A few months ago, I was dancing at a crowded rooftop bar in Brooklyn. The night was warm, breezy, obnoxiously picturesque. The music was loud. I leaned over to my friend and cupped his ear: “What do you want? I’m going to the bar!”
“Nothing,” he shook his head. “I’m good. Not drinking!”
I felt a jolt of disappointment. Not drinking? Why? Is this not gonna be fun? “Okay!” I chirped, hoping he couldn’t detect a tone. I decided not to get one either; I guess I didn’t need it. A couple hours later, after we’d wandered away from the dance floor and toward a secluded bench, I asked why he wasn’t drinking. My original dismay at his sobriety had metabolized into private embarrassment. Why should his decision have any bearing on my night? We were having so much fun.
He told me he’d been on a break from alcohol for about a year. Last June, he worried his relationship with drinking had become unhealthy, so he decided to give it up. I was impressed. I was also surprised. We’d been friends for a while. He often regaled me with tales of late nights at dance clubs. I never guessed he did all of it sober. When I said as much, he told me he was just as social as he’d ever been. He said that had surprised him, too.
Later, as I reflected on my unfair reaction to his sober social stamina, I thought about my own relationship with alcohol. I can be a homebody, but when I go out out, I drink — at least a little. Sipping on a drink gives me social energy, makes me feel like part of the group, gives me something to do. Whenever I’ve stayed dead sober at a bar, I’ve wondered why I wasn’t home instead watching Netflix. And I worry the people I’m with interpret my sober gaze as judgement. It’s a weird, probably toxic feedback loop.
There’s a history of alcoholism in my family. I was raised to fear addiction with every fiber of my being. I’d always assumed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol meant drinking all the time, not being able to stop, doing it alone. None of that was true for me, but I began to wonder if my discomfort with sober socializing and other unchecked drinking habits meant something. What is a healthy relationship with alcohol?
According to Psychology Today, “having an unhealthy relationship with alcohol does not have to mean being alcohol dependent.” It can just be simply drinking “to excess,” which for women is considered four or more drinks in one night, or eight in a week. This 11-point quiz, which is based on the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM, highlights what behaviors might hint at an alcohol use disorder. (Please note: this quiz is a learning exercise, not a diagnostic tool.) I said yes to two out of 11 (yes, I’ve had more drinks than I intended and yes, I have endured bad hangovers), which the quiz said could or could not be worrisome. Pretty unhelpful I guess, but those boxes I didn’t check began to paint a fuller picture of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol: an inability to stop, engaging in risky behavior while drunk, anxiety or depression after drinking, trouble with family and friends because of drinking, interference with day-to-day responsibilities, giving up activities you’re interested in to drink, legal trouble, withdrawal.
But still, there seems to be an underserved middle ground. I’m a lightweight whose body reacts somewhat unpredictably to drinks. I’m no stranger to hazy memories, day-long hangovers, regrettable conversations, the whole thing. It sounds bad when I write it out — but it’s so normalized in New York that it’s easy to not overthink it. It feels like everyone’s drinking. Enjoying it, regretting it, looking forward to it. Grabbing a drink, wine with dinner, out for someone’s birthday — all of it’s deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture. Skipping out feels like missing out. In this Quartz piece from last year, Kristi Coulter explored this phenomenon through the lens of feminism. “There’s always one person who can’t deal if someone isn’t drinking,” she wrote. It’s worth a read.
I decided to cut alcohol for 30 days. It wasn’t a crazy proposition. For one, “sober months” are their own little trend in New York: Sober September, Sober January. For two, I’ve enjoyed plenty of sober months without even trying. Give me a cold Saturday and a good show and I’m in for the night. I was more curious to see if I could cut drinking without cutting anything else. Could I dance in a club without a drink and have just as much fun? I was embarrassed I even had to ask.
My no-drinks month, which ran from early June to early July, was a little anticlimactic. It was occasionally boring (a very long dinner where my friends drank wine and I nearly fell asleep), at moments, surprisingly fine (meeting old friends at a bar, catching up for hours) and sometimes downright heavenly (super early weekend mornings and the promise of no headaches). I probably stayed in more than usual, even though I tried not to. And I certainly ducked out of things earlier. It just sounded nice to do other stuff with my time. I noticed that meet-ups seldom turned into something more when I wasn’t drinking. Also missing from them was the air of celebration having a drink sometimes brings, which I missed. Not everyone was thrilled when I passed it up, but no one pushed, either. It didn’t matter as much as I thought it would.
The first day after my sober month I was on a boat, alone at a party with an open bar, socially anxious and floating down the Hudson river. The next day, I had a killer hangover. I’d misjudged my tolerance after a month off, and three glasses of rosé later, I felt like I was dying. I was bedridden and shame-ridden for the entire day. Really? My first day back and this? The whole narrative didn’t bode well for my conclusions.
I’ve been trepidatious around drinking in the weeks since. Honestly, I’m not sure I have conclusions yet. Nothing happened that was genuinely dangerous or, frankly, very out of the ordinary. At least in New York. But paying closer attention to my relationship with alcohol, really taking pains to pick apart why I engage with it, wasn’t a flattering exercise. It left me with more questions than answers, and I’m wondering what you think. Has alcohol and/or the associated regret become normalized in your setting, too? Does that make you feel something?
If you’re suffering from an addiction of any kind, here is a list of hotlines that can help right now.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.