For many of us without an addiction to alcohol, the problem isn’t actually the alcohol but rather the underlying reason we feel the need to overdo it. Similar to why many of us abuse food and/or body obsession. My relationship with alcohol has been up and down since I entered college and binge drinking became a staple in my life, and it took me a long time to find peace with it. I have ping-ponged back and forth with extremes, but my current state of balance involves having a few drinks per week during most weeks, and a few times a year I drink more than I know is good for me. Is this a healthy choice? No, alcohol in general isn’t healthy, but there are times that I truly find the process of going overboard and letting loose a good time. And this is a conscious choice, rather than something I feel the need to do. Let me explain what I mean by this and how I arrived here.
I started drinking in high school with my siblings and friends, unbeknownst to my parents of course, but the really heavy drinking didn’t start until college. It was a time when I was meeting new people, figuring out who I was, enjoying new experiences, and alcohol was a buffer for all of this. I never really stopped to consider not partaking in it, as it was just “what you did” in college. And I had a lot of fun with it most of the time! But I also had a lot of negative experiences as a result, including blacking out and making poor decisions I was embarrassed about the next morning. Talk about anxiety inducing. This wasn’t just my experience, as everyone I surrounded myself with did the same thing, so once again, I felt that it was just part of the gig.
By the end of my senior year, I was truly burned out from all of the partying. Because of this, it wasn’t difficult for me to move in with my parents back home for a few months while I studied for a big exam, as I was so ready for a calmer lifestyle. Interestingly, it was during this summer that I realized I had a real love for red wine and would enjoy some almost every night with my dad. We’re talking one glass a night, and maybe two on the weekends. It was such a liberating feeling to have just one drink and not feel like I was white knuckling it the entire time. I was drinking it because I enjoyed the taste, ritual, and time with my family, not because I needed to feel more comfortable with myself, lack of boundaries, or to escape an aspect of my life. If I had previously wanted to cut back and only have one or two drinks, it would have felt next to impossible due to social pressures and my own discomfort, and I would have inevitably overdone it.
By the end of that summer, I felt as though I had developed a rock-solid relationship with alcohol and really had it all figured out. Welp, I was wrong. I moved to Denver with a few of my college friends, and I once again found myself back in the party game. I was in a job I didn’t like working really long hours, so when the weekends rolled around, I went all out with my drinking. Looking back, I made some amazing friends during this time and don’t regret it at all, but I also knew that I wasn’t really happy deep down. And I truly believe that was the reason I felt the need to have a drink in my hand at all times. (It’s no surprise that my relationship with food and my body moved in tandem with my relationship with alcohol). I didn’t consider the notion that meditation, being out in nature, travel, spending quality time with friends, or other sober activities would actually serve me in a much more positive and fulfilling way than drinking or my food/body obsession ever could.
The uneasiness with my drinking and lifestyle was growing quickly, and I didn’t know how to escape the life and environment I had become so accustomed to. As a result, decided I was going to quit my job at the end of 2013 and travel abroad for a few months. Three of my friends joined me, and to my relief, we barely drank the entire time we were in SE Asia. This would have NEVER happened even one year before. Little did I know that all of them were also looking for a way out of that lifestyle; we just didn’t have the strength or know-how to do it in our usual environments. In fact, one of them had recently started a sober lifestyle that she continues to this day. It seems a little ridiculous to say that we had to travel across the world to find a way out of our unhealthy habits, but sometimes we need to completely remove ourselves from our usual environments to create space for ourselves. This allowed me to see myself and my life through a neutral lens, and there was no escaping the conclusion that I didn’t like what I saw.
When I returned home to the US, I was doubtful of my ability to hold steady with my new drinking habits and what I wanted them to look like when I arrived back in Denver. Would my friends still want to hang out with me? If not, does that mean they didn’t really like me for me? Would I fall back into my old patterns? What would I do with all of my free time if I’m wasn’t drinking? That last one is a little difficult to write, but it was such a serious concern at the time. So much of my identity in the States was wrapped up in heavy drinking that I couldn’t conceptualize my life without it. And I hadn’t taken the time to consider what I actually enjoyed in life outside of it.
I was really insecure about my choices when I returned to my social circle in Denver, and I even felt this way around my siblings and extended family. I was known as the girl who was always up for a party, even by my own definition, so they weren’t quite sure what to make of my new lifestyle. In fact, I was so unsure about how to navigate my new lifestyle that I felt as though I had to remove myself from my old one completely. I really needed to surround myself with people who were seeking a similar path, and this wasn’t because my friends and family were doing anything wrong. It was because I wasn’t secure enough in who I was or my choices. It felt as though my new energy and motivations were so raw and vulnerable that I had to protect them until they were solidified (i.e. I wasn’t comfortable in my choices yet). I wish I had known how to articulate this to people in my life at the time, but I barely understood what was happening myself. All I knew was that I needed out.
As I removed myself from my party lifestyle, I spent a lot of time alone, in nature, and with very close friends. It was exactly what I needed for myself until I was able to draw boundaries, and once I was stable in what I wanted for myself and what I needed from others, I was ready to branch out again. I made new friends and connected with old ones, and most of my former stress about drinking had dissipated. I was now able to be social while only have one drink, leave parties early, confidently tell others that I wasn’t drinking that night, or do whatever I needed to do for myself at the time. However, I still struggled with the times I did have a few drinks too many (meaning I had a hangover). Did this mean I wasn’t being true to myself again? Did this mean I was slipping back into old patterns? These were the questions I asked myself.
I sat with these questions for a long time, and I realized that my relationship with alcohol is exactly as I treat my relationship with food and exercise. It’s one that I get to define, and as long as my emotional and physical health are at the forefront consistently, then consciously making the choice to go overboard now and then is perfectly fine for ME. The key differentiator between my choice to overdo it previously vs. now is the fact that it’s a conscious decision I’m making. It’s never something I feel the need to do, and I don’t feel like someone or something else is making the decision for me. As a result, I no longer beat myself up about it the next day, and that in itself has been a huge relief.
I learned quite a few things about myself as I navigated my complicated relationship with alcohol, and my hope is that these can be beneficial to others who are struggling with their own.
1. Be Open and Honest: Be open and honest about your desire to change your habits with friends and family and explain why the change is important to you. I failed miserably with this one, and it made things much more difficult. I was a very poor communicator at that time, and I didn’t think others would hold space for what I was feeling. Who am I to make that decision? I should have given them all of the information and then allowed them to respond accordingly. This of course leaves two options in regards to their responses: being supportive or being unsupportive.
2. Audit your Social Circle and Support System: After explaining why you’re making a change, if they’re still not supportive of your decisions, then distance may be necessary. People often criticize those who are making choices in the interest of improving themselves, because it highlights the fact that they may not be doing the same. Essentially, they’re projecting their insecurity onto you**. Discovering that some of our relationships are conditional (i.e. they only support us when we’re doing what they want us to do) can be really hurtful, but distancing ourselves or removing these relationships entirely creates space for new, positive and supportive ones.
**I can identify this so easily now with new people I meet. If I’m in a situation where most people are drinking heavily and I’m not drinking or am only having one or two, I receive negative comments from the people who are insecure about how much they are drinking. Those who are secure in their own choices never harass or criticize me, and those are the people I want to surround myself with!
3. Engage in Positive Activities: As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t know what I enjoyed to do outside of partying and drinking. Sure, I went to the mountains to ski or go camping, but I started to dread those trips because I knew binge drinking was going to be a huge part of them. I had to learn how to enjoy those things without excessive amounts of alcohol or none at all. Additionally, I had a TON of time on my hands now that I wasn’t out at the bars until 2am and subsequently useless the next day with a hangover. I started spending more time in nature by hiking, skiing, and camping, and I enjoyed more quality time with friends in town. I even started working out on the weekends, as I was no longer feeling like death. (huge win!) This is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to stop drinking so heavily – I didn’t want to continue wasting my life away being drunk or hungover.
4. Don’t judge others for their choices. I was guilty of this in the beginning, for sure, and this was most certainly due to my own insecurity with my choices. Due to not adhering to suggestion number one above, I reacted defensively to negative comments and developed a “high horse” attitude. “If they’re going to criticize my choices, then I’m going to criticize theirs.” Really mature, I know. But just as we deserve unconditional support from my friends and family, they deserve the same. We’re all on our own paths, and I’m certainly not in a place to tell anyone else how they should be living their lives. If they’re happy, then I’m happy (barring any serious addiction/issue here, of course). I now have friendships with people who drink heavily, and neither of us criticize the other for our choices. I truly never thought that was possible.
5. My relationship with alcohol directly translated to my relationship with my body. I don’t believe the alcohol was the cause here, but I was mistreating my body via booze and food due to unhappiness, living in an inauthentic manner, and a negative self-image. When I realized I had the power to create the life I wanted and to show up as I am, my entire world changed. And my relationships with alcohol and food followed suit as I described here.
There are a lot of things I could have done differently as I navigated and continue to navigate my ever-changing relationship with alcohol, but I have learned a hell of a lot in the process. And I’m grateful for all of the lessons. It taught me to stand up for myself and create boundaries, to be open and honest with loved ones, to give others the benefit of the doubt, to accept myself and others right where we are, to create space for myself and others to grow and evolve, and that it’s OK to put myself first and do what’s best for me, despite what others might think. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I’m so happy I decided to finally make a change for myself.