I've lived my entire life believing there are only two types of drinkers -- those of you with a serious drinking problem and those of us, like me, drinking without any problems at all. I didn't need to have a drink every day. I'd only drink on special occasions or weekends -- once or twice a week. But this summer after reading the CDC report issued earlier this year, I learned my four times a month, 'maybe every weekend' consumption, was the binge drinking frequency of 38 million people, nearly one in every six American adults, with a pattern of excessive alcohol use.
Could I be one of the exploding numbers of Americans, unable to imagine a Friday night that didn't include enough drinks to get a serious buzz? After finding it difficult to enjoy myself or relax without a drink, concerned that I might be leaning towards alcohol dependency, I challenged myself, 32 years after my first legal beer, to quit drinking alcohol for 30 consecutive days.
In one month, beginning with my body's immediate resistance to sobriety, through gradually feeling better, and ending with noticeably better sleep and increased energy levels, I realized that I was dependent on alcohol going into this. If you feel the urge to keep going back for more, or feel like you need a drink, even if it is just on weekends, the sad truth is that you may be addicted. I was.
I learned that I did not have to drink to extreme levels to become physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. If you are a weekend warrior, you too can take a month off from booze. You may discover afterwards, that the rewards will make it worth the effort. At the very least, you will have a fresh approach to alcohol consumption. And at best, find that you really won't miss drinking at all.
Expect onset withdrawal symptoms to last the duration.
If you don't drink daily, but drink regularly on most weekends, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start right after the first missed happy hour, persist for weeks, and range from mild anxiety, headaches, irritability, to depression and insomnia. When my alcohol consumption suddenly stopped, the neurotransmitters I previously suppressed through alcohol were no longer suppressed. They rebounded, resulting in brain hyperexcitability. So, the effects I experienced with alcohol withdrawal -- anxiety, irritability, agitation, insomnia -- are the opposite of those I enjoyed temporarily while drinking.
Entering sober mindedness can involve an uncomfortable few weeks but the health benefits that follow make it worthwhile. My symptoms were rarely that unbearable. Some people experience very little in the way of unpleasantness. The experience you have with withdrawal can depend as much on your expectations as anything else. Expect a positive outcome from the start. Remember that the unpleasant symptoms are only temporary and the rewards for riding them out are important for a healthy future.
The frequency and intensity of your cravings will continue.
Bolstered by the myth "that it takes 21 days to form a new habit," I jumped into sobriety inspired by the idea of changing my life in just four beer-free weekends. I soon realized, and science supports, that positive changes and new behaviors do not become automatic in 21 days, or even 30 days. My cravings and awareness for all things alcohol actually heightened. I became captivated by the allure and persuasion of beer commercials. Though forbidden, I was drawn into the beer and wine aisles at Wegmans.
As Day 21 passed, with new habits not yet fully developed, I caught myself counting down the nine remaining days until I could drink again. I realized that a 30-day time frame is short enough to commit to small improvements, but too long for sheer willpower, determination, and persistence alone to carry you through. I began vigorous cardio exercise and weight training, replacing my weekend drinking with aerobic activities. Need motivation to get started? Exercise releases waves of endorphins, natural painkillers that not only promote an increased sense of well-being, but also ease withdrawal symptoms - the tension associated with anxiety, and the gloominess of depression. Most importantly, those few laps around the block promote relaxation and better sleep, two critical must-haves when purging alcohol and toxins from your system. Pick your activity and get moving.
I'm still just as fun as before. And, so are you. So, don't alter your plans.
Just because I took a timeout from weekend drinking didn't mean I had to stop going to parties, family gatherings, concerts, ball games and cookouts. Even if your entire social life, up until now, revolved around alcohol, just bring your seltzer water, go, and expect to have a good time. Don't feel self-conscious about your sober-minded status. Most people won't even notice. And those that do, more than likely, will never ask you why you stopped. Some people just don't drink, including my wife. There are always sober guys having just as much fun as the drinkers. Don't create a gap by announcing your sobriety. Did your drinker friends have more fun than you last night? Maybe. But, who's going to have a much better time today? You are. Because...
The health benefits will kick in, just in time.
The reasons I once chose to drink on weekends are now the very same reasons that I choose not to drink on weekends. My anxiety stays away longer through regularly scheduled workouts. My sleep now is natural and restful, no longer drugged and interrupted. Even my energy is increased after substituting active pursuits over drinking. After 30 days, I'm generally feeling healthier, with a clearer head, a sense of achievement, and a cautious approach towards alcohol consumption.
I admit I began this challenge with a "do this and be done with it" attitude. I wanted to alleviate my anxieties that I had become a statistically excessive alcohol abuser. In the end, the immeasurable benefits of eliminating alcohol, both mentally and physically from my body, are well worth holding onto. Realizing how much more I can accomplish with my weekends and my life, through this healthy change, will keep me from going back. In the end, only you of course decide if alcohol has a place in your life, and if so, to what extent. I simply know now that I can do better without it.