Christmas 2016 marked one year without alcohol for me. I still haven’t had any alcohol and I still do not intend to ever drink again! Back in 2015, I had long been aware that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, but I was not aware of the depth of my dependence until I considered quitting. When I realized that giving up alcohol was unthinkable to me, I knew I had an issue! Here’s my story of what I learned after my first year of quitting alcohol.
What did alcohol give me?! For several years I believed it gave me everything I was looking for. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I loved it, although that statement feels pitiful now. It took away my almost insatiable desire for perfectionism and gave me permission to relax. It provided me with an outlet for my constant restlessness. And it prolonged and intensified my natural exuberance for life that didn’t want to be contained. But it was more than that. It seemed to take away a longing for acceptance in me, and it seemed to help me fill the painful spaces inside that I wasn’t listening to.
All along, my drinking looked ‘normal’. There wasn’t anything particularly unusual to how I drank, given the strong drinking culture that I live in. But I knew how I drank wasn’t right. The rest of my life felt good, I was studying hard, working hard and loved my faith. However, running parallel to all this was the hidden sense that I was turning to alcohol for all the answers that God should have been giving me. I was, in short, addicted, and no addiction is healthy. It all came to a head one night a year ago and finally, I knew I was done. It was time to quit, no matter how hard or how sad I felt walking away from alcohol. Now, I thank God for the gift of being able to leave it all behind. I don’t miss it and not drinking has become second-nature to me. So what have I learned and what have I gained in a year without alcohol? Better sleep, healthier skin and weight, more energy, calmer and balanced moods, zero-hangovers, zero regrets and a more settled sense of self have all been wonderful benefits of giving up drinking. But there have been deeper, greater things that I have learned. Maybe if you’ve been having a niggling feeling that your drinking isn’t healthy, or that you might actually need to quit, I hope that my experiences can help to inspire and reassure you that it is possible, and that quitting drink, while a frightening prospect, is very, very good.
Perhaps one of the biggest things I learned this year is how to be patient. I realized that abusing alcohol is a lazy route to so many of my desires. It was my shortcut to feeling good about myself, my shortcut to fun, my shortcut to building friendships. I gave it so much credit for so much. I thought it could heal my inner pain, complete my loneliness and replace the God-shaped hole that we talk about so often. As if it was possible that alcohol could be clever enough to provide me with so much! Like many short-cuts, there was a hidden cost to my health and my sanity. You can’t short-cut the important things in life. This year, I’ve acknowledged awkward moments and lived through them rather than around them. I’ve learned to make friends slowly and dealt with problems head on. I’ve learned that work on ourselves and with God takes time. A life time. And that’s ok. It doesn’t matter how slow we go, as long as we are moving forward.
Other people’s opinions meant a lot to me when I first quit. There are people who think that I simply need more self-control in order to drink with moderation. There are people who think I’m overreacting or making a big deal out of nothing. I’ve learned that my drinking habits are not actually anyone else’s business. It’s been very freeing to realize that I can’t change people’s opinions and neither do I need to. People are never going to agree with everything I say or do. It was one of the reasons I drank- in the hope that I could chameleon into everyone’s favorite person. Now I’m learning- everyone will have an opinion, should they become aware, of my drinking. It may differ to mine, or it may not. It probably says a lot about their own drinking habits. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I just calmly carry on with my sobriety.
When you’re a heavy drinker and you quit alcohol, sobriety feels like a strange and unusual land. It cannot be underestimated how frightening it may feel. There is so much new to navigate. Life continues as before but you feel like a foreigner in it. How do you continue a social life? How do you relearn how to have fun? How do you meet people without the comfort and support of a drink? Will you ever feel happy again?! All of these scary questions will certainly have positive answers, but it’s not possible to achieve all this alone. It’s about grace, not willpower. Relying on your own willpower is simply exhausting and inevitably results in failure and a straightened, restricted life of trying to live only by the law. I had to ask others for help, to tell a few trusted and understanding people that I wanted to quit and to ask for their support. It would be unfair too, for me to write this article without mentioning the enormous help I received from the Sober School,) which I can thoroughly recommend for any women who want support with quitting alcohol. Finally, I had to acknowledge that it was utterly a gift of grace from God to be brought to a rock bottom that enabled me to turn my love of alcohol into loathing.
I decided that I needed to respond to each of the issues that caused me to drink with healthy solutions rather than negative ones. Removing the drink from my life was not enough. That didn’t take away all of the issues- although depression and apathy were greatly lessened. It still left unresolved causes of hurt and pain. I went to counseling. I took up some new sports as a healthy outlet for my restless energy. I went to God with the things that really hurt. I addressed issues I had never wanted to look at before. I was patient in the quiet painful places that I would have normally filled with the noise of drink. I got more sleep instead of dwelling in self-pity. I discovered new hobbies that brought bouts of creativity that enriched my life far more than the late nights and hungover mornings. It was not always easy, but I looked around at my life like a newborn doe might; senses heightened, feeling colder and a little more naked, but life was sharper, clearer, cleaner. And I realized it was a gift, a privilege to be able to see all this. It was a privilege to see what was lacking in my life in order to be able to fill it up in a healthy way. Not that this makes me any better than anyone else, I believe that everyone has these opportunities at some point in their lives. It’s just that mine came through this experience.
In my first, failed attempt of sobriety a few years ago- where I white-knuckled it for 6 months- sobriety became a large part of my identity. I swapped my drinking identity for a sober identity. This might sound good in the first instance, but in creating my entire life around sobriety it became my only hobby, which led to a self-absorbed holier-than-thou attitude which was very boring for everyone around me and eventually myself. I drank again to try and make my life fun. Ultimately, I realized, you cannot build your life around one burning passion or hobby to the point that it consumes you, no matter how good it is. You cannot create an identity around a thing, whether it be a sport, music, talent or hobby. Only in an intimate relationship with Christ can we find our identity, and within that, true freedom. I learned to concentrate on my sobriety enough to make it second-nature to my life, but not too much so that it becomes oppressive self-absorption.
For this final point, I’m including a video which I think is excellent. It’s a video that I watched before I quit, and it gave me the encouragement to finally think about the possibility of stopping drinking and it explains the link between addiction and pain. Only with the possibility that someone- God, plus my friends- would listen and hear my pain could I contemplate letting go of the support system that alcohol was for me.
Finally, though there are times when it’s been embarrassing to turn down a drink offered, boring to explain when someone rudely questions why, and painful to remember past mistakes, I take comfort and encouragement from St Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10:
“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
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