I drink as a serious appreciator of drinking. I belong to a gin club. I have an Instagram devoted to craft beer. I subscribe to websites about the culture of cocktails and the history of drinking. I have a liquor cabinet stocked with multiple shakers and crystal glasses and little stirrers and everything.
I drink with friends when I’m happy and free. But I also drink alone when I’m sad, and honestly – I’d drink every day if I were sadder.
In the darkest times of my life, I’ve come perilously close to emotional dependence on a daily glass of wine. A tall, cold beer. The comforting weight of a heavy crystal glass of gin.
I used to worry about that. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that alcohol, like many good things, is both a delight and a difficulty, for me. It’s like chocolate cake or bad television – great to enjoy on the couch with your bestie on a Friday night; not so great on a weekday afternoon, alone, when you came home early from work because you just couldn’t make it through the day.
My attitude to alcohol began to change when I finally admitted that I was now closer in age to thirty than twenty.
Something happens in your mid-twenties. Suddenly your body feels different. You start to feel heavier, and realise that a couple of cocktails adds up to the same number of calories you’d burn in a heavy gym session. You start to feel tired, and realise that now that college is behind you, you have to start showing up to a ‘real job’ every morning, ideally without a headache. You notice a gin and tonic gives you a headache, where it never did before.
You start to think about saving money, and having coherent conversations with strangers at dinner parties without the need for a glass of wine to cheer you on, and about the fact that you only get one body, one liver, one unblemished skin to live in, and it deserves to be treated with loving care.
Suddenly you realise that you’re now, officially, a ‘grown up’, and wonder if grown ups are supposed to feel and face the general terror of navigating their twenties, instead of smothering it with cupcakes and bottles of pinot noir.
So. I decided to break up with alcohol. I needed some space. Time to work on ‘me’, and maybe try some other habits. We took a break for 10 days; 10 became 14, then 21, then 30. After a month away from alcohol I was ready to try it again, casually. We’re still taking it slowly. I do much better treating alcohol as a friend, these days – somebody to have fun with on the weekend, but not the one you turn to in a serious crisis.
How about you? Maybe drinking isn’t the thing you need to take a break from right now. Maybe it’s fast food, or internet shopping, or that one friend you always call when you’re bored or lonely.
Whatever you go to automatically on dark days – that thing is worth examining, and breaking up with for a while.
Start with Awareness
This is the simplest, boldest step you can take towards freeing yourself from a bad habit.
First, don’t try to change the habit. Just let it play out as usual.
But every time you engage in that habit, write down why you did it. Just write down the honest reason why.
You must be non-judgemental. You mustn’t moralise, or feel guilty.
You must be honest. You mustn’t try to explain, twist or justify your reason.
Just write it down. Write it down as if nobody else is going to read it. Don’t let anybody else read it.
This sets you free to write ridiculous things, like, ‘I had a glass of wine because I was eating olives and I wanted to feel Mediterranean and fancy.’ Or uncomfortably honest things, like, ‘I mixed two cocktails and fell asleep on the couch because I hated myself today.’
If you do this honestly, you will discover an astonishing amount about yourself and your relationship with the object of your habit. Your actions will start to change without you trying. It works.
Take a break
When you’re ready to break up for a while, start with a length of time that feels achievable. It doesn’t have to be a month. It might be ten days, or seven, or three.
During your break, each time you feel the desire to drink (or whatever you’re giving up), identify the reason why. Honestly and without judgement. Once you know exactly why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, you have two options.
The first option is to find something else to satisfy the need behind your desire to drink. If you’re lonely, call a friend. If you’re hungry, cook. If you’re bored, read. If you’re restless, leave the house.
The second, and much more difficult option, is to just feel. Feel the loneliness, or the boredom, or the restlessness or pain. Meditate on it. Examine it. Then leave it alone. Willingly sit through a bad day that can’t be fixed by shopping, cake or alcohol. Listen to it. Let it be.
The second option will bring amazing personal rewards, I guarantee.
Get back together
During all your days of writing down the reasons that you drink (or eat, or scroll the internet for hours), you’ll probably write down some reasons that are perfectly fine. Some of my reasons for drinking have included: “It’s my friend’s birthday and drinking champagne feels celebratory.” “My dad brought over those beers especially for us to drink together.” “I love the taste of gin and tonic.” None of those situations were marked by sadness, or emptiness, or shame. Alcohol is delicious. Drinking it can be fun.
So when you’ve taken your break, if you want to take up the habit again, wait for a time when you have a great reason. I started drinking again at a picnic with my two best girlfriends, by the river at sunset. There was nothing regrettable about that situation; no corner of my heart that was looking to be satisfied with alcohol or anything other than the view of the city at twilight and the two women I shared it with.
Try to reserve your drinking for times when you’re not doing it out of habit, or sadness, or social pressure. Drink for bonding, drink for the taste of it, drink for fun! Don’t drink when you shouldn’t.
Only you know where the line is – draw it.
Be gracious with yourself
If you always reach for a particular habit on a hard day, that habit will be very hard to shake. And even in the most well-adjusted of lives, some days will be really hard. Even if you do the awareness, take the 30 day break, get control of the habit, some days you will drop the ball. Some lonely nights you will find yourself medicating with donuts, Netflix and wine. Some stupid mornings you will wake up feeling very sick and vaguely worried about your liver and all the people you may have tweeted last night.
When that happens, cut yourself some slack. Nobody gets it right every day. Life is difficult and you suck at it sometimes. Be gracious with yourself – love yourself. And love the little indulgences you lean on in times of need. With awareness and the occasional break from your vices, you can turn them away from being bad habits, and back into being your friends.