I love drinking. I love the way red wine tastes. I love a dollar oyster happy hour. I love a well-made old-fashioned I can’t afford. I love a dirty martini at a wedding. I love pairing wine with cheese. I love pairing wine with anything.
There is addiction in my family, and I have always been keenly aware of the potential for a destructive relationship with booze. I have, luckily, not had that experience. But when I started Whole30 last month, I realized that while I don’t have a problem knowing when to stop, there are problems with the way drinking impacts me the next day and how I’ve leaned on it in social situations when I didn’t always need to ― or even always want to.
Whole30, the sometimes controversial and especially-popular-in-January elimination diet, is designed to help you figure out which foods do not agree with your body by cutting them out (added sugar, dairy, legumes, grains, processed foods and alcohol are all prohibited for the month) and reintroducing them slowly and methodically after 30 days. If at that point you have an adverse reaction to a given food, or, to put things in a current culturally relevant perspective ― it does not bring you joy ― you can try to eliminate it permanently or, more realistically, lessen your intake of it.
I have undertaken Whole30 once before, last year, and in both of these instances, have used it as a way to reset and detox after the long, gluttonous holiday season. For the most part, following the dietary restrictions comes easily to me. But cutting out glasses of wine at dinner or drinks with friends on the weekends felt like my own personal punishment.
Last year I was surprised to learn going through the program not only made me reconsider my eating habits, it also taught me something profound about my dating style. This year I was even more surprised to learn the diet could reveal something about the way I’ve been living my life for the past decade ― which is great, because as an Ashkenazi Jew, I certainly didn’t need a month to figure out I can’t digest dairy.
As I spent 30 days dining out less frequently and drinking seltzer when I did, I congratulated myself for resisting temptation. But there was something else ― I was in such a good mood. I was sleeping better, worrying less and breathing more deeply. I was the least anxious I’ve felt in years.
Why I’ve never connected my anxiety to my drinking until my second round of Whole30 is beyond me, but I can now clearly trace the origin of that anxiety back to the first panic attack I ever identified as a panic attack. It happened on the third day of a raucous four-day bachelorette party I attended in 2017.
I spent most of the rest of that day in bed, trying to figure out this hellish kind of out-of-body experience that I had never experienced before, one where my arms were tingling, I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t stop myself from hysterically crying.
I’d been using a recently acquired Starbucks gift card to buy giant coffees in the middle of the day for a week prior, which in turn led me to sleep very little during the leadup to a four-day heavy-drinking event. I considered that could have had something to do with it. I thought about the financial burden of the bachelorette party, one of many that I had attended that year, and wondered if that may have been it, too.
In hindsight, while those things are both stressful, neither impacted me quite the way drinking did. My financial situation has improved and my bachelorette party invites have lessened in the years since that day ― but the feeling I had in Nashville that morning has been a recurring constant on mornings after a night out.
Today, I continue to experience some form of anxiety at least once a day. It’s not a unique quality ― anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States every year, according to the ADAA. But it’s one that I’ve only now spent the last two years learning to manage and cope with. And, as I’ve learned after more than a few hungover Sundays on the couch being riddled with thoughts of dread and discomfort, it’s exacerbated by heavy drinking.
This is all not to say that hangover anxiety is not the only anxiety I experience. It’s not. But even as I moved through Whole30 for a second time, and the euphoric familiarity of feeling less gassy and more energized washed over me again, I realized something new: 30 days spent not drinking and never being hungover had a direct correlation to not feeling nearly as anxious, upset or moody in the days that followed. Last year, when I launched right back into drinking on Feb. 1, I spent two weeks, including my birthday, in a depressed, detached funk.
And still I didn’t make the connection until now.
And there’s another part of it, too. In the past year I finally found a love of fitness and a workout class that has changed my physical and mental health. My body felt good and my brain did, too ― but I wasn’t seeing any real physical changes when I followed a strenuous 50-minute HIIT session with an equally strenuous round of $9 Sauvignon Blancs after work.
In the past 30 days, I’ve noticed more of a difference in my body, and have felt stronger and more capable than I have in over a year of working out (which included training for and running my first marathon, thank-you-very-much). Thinking about a life in which socializing does not revolve around drinking was hard for me to imagine ― and it still certainly is part of my life. But the 30 days I spent going out less, making plans with friends to do things other than drink or meeting friends who were drinking and choosing not to drink myself were illuminating. I suddenly had more time to read, more time to watch movies, more time to be alone in my thoughts and as a result, more time to be comfortable with hearing them. I’ve never been this content on my own before ― and that has been the most glorious part of all.
I’ve come to understand that I had to change my mindset and it has been a challenge, to say the least. I have been drinking socially for a decade ― it’s been an integral part of my identity and my social life. And I have relished it. Many of my most memorable, fun and formative moments have happened over a drink. But what I’m realizing now is that despite how much I enjoyed it in the moment, too often I did it just because it’s what I’ve done for so long. Once Whole30 forced me to stop, I recognized that my drinking, or at least how much I was drinking, as well as the consequences I faced afterward, were really negatively affecting me.
Now that the month is over and I’ve completed Whole30, here’s how I’m planning to move forward.
I’ve decided that if I don’t have a reason to drink, I’m not drinking. It’s easy to come home and have a glass or two of wine with dinner, and I think there is value in enjoying a drink with a nice meal. Sometimes. Otherwise, I’ve been perfectly happy and less anxious (and certainly far less swollen) if I throw back a couple Peach Pear La Croixs instead.
If I’m going out, I’ve given myself a three-drink limit that I am trying my best to respect. If I’m being realistic, three drinks is about the point where I’m buzzed and enjoying myself but still coherent and sober enough to stop. I’ve also found that any drink beyond three really isn’t worth having. So I’ll have a club soda with bitters and lime and reassess where I’m at and what I’m feeling. This way, I’m saving calories, the potential for a nasty hangover and the anxiety that comes with it and money, in a city where drinks can go for up to $18 a pop. Win, win, win.
My online dating profile proudly states that I’m looking for someone to listen to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” with on Saturday mornings, who likes to drink wine, who wants to go to the movies and drink wine at the movies, and I’m not changing it. Partially because I think it’s clever and partially because it’s still true. I will still marvel at the taste of a good Malbec and I won’t ever pass up a free fancy cocktail at a wedding.
But I’ve felt so much better physically and mentally since adopting this new mindset, I want to keep riding it out (see below) past the pressure to drink from friends, my environment and the behaviors of my past self.