832 days. That’s 19,968 hours without drinking alcohol. Or, in other terms, two years and four months of making a choice to live more consciously — to confront my anxiety head-on.
In the year before I stopped drinking, I barely drank all that much but when I did, I repeated what were already long-established patterns of coping.
I drank more than I could handle (when I think of all the tequila sodas I consumed, I feel a shiver up my spine), hooked up with people I didn’t intend to, binged on too much food, and of course, woke up the next day feeling like my insides had literally been sucked out of me. Those were all fairly normal things for me from high school through college and into my early adulthood, working and living in New York City. And even though I wasn’t drinking too often at this point, there were still other mechanisms I was using to fill the voids of myself. Shopping, traveling to faraway places, more shopping, and well, emotionally unavailable men.
When a therapist suggested I stop smoking and drinking, I obliged.
But several months later, after a summer full of trauma and depression (panic attacks, a surgical procedure, a death in the family, a dog attack, and the list goes on), when a therapist suggested I stop smoking and drinking, I obliged.
At the time, I was so low, I was ready to give up anything to feel better. My skin was pallor, which perfectly matched how I felt mentally — exhausted and dispirited. When I try to explain how I felt the following pictures come to mind: A pale green public restroom that’s no longer working and a baked potato without butter. Oddly, in addition to cutting out alcohol, marijuana, and caffeine, I also insisted on giving up my love for ketchup. “You could make your own!” my therapist said politely in response. It was random, I know. But it was just another way of feeling high off exerting some type of control over my life.
At first, seeing people’s puzzled faces whenever I said I was sober made me feel insecure like I was a teenager all over again who wasn’t invited to the popular girl’s Bat Mitzvah. Navigating the late 20’s and being the only friend who didn’t drink was a lonely experience, particularly when engaging in bachelorette parties, weddings, and other milestones. On one occasion, my social anxiety grew so intense that I even convinced myself the watermelon slices at an event were soaked in vodka.
Not drinking became an anchor, something that pulled me along when everything else was falling apart. But it was also a way to continue the tight grip I’d always had on myself in which I only saw the world in black and white terms.
Not drinking became an anchor, something that pulled me along when everything else was falling apart.
When you’ve subconsciously taught yourself how to run from trauma by running or hiding from your emotions your whole life, it’s incredibly painful to sit still and look your demons in the eyes. I’d compare it to the sound of nails on a chalkboard. But as time passed, therapy continued, and I started to make some lifestyle changes (I took a break from dating men! I started exercising for the first time in my life! I started writing!), I realized that I wasn’t so alienated anymore. In fact, I was able to be more present with myself, by removing many of the distractions that had once rendered my viewpoint obstructed.
Slowly, I began gaining some helpful perspective about myself, my upbringing, and the world around me, realizing that my incessant need for control was a direct result of my lifelong battle with anxiety, something that began in my childhood and carried me through many hardships like the demise of my parents’ marriage.
For so long, I had rejected my upbringing, splitting my memories up into two misshapen pieces — before the divorce and after. The latter colored the whole picture grey, turning all of my childhood memories into something dark and ominous. Whenever I tried to conjure up a joyful image of my younger days, I was met with sad ones; confronting my father about his affair over pizza before my senior year of high school, crying after getting yelled at because I dropped my parents’ camera in third grade, and so on.
Thankfully, when you remove a liquid poison from your body and start releasing more oxytocin, you can actually heal pathways in your brain, which can improve your memory and strengthen neural connections.
Things started coming back to me (looking at old pictures also helped, as did hypnosis), like the time I put on all my clothes for a snowstorm and peed my pants or the day when I dressed up as a character from Little House On the Prairie. Looking into the past again felt less scary, more light and merry. I began to see my younger self again as the courageous, kooky, and wildly creative kid who did her best to get by even in times of struggle — someone I still am today at 30 years old.
I began to see my younger self again as the courageous, kooky, and wildly creative kid who did her best to get by even in times of struggle.
As I’ve left the darkness of the past behind and chosen a more mindful path, reconnecting with my childlike spirit has brought more laughter and joy into my life. Since I stopped drinking two years ago, I’ve found myself smiling more, laughing louder, and valuing all parts of my life more than I ever have. I want to do kid things all over again, like riding horses, throwing around a basketball, and painting pottery. I’m building a life I don’t want to escape from anymore, one that’s less gripping, and more malleable — like the clay I played with in art class as a child.
A year or so ago, while visiting my father in Ohio, we went to the park and I jumped on the swings. Swaying with the wind like my five-year-old self again, I felt a wave of sentimentality come over me. I remembered the freeness I felt as a child, when my only responsibility was to play and learn, a feeling has continued to become a mainstay in my adult life, showing up in all sorts of wonderful places.