I Gave Up Alcohol for One Month and Here's What Happened

With no glass of wine to distract me, I ended up learning a lot about myself.

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Giving up alcohol for a month wasn't something I needed to do. I didn't have a "problem." Or, at least, I didn't think I did.

The idea came to me in late February, when a close friend of mine was visiting. We decided — over glasses of Malbec, appropriately — to call it quits for a while.

"I wish I could just stop drinking for one month," she said.

"Even wine?" I asked. This seemed impossible as I took a sip.

But I was in need of a detox, too. 

"Let's do it," I said.

I figured having an accountability partner made this sort of will-power experiment more achievable. Both of us being single and addicted to work, having a drink (or two, or three) was a treat — a reward to relish when life threw us stressful curveballs. We set the terms — one month sans alcohol (which would commence on the next day, a Tuesday), and sealed the deal with a clink of our glasses and an iron-clad pinky-swear.

The first four days were a struggle. I found skipping a glass of wine after a long day almost annoying — and straight-up difficult mid-week. On average, my normal alcohol consumption consisted of  four to seven drinks a week. Of course, this varied, especially when a spontaneous night out resulted in one too many libations or a glass of wine turned into drinking half a bottle. It happens.

But I don't need alcohol to function, I reminded myself. And although I take care of myself for the most part (i.e. I eat healthy and work out on a regular basis), I'm not one to limit myself when I feel the need to satisfy a craving.

This was tested when the first weekend rolled around, and a friend's birthday party was on the calendar for Saturday night. I felt the angst of my new normal grow from a tip-toe to a large stomp.

My go-with-the-flow nature hated the thought of being that person. The disciplined vegan or the militant, gluten-free foodie — the one who draws attention to their special needs when dining out at a restaurant. This no-alcohol thing was going to cramp my style. If I was going to do this experiment right, I'd have to announce it to the world. Ugh.

When I arrived at the crowded Manhattan bar, instead of joining in on the array of cocktails being ordered, I confidently asked for a water. Staring down the glistening dirty vodka martini with three plump olives in the glass adjacent to me, I scolded myself, Chill out, It's only 30 days.

Questions like, "You're not drinking?" or, "What's wrong, are you sick?" or, "Are you pregnant?" were asked in waves. "I'm not drinking for a month. Just a detox," I said. Based on the astonished reactions, you would've thought I'd said that I was joining an Amish community. I let this bother me for a few minutes, and then I remembered the pinky-swear. Stay strong, I thought to myself.

Minus a few moments of peer-pressure and conversing with drunk people who couldn't understand me because I was sober, I successfully made it through the rest of the evening. When I got home, I had this feeling that I made it through the jungle of temptation. Yay, me! I can do this.

That Sunday I called my accountability buddy, who was back in Los Angeles. We both gushed about feeling so lucid, and how not drinking isn't that big of a deal, both of us noticing that it made everyone else in our lives more uncomfortable. But we still commiserated about the stress of wanting a drink and feeling like social pariahs.

"I need a drink after all of this no drinking talk," I said. I wondered, though: Did my unavoidable desire to want a drink mean I might actually have a dependency issue?

Did my unavoidable desire to want a drink mean I might actually have a dependency issue?

As we crossed off the days, our daily check-ins increased.

"I'm sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend and I really want to order a drink!" she texted me on Day 17.

"Just one, please!?!?"

"NOOOO!!" I furiously wrote back. "Are you sure you haven't lied to me and had a drink?" she quipped, adding a winky face emoji.

"I swear on all that is holy to me, I have not. My pinky swear is as solid as oak," I said. And it was. It almost surprised me how seriously I was taking this challenge. When she texted me during a weak moment, I wanted to be strong for her. Not only because I didn't want to give up, but also because I wanted to be a supportive friend, which in turn overshadowed my vulnerabilities. Friends don't let friends break pinky swears.

Over the next few weeks, I battled off any temptations to indulge, instead trying to focus on how good I felt. I was sleeping like a baby, uninterrupted for almost seven hours a night — a rare feat for me. Getting out of bed was exciting. I was refreshed. My skin, which has a tendency toward dryness, was clear and dewy. The fine lines around my eyes virtually disappeared. And I swear my vision improved. These miraculous side-effects might have all been in my head, but I felt better about myself than I had in a long time. The only physical downside was I ate more sweets. Not having a glass of wine or a cocktail with dinner triggered the desire for chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

Excluding this need for sugar, I felt physically invincible, yet my social life suffered. Halfway through my 30-day sentence, I dodged St. Patty's Day festivities. I declined a few impromptu happy hours with friends, and my dating life flat-lined. My complexion was looking stellar, but coffee dates sounded meh. Not drinking, as it turned out, made me want to stay isolated. 

My newfound clarity forced me to deal with myself without the distraction of drowning in a drink or staying out and socializing based on the silly notion of FOMO. And the extra "me" time resulted in getting more work done at home and catching up on lost reading time.

My friend and I continued talking each other off the ledge when having a drink sounded better than the alternative: not having a drink. If it weren't for her reinforcements, I would have caved several times.

By the end of the month, we both made it. I felt victorious and reinvigorated, but the more amazing realization was how much I do depend on alcohol — not necessarily because I'm addicted to the substance, but I'm addicted to the escape. It's that temporary relief felt when having a nightcap or kicking back a few with friends. The "sure, I'll have one more" as a release from the monotony.

Drinking is such a touchstone; it's associated with many parts of not just my lifestyle, but culture in general — taking the edge off to relax, drinking while celebrating, or drinking while dining out. After more reflection, I came to terms with the fact that my issues were more psychological — possibly stemming from some social anxiety that I wasn't always prepared to deal with when I was younger.

Luckily, alcohol has never taken over my life in a negative way. But there's no question that I'm a person who has long associated alcohol with socializing. I had no choice but to acknowledge this new revelation and keep it in mind. I didn't want to hide from myself or cover up my insecurities.

With the 30 days behind me, I felt more in control. I was confident and prepared to find a healthy balance with alcohol, but more importantly with myself.

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Betsy Farber