Why I stopped drinking even though I’m not an alcoholic

I’m not an alcoholic but I decided I needed to stop drinking. Obviously there’s something about this concept that drew you in. Will you lose weight if you quit drinking? Yes! Will you feel better about yourself? Absolutely! Will you suddenly feel motivated to change your whole life? How could you not. Let me explain:

In my family, people start drinking early. Both of my siblings started at around age 12. And yet aside from a sip or two of dad’s beer growing up, I didn’t start drinking until I was 21. I didn’t like the taste of it. To me it just tasted bitter and like poison. “You just have to keep drinking and then you’ll like it!” my siblings would say. Looking back, the peer pressure to drink was unreal. I was basically presented with a choice: drink or be a weirdo with no friends. So at 21 I could avoid it no longer and started to drink socially. And it was true, if you keep drinking you do eventually come to like it.

You would have thought the stress of graduate school would have been what triggered me to drink daily, but it actually wasn’t until I got out of school and entered professional work-life. When you live in the city and work a corporate job, drinking is so wrapped up into the culture there is no avoiding it. I have been to a work meeting in the middle of the day where my boss held it at a bar as some kind of special treat and ordered a round of drinks for everyone. In a weird way it was like the boss was recognizing that the job was too stressful for a normal person to handle. We did have to pay for all our own drinks, but that is beside the point. Could I have said no to drinking? Possibly, but it definitely would have cost me politically.

Most of my coworkers freely admitted to drinking a bottle of wine each night. But that doesn’t make them an alcoholic because an alcoholic obviously drinks way more than that and drinks to the point where they can’t hold down a job, right? Right?! And for the record, there is no specified number of drinks or frequency of drinking that deems one to be an alcoholic. Number of drinks is not part of the diagnostic criteria at all. Even if there was a number, I’m sure they would have been sure to drink just one drink less than that number or would justify that they “just barely meet the criteria anyways and it’s not like they’re sleeping in a gutter”. These are the mental gymnastics we use to keep drinking. Because I wasn’t drinking a bottle a night like my coworkers, I figured I must be well within the “okay amount of alcohol”.

When I was working as a manager, my daily drinking reached a height. The workplace was so toxic and on top of that I was dealing with the chronic pain of my Crohn’s disease. Having two glasses of wine the second I got home was the only way I could get relief. I even had a boss that would call me up afterwork or on the weekends just to yell at me over some imagined slight that took place earlier in the week. Sometimes she was drinking while she did this. There was no relief. No way to truly unwind after work. There was only alcohol. Alcohol was my “time off”.

At times my drinking would go up to three glasses a night but then I would reign it back down to two. But hey, I was still drinking a lot less than my coworkers, so I was doing okay, right?

At one point my job held a company-wide meeting and a woman gave an hour long presentation on alcohol consumption. No, I am not kidding! In the presentation I learned how much alcohol counted as an actual serving. It turns out it’s a pretty small amount. The other thing she did was she showed facts about what was “normal drinking”. It turns out it’s not normal to have two glasses of wine every night. Only 5% of people drink as much as me and my co-workers and that we are in fact considered “binge drinkers”. It turns out that the medical definition of binge drinking is different from the College definition. Furthermore, 40% of adults rarely ever drink. So actually, it’s normal to hardly ever drink at all. Drinking every day even if it’s just one glass of wine or beer is not “normal”. This blew my mind.

Some time after that during a team meeting one of my coworkers said that she was coping with the stress of the job by “being an alcoholic”. She seemed sincere and didn’t seem to be saying this as a joke at all. My other coworker responded to her by pulling out a nearly empty bottle of Captain Morgan from under his desk and said “Me too!” and everyone laughed. Such a workplace incident may seem shocking to some, but it was quite common in my experience. I then decided I should try to quit drinking.

I started working at a new job. Because this was also a corporate job, there were still many invitations to drink but I let it known each time that I had decided to no longer drink. You would think that would be the end of it but each time I was met with intrusive questions like “So are you an alcoholic or something?” I responded no. This was then met with arguing about how I should still be drinking then. It was almost as if I was the one creating an unhealthy atmosphere in the workplace by not drinking even if I still “could”. That is how it was presented to me by my coworkers. This was a toxic workplace anyways so it really shouldn’t have surprised me that people had zero boundaries around alcohol. What did surprise me was my family’s reaction.

When I stopped drinking I realized that the worst pressure to drink did infact come from my own family. Aside from the usual “What?! You’re not even going to drink on Thanksgiving?!”, my family didn’t even know how to act around me without a drink in my hand. My mother would look so uncomfortable having to be around me sober. They would hardly speak to me. And then once they really got drinking later in the evening me and my non-drinking would be the butt of every joke.

My in-laws, who are “normal people” by most definitions, also could not be supportive of my being sober. The second I walked in the door my mother-in-law would offer me a drink. My polite declination was then followed by “But I just don’t understand why you say you aren’t drinking anymore if you are not an alcoholic?” She would then go on a rant implying that I was being rude or picky by not drinking. Basically, I was acting like a willful child.

After a year of this, I decided I couldn’t deal with the social repercussions and went back to drinking, BUT I would only limit myself to two bottles of wine per week. That was the rule I had created. After all, there was nothing wrong with drinking just two bottles per week. That’s definitely not an alcoholic, right? Right?! The day I decided that I would go back to drinking my mother drove a bottle of wine to my house. Everyone was over joyed that I would be drinking again.

This seemed okay for a while. After all, I managed to go a year without drinking, so that showed that I could quit drinking at any time. I was just choosing not to because clearly I don’t have a problem. That was the excuse I used to convince myself that it was okay.

The problem was that it seemed that there was a social occasion to drink each and every week. That would bump up my drinking from 8 glasses of wine to a total of 12 drinks or more. It was around this time that I learned that 8 drinks per week is considered “heavy drinking”. 8 was my minimum! So I decided to stop having any alcohol in the house and would only drink socially. Once again, this worked for a while but somehow my consumption went back up to baseline even though I was still following my rule to not drink at home.

Some people might be shocked to hear that 8 drinks a week constitutes “heavy drinking”. After all, that’s only about 1 drink per night. Not even enough to get you drunk. When you watch TV, people drinking every day is depicted as normal, even desirable. You work hard, you deserve to relax. And yet, according to the CDC, only 5.1% of US adults drank that much or more in the past year. It turns out I was in the top 5% of drinkers in the United States.

It’s hard to explain, but after a while I just got disgusted with myself. You can keep playing this game of cutting back and then going back to your baseline or you can accept that the only thing that’s really going to work for you is to just stop drinking. Anytime I allowed myself to have a drink because it was a situation that was “ok” (i.e. I was at a nice restaurant and only ordering 1 drink, it was Christmas dinner, it had been a long time since the last time I drank, etc) it just always seemed to reassure me that “See, I can handle drinking!” And thus the slow slide back to heavy drinking would begin again.

I recently found out that my sister is dying of alcoholism. She is only 42 and I don’t see her living to 45. I had no idea that her drinking was that bad. She was still able to work a full time job, get repeated promotions, and not have problems in her marriage. And yet, she is apparently consuming a life-threatening amount of alcohol. A lot of people think that cirrhosis of the liver is the only thing you have to worry about from drinking, but there are actually all sorts of ways that alcohol will kill you. And yet, I still have a family that encourages it’s family members to drink. I never would have thought that my family would be this dysfunctional, and yet here we are.

Consider that 25% of adults have fatty liver disease. This is an extremely common disease caused by alcohol consumption. And yet, only 5% drink 8 drinks or more per week. It would seem that even moderate drinking puts you at pretty high risk for negative health outcomes. Fatty liver disease eventually progresses into cirrhosis. Once you have cirrhosis, that’s it. It is a death sentence. The scary thing about it is that there really aren’t any warning signs for fatty liver disease. Most people who have it have no idea. Once your liver starts signaling noticeable signs of damage, you are already in very serious trouble.

Sure, we all know someone that is old and has been drinking a lot their whole life and is yet not on death’s door. No one can say that any of us will be that lucky. Although I hesitate to consider a life of hard drinking “lucky”.

Something I’ve come to realize is that drinking is a form of social control. If you think that sounds “out there”, clearly you haven’t looked at the rest of my blog. Stay with me here, and just think about it. If you’re unwinding with a drink after work every day, you’re less likely to leave that toxic job. You’re more likely to stay and recover from the abuse with alcohol, and upper management knows that. Upper management is probably also drinking in order to deal with the guilt of treating people this way!

If everyone is drinking at the family gathering, no one has to face that the family is dysfunctional. If you’re too buzzed to feel like you can confront your Uncle Andrew’s inappropriate remarks, now the family wont have to deal with Uncle Andrew. Or whatever the elephant in the room may be. They can all just drink and have a good time and not have to solve any of the family problems. We can all just forget about it and feel “normal”. If even just one person is sober at these events, suddenly everyone feels that they have to be on guard and can’t be “themselves”. Now we have to face our issues.

Likewise, if all your friends are drinking, you cannot possibly feel bad about your own drinking. Everyone’s drinking and having a good time! This is what people do! This is normal, right? Right?! But if even one friend declines to drink, suddenly that becomes an option and having that option out there will make some people feel uncomfortable. Now we have to face our issues.

When you don’t drink, there is no band aid to keep you in toxic situations. You have to sit with them and see them for what they truly are. And when it gets too stressful, the only option is to leave and redesign your life. Toxic people and institutions don’t like this. I know that if I still allowed myself to even just drink occasionally that I would still be working that exploitive job and being an emotional-slave for the psychic-vampires in my life. I would be miserable as hell, but I would still be there.

What’s different this time is I quit the job and moved far away from my family. I had to get away from the people, places, and things that were keeping me stuck in bad habits. At this point I’m at an age where I just don’t care about the social consequences and peer pressure anymore. If someone has a problem with my not-drinking, we don’t have to be friends. It’s okay. It really is.

And here’s the thing, I really don’t judge people for drinking. Honest to God, I understand that for some people drinking can be a healthyish hobby. It’s what they enjoy and it is their CHOICE. Just like it’s my choice not to drink. I really don’t mind if people drink around me. It’s totally cool. I would just like people to also be cool about me not-drinking around them.

Another thing I want to clarify is that it might have sounded like I was harsh on alcoholics or that I think I’m better than an alcoholic. That was not my intention at all. I only used the “but I’m not an alcoholic” thing because I know that that thought keeps people from being sober when they really should be. In fact, some may read this and say “Actually, you ARE an alcoholic and so were your coworkers, friends, and family members”. That doesn’t offend me anymore. It may infact be true.

The good news is that since quitting drinking, there have been all sorts of positive side effects I want to point out. For one thing, if weight loss is a goal of yours, you will find that you now get to lose weight without much effort at all. Even cutting out just one bottle of wine per week should result in a ten pound loss by the end of the year without having done anything else. And yes, I definitely noticed the pounds melt away during that year I didn’t drink and am seeing it again now. What else is nice is that even before you lose any actual weight you will still look thinner just from the lack of “belly bloat” that alcohol causes.

I find that when I drink I’m more prone to snacking as a way to “keep the good times going”. Alcohol also has tremendous amounts of sugar. I mean, that is essentially what alcohol is. The yeast eats the sugar and turns it into alcohol. Wine is really just a highly processed syrup drink. After quitting drinking I noticed that my sugar cravings, which used to be voracious, have really gone away. My diet has naturally gotten a lot healthier as a result without needing a ton of willpower. Eating healthy doesn’t feel like torture anymore.

One of the first things I noticed when I quit drinking was how strange it was to be so alert in the evenings. All of a sudden I could finish the work day and still have energy to exercise, work on my hobbies, and do some housework. I now had all the time I needed! When you drink right after work, that’s it. You are now only going to have the energy to watch TV or scroll through the internet. Forget meditating. Forget having a spiritual practice. Forget having a conversation with your spouse that doesn’t turn into an argument. My family has no idea how I find time to do all the things I do. It turns out you have all the time you need when you aren’t using alcohol to time travel into the next day.

Of course, the ultimate unexpected but positive side effect that quitting alcohol had was that it made me finally face my life and forced me to make changes. Apparently being sober offends toxic people like garlic offends vampires. Oddly enough, I would have told you that the toxic people and stressful life is what caused the drinking in the first place. Honestly, this is one of those chicken-or-the-egg situations. All I know for sure is that drinking soothed my stress enough to allow me to stay in those situations much longer than I had to.

I’m much happier now and that’s why there is no going back. That’s why I stopped drinking.

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