How I Quit Drinking in a World That Wants Me Drunk
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
From my early teenage years into my early 20s, every social event I attended was held together by an alcoholic glue. I really loved getting drunk—it quelled my social anxiety, muted my inhibitions, and distracted me from the agony of existence. But on October 1, 2016, my 23rd birthday, I made the decision to do the impossible: I quit drinking. Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to post about it openly on social media because drinking culture is so pervasive, and I want to let people know there’s a way out.
As a result of my public non-drinking, lots of people ask me how I finally kicked the habit, and I wish I had an easy answer. I spent many years drunk, seesawing between the incredible self-loathing and glimmers of elation that come along with being intoxicated. The thing about being an alcoholic is that you surround yourself with other people who engage in similarly extreme behavior—booze dizzyingly permeates every aspect of your existence, and it feels so normal. We live in a culture that celebrates brunch cocktails and wine moms and happy hours—a world where adults casually urge their colleagues and friends to “have a drink or three” to numb the pain of a rough day—so no one really bats at an eye at binge-drinking.
At a time when the public debate over a Supreme Court nomination has gone off on bizarre tangents about blackouts and drinking games, it's remarkable how few people are condemning a culture that regards teenagers getting shitfaced as normal, or even cool. The media I gobbled up throughout my youth—everything from James Bond movies to Sex and the City—offered a grown-up lifestyle where people were constantly drinking, but never messy. It showed me a world where alcohol was no big deal; drinking it often was a sign of maturity and refinement. I remember when I began my freshman year of college, I always kept my mini-fridge stocked with a case of beer because it seemed very adult to me to finish a long day of attending class and doing homework by cracking open a cold one.
I developed a keen interest in getting fucked up around the time I hit puberty—being sober felt scary and boring at the same time—and that’s why I told myself it was totally fine to have one to ten drinks every day from age 17 to the day before I turned 23.
I existed in a culture that told me that it wasn’t just OK to be drunk, but encouraged it. The charmingly functional alcoholic is an old trope that appeared in shows and movies that I loved, like How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Hangover. Drinking heavily seemed like an essential part of what it meant to be a cool adult. I’m sure that’s the message Gen X-ers got during their youth, and that’s certainly the message I received. You can feel pressured to drink by your peers, but also by a society that expects its young people to be reckless, and is often endeared by it.
I met those expectations—but my drunken sloppiness was seldom endearing. Almost every social event I’ve been invited to since I graduated college took place in a bar or in a venue with an open bar. And since I was a young teen—and admittedly, I was a city kid so I grew up fast—going to parties always centered around alcohol consumption.
I had to reach the proverbial rock bottom in order to make the decision to quit. In the months leading up to my 23rd birthday, my drinking was spiraling out of control. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and alcohol was a form of self-medication that became a hazard years before I kicked the habit. I’d get too drunk and fantasize about killing myself. I’d wake up horribly hungover, and my suicidal tendencies would only intensify.
It wasn’t until September 30, 2016, when I celebrated my birthday with dozens of friends and acquaintances at a bar, that I finally hit a nadir. I was feeling excruciatingly lonely and fundamentally unlovable and wholly void of joy. The more drunk I got, the more I began to convince myself that life was too painful, and that I had to end it all. I left my birthday party wasted and weeping in a cab, and when I got home, I wrote a note apologizing to my loved ones, and started to make my suicidal fantasies a reality. I don’t remember why I decided to stop—but I reached out for help, and made the decision not to plummet to my death.
The next morning I woke up extremely groggy and hungover, and knew that if I didn’t quit drinking I would literally die. If I wanted to stay alive, I had to do a really hard thing that I didn’t want to do. Initially, I told myself I would stop drinking for 100 days, and reevaluate after that. One of my few sober friends took me to an AA meeting—which wasn’t really my thing—but I felt grateful to have someone who was there for me. A month after going dry, I began dating someone who had also recently given up drinking, and having the support of a partner has been crucial in maintaining my decision to forgo alcohol.
There isn’t some secret easy trick to forgoing booze—it’s hard, and it changes your life.
The amazing thing about getting to the low point that precipitated my decision to quit drinking—I don’t like to call myself “sober” because I still smoke weed—was that as each day passed, a booze-free life began to feel like the only path forward. Long before I reached my 100th day without alcohol, I knew this was going to be my new normal. The benefits were so obvious—I was free of the pain of hangovers and that horrible sunken feeling of drunken regret.
When I was drinking, I constantly found myself in perilous situations—blacking out, getting in cars with strangers I didn’t trust, hooking up with guys I didn’t want to have sex with because I was too drunk and indifferent about my wellbeing to slur the word “no.” After I quit drinking, I discovered that I was less afraid of the world because I wasn’t making bad decisions that led to my encounters with the scummiest subsection of the population.
There isn’t some secret easy trick to forgoing booze—it’s hard, and it changes your life. I used to be a social butterfly, drunkenly fluttering between various events where I made fair-weather friends who I only bonded with over our mutual state of inebriation. My booze-free journey has felt like a new beginning—I’m still getting to know who I am when I’m not drunk. I no longer enjoy big social gatherings and wild late nights, and all the things I thought defined my personality when I was drunk. I seldom go to bars nowadays. I’ve discovered new hobbies like baking and crossword puzzles and riding my bike. I am no longer wild, and a tame life feels more sustainable every day.
As it turns out, I don’t loathe the version of myself I am now becoming acquainted with in the same way I hated my drunk self. I am more thoughtful, and increasingly more charitable to myself and others. I drank because I could, because it was socially acceptable, but mostly, I did it because I didn’t like myself very much. Kicking the habit didn’t immediately imbue me with a newfound sense of self-love. It’s a slow burn—without alcohol I am more patient, and for once in my life, I feel like I have power over who I am.
If you are struggling with a mental health issue, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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