it often is before we quit drinking, identity can be ever shifting after we stop. Life presents challenges at the most unexpected times, and our attitudes and emotions will shift accordingly. But for me, sobriety has given me a level of confidence and resilience I’d never thought possible. On an average day, I feel more complete and happier than ever. And when life gets tough, I feel certain I can make it through. Reflecting on what alcohol did to exacerbate my anxiety and negative self-image, I don’t think I could have gotten to this place without giving it up.

–Dana G

sunny grasses
Photo by Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

Importance of Community

When I initially quit drinking, I felt really alone. It was summertime, and it was wedding season. Nearly all of my friends still drank and were going out regularly on weekends, and all social events – from parties to weddings and bachelorettes – seemed to revolve around alcohol. I still went to almost everything I was invited to, not wanting to alienate myself, but felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb. 

I had these residual anti-sober-person sentiments based on stereotypes I’d absorbed over many years – that sober people are only there to kill the buzz of folks who are partying, ready to pounce on the opportunity to shame others, and get their highs out of doing so. In fact, I had never actually met a sober person who did that, but the stereotype exists and is the butt of many jokes, right there with the angry vegans. Stereotypes do a lot of harm, and apparently in more ways than I realized, with the focus now being internalized disgust. I desperately didn’t want to be “that person,” and had a lot of anxiety that others would perceive me as someone quite noxious to be around.

Blurry photo of people walking in a city
Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

This might seem like an odd introduction to a post about finding community, but the feelings and fears described above were some of the most isolating I had ever felt. My very identity was shaken to the core. I was used to being the funny drunk person, lighthearted and carefree, a people-pleaser who worked to make others feel comfortable and liked. I still try to bring positive energy into my social circles, but at the time I thought I needed to be drinking like everyone else to spread that blanket of warmth and ease. My very presence as a sober person was now threatening other people’s comfort – and, I was certain, their ability to sincerely like me. Who wanted to work that hard?

Initially, I was so concerned about my abstinence impacting other people’s comfort that I ignored my own. Though my dear friends then are my dear friends now, I needed to find other communities of people in which the primary social activities that bonded the group together didn’t require alcohol consumption. I needed to find get-togethers where the focus was on shared experiences and interests. After some time overly focused on the outward impacts of my sobriety, I turned that focus inward and discovered two types of communities that have been, as cliché as it sounds, life-changing. This post is about the first of these communities. I’ll save the second community for later.

people with long shadows on the beach
Photo by Frederik Højfeldt Nielsen on Unsplash

The community that guided me through the first year of sobriety was one of non-drinkers – in my case, a SMART Recovery meeting group that I’ve been attending since I quit. SMART stands for “Self-Management and Recovery Training.” I sought out this group because AA wasn’t the right option for me as someone who preferred a non-religious, flexible, social science-based approach to self-care and life. SMART Recovery focuses on approaches to recovery that addiction science has found effective. You can learn more about the SMART philosophy here.

I wanted a community that used psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other domains that resonate with (and fascinate) me to analyze and compare experiences of sobriety in this culture. I often think of going to a SMART meeting as attending “philosophy club” and am reminded of the eye-opening discussions I had in the classrooms of my liberal arts education. We talk about everything from the meaning of dreams to motivations, sociocultural influences, and developmental psychology. Everyone seems to know a little about something.

crowd walking in a city
Photo by Vitaliy Paykov on Unsplash

Until meeting other people in this group, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to connect with other people who were trying out this highly unusual sobriety thing. I wasn’t the only one doing nonstop introspection, anxious about stigma and feeling very “other” – but also growing from within faster than ever and feeling really positive about my life direction for the first time in years. It was an odd, mixed bag of emotions that I wouldn’t have been able to disentangle on my own.

Even though I was lucky not to have strong cravings, there were things I needed to learn from other people going through the same things. For example, what I could do and say in social situations, what was going on with my emotions, and how to challenge irrational thoughts. Making sure I attended weekly meetings at first – and attending periodically now – keeps me accountable, helps me feel connected to others, and is endlessly fascinating. 

two people holding hands on bikes
Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

Not everyone has the benefit of a local, in-person meeting for the recovery group that suits them best. Living downtown in a major metropolitan city gives me a lot of options. But there are virtual meetings and discussion boards for some recovery communities, including SMART Recovery, and it doesn’t hurt to periodically attend a community that isn’t the perfect fit just to get the experience of talking to other people who aren’t drinking.

The first time I went to a SMART Recovery meeting, I was lucky – I was the only person there, besides the facilitator. Though that was intimidating at first, I had so much to get off my chest that it quickly became cathartic. I was finally able to open up to a non-judgmental person who had also suffered from compulsive drinking, who was genuinely kind and had so many helpful things to say. It was better advice than what I was getting from the counselor I’d started seeing, who didn’t specialize in alcohol use problems. 

three birds flying in the sky
Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash

One stereotype I quickly overcame after meeting people in this community was of the person who attends recovery meetings. Not everyone who does so is an “alcoholic” in the traditional sense, drinking every day to the point of struggling financially, legally, or in some other outwardly obvious way. Some people certainly are dealing with those issues. Many, like me, just have a use or control problem. There may be interpersonal issues and other parts of their life that alcohol has affected, but most people seem quite normal on the outside. 

Needing help just wasn’t as unusual, pitiful, or miserable as I had expected. In fact, it was the opposite – the most empowering thing I had done for myself in a decade. My only question was why I hadn’t thought to look up a group and come to a meeting sooner.  Perhaps I hadn’t reached my version of “rock bottom.”

sunset light under a dock
Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash

One thing that makes recovery groups effective is the “light touch” approach. These are people you see periodically, even regularly, but have minimal to no interaction with outside the group. When you interact more deeply with people, you start to develop common ends and social roles, which can create stress and tension. Without letting these group dynamics form, the discussion remains peer-to-peer. Everyone is on the same level, and no one is in charge. You engage in helpful cross-talk, listen intently, ask questions, and offer insights to one another. Everyone is dealing with something stressful or challenging, and anyone can share a related experience or advice to help. It’s a lovely thing.

I am so thankful for the people in my recovery group – the advice they’ve offered me when I had questions, their trust and courage in sharing their experiences, and the time and energy they dedicate to working on themselves and supporting each other’s growth. It’s a level of earnest kindness and compassion I hadn’t experienced much until attending. I hope the stigma towards these groups dwindles with time, because I can’t recommend them enough to people who are struggling with their entry into sobriety, feeling isolated and adjusting to changes in their emotions and social roles. All of it can be managed, and it certainly gets better. But it’s a much easier and more empowering process when you have a sober community to help.

–Dana G

two hands forming heart with sun in the middle
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

Treat yourself!

Quitting drinking doesn’t mean you can never again do and consume things that give you great joy. You are not doomed to drinking water, eating bland food, or sitting around with nothing to do in all your free time. Believe it or not, you can retrain your brain to look forward to and deeply enjoy non-alcoholic treats and behaviors.

The pleasure that comes from drinking alcohol arises when it activates the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, a powerful reward system in our brains, by releasing a rush of dopamine. Over time, this overload causes natural dopamine production to decline. People develop tolerance and need more alcohol to produce the same effect, struggling to experience significant pleasure without it.

puddle with bright blue and green colors
Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

This alteration is progressive but reversible. It can make it quite unpleasant to give up alcohol, and difficult to experience a comparable level of pleasure from other things, until the brain adapts. You can learn more about this process here. Alcohol also affects the central nervous system and is both a depressant and an indirect stimulant. Though it’s not so much the focus of this post, you can read more about the complex neural effects of alcohol here.

When you quit drinking, your brain’s reward system doesn’t just go away. Alcohol may have been removed from the equation, but other foods, activities, and healthier behaviors such as beloved hobbies, favorite meals, and exercise have an opportunity to step in. They operate on the very same neural pathway. Regularly engaging in healthy behaviors rewires your brain to reap the feel-good benefits of dopamine without depleting it, which continued alcohol use does. Your experience of pleasure becomes more regulated, predictable, and sustainable. With practice, that can help you form more stable, healthier patterns of seeking pleasure and reward over time.

rainbow-color ferris wheel
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

At first, your focus while getting sober may be simply getting through each day without submitting to alcohol cravings. That’s quite common and perfectly okay – you shouldn’t feel pressured to enjoy every moment and be “high on life” right away. But if you’re dedicated and persistent, or even simply patient, you’ll eventually gravitate to new things and activities that give you pleasure, becoming habitual and comforting.

When I quit drinking, I started to look forward to cracking open a soda, seltzer, or non-alcoholic ginger beer, mindlessly snacking on a bunch of popcorn or cheese late at night while my eyes were glued to a Netflix series. True, it wasn’t that good for me, but we can’t give up all our vices at once. This behavior worked through the same pattern of reward my brain is wired to seek – a bit of mindless and compulsive consumption. It helped me transition out of drinking, because I didn’t feel all that different while I was doing it than back when I drank. I was still able to engage in all the consumption I desired. There was just one fewer beverage involved. And I felt more able to cut myself off, without wine lowering my inhibitions.

neon sign that says eat what makes you happy
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When I’m hanging out with friends or strangers, I find it helpful to bring selzers or sodas – often something with caffeine and sugar. That way, I have a drink in hand to consume and don’t feel like I’m missing something. The caffeine and sugar keep my energy level up and on the same level as those drinking alcohol. Sometimes, I’ll buy myself a mocktail to fully get into the mindset that I am treating myself and deserve to enjoy something special. I still drink my fair share of coffee, too, and that gives me a bit of joy in the morning – which is definitely not my favorite time of day.

Rewarding yourself doesn’t have to be limited to food. Stay up late, watch too much TV, take yourself to the movies, sleep in, hang with friends, make art, read, go for walks outside! There are thousands of things you can do besides drink alcohol to create pleasure. For some people, activities that are more introverted will bring them energy. Others may derive an emotional “lift” from finding social outlets that don’t revolve around alcohol (Meetup.com, which I’ve mentioned before, is a good place to start).

The things to which you gravitate will depend on your own predispositions, but it’s quite helpful in early sobriety to “try on” new things and see if they stick. Make a list of things you’re trying and that you really enjoy so you can come back to them when you’re feeling down. As much as you can, make time and space to enjoy your life and take a break from all that is difficult. Give yourself credit, respect, and reward for all the hard work you’re doing.

two people holding sparklers next to one another
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Because of the nature of our reward orientation, we sometimes expect the world to reward us for our internal changes, like giving up alcohol. But this doesn’t happen. The world moves on and most people don’t notice or have room to show they care, busy enough on their own journeys. We must find ways to treat and reward ourselves, and to recognize our little wins, cultivating a grateful perspective and attitude. It can help to keep a gratitude journal and to participate in a recovery group or online community to get some positive feedback on your progress with people who are on this similar unconventional journey. You can find some of those communities here.

Sobriety can sometimes feel isolating. Because we’re in an alcohol culture, society won’t reward us for quitting. We have to create our own systems of reward and recognition, turning inward rather than looking for validation from the outside. But that can only make us more content and integrated people. Enjoy your sobriety, and reward yourself for it!

-Dana G

six blue and pink donuts
Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

How much should I share?

When you quit drinking, you don’t do so in a vacuum. We interact with people day in and day out. We find ourselves in situations at work, weddings, celebrations, and more where alcohol is present – often for free and sometimes without limit. It can take a lot of patience and practice to figure out how to navigate situations like these, and to interact with other people who still drink – some of whom you may know well, others not at all. 

Let’s face it – most of us want to be liked. And that can be a challenge when you’ve decided to do something like give up alcohol or go vegan. Some people aren’t quite comfortable around sober people, or may perceive your decision to be a judgment upon their own behavior. That said, remember that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings, discomfort, or reactions if they ask why you’re not drinking and you’re compelled to respond. You are free to say as much or as little as you want about your reasons for being sober, and you can guide the conversation.

two people talking next to one another by a window
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

My best advice is to avoid being self-righteous or prescriptive about your decision to steer clear of alcohol. But if you’re comfortable talking about your experience, do it with those who are interested in hearing about it. Like many things in life, I’ve found that the best way for people to become comfortable with my sobriety is to project confidence in the way I talk about it. Communicating about your sobriety openly also contributes to breaking down stigma over time. The more people talk, the more it becomes okay to discuss the ways alcohol isn’t always a magical elixir. It helps make sobriety a valid option for people who need it, highlighting in our collective consciousness that it’s an inseparable component of alcohol culture.

Though you shouldn’t have to put other people at ease, the tools in this post are intended to help you do just that, taking the focus off the fact that you’re not drinking. As a quick side note, we also have an inflated sense of the amount other people think about us. For everyone else, the world centers around their individual experience (the “spotlight effect”). They care primarily about what others think of them, and are mostly looking at you in relation to what it says about them.

two women with each other's hands over their eyes
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Whenever alcohol is directly offered to me, once I say “I’m not drinking” or “I don’t drink” (or even “no thanks”), it seems like everyone’s next question is “why?” Everyone thinks they have a right to know my reasons. Though that can be frustrating at times, it hasn’t gotten too old for me yet, so I usually answer. I communicate certain things to my best friends, other things to my family, try to get a read on strangers before determining how much I want to say, and say very little to coworkers and some other individuals. I have my own reasons and comfort levels, but I’ve also found that different people respond better to different ways of talking about my sobriety. I’ve started to develop a sense of what kind of reaction I might get based on my relationship with them and their own demeanor. I’m not always right, but it helps.

Sometimes I simply say that I gave up alcohol for physical and mental health, and leave it at that. Other times, the conversation will evolve naturally, and I’ll talk a bit more about how I wasn’t always in control and got tired of doing things I regretted. Most people know that’s a widespread experience and move on. There could be hundreds of reasons you’re not drinking – medication, illness, pregnancy… you don’t owe anyone your truth, unless you wish to share it. It may be worth spending some time reflecting on your reasons for giving up alcohol, determining how much you want to say (or not say) to different groups of people in your life.

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As social creatures, we navigate the world by asking ourselves if we are like or unlike other people. Because of this, many people turn the conversation about why I’m not drinking back onto themselves, and why they think they do or don’t have trouble controlling their alcohol intake. I usually let those people talk through their perspective without guiding the discussion, as I don’t have a way of knowing whether they have a problem or not. If anything, I’ll mention that for me, quitting was a good idea, but that not everyone needs to. I find myself saying that a lot – “not everyone needs to.” That seems to help people realize I’m not trying to project my lifestyle onto them. 

Inevitably, some people who have reservations about their own control over alcohol will take your decision to quit as a personal threat to their ability to drink, becoming defensive. In those more awkward conversations, I again frame my sobriety as a personal decision, something that was the best decision for me – not something I’m necessarily recommending to them. I usually keep it short and let the conversation move elsewhere. Most people know whether giving up alcohol is something they should consider. It’s not up to me to tell them that. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can “save” people – most people need to decide on their own, when it’s best for them, if they are someone who needs to quit. If someone is immediately defensive, they aren’t likely to want your advice.

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Weddings and other celebrations can pose a particular challenge, especially when there’s an open bar. A large part of American culture is tremendously hedonistic, and the idea of someone choosing not to consume alcohol that’s free and unlimited is not only off-putting, but insulting in some people’s minds. Your abstaining can be seen as threatening to take away something that’s helping other people relax and deal with social anxiety. In reality, alcohol is ubiquitous – it isn’t rare or exclusive. Your decision to forego it poses no real threat to anyone else, and those in your social circle will quickly realize that. I sincerely feel that with time, as the stigma surrounding sobriety is reduced, it won’t be seen as such a big deal to stick with seltzer or soda – even in this culture.

At events like these, you may encounter friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time, and others who don’t need or deserve much detail about your reasons for abstaining. You can always simply say you’re “not drinking,” offering up a reason like being on an antibiotic or challenging yourself to a “dry month,” if you don’t want to start a conversation about your sobriety. 

wedding reception setup
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Situations like this may call for the trusty coozie, and for ordering selzers or sodas that no one needs to know are non-alcoholic. If you already have something in your hand, it’s less awkward to turn a drink down. Most people don’t care what you’re drinking. They just want to see that you have a drink in your hand. It helps them detect a sense of community that supports their own drinking. In my case, having some caffeine and sugar also helps me to stay energized and enthusiastic – to really enjoy being there, socializing, and dancing. It helps to come prepared with a coozie and a few non-alcoholic drinks, where possible.

To sum up, I’ve noticed three categories of response types when I mention that I’m not drinking. First, there are the tense and standoffish people who don’t ask much at all, and usually find a way out of the conversation entirely. Second, there are the folks who are “cool with it,” often people who feel in control of their own drinking behavior or who know others who have gone through this, so they’re at ease talking about it. Finally, there are the people who are well-intentioned but a little defensive, turning the conversation to themselves – but these conversations can often be redirected with a bit of practice. Very few people have been openly rude to me, and in the cases where that has happened, I bid them good riddance.

If you’ve given up drinking, I wish you the best of luck in any social encounters involving alcohol that are headed your way. I’m sure other non-drinkers have interesting perspectives and strategies for navigating these situations, as well – I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

-Dana G

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Joy and the pink cloud

The first few months of sobriety can serve up a whirlwind of emotions. At first, you may feel tremendously vulnerable and uncertain. You might be working to push past a “sticking point,” to fend off the strongest initial cravings and find something to do with all this free time. You may not have decided whether sobriety is something you want to maintain permanently, and worry that if you go too far, you won’t be able to return to drinking with the same blithe and carefree attitude. Concerns about commitment certainly troubled me, but I told myself this decision wasn’t necessarily forever. It was just something I needed to do for the foreseeable future (whatever that meant – I kept it vague).

Whatever challenges your initial experience presents, what comes next emotionally for many who have transitioned from heavy drinking to sobriety is referred to as the “pink cloud.” This is an early phase familiar to many in recovery that can last for days or even weeks. All the emotions you’ve been systematically suppressing with alcohol come flooding back – most noticeably, the positive ones. Your brain starts to observe the world more clearly, to digest and respond to its stimuli with only its natural neurochemicals. It begins to heal itself, overactive in its firing of new neural connections. You feel almost manic, filled with youthful energy and high on life, like you can do anything. There just isn’t enough time to get it all done, and what’s worse, you’ve been wasting all these years steeped in alcohol.

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When I was in the steamy center of the pink cloud, it was as clear as daylight that alcohol was the root of my problems, rejecting it the one thing I needed to do all along. I was blind, but then I saw. Sometimes I would have a moment of powerful clarity, as if I was experiencing something the way I would have as a child. I barreled my free time into the creative pursuits I was passionate about long before alcohol came into my life, like music and writing. I felt like I was pushing toward some sense of long-lost purpose, uncertain of what that purpose was – which made it all the more compelling.

I had all the agency, elation, and sentimentality in the world, and just had to figure out what to do with it. Weird emotions arose. I felt like I saw the tragic beauty of the human condition – how we are trained to bury our sorrows in alcohol, which fueled our tremendous ecstasies and our dark delusion. I felt high and mighty, and wise.

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The pink cloud is essentially a manic state, with heightened emotion and arousal. Though it starts off with a rush of positive emotions, it can lead to things like overconfidence, denial, arrogance, impulsiveness, unrealistic commitments, and idealistic expectations about the sober life. But it feels really, really good – especially when it arrives at the end of a period of depression and dependence.

When my pink cloud passed, I got bored and frustrated. The idea that sobriety was always going to feel so good was an illusion. Now that this brief high was over, I started to question my decision to stop drinking, wondering if I would ever have the same amount of fun, euphoria, and social connection I felt with alcohol. I felt disappointed, and for a while there, a bit depressed.

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Coming down from the artificial peak of the pink cloud threw a serious wrench in my once-clear path of sobriety. What helped me get past this lull was listening to audiobooks about the psychology behind drinking and the benefits of quitting. Understanding the complex and deeply ingrained role alcohol played in my life clarified how I needed to be patient with the neural makeover going on in my head. I came to accept that this was good for me, that I was worthy of happiness and healing. So I stopped questioning my decision to quit, and waited it out. Lo and behold, there were brighter days ahead. I found emotional equilibrium not all that much farther down the road.

I was lucky to push past the lull and see the greater things to come. For many, the manic nature of the pink cloud leads to overconfidence – to developing an inflated sense of agency around all things in their life, including drinking behavior. This is the point when a lot of people return to alcohol. They may feel they’ve recovered enough from their dysfunctional drinking patterns to reward themselves with just one drink. It’s also a time when many stop attending care or recovery groups, thinking they must not need those, feeling as good as they do. But counseling and support networks are critical at this point to help manage cravings and the triggers and temptations that surround us every day.

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If this happens when you’re trying to stay sober, you don’t have to think about drinking again as a “relapse” – it’s often just a “lapse”. What matters is not the amount of time you’ve stayed sober, but the accumulated insights you’ve gleaned from your combined efforts to become sober. You don’t lose that wisdom just because you have a few more drinks than you intended for a night, or several nights. You can pick up where you left off – and many people learn something about themselves they wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s not always easy to focus on self-compassion longer term growth. We are socialized to think of sobriety as this huge commitment that’s only for people who have a “real problem” and are completely out of control. So lapsing on your sobriety can make you feel like a huge failure. But part of learning is slipping up a few times. We accept that readily in other parts of our lives, but are hard on ourselves (and other people) when it comes to drinking and sobriety. It takes time, effort, and often a few slip-ups – lapses, not relapses.

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There are a number of things you can do to help prepare for the passing of the pink cloud, even in the midst of enjoying its benefits. You can work on mindfulness and appreciating balance – not relying solely on emotional highs to feel good. Rekindle interests you may have lost. Music and poetry helped fill my time and channel my energy. Perhaps reading, journaling, sports, or travel would benefit you. It helps to stay active, change up your daily routine, and avoid triggers. That might include avoiding old drinking spots, conflict, poor eating habits, stress, or staying up late. Triggers differ for everyone. You may not need or want to give up your friends who drink, but you can also foster new friendships with people who don’t drink to find encouragement, advice, and acceptance.

Long after the pink cloud parted ways with me, and I adjusted to the reality of life’s ups and downs with a more humble spirit, I became aware of the shifting nature of elation. My joys today are not the same as that feeling when everyone has had a few drinks – a euphoric connection, a heady interpersonal bond, immediate pleasure and relief from anxiety. Now, they’re a slower build. They arise from quality time and dedication spent in creative pursuits, overcoming anxieties by pushing myself, and taking in the beauty (and even the ugly) of the world with a clear mind.

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I wouldn’t say the things that now give me emotional and intellectual “highs” were foreign to me before giving up alcohol. But it feels like I’m fostering the more gratifying, hard-working pleasures in life. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I feel like I’m cultivating the upper levels more than I ever have. I’m developing more enriching social bonds, my self-esteem has largely repaired itself, and I’m building creative habits that I believe will serve me well in the long term.

Many feelings situated in that hierarchy are not easier – especially at first, and especially in the social realm. I am literally missing out on certain activities with old friends. I don’t go out with them to bars and parties nearly as often. But I have found my way to be present and engaged when I do attend. Your sense of social identity may become muddled when you give up alcohol, but there are countless ways to adapt, the topic of a later post. The joys I experience today feel so much better and are worth the challenge of getting here. And they don’t give me a hangover.

-Dana G

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Managing cravings and urges

It can feel quite overwhelming to go about your day-to-day life as a sober person in a society that rewards alcohol consumption and shames those who don’t drink. We’re surrounded by environmental cues prompting people to buy and consume alcohol.

There are, of course, the overt cues of industry advertising and the nearly ubiquitous presence of alcohol at bars and parties. But alcohol culture sneaks into so many more of our everyday experiences – at restaurants, grocery stores, and all kinds of social events, on movies and TV, in our social media feeds and stories – inundating our consciousness through product placement, internet humor, merchandising, and more.

green neon "drinks" sign
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On top of universal cues, many have their own personal cues to drink – when this thing happens to me, I drink to deal with it. When I’m in this environment or with this person – or see this thing that was often with me when I drank – I want alcohol. If you have a complex pattern of behavioral rituals surrounding alcohol consumption, that can compound the challenge of quitting.

What’s worse, those suffering from problems with alcohol use have been observed to experience cue reactivity, a learned response that involves heightened physiological and subjective reactions to drug-related stimuli. For those who have engaged in addictive behavior, that can lead to intense cravings and urges upon quitting. Cravings refer to the desire to drink (“I want alcohol”) and urges refer to the compulsion to act on that desire (“I have to drink now”). For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both as cravings. If it isn’t already hard enough for those who suffer from cravings in their early sobriety, alcohol culture makes it that much harder. You really can’t forget that alcohol exists and that the current norm is to drink. So on top of the cravings, many people feel like outsiders – and then feel driven to drink because it’s a quick escape from a feeling of social awkwardness.

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For many people who give up drinking, at first, cravings can feel overpowering – like you’ll die if you can’t have that one drink. But cravings can’t kill you. The inflated distress they may cause you to experience early on is a cognitive distortion that requires training to overcome. With time, each and every bout of craving will ease up and pass. One minute can feel like twenty, but with patience, it will start to feel like ten, and then five, and then cravings will fade into nothing but passing recollections. Repeated exposure and resistance will increase not only your resilience, but also the intensity of the cravings.

There are several strategies that can help with managing cravings and avoiding situations that trigger them. Early on in sobriety, we are forced to accept uncertainty. We don’t know how long we have to wait for a craving to pass, or when the next one will come. We don’t know what other people will say and do. But we can’t expect the world to become consistent until we’re internally consistent, and that can be a long, hard waiting game. A good start is to practice healthier ways to manage everyday triggers like anxiety, stress, or anger. To resist and reduce the intensity of cravings when they come on, SMART Recovery offers tips to delay, escape, accept, dispute, or substitute cravings (DEADS).

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Early in my sobriety, when my cravings and anxiety in the presence alcohol rose, I found that closing my eyes and taking a few long, deep breaths was a surprisingly effective remedy. If I had more time on my hands or my anxiety got particularly bad, I’d meditate, nap, veg out on some TV, or leave a situation that was making me highly uncomfortable, like a crowded bar. If social awkwardness was the culprit, having a seltzer or a soda in a coozie helped to minimize conversations about why I wasn’t drinking and thus reduced my feeling of being an outsider.

Other coping activities might include journaling, creating music or art, cooking, exercise, volunteering, getting fresh air – anything that eases or channels negative energy, often towards some more positive end. Mindfulness interventions may also help. You can pay close and specific attention to individual aspects of yourself and your environment, ranging from your bodily posture to sensations in different parts of your body, as well as things like colors, sounds, and objects surrounding you. Some methods work better for some people than others. Your particular stressors, triggers, and interests may dictate what will work best for you, but you can certainly try some of these out as a start.

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If your cravings have been particularly strong or you worry about your willpower to resist them, you might choose to avoid certain environments and situations. For many, bars and parties are a concern. It helps to make sure you have an “out” and a way home from these. I sometimes need to remind myself that I know what’s best for me, that I can change my surroundings. I also need an occasional reminder that I can drive my car places now that I’m sober. For those without a car, rideshare or public transportation may provide an exit route.

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For other people, spending too much time alone at home is associated with their past drinking behavior, so it helps to get outside or make plans with friends. Behavioral triggers differ for everyone, and reflecting on your prior drinking patterns can help you recognize them.

A lot of people find they shouldn’t keep alcohol in their living space. A friend of mine who gave up alcohol was recently on a work trip, staying in a hotel room that provided free bottles of wine. They almost got him – cork, glass, and sinker. He managed to avoid the strong temptation, but it might be wise in situations like this to ask the front desk if they could just remove the wine.

Empty wine glass
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I’m an odd bird in that I’ve kept the same bottle of wine in my pantry ever since I quit. I have been fortunate not to suffer from strong cravings, and I think part of me wants to feel stronger and better than that bottle of wine. Whatever feels right to you, it’s important to stay vigilant in sobriety. Change takes time. It would be unwise to think we are cured and won’t revert to the same mental justifications for having “just one” drink that we were so ingrained in a short time ago.

There are also the unexpected times when alcohol seems to be thrust upon you – the wedding toasts, the holidays, the celebrations. Drinking alcohol is often seen as a communal activity, bringing people together. By not doing so, you’re intentionally excluding yourself. As these scenarios continue to arise, I’ve personally found the path of least resistance to be telling people I don’t drink – whether I say it’s for personal reasons, for health and mental health, or even “because I’ve already had enough in this lifetime.” I speak up for myself (and am lucky to have wonderful friends who do the same).

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Some people will be uncomfortable because they take your decision to avoid drinking as a judgment of their own behavior. But by and large, people don’t care as long as they can have their drink and their fun. We are all at the center of our own universe, and no one else’s. The spotlight effect is very real. People are too wrapped up in their own social presence to notice or remember much about anyone else. People just don’t care that much about your sobriety. I’ve found that comforting.

Cravings can suck and it takes practice to get them to ease up. I see this pattern in so many areas of sobriety. Things that gave me a lot of anxiety early on have become unbelievably less painful and awkward. From filling spare time to attending parties without drinking, sidestepping wedding toasts, and dealing with heartache, frustration and stress without alcohol, so many facets of my own anxious experience have started to feel quite comfortable and natural after repeated sober exposure. Over time, you may find that you’re a much less anxious person overall.

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There are still times when a strong whiff of wine, beer, or liquor at a party throws me off keel, but I no longer crave a sip. The smell makes me feel a bit nauseous, and if anything, makes me want fresh air and space. One of the benefits of cultivating my own hobbies and creative interests is that I’ve come to prefer them over spending hours at a party around alcohol. Especially as an introvert. But I love my friends who drink and am working towards striking a balance. I want to be able to enjoy my time with them, and that comes more easily now – even without alcohol.

It has been important to me to find inner balance and strength, managing my anxiety so that I’m able to be around alcohol without cravings or a sense of social awkwardness getting the better of me. It was hard the first few months, but it has begun to feel more and more natural. And it was certainly worth the early effort to get here.

If you’re struggling with cravings, I hope some of the tools in this post will help you to get to a place of comfort and ease. Please share any other strategies that have worked for you in the comments!

-Dana G

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Should I quit? Sobriety and moderation

Are you considering whether sobriety is something you should try? Recognizing whether you need or want to quit drinking isn’t easy and looks different for everyone. The stereotypical picture of the newly-sober person is someone who hits “rock bottom” and has no other choice but to give it up – for health, interpersonal, or perhaps legal reasons. It could be anything, but we typically envision something serious.

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Many people do hit “rock bottom” before stopping. Rock bottom may be losing your family or job, or it could just be one instance of going too far, doing something you deeply regretted while drunk. A lot of people drink heavily but “functionally” in a sense, going about their jobs and personal lives while compartmentalizing any pain alcohol might be causing. They might not hit rock bottom as we typically see it, but accumulate enough regrets over time that they want a change. Another person drinking somewhat heavily might just want to try out a healthier lifestyle, perhaps driven by the “sober curious” wellness trend.

Whatever your reason(s) are, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor or mental health counselor before deciding to quit. They won’t (and can’t) force you to stop drinking just because you start the conversation. But they can provide you with additional tools and guidance, should you choose to proceed. If you’re experiencing any additional mental health conditions – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or anything else – it’s important that you assess any risks and get all the information you need so that if you decide to quit, you can transition safely to sobriety.

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It can help when contemplating giving up alcohol to read some articles and maybe a book or two about alcohol sobriety to see what it entails and whether it’s something you feel ready and able to pursue. I personally enjoyed This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and Alcohol Explained by William Porter early on in my sobriety. They reminded me why I was doing this and alerted me to some of the physical health benefits that hadn’t weighed as heavily into my decision to quit, but certainly helped keep me going. There are more and more books out there in this area, especially with the sober curious and mindful drinking movements gaining popularity. You can find a few book lists linked to on the Resources page of this blog.

While there are clearly people who need to refrain completely from alcohol use, that’s not everyone’s experience. If you feel it’s worth giving sobriety a try, you might not have to tell yourself you’ll never drink again. That all-or-nothing approach is a huge commitment and can intimidate and discourage people from taking what might just be a well-needed break. At first, I told myself I wouldn’t be drinking again “for the foreseeable future” and gave myself the flexibility to change that decision, should I want to.

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In my case, I felt pretty sure I couldn’t start up again moderately, or I’d slowly revert to the same compulsive drinking patterns in which I’d been ingrained. I’m a night owl, so for me, that meant things like telling myself it was okay to stay up and have another glass or two of wine after I returned from drinking events – even on weeknights. I always went to bed much later than intended and felt miserable the next day. And that’s on the light end of things. For people with use problems, when there’s a will there’s a way, and the will is to drink more. It’s a behavioral problem, and we’ll always behave. It’s very hard and takes a lot of dedicated work to shift behavior patterns.

But not everyone has that level of compulsivity, and many people can shift to moderate drinking after a pattern of heavy drinking, or after a period of sobriety. If continuing to drink at lower levels poses no serious risk to you or others, it might be worth trying moderation before making the decision to quit entirely. You can limit yourself to a certain number of drinks per night, or per week, or in certain social settings – in some way tracking and limiting your consumption. Try a glass of water or something other than alcohol between drinks. That can be a good test of your willpower.

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If you do try that, pay attention to how difficult it feels. If it’s no trouble, then maybe you can continue and don’t really need to give up alcohol completely. If it’s prohibitively difficult – if, even after several attempts, you find yourself making excuses to push past the limit, or you can’t get your mind off the drink you’re not having – you might want to consider giving up alcohol.

Apart from cravings for those with chemical dependence, navigating social situations can be one of the hardest things to get used to in sobriety (and warrants a separate blog post). This is one of the first excuses many people state for why they couldn’t quit drinking. There’s the social awkwardness and anxiety, the fear of missing out on things, and, though people don’t typically state it, the threat to a social identity they’ve formed that involves alcohol.

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A lot of us drink in social settings to avoid feeling awkward and anxious while we adjust to the environment. Having been in a host of social situations without alcohol, I’ve been paying close attention to those group dynamics. To me, it seems that with patience and time, people seem to adjust and that initial awkwardness subsides – for both those drinking and those not drinking. But it’s hard when you first quit to get to that point of calm and ease without the aid of alcohol, especially if your anxiety is particularly strong. Having a seltzer or soda in hand (or hidden in a coozie) certainly helps.

In one of my SMART Recovery meetings, someone said, “If you pull a carrot out of the ground, you can’t put it back in. That carrot has seen things.” That’s an apt representation of how I felt when I first realized I was probably “one of those people” who needed to give up alcohol for good. I saw who I was becoming and couldn’t unsee it. That moment occurred well before I gave it up – years before, actually. But if you really have a use problem, part of you probably knows it. It’s pretty common to have a voice inside you pointing out that your drinking looks different from everyone else’s. You might feel like you’re not always in control, that something else keeps taking the reins.

And at that point – or years later, if you’re like me – you’ll stop trying to put the carrot back in the ground.

-Dana G

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Terminology surrounding alcohol use

What’s the difference between alcohol use, misuse, abuse, and dependence? And between moderate and heavy consumption, binge drinking, and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)? We hear these highly related terms a lot, often used casually and unspecifically. That makes it tough if you’re trying to understand the distinctions and find out if your relationship with alcohol is safe and healthy or problematic.

It helps to remember that alcohol-related behaviors and conditions don’t exist on their own. Each of us has unique developmental differences, life experiences, personalities, social and cultural influences, motivations, traumas, and mental health challenges that contribute to how we approach and interact with alcohol. It’s not always easy to pinpoint whether alcohol is a problem in your life, and whether adjusting your relationship with alcohol or something else will help you overcome whatever struggles you might be facing. 

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It can become even more confusing when you read up on these terms. Some of the information you find online is contradictory. You may exhibit some, but not all the behaviors linked to risky alcohol use, or feel like you sit somewhere in between two levels of consumption. The important thing to remember is that alcohol use lies on a spectrum. No definition or diagnosis is perfect. They are simply there to help you start to make sense of your relationship with alcohol, to get some idea of what constitutes healthy vs. unhealthy drinking behavior. You don’t have to identify with anything perfectly, or at all.

Ask yourself how you feel about your drinking. Does alcohol make you feel good about yourself and your connections to other people? Is that consistent, or is there turbulence in your life fueled by alcohol? Are there patterns of repercussions that are impacting you negatively (injuries, unintended behavior, embarrassment, work or legal challenges)? Does alcohol augment positive aspects of your personality or negative ones? Asking yourself questions like these can be more clarifying than reading behavioral and diagnostic terms.

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However, language is important for helping us describe our world, to categorize and communicate, and at times, to heal. For that reason, here are some of the many terms often used in recovery settings to define alcohol consumption.

  • Alcohol use: This simply refers to the behavior of consuming alcohol. People “use” alcohol at different levels – not at all, moderately, or heavily. 
  • Moderate alcohol use: The numbers can feel a little stringent, especially because they don’t take into account how varied our body composition can be. But this is defined as up to three drinks on any single day and up to seven drinks per week for women. For men, it’s up to four drinks on any single day and up to 14 drinks per week.
  • Heavy alcohol use: This is defined in terms of the frequency of binge drinking. Doing so on five or more days within a month is classified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as heavy alcohol use. This blog is mostly catered to people who have consumed alcohol at this level and are interested in navigating sobriety, because that was my experience – so naturally, that’s where I’m writing from.
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  • Alcohol misuse: This is an umbrella term referring to a range of behaviors that increase a person’s risk of adverse health and social consequences. These behaviors include risky, or excessive alcohol use (which encompasses binge drinking), as well as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence – two terms that have been replaced in the medical literature and are now encompassed under the broader diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). 
  • Risky (excessive) alcohol use: This refers to heavy alcohol use, binge drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than the age of 21 (CDC). It is based on the amount of alcohol that increases the risk of poor health outcomes such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and certain cancers – along with an increased risk of developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
  • Binge drinking: If you come from a hard-partying college in the U.S. like I did, you probably need no introduction to what binge drinking is. But here’s how SAMHSA defines it: five or more alcoholic drinks for males, and four or more alcoholic drinks for females consumed within a couple of hours on at least one day within a month. That’s the level that typically (again, dependent on body composition) brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.
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That’s a good start, but it doesn’t tell us what’s normal and at what level heavy alcohol use becomes a “disorder.” How do you know if you really have a problem? And how serious is it? While the below can only be diagnosed by a medical professional, looking at the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can help you to start thinking clearly about your alcohol consumption and relationship with alcohol on a larger scale.

Again, don’t jump to any conclusions about yourself! Though frequent binge drinking is quite common (one in six adults binge drinks around four times per month), not everyone who does so develops AUD. The statistics show that among people who have one heavy drinking day per month, two in 10 have AUD, and among those who have one heavy drinking day per week, three in 10 have AUD. The risk is higher for those who have two or more heavy drinking days per week, among whom five in 10 have AUD.

  • Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) distinguished between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence based on the number of diagnostic criteria met under each of those categories. But the new edition of this diagnostic resource – the DSM-V – removes that distinction and instead has one diagnosis, called Alcohol Use Disorder, classified by severity (mild, moderate, severe) depending on how many of 11 criteria are met. Most of us are brought up to believe that you either are or are not an “alcoholic.” But the current definitions seem to imply that here is really a spectrum of alcohol-related problems, rather than this binary concept of alcoholism. Because of this, I won’t be referring to “alcoholism” in my blog.

In general, AUD involves continuing to drink despite recurrent social, interpersonal, and/or legal problems that result from alcohol use. Behaviorally, it usually involves frequent binge drinking, but may or may not reach the level of chemical dependence. A person may start to narrow in on social events and friendships that involve drinking, require increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect, and be subjectively aware of cravings and the compulsion to drink, continuing to do so even if it’s making them feel depressed or anxious.

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At more severe levels, they’ll experience physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms like tremors, nausea, sweating, and insomnia shortly after they stop drinking, and drink to relieve or avoid those symptoms. If they decide to quit, the intensity of withdrawal symptoms may push them to lapse back into drinking behavior.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides several questions that can help when considering whether if you might be suffering from AUD. If you have severe AUD and might experience withdrawal symptoms upon quitting drinking, outside help is advised during the recovery process. You should work with your doctor to determine what’s best for you, but that additional help might include detoxification, medical treatment, or professional rehab – in addition to the counseling and group support that, in my opinion, are helpful to anyone moving from misuse to sobriety. The SAMHSA helpline is available 24/7 to help you locate a range of recovery resources.

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To summarize things, the risks of alcohol use are typically gauged by the amount consumed, considering the number of drinks, frequency, and other behaviors surrounding drinking and its impacts. Alcohol misuse is an umbrella term that describes a broad spectrum of behaviors and conditions – including risky (excessive) alcohol use and AUD – that increase a person’s risk of adverse health and social consequences.

I hope these definitions will be of some value as you consider whether you feel in control of your drinking behavior. Remember that none of the above come with the label of “alcoholic,” but refer only to behaviors. And problem behavior always exists on a spectrum. It’s important that we try to shake off some of the stigma surrounding how we talk about alcohol use and sobriety so we can begin to think clearly about it!

-Dana G

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