This isn’t a preachy list of the miraculous health benefits of giving up alcohol. I won’t tell you that I sprang out of bed every morning with endless energy, ready to crush my workouts and tackle my to-do lists.
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I won’t tell you that I lost weight, saved a bunch of money, or woke up with an instantly clear complexion, radiating an alcohol-free glow.
The truth is, I didn’t experience any major physical changes when I gave up drinking for 30 days in January. But I did learn something huge about myself—something that completely changed the way I view a glass of wine or bottle of beer.
Why did I want to stop drinking? For one, Dry January is officially a trend in the wellness world, and as a health editor, I was curious. The other big reason: I’d never actually tried not to drink.
I had my first sip of alcohol back in high school (tequila from a friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet, naturally). Since then it’s played a pretty constant role in my life. From casual parties to college fraternity ragers, the ritual of having a few drinks became as ingrained as going to class or out for a run.
Alcohol eased the awkwardness of my freshman year of college, when I knew no one. It helped push me past my inherent shyness to meet new people. I was always into books and school, so drinking was also a way to prove there was more to me than good grades and studying.
Moving to New York City after graduation only strengthened my relationship with booze. The most popular (and convenient) way to socialize is over drinks: Whether it’s a first date, networking meeting, or catching up with a friend, chances are it’ll happen at a bar.
Plus, as the stresses of the “real world” sank in, drinking provided freedom and distraction from my tiny cubicle and shared 500-square-foot apartment. It seemed to be the solution for everything: Bad day at work? Break open a bottle of wine. Feeling lonely? Head to the bar with friends. Rough breakup? Wine to the rescue. Bored? Wine wins again.
In addition to working out, wine had become my escape. And I liked it—a lot. (Apparently, I’m not the only one: A recent study showed that millennials drink an average of 3.1 glasses of wine in one sitting.)
But I don’t believe I ever had a problem. Sure, there were the natural consequences—hangovers, headaches, and regrettable texts—but I never got arrested, injured, or ruined any relationships, so I never really had a reason to stop drinking. So I didn’t—until now.
As I kicked off Dry January, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first few days were easy. After a booze-filled holiday season, forgoing drinks for the first week of 2016 was no big deal.
But about a week in, something strange happened. I started to think more. I became more aware of my feelings. I really listened to my thoughts—thoughts that were no longer dulled by drinking.
Unable to pour myself a glass of wine when I got home and let the stress of the day fade away, I reflected more on my life. I thought back on my five years in New York, more than I ever had in the past. I thought about how I missed my family and the sunshine back home in Florida. I thought about my relationships—romantic and platonic, past and present. I thought hard about my job, the progress I’d made in my career, and looming deadlines at work.
Rather than turn to the bottle and push those thoughts aside until the next morning, I actually worked through them.
Rather than turn to the bottle and push those thoughts aside until the next morning, I actually worked through them. I started reading and writing at night rather than zoning out in front of the TV with a glass of wine. Instead of grabbing drinks with a friend to catch up, we had a sober heart-to-heart over lunch. Instead of splitting a bottle of wine at dinner, my boyfriend and I talked more about our lives and the future.
The time off from alcohol (and the accompanying hangovers) also spurred me to be more productive. I finally started a blog to showcase my photography and writing. I made more healthy meals at home since I wasn’t going out to dinner as often, sharpening my cooking skills in the process. I was generally more creative and thoughtful at work, if not propelled by tons of newfound energy.
Reality Sets In
Then there were some not-so-great consequences. I realized a few hard truths—about friends who weren’t supportive of my alcohol-free month and about the type of person I’d been during some particularly boozy periods of my life. And without the distraction of drinking, I had to contemplate whether I was truly happy living in New York.
In the end I came to view my near-nightly glasses of wine as my own personal soma—the drug imagined in the dystopian novel Brave New World, which provides an instant, pleasurable escape from the stress, worries, and weight of reality.
The thing is, reality is always there—whether you like it or not. I think a lot of us in our 20s turn to alcohol (or drugs or food or exercise) to eclipse our feelings to some extent.
If you don’t take the time to sit with yourself, soberly and silently, every so often, you risk losing touch with your true thoughts, passions, desires—and even your fears.
In some ways, that’s OK. I love going out as much as the next 20-something, and I truly believe in the benefits of grabbing drinks with friends at the end of a stressful week. It’s fun going to bars and meeting people you’d never think you had anything in common with—people you may not have met if not for your shared affection for IPAs.
But my monthlong break taught me something even more valuable: If you don’t take the time to sit with yourself, soberly and silently, every so often, you risk losing touch with your true thoughts, passions, desires—and even your fears. And getting to know yourself on this deeper level is one of the most important things you can do.
At the end of the month, I went to a friend’s wedding. I had wine, of course. But I stopped before the sauvignon blanc seeped too deeply into my system. I wanted to remember every magical moment, and I did. There’s no substitute for celebrating marriage with a sip of champagne, but there’s also no substitute for seeing, feeling, and remembering everything clearly, without the haze of alcohol.