Re-entering a world that drinks

The world is changing, yet again – and as always. In the U.S., people are getting vaccinated, infection rates are dropping, and most of us are now able to visit the friends and family we haven’t seen in 3D in what feels like ages. It’s a strange sensation, this whole in-person socializing thing, and sometimes a bit awkward.

For many, the past month or so has seen a surge of social activity, and an adjustment (some might see it as more of a threat) to the new routines they developed and came to rely on for comfort and a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. For both drinkers and non-drinkers, the shift can feel like a loss of control, causing anxiety over the rate of change around us.

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Sobriety and introversion

Giving up alcohol changes the nature of social companionship, causing most of us to spend less time in settings centered around alcohol and more time in groups where drinking isn’t the focus, such as those based around common activities or creative interests. Quitting can also lead to spending more time alone, in more introverted pastimes.

For me, that adjustment happened well before the pandemic. Though I’d joined a few writing groups that met regularly, I was spending a lot more time alone writing and editing, practicing guitar, and doing other activities to re-engage my mind as it worked on recovering synaptic connections that had been somewhat sluggish in the years prior.

This made the transition to prolonged isolation at the beginning of the pandemic rather easy for me compared to how I imagine it felt for people who’d been more accustomed to frequent social time in the months leading up to it. I was in my sober comfort zone, spending hours upon days upon weeks in my apartment – reading, writing, working, and watching TV. I had one needed “escape” from the indoors, which consisted of long bike rides through the city, but even that was something I did alone.

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It must have been nine or ten months after the world shut down that I really started itching to get “out there.” It took another five months for most of the world around me to get vaccinated. In that time, I began dating someone and spending loads of time with them. Needless to say, my routines changed dramatically. Together, we built new ones – though they were still, out of necessity, rather insulated (which was fine with us!).

Social gatherings in the opening world

For me, the last few weeks have felt more like a slingshot than a gradual, comfortable transition back to social activity. We went from near-total isolation (and with it, total control over our daily and nightly routines) to seemingly constant pressure to catch up with everyone we haven’t seen in a year and a half. We’re making frequent plans and spending fewer evenings in the ways in which we’d become so comfortable. Mostly, the change is refreshing and welcome. But it’s also quite fast, and quite consuming.

Humans are creatures of comfort. Whether someone is sober or drinks, routines have a calming effect and reassure us when we experience anxiety, emotional triggers, or painful memories. Each time those routines are shaken up, it takes us time to adjust. That happened for the entire world during the pandemic, and it happened for me again with my new relationship. Now, the norm is shifting rapidly yet again, from one of isolation and virtual communication to one with increasingly frequent in-person hangouts.

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It may seem odd, but I’ve struggled to elicit, feel, and express excitement recently when invited to social outings. My first emotion is often irritation at the consistent chipping away of my free time – mixed with guilt for having that reaction to the prospect of seeing people I care about. It can take me hours to rally enthusiasm about doing something and then accept an invitation. The vast majority of the time, I’m quite happy to be there once I go, though I’m even happier when the gathering doesn’t last more than a few hours. Something about giving up my independence and me-time has been quite difficult.

What’s more, a lot of these reunions and social gatherings involve quite a bit of drinking, taking place in the heat of summer. During the pandemic, I was spoiled with not having to feel like the “odd woman out.” I’d had a nice, long break from navigating the emotional and social complexities of sobriety in party environments. And I’d forgotten what a challenge those can be – especially, as in my situation, when you’re meeting a lot of new people (friends of a significant other) and hoping to make a good impression.

There’s also the challenge of being surrounded at restaurants, bars, or parties by enticing alcoholic drinks that activate our sensory pathways. After over a year of evading that pressure within the confines of our homes, the reminder that we have to resist these delicious, exciting things can create a fresh hell.

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I find myself questioning more often why I’m doing this. Is it a personal choice or a necessity? Am I the same person I was three years ago when I quit drinking? Or might I have the willpower now to have a drink or two, but adhere to a limit? How long would it take me to push that limit? In truth, I know that both my psyche and my relationship with alcohol are more complicated than that. So I make the decision over and over to reflect on what I’ve gained and maintain my sobriety rather than test my limits and backtrack on personal progress.

Fear and projection surrounding control

Despite these sources of anxiety, I usually feel like I’m in the driver’s seat with my emotions and reactions in drinking environments. But in the past month, a few situations have taught me about something that causes me significant distress and can force me out of that driver’s seat. When I see someone I care about drinking past their threshold, I can turn into a ball of angst – knowing first-hand where that can lead, worried they’re heading there. I project onto them my fears about losing control of oneself, and one’s life.

I know that we’re all responsible for our own behavior and its outcomes. And I’m consciously aware that it’s quite normal and okay for people to drink a little more heavily at times. But when I see it happening, I can’t help but imagine the worst and feel the need to step in and protect. If I can’t communicate effectively in the moment – whether it’s due to the person’s drinking, the presence of others, or my own lack of clarity about what the “problem” is – I can become exasperated and feel disconnected.

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I hope to come to a better understanding of myself and my place in the “drinking world,” which is, for better or worse, the only one that exists. I’ve learned that I need to be calmer and more cognizant of what causes these negative reactions to other people’s alcohol intake. Is there a real threat, or are my fears triggered by my own past mistakes and traumas, like how scary it felt to lose control and have no memory of what happened the next day? I’m starting to realize the latter is often the case. Perhaps this is a residual symptom of some form of PTSD.

Getting back out there

I’ve learned that I don’t have to say “yes” to every invitation that comes my way – particularlyif it’s a gathering that’s likely to involve more than a little drinking. Like anyone, I don’t want to miss out on the fun, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally staying home.

Nevertheless, so far I’ve lived my sober life with the belief that it’s better to put myself in somewhat uncomfortable situations because they help me learn and grow. Comfort zones can be very restrictive, and my approach is more like “exposure therapy” – with the goal of empowering me to handle anything that comes my way. That might not work for everyone, but it has worked for me so far.

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We can’t (and probably shouldn’t) live life attempting to completely shed anxiety. It’s rooted in past experience, and it’s adaptive. We need it in order to detect real danger and prepare to cope with our environment. So I have to continually deal with it, assessing where it’s coming from and how I can better manage it.

Like everyone else, I’m just starting to figure out how to be back in the social universe after a world-changing pandemic – in my case, as someone who doesn’t drink and is in a new relationship. Though we sober folks had a bit of a reprieve during the pandemic from steering our awkward course through drinking environments, the reality is that we’re back to it now.

The world keeps spinning, and it certainly keeps drinking. If we want to remain a part of it, and stay sober within it, we must pay attention to what’s spinning in our heads. And then we need to adjust, becoming our best selves to the friends, family, and loved ones who give us purpose.

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Dating without drinking, Part 1

The one-year rule

I’ve wanted to write this post for quite some time but didn’t feel I’d accumulated the experience to do so. Perhaps I still haven’t, but seeing as I’ve recently gotten back into the dating scene (carefully, and outdoors), I felt inspired to go ahead and write it. Dating during the COVID-19 pandemic is an important topic with its own set of challenges and concerns, which I’ll only briefly address in context. This post is focused on the alcohol piece of dating sober. Or, I should say, the no alcohol piece.

This is written in two parts because most recovery communities recommend two phases of return to the dating world after someone quits drinking. The first part covers why it’s generally advised not to date in your first year of sobriety, and the second part addresses what dating can look like once we’re ready for it.

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Shore yourself up first

In first year of sobriety, our minds are racing to reform connections, find their footing, and establish meaning and hope in a lifestyle that is much changed. As we adapt, we’re vulnerable. Sometimes we react more emotionally to small triggers than we might otherwise. We can experience significant ups and downs in our mood and self-image, which not only feels terrible but can lead to relapse.

During this time, it’s generally advised that people avoid major life changes such as entering romantic relationships, changing jobs, and moving long distances. You may have heard of similar recommendations for the period following a divorce or the loss of a spouse. In both cases, it’s often called the one-year rule.

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Dating can place us in situations that are new, exciting, uncomfortable, and anxiety-provoking. In the past, we may have relied on alcohol to modulate these extremes and maintain a feeling of confidence. But when dating sober, we don’t have that crutch – and we’re around someone who may be unfamiliar with our challenges and uncertain how to navigate them.

What’s more, both alcohol and relationships play on our sense of self-worth. Rejection can hurt that much more when we’re newly sober, even if it’s from someone we’re just getting to know who has no standing to judge us. We’re likely to attribute a failed relationship to some fault of our own, though the cause may be something we’re not tuned into on the other person’s end.

My own experience is a prime example. Overconfident in my new resilience, I ignored the one-year rule and pursued a few short-lived romances in my first year of sobriety that didn’t work out. I built up fantasies in my head even when there were signs my interest level wasn’t matched. The reality hurt and put a few dents in my healing self-confidence. But it also reignited my emotional range and creative energy. I channeled my frustrations into writing poetry, which was both cathartic and invigorating, reigniting a former passion that continues to grow.

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What is it about dating?

So, why do we still go after new relationships during this first year? Why did I? There’s something about love – we love love. It’s novel, it’s exciting, it’s affirming, and it demands our attention. Love inhibits our frontal lobe, which controls judgement and logic. Oddly, the emotional fluctuations of a budding romance look a lot like drug use. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. As with alcohol, we impulsively seek the highs of a relationship but forget about the lows.

When you’re interested in someone and waiting for a text, that ding on your phone can feel like a “hit.” But waiting for it is torture. When (and if) it comes, the text gives you short-term relief after agonizing over what you sent or why you haven’t gotten a response. The cycle can become addictive – complete with anticipation, obsession, and let-downs. 

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Because we’re susceptible to these emotional extremes, when we seek out love in our first year without alcohol, we willingly enter situations where a comment or rejection could destabilize our entire sense of self-worth. Many of us – myself, included – do it anyway.

Heeding the rule, but late

I waited until my second year of sobriety to settle into singleness and repair my primary relationship, with myself. I spent the year nurturing my more introverted interests – writing poetry, reading about niche things that fascinate me, doing little home improvement projects, practicing guitar (which I’m still pretty terrible at), and biking all over the city where I live. I also joined creative communities of local writers and made new friendships, tapping into a delightful network of people and learning about opportunities for aspiring poets (check me out at danagittings.com).

Ironically, part of what made it “easy” to be single was maintaining a platonic friendship with someone I was still romantically interested in. Although that didn’t work out, and certainly wasn’t easy, it forced me to focus on the person I was as a friend and an intellectual equal – without the complications of physical and emotional intimacy.

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For lack of better phrasing, the experience could be summed up as “figuring out who I could be alongside a man who could have been a romantic partner but wasn’t.” And it was something I hadn’t realized I badly needed. This friendship, and a few other platonic friendships with men that were based around mutual interests, shared pursuits, support, and respect, served as profound learning experiences for which I’m very grateful.

Though I want to acknowledge how devastating the global pandemic has been, it has helped me maintain my single life. It simply hasn’t been a great idea to go on dates with various strangers, as much as I feel like it would be nice to have a fellow homebody by my side. Instead, like so many others, I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time by myself – with the blessing and the curse of working remotely, absorbing all the media my little brain can take in, and enriching myself with creative pursuits and learning experiences (when I can muster the motivation to do so).

Read part 2 >

–Dana G

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Dating without drinking, Part 2

Finally, the dating

I’m about two and a half years into my sobriety, and it wasn’t until few months ago that I saddled back into my Hinge dating app. I was a little reluctant, and uncertain whether I was actually interested in meeting people, given the pandemic and how busy I felt with other things. But like many right now, I sometimes feel lonely. I was also simply curious what this experience of trying to date sober would be like.

So I gave it a go, changing the wine glass icon on my profile to show, “doesn’t drink” and making it visible to potential partners. Though this icon a great feature for those of us who’ve given up alcohol (and certainly other apps have similar features – there are even dating apps specifically for non-drinkers), I’ve noticed that no one really pays attention to it.

Almost everyone I chat with ends up making a comment about grabbing drinks. There’s the simple, “Wanna grab drinks?” and the “Great weather for a winery tour!” and recently, after the 2020 presidential election, “So, drinks to celebrate?”

“Sure, but I’ll have a seltzer.”

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This becomes my opportunity to mention that I don’t drink. I don’t want to waste my time or have to deal with an awkward reaction in person. If my not-drinking is going to make a moderate-to-heavy drinker uncomfortable, I’d rather know that up front and move on.

I’m still new to this and have a lot to learn. But the first few months of chatting and going on physically distanced outdoor dates have been fascinating. Most people ask me at some point during the first date why I don’t drink. I’m usually honest about it, without getting into too many details – and I try to add some humor. I’m a pretty open book, and they can take it or leave it.

That approach doesn’t work for everyone. Many people are more private and need to get to know others before revealing personal challenges and truths. The person on the other side of the equation probably has things they aren’t ready to open up about, either. We all have “stuff” going on.

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The said and the unsaid

Assuming things are going well, at some point in the progression of seeing someone, the subject of why we quit drinking is going to come up. It may seem intimidating, but we can build courage by making ourselves vulnerable and talking about it. Though awkward at first, just like anything else (except for guitar, apparently), practice makes it easier and improves our skills. That’s assuming we’ve allowed ourselves the time to shore up inner strength and resilience first.

Like a lot of social interactions without alcohol, dating requires more mental energy. I feel like part of my job is to make the other person feel untroubled by my not-drinking – to make it less of “a thing.” I have to demonstrate that I’m generally happy and fulfilled, confident in my decision to not drink, and comfortable if they want to have a drink or two. All of that is true, but it’s a lot of new information to work into a conversation without seeming forced.

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We have to weigh how much we want someone to know about us. For me, it’s easier to lay it all out. If things don’t move forward, I’ll probably never see the person again anyway.  If they do, there will be no secrets. I won’t have to work as hard to remember what I decided to share and what I didn’t.

Keeping the conversation going without the lubricant of alcohol also looks a bit different. Thankfully, after having worked on myself this year, I feel like I have plenty to talk about in terms of my interests. And I’ve become better at drawing others out by asking questions and listening to answers. But it’s still a novel experience compared to sitting at a bar and letting alcohol do the talking. For me, conversations without alcohol have actually felt more natural, even with total strangers.

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What happens on non-drinking dates?

Personally, I’m comfortable if my date wants to have a drink or two, and I usually mention that in appropriate contexts – but I wouldn’t be comfortable if they drank a lot regularly. For obvious reasons, I’m happier going on dates with people who don’t judge me for avoiding alcohol, and who drink minimally or moderately themselves. That just makes things easier. It’s also more comfortable for everyone if they aren’t holding back a desire to drink. I wouldn’t judge someone who wants to drink more than a little – I did it myself for years. I just prefer not to date that person now.

Lately, all of my dates have been outdoors – going on walks or sitting at a park. I don’t think I’d be comfortable (regardless of COVID) having a first date at a bar. That’s another reason I like to establish that I don’t drink before meeting people. If they’re content with that fact and still want to meet, they’re unlikely (I hope) to suggest a bar. I often bring my own non-alcoholic beverage, like I do at parties, to establish that I’m in control of my own needs and comforts.

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In normal times, restaurants would still be in the cards. I’ve gone on a few dates seated outside at restaurants, but with COVID spiking (and the cold), I decided to cut back on those.

There are copious lists of “sober date ideas” you can search online – like this, this and this. Hopefully we’re not too many months off from being able to get out there and try some of these! When it’s safe to do so, I find that activities around shared interests can make for more fulfilling dates and room to grow together. So whatever they may be, communicating those interests is particularly important on the first couple of dates.

Though my first year of sobriety happened before the pandemic – the year I should’ve held off on dating – I spent some of it enjoying dates that included everything from hiking to sharing music, going to art museums and poetry workshops, and playing ping pong, board games, and other competitive activities. The list of intersections that are possible with a near-stranger is endless – which is what makes it so enriching to find a shared interest and pursue it together.

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The easy and the not-so-easy

Regardless of what you “do” on dates (during or after the pandemic), dating after the first year of sobriety has certain benefits. I’ve found I get to know people more quickly because alcohol isn’t fogging up our conversations or my memory, or causing me to make impulsive decisions due to a desire for emotional intimacy. I have better judgment into whether there’s a connection. If there isn’t, I’m more resilient in the aftermath. I enjoy spending time with myself, so I’m not crestfallen when I’m presented with more time to do so.

Dating sober can also be more challenging. I always have to discuss, to some degree, why I don’t drink, and must work to appear content and confident. I often question whether the person I’m with is truly fine with my sobriety or resents any pressure they may feel to drink less around me.

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Also, a certain awkwardness is inevitable at first because of widespread stigma about those who don’t drink. That forces me to revisit a feeling that I should be ashamed of the past, which is a state of mind I’ve worked hard to overcome. It reminds me that if I don’t look secure enough, others may assume I’ll never be fulfilled and that there’s a real chance I’ll start drinking again. Even though I feel that’s unlikely, the awareness of stigma is a constant pressure. Thankfully, I’ve become much more resilient in handling these challenges.

I don’t know exactly what I want out of a relationship, but it’s only natural for humans to seek intimacy – and dating sober has been a great learning experience. As the world slowly gets back to normal, I hope to continue to grow as a person while meeting new people – cautiously and well-distanced, as antithetical to “intimacy” as that may sound. The world is a strange place, and so are the times. Hopefully dating won’t be. But if it is, I hope it will at least be interesting.

–Dana G

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Feeling powerless

One day after the next, we continue to push through life in a time that makes many feel powerless – especially if you’re in the U.S., a nation so divided that even public health is political. We’re witnessing unconscionable negligence from the powers that be in both reopening society and ignoring systemic problems in areas such as policing and criminal justice. It’s easy to feel that our voices are unheard, ignored, or trapped in echo chambers. And even small victories seem few and far between.

On top of this, the strain of long-term isolation and anxiety about the future affects each of us personally. People are stressed, lonely, and if they live with others, may be dealing with household and relationship conflict. Parents are worried about balancing their children’s needs with work responsibilities, many of them preparing for a dangerous school environment and inconsistent educational methods. We’re struggling with the challenges of remote work or unsafe in-person work environments, with unemployment, and with financial stress. Some of us are worried about or grieving those who’ve fallen ill or suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of COVID-19.

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Other factors could be causing stress and anxiety as well. Maybe you’re stuck in an urban environment with no way to experience nature or breathe fresh air. Maybe you miss life as you once knew it, and the ability to visit friends without masks, or deep anxiety about spreading a deadly virus. Maybe you’re recognizing personal habits that are bigger or uglier than they once seemed.

What can you do when you feel powerless?

First, know that you aren’t suffering alone. You’ve probably expressed the cliché yourself: “we’re all in this together.”

That phrase has a dual meaning when it comes to social progress. There are things we absolutely can’t fix on our own – global political battles, societal rifts, the economy, and the minds of stubborn adversaries. But we can take steps and celebrate small wins, gaining a measure of control. That could include becoming better informed, donating, having hard conversations with friends and relatives, or making calls to members of Congress. Taking initiative, even screwing up and learning from it, allows us to develop an internal locus of control. That can instill a sense of empowerment as we make a measure of difference.

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Maybe what’s creating a feeling of powerlessness is household dynamics, interpersonal conflicts, or behaviors that have gotten out of control – such as drinking, overeating, scrolling through social media, or gaming. Many of our habits have come under the spotlight during isolation. Everyone needs a little me-time and escapism. But if you only have one or two coping mechanisms that function as escape, they probably aren’t sustainable and won’t make things easier. If you know there’s something you could be doing differently, it can only help to try.

If you don’t know where to start or just aren’t ready, try simply contemplating a change. Journal about how it would look. Read about or talk to other people who’ve successfully done it. You can learn about others’ experiences by searching podcasts, TED talks, or YouTube. If you have the resources, I recommend trying virtual counseling. Learning and starting with small steps can help you feel energized, supported, and encouraged to make a plan.

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Alcohol consumption during a global pandemic

I’m not here to say that all drinking is bad. The human relationship with alcohol is far more complicated than that. I’m a big proponent of recognizing good and bad qualities in all things, and the continuum between the two. Alcohol is no exception, though I regard it as a primarily negative influence in my own life.

Despite harmful consequences for many, alcohol has been a catalyst of communion throughout history. In the present moment, virtual social drinking is helping people to stay connected and entertained, find a sense of discovery even in our confinement, and deal with disappointment about the world’s most stubborn problems. We might also be using alcohol to cope with stress and loss – not just lives lost, but as Dr. Argie Allen Wilson puts it, “the loss of the lives that we once knew. Loss of the engagement that we came to enjoy so much.”

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Unfortunately, however, the pandemic is causing some people to drink more than ever, justifying doing so with the need for relaxation and distraction during prolonged isolation. They could be under pressure from friends or those they live with to drink, or perhaps feel the need to isolate from those they live with through alcohol. Some are drinking more because they’re alone, succumbing to a daily routine and separated from those who typically witness or judge their behavior. There’s also a greater risk now for sober people to lapse back into alcohol use.

Whatever the causes may be, many people are recognizing that they don’t have as much control over alcohol as they once thought. They may see effects and behaviors they didn’t notice before, and even have deep regrets. Many are convinced each morning that they’ll change but feel powerless once evening rolls around.

It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere. With the heat and our longing for the excitement that summer typically brings, more people are drinking in large groups despite the pandemic. In addition to lowering inhibitions, alcohol causes us to become myopic, or short-sighted – we give in to the pressures and enjoyment of the moment, less aware of events that seem distant. So in addition to the usual risks of alcohol, we become less focused on the impacts of congregating in large groups and slip up on things like mask usage and 6-foot spacing.

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Moderating or eliminating alcohol consumption

Plenty of people are able to mindfully moderate their alcohol consumption. And even those who can’t moderate may try doing so before making a sweeping decision to give up alcohol altogether. If you feel out of control and want to limit your drinking, now might be a good time to put it under the microscope and take some notes.

Pay attention to what triggers your consumption, and how alcohol affects your mood and reactions. If you could use some outside perspective, ask a trusted friend or relative what they see. When a trigger arises, mix in other responses so that alcohol isn’t the only thing helping you to adjust or escape. Try a different treat or activity like a favorite food or a form of exercise you enjoy, boosting your dopamine level in more sustainable ways and giving yourself a broader self-management toolkit.

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You can also place alcohol out of sight so it’s not so top-of-mind when you need release. When you are drinking, pace yourself. Alternate between alcohol and water. Consume plenty of food. Space out your drinks and count them – determine and heed your limit. Furthermore, educate yourself about the signs of Alcohol Use Disorder so you’re cognizant of any patterns that might arise in your drinking or that of loved ones.

Some of us are good at putting boundaries in place. I was not. Despite wanting to control my alcohol intake, I’d continue to let myself finish the wine bottle, waking up feeling sick, empty, and helpless, and going through the daily motions until I could settle into the comfort of the next night’s bottle of wine. I may not have had a single “rock bottom” moment but did several things over the years that wounded my sense of pride and self-worth.

It took me several years to realize I was incapable of moderation and couldn’t drink “normally.” I first tried using a calendar to reward myself with stickers on nights when I didn’t drink or only had a couple glasses of wine. Some weeks were more successful than others, but by and large, there weren’t that many stickers.

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Gaining power from theories of behavior change

Becoming familiar with some of the many theories on behavior change helped me to better understand and respond to my behavioral motivations. It might help you, too. This article provides a great overview of some of these theories; below, I’ll share what is really a cursory overview of how I applied them to becoming sober. Though the article focuses on challenges with food consumption and exercise, there’s a good deal of overlap between overeating and excessive drinking. And there are several more theories that I don’t have space to address here.

For me, self-determination theory, which revolves around “intrinsic motivation,” was key to successfully giving up alcohol. “Intrinsic motivation does not rely on external pressure, like rewards/approval or punishment/disapproval from peers or health professionals. It exists within the individual… [who] must believe the behaviour is enjoyable or compatible with their ‘sense of self’, values and life goals.” By examining my thoughts and feelings, and adopting new hobbies, my sobriety became something desirable – not just something I had to do.

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In addition, the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy were built into my experiences in counseling and a recovery group. They helped me to challenge dysfunctional thoughts, assumptions, and coping mechanisms while I developed accountability through peer support.

Especially now, almost out of necessity, technological resources are worthy of exploration – whether that’s an app, an SMS (short message service) that sends motivational messages, or telemental health, such as video counseling. These interventions can be affordable, convenient, and less stigmatizing because they’re private – all factors that were integral in my decision to use video counseling in my first few months of sobriety.

Reading about theories of behavior change and related tools helped me to gain greater control over the factors that impact my behavior – from the personal (beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, genetics) to the social (interaction with friends, family, community) and environmental (home, workplace, economy, and more). It gave me the knowledge I needed to turn the right valves and find the confidence to make changes in my life. I hope it helps other people, too.

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Wrapping Up

Whatever might be causing you to feel powerless, I hope you’ll find the resources and motivation to begin making a change. Even small adjustments can be empowering. Yes, many things fall outside of our control. But we have more influence than we think, both in our own lives and in the world around us.

Actions – even small actions – can have compounding effects, and we can use that to our advantage. We aren’t living in a vacuum, even if physical distancing makes it feel that way at times. While you’re working towards personal or social change, don’t forget that sharing supportive words can have a massive impact on others’ sense of empowerment, prompting them to push for change in their own lives and circles.

patterned reflection on water
Photo by Lee Jeffs on Unsplash

So, take your me-time, indulge in self-care, and dive into the escapism you need. Read that fantasy novel. Take that midday nap. If you’re someone who can drink alcohol moderately, have that glass of wine. But think of those things as hitting “refresh” rather than being the only way out. And manage each one on your terms.

It’s fine and only natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless right now. But by adopting a defeatist attitude and failing to recognize what is within our power, our lives and the world around us move from the threat of limited setbacks to certain ruin. Let’s not let that happen. An ounce of hope is all we have, and with the right tools and a measure of effort we can make that hope a reality.

–Dana G

rainbow sky with a person hiking at the top of a mountain
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

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. 

woman standing in a dark tunnel with light at the other end
Photo by Anastasia Dulgier on Unsplash

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.

giant fern-like plant surrounded by spiral staircase
Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash

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.

bronze compass necklace on a blue and white fabric backdrop
Photo by Barby Dalbosco on Unsplash

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.

hand covered in rainbow swirls of paint
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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.

blue and green mosaic with two women
Photo by Soviet Artefacts on Unsplash

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.

massive black and white feathered leaf
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

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.

mural of two women's faces with a column of windows in the middle
Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

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.

the word "Grow" in cursive with leaves, surrounded by drawing tools
Photo by LUM3N on Unsplash

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.

colorful mural of hands embracing a blue orb
Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Breaking down stigma

Oddly, the easiest thing to write about right now is a topic that brings me perennial frustration. And no, I’m not talking about COVID-19, politics, or where half my socks go when I do the laundry. I’m talking about the way society treats alcohol misuse and pigeonholes sobriety, and how that prevents people from cutting back or seeking treatment.

I want to explore the stigma surrounding alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, which are grouped together into Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). Dictionary.com defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” Well, that’s intense!

hands holding up a yellow frowny face over brick backdrop
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Widespread stigma creates a feedback loop of shame and discomfort for those suffering from AUD. Because people often assume that one would only choose to quit drinking due to a severe problem, this generates stigma towards those living a sober life. Sobriety, or even seeking help, becomes something a person feels guilty about, complicating what can otherwise be a very positive experience.

I would argue that the stigma around alcohol-related problems is associated with stigma in the U.S. and many other countries surrounding mental illness more broadly. Anything we diagnose or label suddenly becomes bad and serious, a thing to fear. But applying a label to the thing that most challenges us can help us find the appropriate methods to overcome it.

long metal bridge through a snowy forest
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Why we drink and why we quit

Consuming alcohol – for pleasure, relief, celebration, condolence, social bonding, and pretty much any other reason under the sun – is the norm in this society. So, where does the stigma come from? And why must so many people hover uncomfortably at the tipping point between socially sanctioned heavy consumption and AUD before realizing they might be better off quitting?

I believe each of us has developmentally unique reasons for the way we drink. That’s why not everyone has a problem with alcohol, and why recovery can look a lot different among individuals who do. But we’re in a society powered by the alcohol industry that pressures many young people to drink long before their minds and bodies are fully developed. Many of us go through high school (and maybe college) with a heavy mix of drinking, blacking out, and making mistakes that can lead to accumulated regret and shame.

spinning stars blurred at night
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Some people grow out of heavy drinking, whether it’s right after high school or college, as they age into their thirties, or later on – or after something they consider their “rock bottom.” Maybe it’s when they start a family or reach a new decade or milestone. It may be for health, mental health, interpersonal relationships, or perhaps a unique combination of personal reasons. They may seek support or assistance with maintaining sobriety through tools like counseling or recovery groups. Behavioral patterns can develop quickly, are often rooted in other ingrained problems, and can be hard to break.

Despite all its turbulence, drinking alcohol (heavily) is still the norm and quitting is frowned upon. Alcohol is embedded into everything we do and celebrate. We laugh off the development of serious drinking problems, skirting the issue with swagger and finding solidarity in alcohol memes and merchandise. Stigma is a dangerous thing – it prevents people from admitting to and addressing inner traumas or turmoil.

man with hand over face in the dark
Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

The history of social norms surrounding alcohol

Alcohol is part of a social contract that evolved from nomadic cultures. It was extended to strangers to demonstrate hospitality, establishing the beginning of the social relationship. And not much has changed since. Because alcohol represents and fosters human connection, to say I’m not drinking is to say “I’m not in communion with you.”

What’s more, we have a beloved antihero archetype in our culture of the heavy drinker. America loves a scoundrel. The cycle of sin and redemption excites us. Stories often deal in binaries, in good guy vs. bad guy. So we translate those labels to anyone who has admitted to having a problem, deeming any deviation from the recovery path to indicate failure while we continue to sip our own drinks.

cowboy on horseback with a beer in hand
Photo by Antonio Piña on Unsplash

The earning of “chips” or tokens in AA based on accumulated time sober plays into this, as well. When we count the days someone has stayed sober and treat returning to alcohol as a “relapse”, saying things like “why did you fall off the wagon?” or “what made you give that all away?”, we aren’t helping. First, we’re assuming the person had a major issue with alcohol, when they may have quit for less serious reasons, or reasons they want to keep private. Second, we’re making the person feel terribly ashamed and acting like anything they’ve gained from their time sober has now been lost.

It’s more accurate and productive to think of reverting to alcohol consumption after a period of sobriety as a “lapse” – not a “relapse.” Contrary to popular belief, a person doesn’t suddenly lose the wisdom they’ve gained and can often pick up where they left off. Many people lapse several times before maintaining sobriety. In doing so, they may even learn something about themselves and their relationship with alcohol, their emotional regulation and triggers.

man sitting on a red and white metal staircase
Photo by Asaf R on Unsplash

In addition to affecting how we treat sober people, the archetype of the alcoholic antihero allows us to allay any discomfort we have towards our own alcohol consumption by projecting it onto a character who is presented as unconventional, rugged, and dark. We’re not that dark, we tell ourselves. Perhaps we revel a little in the character’s debauchery. We know how good it feels to lean into the hedonic life, but we know when to stop and come up for air.

Our limited rhetoric for alcohol use and sobriety forces us into an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to consumption. Because of this, quitting seems to require an irreversible commitment and confronting a huge shame-beast that most aren’t ready to tackle. Approaching sobriety with a more mellow attitude can be tremendously easier, more subtle and joyous. Also, many people can cut back and moderate their alcohol consumption. Abstinence is not the only option.

exterior of two identical townhouses with spiral staircases painted different colors
Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash

How to combat stigma

Stigma can make weddings, work travel, dating, parties, and holidays highly unnerving for those who’ve quit drinking. From interacting with people who are walking on eggshells to thanking those who offer backhanded compliments, it becomes the sober person’s job to seem so normal that everyone forgets they aren’t drinking and is comfortable with the elephant of their sobriety.

Even the well-intended “I’m proud of you” is sometimes housed in stigma. Depending on how (and from whom) it’s delivered, it can have underlying implications that the sober person overcame what was a truly disgusting habit that must have brought them deep shame. That may or may not be true. Either way, it isn’t something of which they need to be continually reminded.

A better way to interact with a sober person is to treat them as not all that different from oneself. For instance, it isn’t “too bad” they can only drink a soda. Maybe they like soda and it’s helping them feel at ease! You can tell a sober person that their mocktail looks tasty. It’s okay to be enthusiastic and still sip on one’s own drink of choice.

glitter flowing out of a martini glass in a woman's hand
Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

Don’t talk to them about how hard it must feel to be surrounded by people who are drinking or make a show of protecting them from pressures or the urge to drink. That forces us into an unnecessary, awkward position of defending our comfort level, which isn’t everyone’s business and may fluctuate. Asking if they’re okay is a thoughtful gesture, but if your friend tells you they’re fine, don’t push it. Thinking that everyone is worried about you can be distressing and annoying.

A sober person can still dance, laugh, joke, and hold conversations. They may seem to introvert themselves a little at times, especially as other people become more drunk and talkative. Let them do their thing – it’s easy to get overstimulated and overwhelmed in crowded drinking environments, and sometimes sober people just need some time (or caffeine) to adjust before diving back in.

woman in the city relaxing alone on a balcony
Photo by Jeffery Erhunse on Unsplash

If you have friends who are sober, try not to exclude them. You can still invite them to events with alcohol, and they can decide whether they’re comfortable attending. You could also occasionally propose a hangout that doesn’t involve alcohol. Something creative or educational, maybe. There are a lot of ways to support sober friends without making them feel different or like you’re tiptoeing around a monster who’s about to flip. Your friend may be much more in control of their life than you think.

Stigma subverts public health and prevents people from seeking treatment options. It leads to prejudice and discrimination, threatens jobs and relationships, and pushes people into secrecy. It compounds feelings of shame and self-loathing through which people who drink heavily or have quit are already suffering.

It’s a dark entity that has no place in recovery, but it’s ubiquitous. The only thing those of us who care can do is to slowly change attitudes through the way we act, the example we set, and the words we use to empower the people around us. So, if you care, do what you can to break down stigma in your social circles.

–Dana G

Photo by Firestixx on Unsplash

Discovering old and new passions (VACI)

It’s easy to become bored when you initially give up alcohol. Your calendar may open up with free time that can’t be spent in the same way with friends who still drink. Maybe being around alcohol causes anxiety or cravings, and you need other activities to occupy you. Boredom and uncertainty about how to fill time may be exacerbated at this strange time when we’re engaging in long-term physical distancing (I’m calling it “physical” rather than “social” because there are still ways to be social, virtually!). Fortunately, a tool known as VACI from the science- and empowerment-based recovery organization SMART Recovery can help, whether you’ve given up drinking or just cut back.

What is a VACI? 

VACI is short for “Vital Absorbing Creative Interest” and refers to any activity that not only helps fill time, but is also pleasant, healthy, and riveting. A VACI could be anything from taking up a musical instrument to painting, learning a language, or restoring a car. VACIs can help you to become more engaged, curious, inventive, and contemplative in your everyday life. They can even help you replace some of the benefits you once perceived alcohol to bring, such as euphoria, feeling funnier or smarter, and reducing social anxiety.

VACIs allow you to reflect on and revisit what you used to enjoy before you started drinking – and to explore new activities that you’ve always been curious about but lacked the time, energy, or motivation to try. Maybe you didn’t think you could try them in the past, but have developed a new sense of self-assurance and are ready to do so now.

colorful paint brushes
Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

Many of us feel just as busy despite physical distancing with things like work, cleaning, taking care of children, and keeping in touch with friends and family. This post is certainly not intended to tell people they should be just as productive or more than they would be under normal circumstances. These are not normal times, and many people are struggling and mourning.

But if you live alone or have a lot of idle time (or perhaps you’re getting tired of a single activity you tend towards such as gaming or streaming video), trying out new VACIs can broaden your go-to activity set and open you up to things that may be surprisingly fulfilling. These may also serve as welcome distractions if you have roommates or family members who live with you and are still partaking of alcohol.

Even in normal times, it’s a good idea to explore activities you enjoy doing alone, because you can’t rely on people in your circle to be available when and how you need them to be. That said, if you can find supportive friends to have one-on-one or small group hangouts to do these things (virtually, for now), that’s great. Or, you can find local and virtual communities in which to do them.

cat observing photography on a laptop
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

One thing to remember when exploring VACIs is that not every activity is enjoyable for every person. It’s important to “try things on” and see how you respond. Does a new hobby feel a little awkward or uncomfortable? Does it fit just right and fill you with excitement? Are you eager to explore it further? It’s also a good idea to engage in VACIs moderately, so you aren’t replacing one addiction with another. Weigh any comorbidities you may have, such as bipolar disorder. Mood states like mania and hypomania may cause you to react differently to the development of new hobbies – especially if you’re experiencing the pink cloud.

When I was in the pink cloud, I got a little overeager trying to juggle too many new balloons. I felt like I had to do every new VACI every evening – from practicing guitar to creative writing to exercising. These things shouldn’t have been stressing me out… they should have been exciting. To overcome this, I started thinking of VACIs as a menu of activities I could decide between on any given evening, letting myself pick and choose. 

Eventually, I found myself gravitating towards some activities more than others. I joined local creative writing workshop groups and co-writing spaces, diving back into writing poetry. In addition to feeling smarter, and more creative and capable than I had in years, this helped me to overcome social anxiety toward meeting new people and sharing things I’m passionate about. I’ve developed new and enriching friendships, honed my craft, and feel more connected to a community that holds endless possibilities for engagement and growth.

black coffee and a journal
Photo by Brandon Cormier on Unsplash

You might finally delve into a passion or hobby that excited you years or even decades ago. Or, you could fall in love with an activity you didn’t think you would – opening a door you never knew was closed. That can be tremendously empowering, helping to pull you through the difficult and sometimes isolating experience of early recovery. Eventually, the VACIs you explore can lead to bigger goals, and a more focused sense of purpose.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a long list of ideas to help. If it’s a bit overwhelming, try selecting and exploring just a handful of activities. Create a table to rate how fun and fulfilling each of them seem, both before and after you try them.

Activities that can be done during physical distancing:

Entertainment and Education

  • Read a long book series, or a number of books from a favorite author or genre
  • Take an online class in something you’ve always wanted to learn more about through a service like edX or Coursera
  • Learn a new language, or at least the basics, through an app like Duolingo
  • Virtually visit museums all over the world
  • Become an armchair expert by reading up on something like history, psychology, astronomy, dream theory, or the history of your favorite genre of American cinema
  • Take an acting or art class
  • Learn a new technical skill such as writing code, programming, graphic design, or web development
laptop opening with rainbow light
Photo by Andras Vas on Unsplash

Creative Writing

  • Write a novel, play, screenplay, memoir, short story, poetry, or stand-up comedy routine
  • Look online for writing prompts to generate ideas
  • Engage in introspection and keep a journal on a theme such as gratitude or surviving the 2020 quarantine
  • Write reviews of streaming movies or shows
  • Start a blog or podcast on something you’re passionate about – perhaps one of your other VACIs

New Artistic Skills

  • Learn a new musical instrument or pick up an old one
  • Practice singing or songwriting
  • Try a new craft such as knitting or other textiles, woodcraft, model-building, pottery, jewelry-making, book-binding, or calligraphy
  • Start a project in an art medium such as painting, drawing, sculpting, collaging, mixed media, or writing comics
  • Explore your creative “eye” with photography or videography – though for now, your subject may have to be yourself, those you live with, or your living space
  • Perfect a new skill like knitting or woodworking, and starting a side business selling your wares
person playing acoustic guitar
Photo by Ahmed Rizkhaan on Unsplash

Exercise and Movement

  • Explore new forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, high intensity training, bodybuilding, or yoga
  • Take a virtual martial arts class
  • Dance – learn new dancing styles, or just dance to your favorite music for fun

Other

  • Serve your community as a volunteer, mentor, or tutor
  • Try new recipes or refine a cooking skill set
  • Arrange a virtual party where you and your friends present 3-minute PowerPoint presentations on topics you’re passionate about, or have everyone present another person’s PowerPoint
  • Color or work on puzzles while binge-listening to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Garden or landscape, if you have access to a yard or outdoor space
  • Delve into strategic gaming, such as chess, video games, word games, or board games (many of which can be played virtually)
chess board
Photo by ErnAn Solozábal on Unsplash

Activities for the future:

Here are several more activities that aren’t actionable right now, but that you can look forward to trying out after this period of physical distancing:

Entertainment, Education, and New Skills

  • Take yourself to the movie theater and treat yourself to soda, popcorn, and/or candy
  • Write reviews of the movies you see
  • Go to local museums or see what classes you can take locally
  • Try your hand at live storytelling or stand-up comedy
  • Explore film photography, if you live near a public darkroom where you can rent developing and print-making equipment

Sports and Outdoors

  • Go hiking, camping, swimming, or cycling in nature
  • Go on an adventure with activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or skydiving
  • Follow or play a favorite sport
  • Go on long walks or bike rides to get more familiar with the area where you live
Lake with blue sky and hiking path
Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

Clubs and Community

  • Join clubs or community organizations
  • Join interest-based community groups, locally or online (I’ve linked to this before and I’m sure there are similar services, but meetup.com is a great place to find these. Many group meetups are being conducted virtually right now.)

Shopping and Collecting

  • Visit and support local businesses such as restaurants, shops, music venues, and theaters
  • Browse flea markets for art, jewelry, furniture, collectibles, and unique gifts
  • Collect something that brings you joy – anything from stamps to antique decor to photo books
lamps at a market with blue background
Photo by Sujith Devanagari on Unsplash

Travel

  • Make it a goal to visit all 50 states, or all the national parks
  • Take trips with friends, family, or by yourself – and not necessarily to faraway places (perhaps you can spend your free time getting more familiar with your home state)


You can peruse hundreds more hobbies here, from Parkour to cheese-making to robot combat. You must choose your own adventure. Whatever you try and gravitate towards, VACIs can be both fun and enriching. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even discover a lifelong passion in the process!

-Dana G

cozy reading nook with candle
Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

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

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
Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash

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.

person walking under lamplight at night
Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

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).

"and breathe" neon sign over plants
Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

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.

hands holding purple flowers
Photo by Vero Photoart on Unsplash

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.

"Good vibes only" purple neon sign
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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
Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash

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).

Banners and wedding decorations
Photo by Andrew Knechel on Unsplash

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.

Close-up of tree rings
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

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

Woman jumping up through glitter
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash