How Not Drinking for a Month Changed My Relationship With Alcohol

In January, I did a major dietary change called the Whole 30. The diet removed most things generally understood as being delicious from my diet, like carbs and sugars and cheese in favor of a diet comprised entirely of vegetables, meat and eggs. The diet also involved abstaining from alcohol for the entire time.

San Francisco has a strong drinking culture. A major way that we connect socially outside of our startups will usually involve grabbing drinks at a bar. I wasn’t a big drinker in Austin, but drinking socially became a big part of my life since I moved here. For a couple of years, I enjoyed my weekends with friends where we’d begin drinking at brunch and often keep going most of the rest of the day. When a day starts with bottomless mimosas, it’s generally a pretty good time.

In Austin, I never really spent money on alcohol, and when I did buy a bottle for the house, I’d usually forget about it for months at a time. There was a bottle of Bookers bourbon that I bought for NYE that was half full 12 months later.

All that sort of changed when I came to SF. A lot of the close friends I made were big drinkers, and that just became the way that we did things. The social aspects of drinking in SF are not to be understated. The most common way to catch up with folks is to meet them for a drink after work. That one drink would invariably turn into a few more. It’s always a good time, but it was starting to feel very limiting. What about just having a drink? What about no drinks? What were you supposed to do with your friends if you weren’t drinking?

That was the challenge I set out on in January with the Whole 30. No dairy, no grains, no sugars, and no alcohol.

The first thing I did, and this made things much easier, was I quit going out almost entirely. I know myself, and the easiest way for me to keep myself honest about avoiding something entirely is sometimes to just remove myself from a situation. If I don’t want to drink, I won’t go to a bar. This helped a ton, because it reset my lifestyle. I spent more time doing other things. I wrote a bit more. I was reading more. And I got creative about how I’d catch up with people and hang out. When was out at a bar, I’d be very strict about drinking club soda with lime.

The first challenge with not drinking is that everyone wants to know why you aren’t drinking. It’s as if people who are drinking are evangelical Christians offering their wares to you. “What do you mean you aren’t drinking? Haven’t you ever experienced the joys of alcohol?” 

I generally had to repeat, “No, I’m not drinking,” several times before people would leave me alone. This was a pain, but it also helped me develop internal resolve, and after a week or two I quit caring that people didn’t quite know how to handle someone not drinking in front of them. It felt like more of their issue than my own.

I recommend going through this process. Go out with your friends and don’t drink. Keep saying “I’m just not drinking tonight” until you feel better about saying “no” than you would about giving in to the social pressure.

And since I wasn’t drinking, I found a bunch of new ways to connect with people. When I wanted to catch up with someone, I’d invite them to yoga instead. Nobody complained about that, and most people were pretty stoked to have something else to do. We’d go on walks. We’d meet for tea. I’d make dinner at my place. I realized that drinking was the default, but there were plenty of other great ways to connect.

One of the biggest challenges was how I dealt with my emotional ups and downs.

There were nights that I’d come home from a stressful couple of days and just want to veg out for a few hours in front of the TV. It had become routine to buy a bottle of wine and order a pizza and finish both while I was binging on some TV show.

Now that I wasn’t drinking, I still had those nights, and I realized that I had been using the alcohol and the food as a crutch to deal with my emotions, and I had to find a more productive way to process my day. I started taking more walks. I’d read more. I meditated and exercised my stress away. I basically found more productive emotional outlets that didn’t involve ingesting something that had a numbing, palliative effect on me.

Rather than trying to drown out my emotions with wine and heavy food, I began to listen to the negative emotions for what they were trying to tell me, and I adapted my life based on what I learned. I removed alcohol as a tool to cope with negative emotions and I was able to work through those emotions rather than trying to ignore them.

The use of booze to deal with frustrating situations had snuck up on me, and while I was able to cut it out of my life without much drama, I was surprised at how much I was relying on a few glasses of wine when exercising or meditation would have been dramatically more productive.

Additionally, after the 30 days were up and I had my first drink again, I realized that the way I had been drinking had taken all the joy out of it. I’d been drinking as a tool, rather than as a celebration or a way to mark a significant emotion.

For example, it’s common in traditional cultures to have periods of fasting that lead up to major feast days. The feast days can be a bit of a free for all and full of excess, and this is a great thing because the fasting periods leading up to the celebration had a level of austerity that heightens the pleasure of the feast. Feasting and excess that aren’t preceded by exertion and self-denial become meaningless, just like my drinking had been.

After abstaining for 30 days, I found myself drinking dramatically less each week, and when I was choosing to drink, I rediscovered the joy that a glass of wine or a good cocktail can bring to a situation.

Avoiding alcohol for a month was a bit like when I went vegan for about 6 months in college. By cutting out animal products from my diet, I had to think about preparing my food in a completely different way, and that permanently altered how I see my diet. When I ultimately decided that I was healthier with meat in my diet, I had a new appreciation for all the amazing types of food I could prepare, and my meals didn’t need to revolve completely around meat any longer. I had a new, healthier approach to eating and diet.

I highly recommend spending time abstaining from indulgences that we love on a regular basis. These periods of fasting help remind us that we are in control of our bodies, that we don’t need alcohol (or anything else) to help modulate our emotions or deal with stress. And the struggle we may endure to abstain is a clear signal that we aren’t in as much control of our lives as we like to think. The harder it is to avoid something, the more we probably need to do it every once in a while to loosen its grip on our lives.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.

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