I had a relationship with alcohol that is typical with many American young adults. Fake ID at 17. High school parties where parents were away and we raided the liquor cabinet. Many lost memories in college that ended with me curled up on the bathroom floor with only a fuzzy recollection of the previous night. In my twenties, I switched to wine as a more mature vehicle for letting loose. At about a dozen glasses of wine per week, I considered myself a casual drinker because it was so much less (that's only two drinks a night!) than what I drank in college. In my thirties, I became aware of some serious food sensitivities including yeast, barley, and gluten, that pretty much crushed my immune system every time I consumed them. I became an avid long-distance runner, and mostly drank on the weekends.
Even though I drank significantly less, every time I did drink, I felt like the alcohol would put its claws in me and make me behave and act in ways that just weren't "me". I would pick petty fights with my husband, crave absurd amounts of sugar, and then sleep like crap for days after I drank. I noticed I was fine if I abstained from alcohol totally. But if I had just one drink, it was incredibly difficult for me not to have a second or third.
A knee injury sidelined me from running so I turned to yoga and began a daily meditation practice. These practices seemed to have a positive effect on my relationship to alcohol, yet I was still experiencing the grip of alcohol anytime it was in my system. After a yoga teacher training in the Fall of 2017, I decided to quit drinking.
This was certainly not the first time in my life that I had tried to stop drinking. My longest effort before this attempt was one month. So, I committed to being sober. I didn't restrict myself to "forever" or a set time limit. I wanted to see how long I could go. And, I clearly used the "s"-word every time someone asked me why I wasn't drinking. At first, I wondered if I had a right to use this word, "sober". All sorts of questions would pop into my mind: Can I use this word if I'm not an alcoholic? What defines an alcoholic? Can I use it if it's only temporary? Will people be offended?
I tried on this word anyway, even if it wasn't mine to use. If a friend was headed to the bar and asked, "Do you want something to drink?" I would kindly say, "No thanks, I'm sober." They would simply nod or smile or say something in approval and walk way. There is power in this word. There was power in me choosing to use it. It reaffirmed my commitment every time I said it out loud.
Though it wasn't always easy. The compulsion to drink socially is strong with this one. I soon realized that I had been using alcohol to mask some pretty strong feelings of anxiety in social situations. I have always felt more comfortable teaching or speaking in the front of the room to a group of people or speaking privately, one-on-one with a person, than being in the middle of the room mingling. I am sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and don't even get me started on my food sensitivities. When I'm in a crowd at a party or concert, I notice my breathing gets really shallow and my chest feels tight. I have a hard time listening to one person when there are lots of other conversations going on around me. The energy of all the people and sights and sounds crushes in on me and it can feel like I'm suffocating.
My meditation practice really helped me to see just how my body responds to situations with large amounts of people. Instead of running to the bar when I feel overwhelmed by the crowd, I learned to just be with the discomfort. I would use the labeling technique that I sometimes use during seated meditation, a practice of noticing and labeling without judgment.
I am aware that I feel uncomfortable. I am aware that my breathing is short. I am aware that there is a throbbing in my temples. I am aware that there are many sounds. I am aware of the discomfort in my body.
I believe it was the practice of being with the feelings of discomfort and anxiety instead of running away from them that changed my relationship to alcohol. When I labeled the discomfort and sat with the feelings, they began to fade and melt away. I began to experience social situations in a whole new way, as in, I actually enjoyed them! Without the mask of alcohol, I learned to have deep, meaningful conversations with one person while in a crowded room. I felt confident and empowered by my choice to abstain. By being with my social anxiety, I learned to accept it as a feeling that comes and goes like all other feelings, and not something I have to control or escape.
I went 6 months without a drop of alcohol. I realize 6 months of sobriety is just a drop in the bucket compared to other's decades long abstinence, which I completely respect and admire. For me, this time frame was enough to reassign my relationship with alcohol. I no longer feel that it has its grip on me when I choose to drink. And, I now feel so much more in choice. I still go months without drinking and barely give it a second thought. Then, there are times like last night when we had friends over for dinner, when it just feels like a fun thing to do. I had one can and a half of hard cider and easily poured the second half of my second can down the drain when I felt that I had reached my edge. I was not using it as a mask. The alcohol didn't make me have severe mood swings or alter my sleep, and I woke up just as happy as ever.