“No beer stains on her teeth– she’s a teetotaler.” -my dad, who is also my dentist, when I was having my teeth cleaned a few weeks ago.
This was far from the case three years ago when I came in to see my dad after chipping my front tooth pounding back a Bud Light in a long neck bottle on Broadway in Nashville. I had just returned from drinking my way across America with my long-lost Dutch cousin while on my gap year after college. This road trip was an attempt to prolong my fun before the real “adulting” started in my management consulting job that began in four months in Dallas, Texas. This was the first of many signs that there was a problem on the rise.
How my drinking began
My relationship with booze started roughly ten years ago. It was summertime in northern Michigan, and I was on a sailboat on Mackinac Island. In my hand was a concoction of Captain Morgan and Coke in a red plastic cup. Nauti Boys seemed like it was rocking more than usual. It was chilly, though I felt a space heater radiating out of my pink cheeks. The song ‘Levels’ by Avicii vibrated across the waves. I never wanted this moment to stop. My teeth couldn’t stop cheesing at life. I never wanted these joyous feelings of invincibility to end. I thought I could do anything.
Why I drank
The Cool Club
Booze was like the cover of the club to be cool. It was so easy. Flashback to middle school or in high school when I was locked into lockers, I assumed it was because I didn’t have the right Hollister jeans or the color of Ugg boots. I so desperately wanted to feel like I could fit in. That’s all I wanted in life.
Adult Play Mode
Drinking booze was an instant flick of the switch into play mode.
I loved how clear of a boundary it was. Time to have fun! When I was working, my instantaneous reward was to crack open a brew or pour a drink. Moscow mules were my favorite. In January of my senior year in college, I had a routine of eating at least one jello shot each night for the heck of it.
During my post-graduate life, my social life revolved around where the spot to drink was. The local watering hole. It was like recess at the playground for me as a young twenty-something in Chicago. We had some team happy hours. It was the first response to getting to know about someone’s life outside of work. It would take the edge off, so I could be more playful, and less serious. It got me looser, and I became more chatty.
Throughout college, I felt a sense of belonging, where I could speak a language and be an amicable team player in drinking games.
It was one helluva good time. Let’s compete to see who can shotgun a beer fastest, or do a keg stand by defying gravity to drink out of a hose upside down. We would play waterfall to the song ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC in a circle, where every person would rotate chugging according to the song. We’d team up to see who could flip cups the fastest. We’d play King’s Cup with playing cards facedown where each card picked on someone new to drink. Shower beers made me feel like a multitasking pro getting a leg up on my drunkenness before the pre-drinking to the party even began. Each night I dreaded hearing “Closing Time” by Semisonic play.
Being a Courageous Connector
With a drink in my hand, I felt like a whiz at connecting. Any sense of being self-conscious surfed away. Give me a little bit of liquid courage and I can approach anyone. That cute guy who wore my favorite brewery sweatshirt in my real estate class. That girl who rejected me from her sorority was too “cool” for me. Put me up on stage and I’ll belch out ‘I Don’t Want To Be’ by Gavin DeGraw in a heartbeat.
With drinking, it was like a rite of passage that I was happy to do. I’ve waited in an hour-long line to enter the bar to watch the Olympics at 6 AM in my footie pajamas, worn an electronic Christmas hat with an accompanying ugly sweater, and I’ve nearly gotten frostbite by not wanting to ruin my unicorn outfit for Halloween. Here’s a bunch of photos with my drunk eyes:
While drunk, the anxiety of my future dissolved. It was meditative and all I could think about was how I was feeling right now. As my body began to feel numb, I was actually more aware of my body and the present moment. I would hear songs and actually listen or I’d notice people walking by and want to lean in more.
It became the main vehicle of how I connected with people. Little did I know, I felt out of control of how I was communicating. The worst part of this type of connection is that it would always be spotty. I’d forget the name of the girl who sat next to me in my accounting class for the seventh time. I’d meet a potential recruit for the swim team and never follow up to text them to join. This further fed my fear of forgetting and early-onset Alzheimers like my grandma.
If I love my life so much then why am I actively consuming substances that facilitate my forgetting it?
Why I decided to stop drinking
Enough was enough. I was drinking too often, using the bottle to cope when I felt totally lost in life.
Yet in a way, I’m convinced that drinking was part of the reason why I felt lost in the first place, caught in a vicious cycle.
I felt like a slave to drinking. It’s similar to an ever-present need for gambling: one that didn’t solve any problems.
Richard Feynman, the physicist, inspires me. On an ordinary afternoon in 1949, he felt the pull to have a drink. He didn’t want to feel powerless to the disconcerting desire for alcohol. At that moment he gave up drinking on the spot. He didn’t want to allow this instinctive reaction to rid him of being a master of himself.
I had a similar feeling of powerlessness and instinctive reaction but my personal break-up process was much different from Feynman’s. It’s been like a dance with drastic pushing and pulling. The only consistency I have had is participating in dry January for the past four years.
The beginnings of my struggles without drinking
Last year, I moved to Hawaii without knowing a soul for a two-month job in community management. It required that I live in a hostel in the touristic party city of Waikiki outside of Honolulu. In the beginning, I didn’t know anyone apart from my boss, his boss, and the 35 college students in the program.
In the hostel, I met some party friends outside of work that I was able to let loose with to celebrate that I survived one of the roughest days of being at the Honolulu airport for over 14 hours to welcome each of the students to the island. I stepped onto the party bus and binge-drank my brains out. I wanted to wash away and drown out the doubts that feared I made the wrong choice of uprooting my life. Later that night, students from my program came onto the bus without my conscious knowledge. Later I felt less respected for how they saw me. Soon after, I was threatened to be fired from my job.
For the rest of that program, I swore off (most) alcohol and ended up nearly burning out from the job. I hit a low point in my life living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “How is this real??” I moved away from Chicago to rid the sense of languishing and not living I felt from my quarter-life crisis. But burning out? This wasn’t what I wanted instead.
This was a sign that I needed to find better ways to cope with my problems. From a gift of the universe, the Bumble BFF app, and lots of courage to take initiative, I found health-conscious friends and bonded over surfing, scuba diving, through the church, and in bookstores. They grounded me without drinking and made me feel like I belonged no matter what I was doing because our relationships did not revolve around the sole hobby of drinking.
My boundaries for not drinking
This year, I moved on to only indulging in an adult beverage when I wanted to celebrate. I’d have a rule of not spontaneously drinking. I would plan it out at least 24 hours before so I knew it wasn’t to give in to peer pressure. I drank one ginger Ola hard seltzer on my 26th birthday. I sipped it for over four hours just so no one would ask to get me a new drink.
I’ve realized that the only time I cave in is when I am trying to fit in with the crowd. Where I grew up in Michigan, it was always easy to find a boat to race on because once you know a couple of sailors, you knew all of them. This past year, breaking into the sailing community in Honolulu has been much different. I emailed a guy from a website named Gary. My only sailing friend. He told me to show up at the dock with a case of beer and I could take my plunge into networking as a crew member. There are the boats that start taking shots before the race even begins. Those weren’t my vibe.
Sailing is a beautiful sport that I want to treat as such. What I started to do as my entry ticket to race on a sailboat is bring a case of beer for the crew, along with my own LaCroix seltzer water. When we got 2nd place though, we won two pitchers of any drink of choice. It was Dark n’stormy’s. I used to love those. I felt weak. I also wanted to clink my drink with everyone to celebrate especially the superstar sailors like the brilliant British captain Kerri and the Bulgarian foredeck guy Obbo. I didn’t want them to ask why I wasn’t drinking. While meeting someone for the first time, all I wanted to do was have things in common rather than have points of friction from our differences. I didn’t want to have to lie but I also was exhausted. That single drink was so strong, I was buzzed after sipping it for two hours.
I needed to drive my moped Xiao home. I chugged my water bottle and walked around the park for a bit. It was less than 2 miles home. This buzz I was desperate to go away since I was paranoid that if I left Xiao there he’d be towed overnight. When I arrived home, my roommate was still out on her date night. I felt sad and went straight to bed.
My past self would think I am lucky to be such an easy lightweight. Instead of feeling like a winner, my present self felt like a loser. Spontaneity usually made me feel fun but that wasn’t the case this time. In that instant, that experience reinforced the lesson that when I give up under peer pressure, I will probably regret that decision.
I learned that numbing those feelings with alcohol will not make my life better and that I need to further explore living life without the crutch of confidence booze gave me.
More struggles without drinking
Sobriety is something worth my discomfort. I’d rather trade this coolness factor for control. I feel like people think I’m stiff but in reality, most people don’t actually think like that. My drinking behavior is not their concern. It is my business. This is about my relationship with myself. I dislike my past self for the past decisions of feeling like Hulk is in my head with my hangover the day after being drunk.
I don’t need to swoop into despair. I can stay active, save my money, and experience the same feelings without booze.
Drinking used to serve its purpose when I didn’t have the esteem or confidence to cultivate connections without it. But now, I am at a stage where always saying no is easier than sometimes saying yes. I am staying true to myself as someone who looks out for their mental and physical health. If I do not feel comfortable socializing with someone without booze, then maybe that is someone I prefer not to be friends with regardless. I’m glad I am not the only sober curious mind out there.
Where I’m at today
I put my analytical hat on and made a pro-con list:
This list is kept top of my mind, so I am aware of why I am choosing what I am.
Over the last 68 days of travel, I’ve passed some real tests. I “survived” four weddings out of five without drinking, and it keeps getting easier and easier. I attended several parties and withdrew from the choice to drink with only a few slipups, and I am proud of myself. I don’t ever feel like I need or even want to drink.
Alcohol brings out a transition for many driven people to lower their inhibitions, and I get it. But now that I am sensitive to how it affects me, I notice how it serves as a vehicle to escape feelings in my life.
I’m done running away from my problems. And my teeth are better off with fewer chips because of this.
I was drinking to deal with problems. Quitting drinking may have solved the biggest one.
Thank you to all my writing friends who provided me with feedback. This has been my most edited article ever: To Foster friends: John Lanza, Cassandra Ellis, Chris Angelis, Steven Ovadia, Corey Wilks, Amber Williams, Guillermo Forero, Alexander Hugh Sam. To Write of Passage friends: Elyse Holladay, Brent Lyman, Nic Hurrell, Nic Rosslee, Leslie Kim, David Matheson. To writing friends: Andrea Makamba and Dan McGlinn
Thank you to To other inspiring sober curious writing friends like Sarah Wood’s piece on needing new language around drinking, Nicole Prentice’s book on reinventing her relationship with drinking, and Claire Edwards on drinking in moderation
Richard Feynman Reference: Discipline is Destiny
This was originally published as part of 🚱 Letter 128: My Breakup with Booze