Free will and free fall: Alcohol myopia

What happens to our sense of free will – or control over our choices – along the journey of a troubled relationship with alcohol?

For many who have misused alcohol, like me, it’s free will that lights our first spark of intrigue for the stuff. Alcohol is part of our coming of age. In adolescence or early adulthood, we’re drawn to the first real experience of autonomy, or ownership of our bodies and minds, that drinking creates. That feeling presents a stark contrast to what we’re used to and what we may have come to resent, a sense of being “owned” by our parents or guardians, and by a society that has set so many inflexible rules throughout our lives.

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But alcohol can prey upon that thrilling sense of free will, causing us to develop myopia, or a limited capacity to perceive and react to things in our environment. It urges us to behave without inhibition, with sometimes grisly effects on our physical and emotional well-being. In the long term, our self-image can take a blow. We may lose confidence and respect for ourselves, as well as the very sense of autonomy that alcohol excited in us in the first place. These losses can cause us to drink more often and more heavily in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, numbing our emotional pain and discomfort, mourning the shrinking of our once-expansive identity.

What is alcohol myopia?

In this post, I’ll explore a fascinating theory of alcohol’s effects that helps to explain this dramatic change in so many drinkers. Reading about it brought up some unpleasant memories for me, but has also been illuminating, prompting me to reflect on exactly how alcohol impacted my mental faculties and drinking behavior. 

The theory of alcohol myopia suggests that alcohol narrows the range of what we’re able to perceive. When we drink, we zoom in on prominent environmental cues, paying less attention to subtle ones. You can think of it like tunnel vision, or nearsightedness, where we focus on things, people, words, and other stimuli in our immediate environment, but pay little attention to factors like context, the feelings of others, or how we’re being perceived. 

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Alcohol also impairs our emotions, judgment, and decision-making. We’re less able to regulate our reactions or to think through the potential consequences of our behavior. For instance, we may partake in risky sexual behavior because we’re more tuned into the quest for passion or pleasure than the less immediate presence of health risks or emotional impacts. Or we may initiate a physical or verbal fight with a stranger, hyper-focused on a single remark that triggered an emotional response rather than the full scope of what was said. We’ve all seen situations where a drunk person just can’t listen to reason, unable to drop some small frustration, letting things escalate and becoming more and more belligerent.

Myopia has three major effects on our cognitive processes, or how we think. First, it causes self-inflation. When we’re drunk, we ignore our flaws and have a heightened self-image, bordering on narcissism. This can lead us to act with a dangerous level of confidence and in ways we would not when sober. Second, alcohol creates a sense of relief from stress and anxiety. Though that feels great and benefits us to a degree, a certain amount of stress and anxiety is adaptive. When we drink too heavily, we lose the capacity to pay attention to things that might otherwise worry us, including present risks.

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Finally, myopia leads to excessive behavior. Our brain’s frontal cortex isn’t working as it should to regulate urges that are normally considered socially unacceptable. For some people, these urges lead to aggressive responses like rage, physical destruction, or sexual assault. Other drinkers simply become more talkative, flirtatious, or adventurous – though at some level, even these behaviors can become problematic.

Myopia and free will

For a time, we may process our excessive drunken behaviors as acts of free will and empowerment. I certainly had a feeling of boundless autonomy as I stomped around my college campus and the bars, parties, and concerts I attended after graduating. I felt I was in control (or could be most of the time), ignoring my wake of destruction. That sense of autonomy was driven by my inflated self-image (which often plummeted the next day) and was given free rein due the relaxed boundaries created by my relief from stress and anxiety.

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A big ego feels great when you’re drunk. I thought I was extremely funny, magnetic, and unique. In reality, I was often loud, careless, and rude. Alcohol’s myopic tunnel-vision effect made it difficult to recognize the difference. I was observing and responding to a limited range of things in my environment, overlooking other factors that were not as evident but were often more important.

My Hyde

Over a period of more years than I’d like to admit, I came to recognize that I was stuck in a pattern of alcohol use that caused me to tumble out of control every few months. My drunken sense of free will would mask my true identity, like Hyde overtaking Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story. The warm and wonderful feeling of independence that initially prompted me to drink turned into a distinct, tunnel-visioned, destructive force that disembodied itself and acted on its own behalf, often without my knowing. What started as a shallow expression of free will eventually stole my deeper, inner strength and self-determination.

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At times, I caused emotional pain to close friends and family, offended people, or degraded myself. If I couldn’t remember how things got out of control, I’d reconstruct the events using snippets of others’ recollections, text messages, and other piecemeal evidence. I longed for a linear cause-and-effect understanding, an excuse, vindication. It wasn’t there.

I wouldn’t wish the shame and remorse I felt on anyone. These feelings compounded over time into one giant shame-monster that took a lot of time and therapy to defeat. It got to the point where I didn’t care about myself or think I deserved anything different, and I was afraid to look in the figurative “mirror.” At times, I was utterly disgusted with who I’d become.

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That may have been a distorted and melodramatic reaction to my mistakes, which weren’t that horrible in the grand scheme of things or compared to the difficulties others have faced. But these negative experiences are subjective and deeply personal. This is how the mind reacts to repeated abuse and injury, thanks to our complicated psychologies. We all have unique anxieties, traumas, and things we’re stuck on from our developmental years that make the shame beast uniquely challenging for each of us.

The guilt and self-loathing I experienced also created a vicious cycle that had me drinking more because I had low self-esteem – alcohol’s ultimate coup. I wanted to drown out my very sense of self, right along with the painful memories – to give in.

Reviving the will

I’m happy to report that it’s possible to escape this dreadful game of tug-of-war in emotion and behavior, and that the feelings of shame and damage are reversible. There’s a way out of this dark tunnel of myopia, and once we’re outside of it, we recover the ability to see the things that alcohol obscured.

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For some, freedom comes from quitting alcohol entirely. For others, moderation may work. Either way, when we take control, we regain that sense of excitement and empowerment we had when we seized independence in our formative years. We gradually rebuild trust in ourselves as we continue along this new path, redeveloping a sense of dignity and self-respect. 

Eventually we recognize that we are, in fact, empowered by the new tools we’ve worked to find and hone. These can include anything from a recovery program to introspection, therapy, meditation and mindfulness, new hobbies, creative pursuits, or the outdoors. 

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Our tools may even rekindle passions from before we first drank, bringing us in tune with the person we were meant to become and strengthening our newly reclaimed sense of free will. For me, that meant writing for pleasure and learning a new musical instrument. I had largely given up on these pursuits after college, and it wasn’t until I quit drinking that I was able to invest enough time and mental energy to pick them back up again and take them seriously. I can’t thank my sobriety enough for the sense of empowerment these tools have restored in me. 

I rarely feel tempted by alcohol these days. I’m confident that the only way for me to truly stay in control, and to experience genuine free will, is to reject it. Instead, I must hang onto and refine these tools of healing, which have restored the much-loved, reclaimed and refitted vestiges of my past.

–Dana G

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Reflections on a Two-Year Soberversary

Our society is at a veritable spaghetti bowl of crossroads. Among a multitude of systemic problems, we’re now at an intersection of two unprecedented situations: (1) uncertainty, distress, and often-futile debate about how to deal with a worldwide pandemic, and (2) acknowledging a history of widespread racial injustice to push for long-overdue social change. For many of us, the stress this brings is compounded by other, more personal challenges, making us feel like we’re living at the brink. Life is not simple “at this difficult time,” as they say.

In the unimportant middle of it all, and with a tinge of guilt, I’m celebrating a small victory. On Tuesday, I reached the two-year mark in my sobriety. Many are familiar with the myths surrounding sober people – that we’re socially cut off, feel healthier but can’t easily have fun, etc. For me, the picture is much more complex. In this post, I want to reflect on what has changed in the last couple of years. Not just the good stuff, but also the things that have become more difficult. 

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Getting Started

For most of the first year, I underwent a series of emotional shifts. I had to figure out how to navigate the pink cloud, which gave me an almost-manic sense of energy and excitement. I gritted my teeth as that stage passed, as my spirits dampened and I became somewhat disillusioned with my decision to give up alcohol. Then, I settled into the more periodic ups and downs of a normal emotional life without the help of alcohol. 

During that year, I benefited from the support network of therapy and a recovery group. They provided me with outlets to talk through emotions and sources of stress, and to develop healthier coping behaviors. And they kept me accountable to making change because I was checking in week-to-week.

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The second year was a lot easier. I developed more confidence and spoke with greater conviction. I didn’t think about my sobriety nearly as often, or about how new treats and activities were “replacements” for alcohol. I merely sought them out with enthusiasm and enjoyed them.

Now, I freely share my experience and don’t care as much what other people think. As I challenge myself through different scenarios like weddings and (pre-COVID-19) travel, I’m desensitized to lingering anxiety about being sober and feel more comfortable. I still find checking in with a recovery group helpful because the sober experience is rather uncommon. It helps to talk about certain things with the rather limited pool of people who are going through this – for example, navigating pervasive pressure to drink and being the lone “sober person” at parties and work events.

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Identity

When I gave up alcohol, my behavior was often at odds with a shaky and rather suppressed sense of what I valued. Sobriety allowed me to reconnect – with surprising speed – to a more childlike sense of joy and to earlier, more creative elements of my identity

At the same time, I’ve lost what had become my drinking identity. I’m not as funny or carefree (at least, not in the same way). It’s hard for me to feel as much affinity for art, music, and films that celebrate alcohol, and I don’t feel as deeply connected to environments and people associated with drinking. Some aspects of my sense of “self” have died off – and with that, there’s a mourning process. At times, I reminisce and feel tremendously sad. But then I remember how sick and depressed I felt in the depths of a terrible hangover or a shameful drinking mistake.

In many ways, I feel immensely more secure than before. My physical and mental health are more stable, and I don’t suffer from the existential panic of losing myself to cognitive blocks after heavy drinking. I’m able to work creatively and maintain focus on projects. I feel attuned and in control of when I need to relax and have fun, and when I should instead work or focus outward on being helpful to others. Dedication to creative pursuits and supporting others where I can are new parts of an identity that I almost need to cherish in order to grieve the elements I have lost, and to move on.

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Fun and Feeling Good

The ways in which I find fun and reward myself look a lot different than they did two years ago. Instead of going for the feel-good, somewhat numbing comfort of a bottle of wine with Netflix – or the excitement of partying – I settle for less volatile treats and activities (often, Vital Absorbing Creative Interests) that have the added benefit of moving me towards fulfillment. Well, to be honest, the Netflix has stayed – and I do plenty of things that aren’t productive or health oriented. But they don’t put me on a long-term downward path, as far as I can tell.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I also miss how drinking and partying felt. I won’t pretend sobriety is all smiles and positivity. There are times you feel like you’re watching paint dry. After all, you relinquished a source of powerful euphoria for stability and, you hope, the steady journey to a more lasting contentment.

But in that work of relinquishment, I’ve reclaimed my time – my evenings, my weekends. I’m trying out new things, reading, learning a new musical instrument, getting around my city, immersing myself in writing projects, and participating in various interest-based communities.

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Social Interactions

Fortunately, I’m still close to my friends who drink – which is made easier by the fact that they don’t party as hard as we did at a younger age. But I no longer gravitate to doing things that revolve around drinking, like going to bars. With friends who appreciate and respect me, I don’t feel judged for skipping out, and we find ways of staying connected without alcohol. Sometimes I ignore my instinct, go anyway, and find myself counting the minutes until I can leave. Other times, I surprise myself and have a lot of fun. It’s all hard to predict. 

I prefer smaller or one-on-one hangouts, and events with an activity to stay occupied – anything from board games to axe throwing. Conversation and activities are more fulfilling to me than the overstimulation of bars and parties. I’ve also gained a network of friends of various ages and backgrounds through writing groups. Through these friendships, I feel like I’ve grown socially, learning more about perspectives outside of my own and bonding over shared interests. 

I value my alone time more than ever – and nowadays, it’s not because I’m too hungover to be around other people. As residual feelings of dislike and distrust for myself dwindle, I’ve become more secure in my own skin and grown accustomed to spending time by myself.

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Frustrations and Challenges

My sources of frustration haven’t disappeared, but have certainly changed. Before I quit drinking, I sometimes became stubborn and deceptive when denied alcohol. My drinking occasionally put a strain on interpersonal relationships, leading me to become defensive and resentful even when I was in the wrong. Moodiness came in waves with how my body and my buzz felt, and was worst when I was hungover.

Though none of that is the case anymore, I have fresh new frustrations and anxieties. Sometimes I feel unbearably stuck in social situations. I feel irritated when I don’t have enough alone time to do fulfilling things like read or write. I worry (perhaps more than I should) about a few people in my life, and get frustrated (again, more than I should) when their behavior isn’t in line with my hopes for them. 

At times, I feel lonely, and that there aren’t many people who really “get” me. I worry that I’m not as connected to friends and family who still drink. But I’ve come to realize that’s mostly in my head. When we hang out, it doesn’t feel that different from before I quit. I think this stems from a fear of losing ties to people who are important to me as my identity changes. Thankfully, it doesn’t play out in reality.

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Sometimes, I’m insecure and uncertain whether I’m working toward a sense of purpose with work and creative pursuits. I’ll take on too much because I’m still figuring out who I am. Abandoning projects can be difficult for me. 

Occasionally, I feel gut-wrenching waves of self-doubt and disgust. I believe it’s a residual feeling from years of doing things I regretted and not dealing with the aftermath. It can resurface after exposing personal topics through blogging and poetry, probably because of internalized shame due to the existence of widespread stigma towards alcohol and mental health issues. But I think writing and sharing is an important part of my healing. I imagine it will take time and repeated exposure for me to overcome this feeling.

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The Future

The way I approach the world (and my writing), there’s always room for improvement. I still feel uncomfortable and uncertain about a lot of things. There are sources of selfishness and wellness-related issues I’d like to overcome. I want to get better about managing stress and anxiety; be a better listener; perhaps – one day – become a morning person, relying less on caffeine.

In the first two years without alcohol, I’ve had some opportunities to offer advice and mentorship – not just about sobriety. Though I may not be the most qualified person to do so, I’m grateful for opportunities to share my insights and to grow from the experience. I don’t know what “my calling” is, but until then, I’ll continue writing and lending support to anyone who comes to me curious about sobriety or struggling with their own alcohol intake. With an educational background in English, psychology, and health communications, I almost can’t help myself from taking an interest in these issues and writing about them.

In the next couple of years, I want to think less and less about my sobriety and focus more on who I want to be and what legacy I want to leave. I am a bit of a dabbler in social causes, but I could be learning faster and doing more. I hope you’ll see me finding greater clarity and more determination in fighting for just causes. Even amid the seeming chaos of the world today, there’s too much in life to look forward to – and to fight for. I don’t want to miss out.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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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 (such as binge drinking), as well as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence – which 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 alcohol misuse can lead to a disorder. 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.

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 AUD can help you to start thinking clearly about your alcohol consumption and relationship with alcohol on a larger scale.

  • 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. Instead, it has one diagnosis called Alcohol Use Disorder that is 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 illustrate a spectrum of alcohol-related problems. The terms “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” are still sometimes used to refer to severe AUD that involves chemical dependence, but AUD may or may not reach that level.

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AUD involves continuing to drink despite recurrent social, interpersonal, and/or legal problems that result from alcohol use. A person with AUD might 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.

At more severe levels, a person might develop chemical dependence and experience physical withdrawal symptoms like tremors, nausea, sweating, and insomnia shortly after they stop drinking. The intensity of withdrawal symptoms might 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 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 counseling and group support. The SAMHSA helpline is available 24/7 to help you locate a range of recovery resources.

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To summarize, 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. Alcohol misuse doesn’t necessarily indicate someone is an “alcoholic,” which involves chemical dependence and can result in withdrawal symptoms upon quitting. Risky behavior 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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