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The following is written based on the author’s personal experience with a short-term abstinence from alcohol. The intent is to encourage people to examine their relationship to alcohol and the role it plays in their life. This is not meant to represent the experience of individuals bravely living in recovery from an addiction or striving for sobriety.
A couple of months ago I began experiencing significant neck, shoulder, and upper back pain. Over time the pain got progressively worse, more widespread, and became impossible to manage with over-the-counter pain relief medication. Eventually, I was diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy, more commonly known as a pinched nerve. If you’ve ever experienced this, I’m sorry. If not, take it from a woman who went through natural childbirth, this was pretty high up there on the pain spectrum. I was placed on a hefty dose of steroids (which did not play nice with my anti-anxiety meds) and ordered to rest and engage in physical therapy.
I was being forced to slow down at a time when things were just beginning to ramp up. Summer was ending. September was quickly approaching. It was back to remote learning for my 4th grader which meant juggling part-time teaching with full-time professional responsibilities, with no end in sight.
For the first time in a very long time, I allowed myself to rest. The laundry piled up as did the dust and the dishes. I met work-related deadlines by working smarter not harder. I decided to prioritize my health. Body and mind.
Health is defined as the overall mental and physical state of a person; the absence of disease. By most standards, I am a relatively healthy person. Wellness is slightly different. It is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life, an actively pursued goal
Throughout my adult life, I’ve made choices to consciously live a balanced, compassionate, and what I believe is a fundamentally healthy lifestyle. I have adhered to a whole food, mostly plant-based/vegetarian diet for twenty years but until recently I never considered the effect that alcohol was having on my health and well-being. I was starting most days with a nutrient-packed smoothie but finishing the night with a bottle of wine. Suddenly, I had a realization that there was a significant part of my life that I had moved through subconsciously for years. While I don’t have a physical alcohol dependence, I was willing to admit that perhaps I had developed an emotional attachment to it.
On September 1st, I began a 30-day experiment to abstain from any alcohol to examine my relationship with the substance and the role it plays in my life.
I grew up in a household where drinking was very much normalized, even tradition. My father prided himself on making his wine, applauded and appreciated among his many friends and acquaintances who would often spend time in our basement enjoying it over stories of the old country.
By high school, most of my weekends involved a keg party in the woods or at someone’s house whose parents were away.
In college, a fake ID made booze and bars easier to access allowing the definition of ‘weekend’ to become much broader. If you were slick, you didn’t schedule any Friday morning classes allowing for the festivities to start on a Thursday.
I spent the majority of my twenties in New York City. I’ll just leave that right there.
Throughout the next decade, alcohol continued to be a consistent presence in my life. It’s hard to remember the last time it wasn’t there. It was at weddings and baby showers, birthday parties, and playdates. It helped celebrate holidays, graduations, and promotions. It was there through illness and funerals and divorces. Drinking is how my friends and family celebrate and grieve.
“As I became more mindful about my drinking I realized that I was also using it to cope with feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, boredom, and loneliness. I noticed how it had almost completely replaced the tools I used to use like exercise, meditation, reading, and journaling.”
-Lisa Brecher, Marketing and Community Engagement Manager, CHD
Aside from milestones, alcohol later became part of mundane, every-day life as well. Bad day at the office? Glass of wine. Accomplished day of yard work? Ice cold beer. Remote learning? Stiff cocktail. As I became more mindful about my drinking I realized that I was also using it to cope with feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, boredom, and loneliness. I noticed how it had almost completely replaced the tools I used to use like exercise, meditation, reading, and journaling.
Over the years as my anxiety worsened, bouts of depression and panic attacks became more frequent, and my irritability increased I could always connect the symptoms to a specific situation. There seemed to be obvious reasons why my mental health was suffering. Looking back on things now, I realize that I stopped prioritizing healthy habits. I convinced myself that I just couldn’t find the time between being a full-time professional and a full-time mom. I stopped truly connecting to myself. Eventually, my self-care routines all involved drinking yet I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling more anxious, more depressed, and more stressed out even as so many aspects of my life were generally improving.
I spoke with Kency Gilet, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical director at CHD’s Aster House. “As a depressant, alcohol not only impairs our physical abilities such as walking, talking, or driving; alcohol also inhibits our cognitive functioning. Our ability to tolerate stress, manage our emotions, or make safe decisions is reduced. There is an unfortunate and persistent belief that alcohol consumption can help alleviate depressed moods or reduce anxiety. This is why so many utilize alcohol as a means to treat these symptoms,” says Gilet. He goes on to warn, “In addition to the impact alcohol can have on symptoms, the interaction effects of alcohol and prescribed psychoactive drugs can have damaging effects including death. Unfortunately, these risks have not been echoed in a way that overcomes the societal message of alcohol being the cure for a bad day.”
I began diving deeper into the psychological and neurological components of alcohol use and was fascinated to learn of alcohol’s profound effects on the brain. “The science is clear that alcohol disrupts our natural production of serotonin which is key in managing depression and anxiety. So you may feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. Alcohol-induced anxiety can last for several hours after drinking,” Gilet explains.
I quickly began connecting the dots. It all started to make so much sense. The very thing that I had come to emotionally depend on to make me feel better, was making me feel much, much worse.
Yesterday was Day 30. This was the longest period I have gone without a drink in my adult life. Here are a few things that have happened:
I am sleeping better.
My anxiety has improved.
I feel happier.
My skin looks healthier.
I have more energy.
I find Mommy Wine Culture a bit toxic. (I took a break from drinking during a global pandemic and homeschooling. I think that makes me a pretty badass mama.)
Weekends feel longer.
I feel like I have more time in general.
I’m a more patient parent.
Sunday mornings are more fun.
I feel more in control of my life.
I’ve rediscovered my old hobbies.
I’m inspired to continue making healthier choices.
Today is Day 31. I have no plans to have a drink. To be honest, over the last month I haven’t thought much about anything past September 30. I’m not quite sure what any of this truly means for future me. I just know that I’m in a much better place than I was a month ago. For now, I will just sit back and enjoy this remarkable new found freedom.
If you would like to speak with someone regarding your alcohol use please call 1-844-CHD-HELP or visit chd.org/contact-us.