How and Why I Gave Up Drinking (Almost Entirely)

“Sober January” constitutes a thing for many people.

Drinking is normalized to a point in our culture where it’s weirder not to engage than to engage, thus the need for a dedicated detox period directly following a holiday that’s sponsored by flutes of champagne.

If this article meets you hungover, I apologize. You will hate me for it. I get it, I would have hated me for it, too. But this article isn’t some self-righteous call to give up drinking. It’s just to describe my struggles, my logic for doing so, in hopes that the few out there that are saying, “this is THE LAST TIME” might actually mean it.

I don’t drink.

Every once and awhile I’ll have a shot of tequila (aggressive, I know). So I can’t claim that I’m completely sober, but almost. I can count the times I’ve had a drink in the last 2.5 years.

It started when I moved to Los Angeles. I decided I was going to introduce myself as a person who didn’t drink (not that it was something I’d offer up immediately, just when necessary). It was an uncomfortable process, hanging with new colleagues at happy hours.

My college friends can attest this was quite the change of heart. One might even call it a complete 180. During college and in the years after, I was a big partier. I was the girl with the handle of some cheap tequila that could get you f*cked up if you wanted (or even if you didn’t), the one that would push you (and herself) far past normal limits. The one that could funnel 17 beers in a night and still walk herself home. In all this, I still received (really) good grades. Not cute, I know.

I say this, not to impress you with my drinking escapades, but rather to prove that people can change, and that you can too if you want to in any respect, always.

So much of my identity was wrapped up in being the girl that knew how to have a good time. Alcohol provided me with a confidence that I couldn’t otherwise muster, a lubrication to social connections that otherwise didn’t exist.

I’d gone on and off with my relationship with alcohol, a tell-tale sign of addictive behavior, although not necessarily a malignant addiction.

The first time I gave up drinking was when my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer on the first weekend of my sophomore year of college. I gave my handle of Captain Morgan to a friend and vowed not to drink anymore. I was hit by a new sense of purpose, a sense that drinking my life away was a waste. I wanted to maximize every moment I could. I studied hard, drove home every weekend, and kept that vow for a month or two.

I don’t remember why I started up again. Maybe my mom’s mortality slid further into the distance. Maybe I was hit with one of those surges of energy, a need to celebrate. I have absolutely no idea.

Things went on like this for the next few years, taking breaks here and there when I found it important or when my mom received a bad scan. I never turned to alcohol out of anger or depression, only when I was feeling good. I was acutely aware that the opposite would be destructive, yet unable to see the destruction it was already causing, mostly in my own psyche.

Alcohol had become my crutch. If you’ve read an article by me before, you probably know that I’ve struggled extensively with my sexuality. In retrospect, drinking made all that easier. It made dealing with the feelings of insufficiency easier. It made me feel loved, if even for my ability to slug Bud Lights.

What I am describing in myself is normal on college campuses all around the States. I was not out of the ordinary. In fact, I might even describe my behavior as perfectly ordinary, which made it hard to diagnose and address. It’s difficult to escape the party chamber when you are in it. You cannot fathom that throwing up from alcohol poisoning probably isn’t normal because everyone else seems to be doing it, too.

When I gave up drinking for real, for real, it was a moral choice. I recognized that drinking was preventing me from becoming the person I wanted to be. It was a numbing agent, one that made me forget about the problems I was facing - mostly of the existential nature. It was also a disaster agent, one that brought out anger, frustration, and sadness I couldn’t access sober.

In other words, I wasn’t my best self and I wanted to be. Drunk or hungover, I was a mess.

When my mom died, I realized how short life is. Initially, my response was YOLO in the traditional sense. I wanted to see everything, travel everywhere, enjoy life. But then, it drove deeper. I wanted to be a person that I could be proud to be, that my mom could be proud of raising. I wanted to step into her legacy in a meaningful way, carry it forth.

It was clear that if I kept drinking, I would never become the person she’d raised me to be.

Now, I share this because it’s my story, one that I feel is important to tell. Not because I think drinking is an inherently bad thing. It isn’t. Some of my best memories in college are sitting around, shooting the sh*t, and passing a bottle with my friends. Therefore, I pass no judgement on people that want to let the good times roll. I have no qualms with anyone’s choice to drink, no favor for those who choose not to.

The choice to drink (or not to drink) is a personal one, a choice that I believe we should all approach more intentionally. We take it as a given, but does it need to be?

The truth is, as my youngest brother has reminded me many times, that giving up a substance isn’t enough to change the course of your life. In my experience, it’s easier to improve yourself when you aren’t hungover. But I’ve still had to do the deep internal work, the deep internal work I’d been avoiding doing.

For many of us, alcohol is a magnifier, not the problem in itself.

Abstaining from alcohol has been a great thing for me, but it isn’t necessary for everyone. It is, however, necessary for becoming the type of person I want to become. A successful writer. Etc.

My ‘why’ for doing this has only become stronger over time. My 15 year-old-brother (now 17) went to rehab for addiction to Xanax, among other drugs. If he can stay sober, weather the trials of youth without mind-altering substances, so can I. In fact, I should. I should be that kind of role model.

My father was an alcoholic and still attends AA to this day (30+ years after getting sober). His experience with addiction has manifested across a multitude of categories, and he still struggles to this day.

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Many of my friends have asked whether I do anything for the fun of it anymore. It’s people’s biggest concern when they think about giving up partying or going out.

The answer is that I find self-improvement, reading, writing, having deep conversation fun. My definition of fun isn’t quite the same as it used to be, but I’m okay with that. I’m not the same person as I used to be.

I’m still enjoying my life. The difference is that now, I’m doing it in a way that makes me proud to enjoy it.

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If it’s something you are considering trying (sober January is a thing), here are some tips that I’d give you:

  • It’s okay to hide your sobriety if you aren’t comfortable talking about it yet. At the bar, get a seltzer water, and put some lime in it. Some bars will deliver that in a glass that looks different than cocktail glasses. Feel free to ask them to put it in a cocktail glass. At house parties, grab beers and just hold them. Pour your shots out. People are paying WAY LESS attention than you think.

  • Your reason for why you are doing this is the only reason that matters. Stick to your guns, no matter who tries to question it. Including your best friends, your colleagues, etc. You will be peer pressured. If this is something you want to do, you need to be prepared to deal with some of the blow back.

  • If you’ve been in a ‘drinking scene’ for awhile, you are going to experience some insecurity in that scene. It’s okay. This will pass. I promise. [However, if giving up alcohol is a life choice you are making because you are addicted, I urge you to seek out support from professionals and communities such as AA.]

  • Remember: no one cares about what you are doing. They only care about justifying their own habits and routines. You deciding not to drink very well may upend their worldview, their own comfortability with themselves. It isn’t about you.

  • If you are interested in more info on this, I wrote an article last year that was quite popular on the topic. There may be something in there to guide you better.

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PS - HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!

Kate Ward