Last week, a professional chef invited me to his house for dinner—a six-course meal that included homemade pork sausages, beef meatballs, lamb, spinach risotto, ravioli, a cheese board, and a three-tiered coconut cake. The chef marveled at how much food I could put away. "How can you eat this much and stay so svelte?" he inquired, as I served myself a third lamb chop. The answer came as soon as he asked me if I'd care for a glass of wine. "No, thank you," I said. "I don't drink."
When I cut alcohol out of my diet last year, I never expected my weight loss to be this drastic. I imagined that I might shed a pound or two, but as I usually only drank once a week, I figured that the impact those Friday night sessions had on my waistline must be fairly limited. However, six months have gone by, and I'm 10 pounds lighter and down a dress size.
Friends constantly ask for my "secret," my diet, the name of my Spin instructor. When I tell them I simply gave up gin and tonics, they look at me askance. Look, I tried dieting, I trained as a circus aerialist, and I did a 90-day yoga challenge, but nothing has been as impactful as simply not drinking alcohol.
I knew my relationship with alcohol had become a problem last summer. I never drank every day or even every other day—it wasn't the frequency of my drinking that worried me, it was my reaction to it. When I took that first sip of my long-awaited Friday night gin and tonic, I felt this huge surge of relief, like the long exhale you make as you sink into the sofa after a long day. The muscles in my face relaxed, a smile broke out on my face, and I could let go of all of my problems for as long as my drinking session lasted.
Drinking lowers your inhibitions and allows you to make all the bad choices you want. "I was drunk!" you joke the next day when you wake up in a full face of makeup, holding a honey mustard-smeared chicken tender.
Like many other millennials, I deal with a lot of career frustration and stress. I send job applications out into the world every week and only occasionally hear anything back. It's like shouting into the Grand Canyon: Is anybody out there… there… there? When a reply does ping into my inbox, I open the email warily, waiting for the point in the message that explains there's no money attached to the project, but it will be "great exposure." Of course, not only does exposure not pay the rent, you can die from exposure. But drinking allowed me an off-switch from thinking about my career—it was an easy (albeit unhealthy) fix.
I've also found that my head is constantly planted in the future—I have a hard time living in the present. But when you go to the bar or dive into that post-booze delivery pizza, I guarantee you, you are present. You aren't thinking about the past (and all your mistakes), and you're not thinking about the future (if you were, you might consider the pain of the impending hangover). No, you are only focused on the moment at hand.
When I realized that I was living in the present when I drank, I started to explore how I could use the idea of being present to actually aid my sobriety. If I could stay in the moment day-to-day—instead of storing up all of my problems and then releasing them in a drinking binge (and maybe subsequent eating binge)—I could work through them as they arose, chipping away at my issues piece by piece, rather than letting things get out of control until it all felt unmanageable.
Presence of mind was the key, as it turned out. I learned how to take a breath and consider what I was about to do. It sounds so simple, but if you just take a moment to think about whether or not you need to drink or eat a huge slice of pie right now, your choices may change. Sobriety clears your mind and allows you to react more calmly, with compassion for yourself and others. Curious to try it out for yourself? Here's what to do—and expect.
1. Tell your friends (or they might think you're avoiding them, not booze).
Drinking is woven into almost every social activity. When I made the decision to embrace sobriety, I ended up turning down a lot of events that I knew were going to be big boozefests—I missed my friend's band performing and skipped Friday night cocktails. Soon, I began to feel lonely. I hated missing out. Plus, I was keeping a secret from my friends.
So tell the people you're close to. You don't have to say you're doing this forever, and you don't have to admit to being a raging alcoholic, but let them know that you're taking some time off from drinking. Start with baby steps, because small steps are easy for everyone to accept. If you and your friends think this no-alcohol rule is only a short-term thing, it will be easier for everyone to get on board.
If you decide to continue with your sobriety, you can do it incrementally, maybe another week, maybe a month... and soon you'll just be the friend who doesn't drink. No big deal.
2. The sugar cravings will surprise you.
I've never had a sweet tooth—cheese has always been my food vice of choice—but when I stopped drinking, I suddenly experienced severe sugar cravings. Alcohol contains plenty of sugar, but more than that, drink mixers are often off-the-charts sweet.
Bearing in mind that your recommended daily sugar intake is about 50 grams max, learning that a single vodka-and-cranberry juice can contain 30 grams of sugar is a little devastating… and let's face it, who is just drinking one of these on a night out? I thought I didn't have a sweet tooth, but in reality, I had a big one—it was just being satisfied by gin and tonics, not cupcakes.
Sugar affects the brain by raising dopamine levels, the same chemical that is released when we drink alcohol. Dopamine is often referred to as the "reward chemical" because it creates feelings of well-being, so when you stop drinking, your brain is suddenly depleted of this feeling and seeks it elsewhere.
Personally, I don’t think you should worry too much about this sudden desire for sugar—in my experience, indulging a little bit can be good for you. Be gentle with yourself and eat the occasional cookie, if it helps you. I eat a reasonably healthy diet, and my sugar imbalance sorted itself out in about a week, although this could take longer depending on how much you drank and your fondness for the sweet stuff.
3. Don't be shocked if you feel some pushback.
When I told one of my friends that I wasn't drinking via a text message, I didn't hear back from her for over a week. When she did reappear, she explained she found this news hard to digest as it made her question her own choices with regards to drinking. This is not uncommon. Whenever you make a lifestyle choice for your benefit, it can hold up a mirror to other people's choices.
I remember when a friend told me she was becoming a vegan, my initial reaction was to mock her and roll my eyes... but then I considered why I reacted that way. Why should I care what she chooses to put in her body? It dawned on me that her choice to avoid meat and dairy was shining a light on the foods I chose to consume. I had responded poorly to her choice because I felt it reflected badly on me.
So I encourage you to allow people time to deal with their own feelings about drinking. Any bad response you receive has less to do with you than what's going on with them.
4. Don't expect immediate results, but do expect results.
After about two months of not drinking, I had maybe shifted a pound or two. Not exactly startling progress, but after six months, 10 pounds had come off, and I had no idea how this had happened. I had changed nothing about my diet—I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and exercised solely by walking to the subway. To put it bluntly, I didn't do s**t for this weight loss. Well, except that I'd stopped drinking.
5. The phrase "drunk food" will no longer be in your vocabulary.
I said that I hadn't changed my diet, and I hadn't—not in a conscious way, at any rate. But by not drinking, I had removed a part of my diet that I shamefully call my "drunk food." I'm referring, of course, to that delicious burrito you eat on your way home from the bar (the 1,000-calorie one) and the hungover breakfast you make for yourself the next day.
Then there's the Sunday brunch that lasts hours, packed with Bloody Marys, French toast, eggs Benedict, etc. Without a hangover to constantly mop up, your diet just naturally improves. Yes, fried foods can still be a fun indulgence, but they don't become a medical necessity to get you through a Sunday.
6. You’ll sleep like a baby.
We know that a glass of wine can help you drift off, but drinking often leads to poorer-quality sleep. When you stop drinking, your sleep drastically improves. For one thing, you're more likely to get into a regular sleep schedule. In my drinking days, I would be in bed by 10 p.m. on weeknights, but when I went out drinking, bedtime could become 1 a.m… 2 a.m… 3 a.m... It disrupted my cycle for the entire weekend and left my Monday mornings feeling like a real slog. Without this disruption, I wake up feeling refreshed and I can tell you I haven't once woken up and thought, Gee, I wish I'd had some drinks last night.
7. Stop meeting at the bar and go for coffee.
A simple concept in theory, unbelievably hard in practice. I knew that if I joined my friends at a bar, I would end up drinking. It really is no fun being the only sober friend sipping a seltzer while your friends pound tequila shots. I had to remove myself from those situations, but I didn't want to become a Miss Havisham-style recluse.
My answer to this was to move my socializing to the daytime. When anyone suggested that we grab a drink, I countered with, "I can't make it Friday night, but how about coffee on a Saturday?" You will need to rearrange your life somewhat, but what you lose in drunken karaoke, you make up for with sober, genuine conversation.
8. If you love food, this is the diet for you.
I've never been a dieter. I simply love to eat and I couldn't imagine not enjoying a well-balanced diet. A typical day's meals for me are scrambled eggs with plenty of cheese and toast for breakfast, a turkey and avocado sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Maybe a slice of pie works its way in there somewhere. I eat what I feel like eating, and still the weight comes off. It's a dream!
9. Meditation can help.
With so much uncertainty in our lives, it's only natural to worry about the future—and feeling unsure about the future can lead to carelessness in the present. Though times may seem tough, if you stay present in the moment, you can realize that the future is not all laid out in front of you like some inevitable path, but in fact, is yours to create. By changing your thinking about the future, you take back control. So start right now.
Whenever you make a lifestyle choice for your benefit, it can hold up a mirror to other people's choices.
Meditation is something that can help with this. By taking time to sit with your thoughts for five minutes, you're giving yourself room to consider what it is you are about to do. If I feel that "f*ck-it" mindset approaching and wonder Why not just go out and get drunk, it's all a mess anyway? I take a moment to sit with it. By the time the meditation app rings its little chime, the impulse has passed, and a better decision has presented itself.
10. Don't take it all too seriously.
Someone said to me recently that if I had combined my not drinking with a diet and exercise makeover, my body would be bangin' right now. My answer was "Not drinking is hard enough." While diet and exercise are clearly important when it comes to keeping your weight in check—and being healthy—I find it's just too much pressure all at once. If I stopped drinking, went vegan, and started boxercise at the same time, I guarantee you that within a week, I would have freaked out, felt overwhelmed, and fallen into bed with a box of mozzarella sticks.
Be kind to yourself. If you want to see gradual weight loss that feels easy, consider cutting alcohol out of your diet. When you feel on an even keel with this change, maybe then consider adding other lifestyle choices into your regimen. If you fall off the wagon and drink a glass of wine, don't beat yourself up. You do not need to be perfect—all you need is to be willing.
Ruthie Darling is a British writer, photographer and theatre artist based in Brooklyn. She once shared a stage with Sting and played it totally cool. You can find more of her work on ruthiedarlingblog.com and Instagram @ruthiedarling.