I’m Not An Alcoholic, But I Am A Non-Drinker. Here’s Why I Quit.

"I slowly but radically changed my mind about alcohol’s place in my life."
The author, before she decided to quit drinking.
The author, before she decided to quit drinking.
Photo Courtesy of Kelly Dougher

Hi, I’m Kelly and I’m not an alcoholic; I’m a non-drinker.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to change my mind. I used to believe that I would never want to live anywhere but New York, that I would never marry or have children or ― most frightening of all ― get a tattoo. Now I live in Seattle, I’m planning a wedding while daydreaming about baby names, and I have half a dozen tattoos.

But the most momentous, life-altering thing that I’ve changed my mind about has also been the most difficult and complicated adjustment yet. I never envisioned my life without alcohol. And yet here I am, at the age of 31, writing this with a glass of chai by my side instead of wine.

Over the past year, I slowly but radically changed my mind about alcohol’s place in my life, ultimately deciding to become a non-drinker. This was an unexpected development to both myself and the people around me ― not because I had a drinking problem, but because I didn’t.

My belief that only alcoholics need to quit drinking was the barrier that kept me from ever analyzing my relationship with alcohol. Instead, I drank socially for more than a decade, bolstered by everyone around me doing the exact same thing.

I never questioned the strong drinks (more vodka than cranberry) that my older boyfriend would ply me with in college. I never questioned the fact that all of the worst fights I had with loved ones were preceded by drinking. I speculated that my health was being affected by some undiagnosed condition ― PCOS, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression ― and not the very normal drinking habits that I saw reflected in my friends and family and in the media I consumed.

“Drink responsibly,” we’re told. Like many others, I took that as a reassurance that moderate drinking wouldn’t hurt me.

Also like many others, my alcohol intake increased during the pandemic. A glass or two of red wine, previously a bright spot at the end of the occasional hard day, suddenly became the only bright spot in a life that had become extremely small, stressful and dull.

Then three things happened at once: We moved apartments, I decided to do Dry January, and I joined a friend in reading and discussing Holly Whitaker’s “Quit Like a Woman.” Any one of those things would have been fantastic for shaking up my routine, but together they managed to wrench me free of alcohol’s grip in a way I’d never experienced before.

Whitaker’s book in particular not only helped me to complete my dry month but made me actively not want to drink. This quote was one of many in her book that made me feel like I was seeing the world in a new light:

I believe that alcohol will experience its own ‘cigarette moment’ ― a reversal in public opinion and a rejection of it by mainstream culture, seen as something we used to do ― once we remove our willful ignorance of its harmful effects on us personally and collectively. I imagine our grandchildren will one day be shocked by the idea that there was once a point in time when we drank ethanol at almost every occasion... the same way I’m always shocked to see pictures of my aunts and uncles smoking indoors at family parties in the seventies.

Since reading Whitaker’s book, I’ve become keenly aware not only of alcohol’s downsides but also of the societal rejection she predicted. Whether it’s thanks to the work of quit-lit writers like Whitaker and Annie Grace, the rising trend of celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Chrissy Teigen and Real Housewife Luann de Lesseps publicly renouncing alcohol, or the increasingly hard-to-ignore proof of alcohol’s role in breast cancer, hormonal disruptions and mental health issues, more and more women are becoming sober-curious.

A cultural shift is happening, one that allows for quitting booze to be seen as not just acceptable but an empowering act of feminism. After all, when we drink, we are not only potentially harming ourselves, but also supporting a male-dominated industry that targets women and benefits from our reliance on a highly addictive substance.

Still, I didn’t give up alcohol overnight. I drank in moderation for a few months, ordering Diet Coke at bars just as easily as I enjoyed some wine at my bridal shower. My drinking was controlled; “healthy,” some would even say.

And yet when I woke up the day after sharing a bottle of champagne with friends at a summer picnic, I was miserable. My anxiety clawed at my throat; my depression sat slick and heavy in my stomach. Ultimately I got back into bed, unable to play with my dog or work on my novel.

I took a photo of my tear-streaked face in the dark bedroom, laughing a little at myself as I did so, and vowed to quit drinking for good.

It’s been 108 days now, and the steady hum of anxiety and fatigue that has been in the background for years has faded away. My sleep is actually restful now, giving me energy and motivation to pursue the things I’m interested in. Oh my God, and the time! I’ve unlocked so much time.

If you’re reading this and thinking Good for you, but not for me, that’s fine. If you feel that alcohol isn’t having a negative effect on your life, then I’m happy for you.

Being a non-drinker can be an incredibly difficult choice in a culture that worships alcohol, and it’s one that someone has to make for themselves with all the curiosity and excitement and courage they can muster.

Sometimes I still doubt my choice. Am I really not going to drink champagne at my wedding this summer? I think. That seems drastic for someone who could go back to drinking moderately at any time and most likely be completely OK.

But that’s the thing: I don’t want to go through life as the “OK” version of myself. I no longer want to dull any of my senses or my experiences. When I walk down the aisle in July, I won’t down a glass of champagne first to quiet my nerves. Instead I’ll give myself the gift of feeling it all ― the nerves, the joy, the amazement ― and I’ll remember it later, too, every moment of it, exactly the way it was.

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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