Last night, I realized I had reached a pretty big milestone without even realizing it. It was my second New Year’s Eve without drinking. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped drinking – it was sometime between September and November of 2013 – but I do know that in 2014, I can count the number of occasions I had an alcoholic beverage on one hand. I chose to stop drinking because it gives me migraines. Now, you might be thinking, are you sure that’s not just a hangover? No, we’re talking within half an hour of having a drink I’ll start getting a headache that will only get worse. It’s not worth it to me. I’ve known for a while that wine and beer are the worst offenders because they’re fermented, but it became clear that liquor wasn’t working either, and with a medication switch, I needed to stop altogether. So late in 2013, I made a pretty huge (for me) lifestyle switch. And now I’ve somehow made it a year without alcohol, for the most part. I’ve noticed some pretty interesting things in that year.
Now, I’m really fortunate in that I chose to quit drinking because of a personal choice to improve my health. This was not due to any family or personal history of alcoholism, I am not allergic to alcohol, and if I really want to I can drink with relatively minor, although substantially annoying, physical side effects. It was not a religious or moral decision. I have made a conscious choice that helps improve my life – I could choose to drink and suffer the consequences and fit in and I would be just fine, but I realize others don’t have the choice that I have.
Thanks to one of my friends and colleagues, I’ve been really into podcasts lately. One of my favorites is the Freakonomics podcast. The other day I was listening to the episode called “What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?” and at one point Steven Levitt talks about how he would rather his daughters live in a society where alcohol is the vice of choice because of all the social benefits associated with it. The entire episode is an interesting listen, but all of the arguments Levitt makes are exactly why it is so challenging to operate in our society as a non-drinker.
It was really hard not to drink at first. I thought people would think I was weird. Most people don’t, and most people don’t notice. The people who do notice aren’t worth my time. Over the past year, I have become incredibly sensitive to how much our society operates around alcohol, even after college. I’m not even going to talk about people who choose not to drink in college – that’s a whole other conversation. But think about what an integral part alcohol plays in our society. Many significant interactions just go better with a drink in hand – and almost seem to be the standard.
“Let’s get drinks and catch up.” Because we can’t just sit and talk, that would be weird.
First dates are often over drinks. Because dinner is too much of a commitment. What if you don’t hit it off with the other person? You need liquid courage plus you can duck out when you finish your drink if it’s not going well.
Business deals sealed over a drink. Let’s not even begin to think about many of the gender roles that can be associated with that one.
What are some other rituals that we have that are held over drinks? Brunch. Wine/beer/liquor tastings. Bar crawls. Happy hours. Painting and wine nights. Holiday lights with beer tastings. Fancy events with featured cocktails. Concerts. A simple night out on the town. The unspoken rule to never show up empty-handed at someone’s house, which often ends up with a bottle in hand. These are all events I’ve seen in the past month alone that can make a non-drinker anxious. Let alone feel uncomfortable spending time and money in these situations when they’re not getting the same benefits as those who imbibe.
So, what are some alternatives? I’ve caught up with friends over walks, workouts, and shopping. One of the best dates I’ve had recently was a hike (in contrast to a “meh” date for drinks – where I proudly had a ginger beer). I loved having a night to talk with a friend while baking cookies. Concerts continue to be a favorite event of mine, with a bonus of some interesting people watching. And yes, I still enjoy going to bars, but I’m more picky about where I go because I’m there for the company and the experience, not the drinks. Being creative in what you do is half of the effort, but the other half comes from the non-drinker. I’ve figured out how to feel confident in my choices. I’ve found that most of my friends are incredibly supportive of my lifestyle and some even feel bad drinking around me, which I would never want. I end up encouraging them to order that glass of wine – I want them to indulge even though I choose not to! I’ve found that people who are insensitive and ask probing questions about my choices are often strangers who I don’t feel a need to explain myself to.
There have been some great, unexpected side effects this year. One of them was discovering my love of ginger beer, and the hilarious mishaps associated with it. I met plenty of bartenders who had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered it. I got carded for it at Whole Foods, only to have the cashier realize that wasn’t necessary. I ordered one at an NC bar and got an actual beer flavored with ginger. I guess I may have to be more specific in the future.
Do I miss being able to have a margarita or a Bloody Mary every once in a while? Absolutely. But do I relish waking up on a Saturday morning, headache-free? Definitely. This article is right on about the benefits I’ve seen. My headaches haven’t disappeared completely, so I know I haven’t found the magic cure, but it’s worth it to me to let go of something that I know definitely causes me pain. If only I could get rid of stress, another one of my known triggers, just as easily!