Want a beer? No thanks. How about a glass of wine? I'm good. Gin and tonic? Nothing for me, actually.
So far this year, I haven't been drinking. I can't remember the moment I decided to stop, it just sort of happened. I may have been inspired by a friend. Or I may have woken up on January 1st telling myself I wouldn't drink again. Whatever the reason, I haven't had a drink since last year. And it's been amazing.
Looking back, drinking has been a big part of my life. I've never been an alcoholic, but until recently I'd also never gone more than a couple weeks without a drink. The first time I drank, I was about eight years old. My parents were having a dinner party and I snuck from guest to guest asking if I could have a sip of their wine, each one of them thinking they were the first to give me a sip ("What harm could one small sip do?") After receiving one small sip from several guests, I wandered off to my room, probably to play video games.
Later that night, I vomited all over my favorite Batman t-shirt. After that brief encounter with alcohol, I didn't drink again until high school.
My junior year of high school, a few of my best friends and I snuck into a house down the block that was under construction. A few other kids from our class met us there with a 30-pack of Bud Light (one of them had a fake ID). I was fifteen or sixteen years old and decided it was as good a time as ever to get drunk for the first time, surrounded by my closest friends in an empty house, a few months before my senior year.
Three beers later, I was sufficiently intoxicated. Not violently drunk to the point of being sick, but buzzed enough to feel a rare sense of confidence and complete lack of anxiety. Is this what I had been missing these last few years of high school, skipping the parties to study, watch movies, and play video games with my friends instead?
Like for many people, high school was a time of figuring myself out, and mostly being disappointed and confused by the results. I was anxious and embarrassed about, among other things, having too much acne, too little muscle, braces, and a lack of assertive confidence. That night in the empty house, those worries vanished, and I actually felt like myself for the first time, without being bogged down by an endless list of things to feel self conscious about.
Increasingly for the next ten years or so, alcohol became a crutch. If there was a social situation, alcohol was involved. From fraternity parties to networking events, dinner parties to first dates, alcohol was my way of turning off any self doubt in order to let my "real" self shine through.
By the time I was 25, sold my first company, and moved to Shanghai, alcohol was a part of nearly every social interaction. The longer I drank and used alcohol as a crutch, the more I felt I needed alcohol. Sober social events seemed awkward at best, or terrifying at worst.
Going to a house party or bar without alcohol was like going to the beach without sunscreen; I felt exposed and unprepared. Why would I do that to myself? What I didn't realize was that I needed to get a tan and build a base layer instead of lathering on SPF-90 every few minutes. In other words, I needed to learn how to be comfortable in social situations without needing to be buzzed or drunk. That opportunity came when I met my future fiancé.
When I met Renee, I was going out to bars, restaurants, and clubs in Shanghai multiple times a week. For expats, Shanghai was a city of extroverts and socialites and few outings excluded alcohol. My first date with Renee, however, was a sober one.
We went to coffee on a weekday afternoon and I spent most of the date sweating through my t-shirt, nervous about our encounter. Our next few dates involved drinks, dinners, and bars, but as our relationship progressed, fewer and fewer of our interactions revolved around alcohol.
Eventually, we began to mostly skip the "going out" scene, and would just "stop by" house parties and events at bars instead of staying the whole night. I no longer felt as much of a need to drink when I was with Renee and that feeling started to spill over into other areas of my life. I had a partner who loved me; I didn't feel the need to "perform" and "impress" when I was out at social events. I could just be, and whatever happened would happen. I didn't need the liquid courage to approach girls and try to sound confident and cool. If I came across as weird and awkward, so what? Renee was the only girl whose opinion mattered to me, and turns out she loves me because I'm weird, not in spite of it.
As I started to develop my "tan," and feel confident in social situations, drinking became less and less desirable. I began to focus on the cons, not the pros. I started to fear the next day's hangover more than that night's social interactions.
Over the course of the next few years, I got drunk less and less–as is the case with most people in their late 20s as they find their partner and "settle down"–and my drinking was mostly contained to wine at dinner parties and the occasional tequila shot or three to celebrate an event.
But around the time I turned 30, even a few glasses of wine started to catch up with me. My body was becoming less capable of recovering. I started to reconsider the third glass of wine, knowing I would pay for it the next day. That feeling progressed until I started reconsidering the second glass of wine as well, and then the first.
And then earlier this year, I decided it just isn't worth it. Over the last couple years, I drank mostly out of habit and social pressure, and to dull the awkwardness of small talk in the first few minutes of being in a new social setting, but by doing so I also dulled my senses–my wit, mental sharpness, empathy, and curiosity–for the rest of the evening.
I now enjoy the social experience much more when I get through the pleasantries sober, and then am able to be fully present and clear-headed and have a more enjoyable conversation for the rest of the meal, event, or evening.
I do think alcohol is an easy way to relax at the end of the day, and it does work well for that, but I think there are equally, if not more, effective ways to get the same benefit, like meditation, a walk, adaptogens like CBD, etc.
While I no longer have wine at dinner parties or beer on game nights, I'm not restricting myself to a life of sobriety either. I now put alcohol in the same category as indulgences like pizza and street tacos. I rarely eat those foods, but I won’t say no to an entire pizza in Italy or a dozen al pastor tacos in Mexico. There are certain occasions that call for bending the rules, but Wednesday night dinner is no longer one of them.
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