I know this may sound shocking, but I’ve been forcing myself to drink since I was roughly 14 years old.
The drinking culture in my hometown was substantial. You hit ninth grade, and suddenly you’re invited to parties serving copious amounts of watery beer. I was thrilled about the social component, the excitement, even the drinking games. (I like to compete, and I love to win.) However, the actual alcohol consumption was never easy or fun.
As I got older and went off to college, I grew more anxious about my aversion to booze. I was perfectly comfortable with party culture, but my consumption was lower than most. I wanted to be cool and the life of the party, but instead I felt sick after a drink or two. I’d get immediately tired, often feeling foggy in the head and sometimes even strangely congested.
Even when I pushed myself to have five or six drinks, my body just didn’t respond the way others’ did. And despite the overwhelming absence of any positive side effects from alcohol, I still got the hangovers.
Maybe it was the impending idea of Sober October or Sophie Wood’s Instagram stories celebrating her official year of sobriety or a close friend sharing that she had one of her saddest post-breakup days after a night of drinking, but sometime around the end of September, I had a moment of clarity and officially decided that I’m going to stop forcing myself to drink when I don’t want to.
Why I’ve always felt pressured to drink
It sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud. Why would I ever force myself to do something I didn’t want to do? The answer is complicated, but mostly it comes down to a dangerous combination of traits — I’m inherently a people-pleaser and I want to fit in.
I’m 28 years old, which makes me a full-blown adult, yet I still find myself ordering drinks to make other people feel comfortable or to avoid being asked why I’m not partaking. Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture that refusing it requires some sort of explanation, and being in recovery, pregnant, or on antibiotics are some of the few deemed acceptable. Simply admitting that I don’t like alcohol has never felt like an option.
As much as our culture has shifted to focus on mental health and wellness and “getting rid of that which doesn’t serve you,” I haven’t felt that in my millennial circles when it comes to alcohol.
I’m more confident and self-assured than I’ve ever been, yet I’m still afraid that I’ll be ostracized for taking a firm stance on something that doesn’t really affect anyone else at all. I’m afraid people will assume I’m boring or take my abstinence as a direct judgment on their indulgence.
I get why some people don’t like to drink alone. Being in it together creates a sort of camaraderie that can alleviate your own complicated feelings about alcohol, a “someone else is doing it too so it’s OK” mentality.
The funny thing is, I’m actually quite jealous of people who can drink socially and enjoy alcohol. Being a wine lady looks chic as hell. I’d be thrilled if something as readily available as a cocktail could help me relax and unwind after a long day. I would love to have a legal outlet that both perked me up and calmed me down. (Although marijuana can help me relax, it also makes me stop speaking so it's not the best for social situations.) But the reality is that I don’t think the pros outweigh the cons even for a lot of the “good” drinkers out there.
A fellow New York City millennial, Kelsey Soles is in that boat. Known for her breakup content on TikTok, Soles also occasionally touches on her decision to become sober almost a year ago. Her experience was different from mine in that she was a late adopter of alcohol and quickly dove into the party lifestyle, drinking almost every night to a point where it was taking a major physical and mental toll.
“The hangovers were getting worse and worse,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I feel like every time I drank I was fighting with my significant other, like it was just like making me like an emotional mess and I wasn't processing things. I was just like exploding on everyone around me.”
How alcohol affects the body
A friend recently recommended that I listen to the Huberman Lab podcast about how alcohol affects the body, which helped me understand what alcohol was doing to Soles’s brain that led to this emotional shift. I highly recommend listening if you’re at all curious, though it is packed with a lot of science to digest.
One huge takeaway for me was that genetic predispositions can dictate how you respond to alcohol. For example, if you have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol), you may have a rapid buildup of the toxic effects before any pleasurable feelings occur.
A single drink is unlikely to make me feel better, but it’s guaranteed to make me feel worse. As far as the need for explanation goes, it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders that there’s likely a genetic reason why I feel unwell while you’re out here living your best drunk life.
During my moment of clarity, I realized that I’ve been fighting my body and struggling with this internal conflict for almost 15 years. Alcohol inhibits my personality as opposed to emphasizing it, and I would actually be more inclined to socialize if I didn’t feel that pressure to make myself ill in the process.
Soles also feels that alcohol took away her personality, but in a different way. She had started to rely on alcohol as a social lubricant, something that many people do, and grew frustrated that she was no longer the dynamic character she had been before she started drinking.
After quitting alcohol, she said that she’s never felt physically or mentally better. “I feel like all the past, like relationship heartbreak and all that stuff that you try to numb with alcohol, I feel like it came to the surface and I actually got to heal it properly,” she told me.
Her decision to stop drinking did affect some relationships, including the ex referenced in her content. She realized that going out and partying was a shared interest that may have bonded them, and when she went sober, it created a bad energy that they never got past.
However, it also showed her who her true friends were. The people who only know her for going out were bummed and thought this meant she was no longer fun, but the people who actually cared about her were fully supportive and knew this was a healthy choice that would ultimately make her a better version of herself.
I’ve been so afraid for so long that people wouldn’t accept this decision or would make it a big deal. I didn’t want anyone to avoid me or be embarrassed by me. I also didn’t want to make some big declaration that I was now sober when I very well might want to have an occasional celebratory glass of champagne. The whole point is that I’m only going to drink when I want to drink — which will likely be infrequent — and I don’t want to deal with any shaming.
While I fully support anyone who wants to use Sober October or Dry January as an entry point to exploring a sober lifestyle, another major piece of information I learned from Huberman is that it takes your brain two to six months to completely recalibrate after cutting out alcohol. Essentially, you need to be sober longer than a month to experience the full potential of your unadulterated mind.
Alcohol is something that people use to reduce stress temporarily, but you don’t hear as much about the lingering effects on your mental health. According to the Huberman Lab podcast, it impacts brain function in a way that causes more cortisol (the stress hormone) to be released even when you’re not drinking.
That means people who drink alcohol regularly — even just a couple drinks per week — may feel more stressed and anxious as a result. You’d have to abstain for several months to really know what your stress and anxiety levels could be like without it.
Tips for the sober-curious
None of this is really new information. We’ve known for as long as imbibing has existed that alcohol can be a poison and harmful to your body and/or mind.
While some studies have shown that people who drink a moderate amount of alcohol (no more than one per day for women and two for men) have a lower risk of heart disease than those who drink none or more than that, researchers are not sure if it’s due to the alcohol or a healthier lifestyle, and they say you should never start drinking for any potential health benefits.
That said, I’m simply sharing my experience in case anyone else is looking for a sign that it’s OK to break from the norm if you feel like it.
As much as I know I don’t need to explain anything to anyone, having a few good reasons ready as to why I live a low-alcohol lifestyle has been a comfort to me. For Soles, the first three months of navigating social situations were the most awkward, but it helped her to have a routine that involves ordering more than just water.
Tons of menus these days feature better nonalcoholic options than just juice or soda since alcohol has been falling from grace for a while now, but if those aren’t available, get something that feels even a little special, like an iced tea.
I’ve been opting for a seltzer with lime since having something in my hand that could be a cocktail tends to invite fewer questions from those who can’t fathom the idea of going out without boozing.
Another thing I’ve been wondering about is what I would do if I was dating while sober. I think it would be a lot harder for me to stick to my guns, so I asked Soles about what that’s been like for her.
She said that she doesn’t tell dates ahead of time and instead mentions it casually when it’s time to order. So far, the men she’s been out with haven’t cared, and some have even preferred it since it makes her a cheaper date. There’s a good We Met at Acme podcast episode with more sober dating tips and ideas for dates that don’t revolve around alcohol, such as walks, workouts, coffee, ice cream, ice skating, and more.
I’m still early in my new approach to alcohol and feeling anxious about certain situations (friends’ bachelorette parties, an upcoming trip to New Orleans) or how some people in my life will respond. But I’m also positive that I’ll be a better, happier version of myself if I stick it out, so cheers to a sober October and beyond. ●