A Year In Drinking

A year ago I decided to stop drinking. Four months ago I decided to start drinking again.

It's been an interesting year, and one filled with lots of firsts (like sober first dates) and re-firsts (like being hungover). 

When I wrote Drinking, which was my declaration to the world but mostly to myself that I was committing to not drinking, I was truly scared. It was the hardest choice I'd ever made. I don't know any adults who don't drink. I have no peers who don't drink. In making this choice I was embarking on a future that made me different from everyone I'd spent time with my whole life. I had no example. No choice I'd ever made or step I'd ever taken had felt so lonely, and what stands out from the time I spent weighing this decision is a real heaviness that did not feel good at all. 

But it was also a decision that had started to nag at me so hard I couldn't ignore it. The notion of quitting drinking was so present on my mind that I had to give it the time of day. When I made the choice to quit, I finally had an impetus so compelling I was able to sustain it.

I'd started to feel drinking's impact on my ability to do the things I needed to do. Higher-purpose-type need-to-do. A year into life as a yoga teacher I could feel the permanent weight on my brain and my body that drinking was causing, and how that made it increasingly difficult to show up and teach. I'd come to a point where it felt like I could have only one or the other. 

I've decided to write about this now because a) a year seems like a nice timeframe to package a reflection and b) I'm back to feeling what it feels like to live life regularly drinking, which is highlighting much of what I discovered while I wasn't drinking, plus some new insights. 

Things I Learned On The Wagon

Announcing my intention not to drink made it easier. I'd had one prior stint off alcohol about a year before this one, and having to explain my choice over and over when I wasn't even sure about it myself made the whole thing 10x more challenging. Writing about my intention this time around, and giving my friends and family the opportunity to understand and have their own reaction before we were sitting in front of a bottle of wine together, made those interactions a lot more comfortable.

Not drinking with family was much harder than not drinking with friends. 

It took a solid three months without a single drink to feel the physical and mental effects. Until that point, I was still consistently low energy like I'd been before. But then there was a shift, like a cloud evaporated. My mind was much clearer and my energy increased drastically. I could show up to class any time of day with ample enthusiasm to teach, and equally important I had the energy to be inspired and creative in what I was teaching. From that place I gained so much energy from and connection to my students.

Once the physical effects of not drinking settled in it was MUCH easier. Until this point it was still a decision every time I sat down to a meal or met friends at a bar to say no to a drink. Once my body took over it wasn't as much of a choice, I wasn't fighting an urge every time. 

I've always had a crazy sweet tooth, but it was even stronger when I first stopped drinking. I pretty much gave into it for a while in the beginning.

So then I started to have sugar hangovers. They are the real deal and they feel a lot like alcohol hangovers. (Go figure.)

I was able to stay out and hang out way later than I expected. A few drinks, for me, makes staying out late the most challenging. And many drinks, of course, keeps you going. But I was really surprised that I could hang comfortably and enjoyably when I wasn't drinking at all. 

But lack of sleep hangovers are real too. And even just spending time around people who are drinking gives you this weird vicarious hangover. 

Speaking of sleep, it is DRASTICALLY BETTER when you're not drinking. I recognized this most strongly only since I've been back to it. Yes, alcohol will knock you out. But the quality of that sleep is terrible and I always wake up way too early when I drink which compounds the ill-effects of the whole charade. And a poor night of sleep affects the next several days at minimum. I think this is a main reason that even minimal but regular drinking had such a negative impact on my energy levels — I was never getting proper sleep.

I was hesitant to go here last year when I wrote about this but I can confidently say it now. Drinking is terrible for our health. In no reality are we more healthy with alcohol than without it. I don't care what any study says about a glass of red wine a day — we are humoring ourselves. Not saying it isn't enjoyable and we shouldn't do it. But I'll never again be able to tell myself the lie that in moderation drinking might actually improve my health. That simply cannot be true. 

This applies to mental health as well. Alcohol is a depressant and for me it feels like this manifests the next morning. My outlook on life when I wake up is, at best, right where I left it before drinking, but at worse notably darker. The zest for life I had each morning when I wasn't drinking (especially weekend mornings) is in retrospect really striking. And as we know, those first few moments shape the day ahead.

I still needed vices. I mentioned sugar, but you can only binge on sugar for so long. I smoked many more cigarettes than I care to admit while I wasn't drinking. And for a time it was the lesser of two evils for me.

I noticed this the first time I spent a long weekend of drinking with friends, sober: when you're not drinking you tend to have a poor gauge on how drunk the crowd is. Because you aren't involved in every trip to the bar you lose sight of how much people are consuming. I was under the impression that as the sober person I'd be most aware of how drunk people around me were, but I actually found that when I wasn't involved I really couldn't tell how intoxicated anyone else was until it was glaringly obvious.

My memory's function went from a steady C to like a B+. That was huge.

I found that my choice not to drink sometimes opened the door for people to take a night off or choose not to drink when they otherwise might have not wanted to but done so anyway. And it was often welcome and appreciated. On the flip, I could also still "meet people for a drink". It was easiest if there were at least two other people actually drinking, but even one-on-one, it's not that weird. Soda water bitters is the best go-to btw.

Alcohol very negatively affects the way my body digests food. It also quite perceptibly leaves my body feeling inflamed and, as I've discussed, this literally makes me a different human. 

Life is so much less expensive without alcohol. 

I came to a really good place in the eight months I didn't drink. I felt good teaching and things were unfolding for me professionally that I was really proud of. A few months in, it was no longer a struggle not to drink — it was routine for me and everyone around me. 

Then in January I went to India for a month long yoga teacher training. It was an intense month of practice and self-study.

When I left for India I was apprehensive about how I'd feel coming back. Since I'd last been there I'd finally started to feel I was comfortably blending my life experience pre- and post-introduction to yoga. I'd settled into life as a yoga teacher in NYC. But I also knew how strongly I felt about spiritual life and the impact living on an ashram had had on me last time around. 

What transpired was an outcome I didn't expect at all. I loved every moment studying with my teachers again — but it was hard. By the end of the month of intense study I felt ready to come home, a sentiment that caught me by surprise. I realized that for the last two years I'd been harboring a dissonance about where I was meant to be: living here, immersed to a large degree in the life I've always known, or removed from it. 

And when I came home something inside me had shifted. Both the problem (that quiet dissonance) and the answer (to be fully in the life I was given) came to me at the same time. I felt like I was ready to take on drinking again from a different place. It's difficult to articulate, but just like when I'd decided to stop drinking it was a feeling that came from deep within that made me know I was ready to start again. Intuitively I sensed I'd have the energy I needed to teach even as I re-introduced alcohol. 

And I did for a few months. I've had really great experiences since I started drinking again. I've been able to engage in things that I had to take a break from for a long time. I got into a relationship for the first time in a while — one thing I felt drinking was moving me farther away from when I decided to stop. I celebrated my 30th birthday over cocktails. 

And as I did while I was observing the shift to a life without booze, I'm noticing some interesting things as I invite it back into my life. 

Things I'm Learning Back Off The Wagon

It's a slippery slope. There are opportunities to drink every single day and it's so hard to pick and choose.

A few months back at it and the impact drinking has on my energy levels is obvious again. I have at least 25% less energy ALL THE TIME when I'm drinking some of the time. 

There's this thing called Morning Recovery and it helps a little bit. 

What's increasingly clear to me is that substances simply highlight our inner state. When I was unknowingly unsettled a year ago, a night of drinking only brought out more insecurity. When I returned from India to my life with a renewed happiness and clarity, substances didn't have as much confusion to bring to the surface. I've seen this firsthand since I've been back to drinking — nights I very assuredly would've blacked out and mentally gone somewhere else in the past, I've actually remained present. 

Similarly, I think we assimilate inputs differently based on our mindset and emotional state. If I'm feeling really satiated by my work and relationships, for example, I think I absorb food and booze in a more agreeable, less physically and emotionally damaging way. 

Part of what I was feeling when I returned from India was a pull towards intense exercise — things I hadn't done since I started practicing yoga six years ago like running and spinning. I thought I'd lose the energy for these things as I got back into drinking, but that hasn't been entirely true and I have a developing thesis. When I wasn't drinking I always wondered how people who do drink, and as a result surely have less energy, could still work out all the time. I'm starting to think there is some symbiotic connection between the energy quality of different activities. The aggressive act of drinking pairs itself with a drive and ability to do aggressive exercise. The gentler effect of not drinking on the body pairs itself with the comparatively gentler practice of yoga. I don't know. Still workin on this one. But even as I continue to drink and live with less energy overall, I'm still finding it doable to run and spin and do all these crazy NYC workouts and it's coming as a pleasant surprise.

As I read back through what I've written here I realized I wrote the word "drinking" an absurd number of times — 39 so far to be precise. That's a lot for a recap of a year I spent 2/3 sober. 

I have no idea where life will take me from here in my relationship to alcohol. But what I will say is that I'm not afraid like I was last year. The thought of a future in which I don't drink no longer carries with it the doubt and darkness and uncertainty and dread it once did. Indifference is the best descriptor I can find at the moment. It's dawning on me that making the choice to confront what I so deeply feared has, as they say, set me free.

I ended Drinking with this quote, and I can't help but recognize how appropriate it was: 

"She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave."

And so, for the way my experience has unfolded thus far, I thank the universe for listening to my modest act of bravery. 

Joanna Cohen