My Relationship with Alcohol + Why I’m Sober Curious | Reflecting on #DryJuly

I feel it’s important to preface this post by saying that for many people, sobriety is much more than a wellness trend. It’s a necessary way of life. These people can’t choose to resume drinking “in moderation” or to “drink mindfully.” Alcohol alters their brain chemistry, making it hard to stop — and easy to start again.

That being said…. Hi, my name is Haley, and I am not an alcoholic.

It’s a privilege to be able to say that I don’t have a dependency on alcohol. Like a lot of people, however, I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. I exist in the gray area between social drinking and problem drinking, which is how I became sober curious.

“Sober curious” has become a bit of a buzzword (buzzphrase?). Part of me hates using it, because I hate promulgating the idea that sobriety is “trendy.” But I do think it’s an apt description of the space I exist in — and I love that our society, and especially my generation, is becoming more and more conscious of how much and why we choose to drink.

For those of you who are wondering, #DryJuly is technically a challenge (run by the Dry July Foundation) to raise money for cancer research, where donors can “sponsor” a person not to drink for the 31 days of July. However, many people — myself included — are joining in on the dry movement without fundraising simply because they are looking to cut back or curious about a sober lifestyle.

In honor of #DryJuly, which was my first full month of no alcohol, I decided to share the story of how I became sober curious, the benefits of being sober curious, and the tips I’m following to get me through my first weeks without drinking.

My Alcohol Story

Like many of us, I had my first drink in college. When I first attended Boston University at 18, I had trouble making friends due to my diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. My therapist hadn’t yet given me a referral to a psychiatrist, so I had no medication to take the edge off my anxiety. To meet people in a controlled environment, I decided to rush a sorority at my college. It was one of the scariest things I ever did.

When I joined a sorority, I was exposed to alcohol for the first time. Neither of my parents really drank growing up — my dad doesn’t drink, period, and my mom only drinks socially when my brother and I aren’t there (my parents are divorced) — so I hadn’t even been around it. The first time I really saw alcohol, on the night we found out what sororities we got into, I turned it down. Because neither of my parents drank, I had internalized the idea that drinking was somehow immoral. I’m a serial people pleaser, and I didn’t want to disappoint anybody.

Soon after, I went to my first frat party, where I pregamed with my first drink — a glass of Barefoot moscato — and took three sips of a Keystone Light before deciding I hated beer. At the time, my drinking behavior was perfectly healthy, but I was scared of the consequences it would have on my relationship.

I was still dating my high school “sweetheart” at the time, and it was not a healthy relationship. His mom had a lifelong problem with alcohol and he didn’t want me to drink, either. He thought if I drank, guys would take advantage of me or I would cheat on him. Because he went to community college, he also didn’t have the typical “party experience” — so I always got the sense he was a little bit jealous.

Drinking almost always caused arguments between me and my ex-boyfriend, not because of how much I drank but because of his personal views on alcohol. As a result, I came to associate alcohol with shame and guilt. Later, when he was finally being invited to social occasions where drinking was present, a double-standard would emerge, where it was okay for him to drink but not for me to do it (unless he was there, of course). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when we broke up, I went a little bit wild.

I wanted to rebel against the expectations he had placed on me. More significantly, I wanted the “typical college experience” I felt I had missed out on by dating a guy from home. Instead of going to parties with my friends, I was always turning down invitations to go visit my ex in my hometown (a major downside of living just 45 minutes from campus). Now, I was free — and I started partying more and more to prove to myself that my emotionally abusive ex no longer had a hold on me.

For about a month and a half, I binge drank at least once if not twice every weekend. Whenever I was sober, I was swiping right on hookups. After all, that’s what the media had taught me that college was supposed to be like: an alternating series of blackout drinking and one-night stands. It’s what I saw my friends doing in my sorority, and I had a major case of FOMO the entire time I was dating my ex. Now that I was single, I thought “What the hell?”

The problem was that I started to drink more and more to avoid processing emotions associated with the breakup, and with the various hookups I kept “catching feelings” for. I used to be a “one and done” kind of girl, but I was quickly becoming a “four shots and counting” kind of girl. Over that one-and-a-half-month period, Pedialyte and Tinder became my best friends.

My real friends only saw me when we were out on the weekends; the rest of the time, I spent sleeping over in guys’ apartments. I was also going through a horrible friend breakup at the time, which made this all around the shittiest period of my life. Worst of all, my grades had started to slip as a result of my capricious behavior. I used to be a Dean’s List student and ended the semester with Bs and Cs in all of my classes. It was directly related to my drinking: I caught strep throat from a guy I had kissed at a party. I couldn’t shake it for a month, leading me to miss tons of class and nearly fail a group project.

For the record, I don’t mention my series of conquests to slut shame myself. In fact, to be honest, I think a part of me needed to have that experience in order to be my best self in my relationship with my now-boyfriend, David. Instead, I want to highlight how intricately the hookup culture on college campuses is linked to binge drinking and alcohol abuse.

It’s also worth mentioning that I don’t think I would have felt such immense pressure to drink if I hadn’t joined a sorority. Members of Greek life drink much more than the average college student; in fact, half of fraternity house residents display clinical symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. It’s one of the many, many reasons why I quit my sorority: I felt like most of the bonding that happened in my sorority happened over jungle juice.

Everyone who becomes sober has a defining moment. Mine happened toward the end of that month-and-a-half. I was hooking up with a guy in a “friends with benefits” situation (we’re talking the sleeping over and frying me eggs in the morning kind of FWB) and starting to catch serious feelings for him. I knew he only wanted to be friends because he was graduating and moving out of state for a job, so I made the difficult decision to end it.

The decision was painful, but eye-opening. I realized how seriously my self-worth had deteriorated as a result of my relationship with my ex. (Later, I would realize he had sexually assaulted me in an act of sexual coercion, which explains some of the residual effects of his influence.) I was letting guys use my body without really getting to know them — and while I would never shame anyone for exploring their sexuality, I quickly learned that casual sex wasn’t right for me.

I knew something needed to change, so I vowed that I wasn’t hooking up with any more guys who weren’t looking for something serious. Shortly after, I went out on a couple of dates with and ended up hooking up with this guy I had been talking to before everything happened. When I opened up to him about the promise I had made to myself, he said he was still interested — but after I had my first social anxiety attack in our “relationship” (if you can even call it that) when he didn’t answer my texts, he told me he needed space and never spoke to me again.

That encounter was even more brutal than the last. I had been lied to, but most importantly, I had been made to feel like something was wrong with me. I know that texting someone many times in quick succession, and getting angry when that person doesn’t respond, can seem obsessive and creepy. But this person knew about my social anxiety. He should have known that it was an anxiety behavior and taken me at my word when I told him so. Even though we hadn’t known each other long, I made the mistake of thinking he could be trusted.

It hurt to have that trust broken. In the long run, of course, I’m glad he walked away when he did — because it’s always better to learn that someone isn’t supportive of your mental health before you’re in too deep. But at the time, I still felt vulnerable from my previous experiences with men and heartbroken by the breach of trust.

The following weekend was the worst of my life. Back to my old habits, I completely numbed out. On Saturday night, I went to a party, where I made out with a guy at a frat. Sunday night, I hooked up with a different guy — and Monday, I saw the guy from Saturday, dancing with another girl in my sorority. I learned that they were dating, and my heart sunk into my chest. I had betrayed a sister. I was a homewrecker.

None of this would have happened if I wasn’t drunk on Saturday, hung over on Sunday, and even more drunk on Monday. Worst of all, this was normalized at my college. Going to school in Boston, Marathon Monday is an unofficial holiday. In Massachusetts, we celebrate Patriots’ Day as a bank holiday, which means no classes. At Boston-area colleges, this means an all-day party that often begins at 6am and ends at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. On Marathon Monday — MarMon, as we called it — getting blackout drunk is viewed as a rite of passage.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. That day, my good friend called me an Uber. I went home and slept off the alcohol. When I woke up, I was still tipsy and had a pounding headache. Chugging Pedialyte, I thought about how I had let this happen to myself. My old self-esteem issues reared their ugly head. So, I turned to Tinder for validation, this time thinking that perhaps I could hunt down a guy who wasn’t just looking for sex. Anyone who’s ever been on Tinder knows that’s like looking for a mythical unicorn, but I was at my lowest low. This was rock bottom for me.

At some point, I swiped right on a cute medical student in a lab coat, whose profile bragged about how proud his grandma was that he was going to med school. By Tuesday, we had matched. He sent me the first message, complimenting me on my bio. I still remember what it said: “Hillary in the streets, Monica in the sheets.” (At that time, it was popular for guys to put “Reagan in the streets, Kennedy in the sheets” in their Tinder bios. I thought I was making a clever commentary on misogyny, though I realize now I just sounded thirsty AF.)

We spent all night texting, and finally called each other. We stayed on the phone all night, staying up until sunrise. And we did it day, after day, after day. A few weeks later, I bought a plane ticket to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was attending medical school — and as they say, the rest is history. David and I have been together over two years now. We share an apartment, a bed, and a dog, so I’d say we’re pretty invested.

I know what you’re probably thinking right now, and I agree: meeting the perfect partner is not the answer to life’s problems. Admittedly, I still had — and have — a lot of soul-searching to do, especially when it came to my relationship with alcohol. Since then, I’ve realized just how much I relied on alcohol to quell my social anxiety at parties. Even after I learned moderation, I still wasn’t drinking for the right reasons. But it was a start.

For the first time in my life, I was in a healthy, supportive relationship where I wasn’t engaging in destructive behavior. With David, I was able to pick apart the trauma of my unhealthy relationship and unlearn the self-sabotaging that I’d picked up from previous relationships. He stood by me when I stopped talking to my dad, gave me hope when I almost couldn’t pay my tuition for my final semester at BU, and watched me graduate one year early, with a B average, after three years of hard work. Yet I never expected him to solve my problems or fix the parts of my life that I had broken during the worst time of my college career.

Now, I know what I hadn’t learned yet when I was 18 and first started drinking: the only person who can fix you is yourself. The fact that I never expect David to save me is what makes our relationship a healthy one. I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to my anxiety and depression, and my body is suffering from endo now more than ever. But we both know that those issues are mine to explore, on my own terms. He is always there to support me, but never to fix me. I have a responsibility to fix myself….

Which is why I quit drinking. Even though I rarely drink, and on those occasions can stop drinking whenever I want to, I choose sobriety. I want to feel better physically, to end my migraines and “hangxiety,” and, most importantly, to overcome my social anxiety and latent trauma without the crutch of alcohol use to get me through.

Pros of Quitting Alcohol

I am absolutely not here to tell you what to do. The choice to drink, or not to drink, is incredibly personal, and is not a decision someone else can make for you. Abstinence is an option, but it is not your only option. You can still be sober curious and choose to drink mindfully.

That being said, there’s no pretending that alcohol is good for you. Drinking anything beyond the occasional glass of red wine has no health benefits — and if you already don’t drink, doctors do not recommend starting. What they do recommend is limiting your alcohol intake to no more than one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men. You can find out what constitutes a standard drink by checking out this chart.

In moments when you feel tempted to drink more than you should, or uncomfortable for not drinking when other people around you are drinking, it helps to remember why you became sober curious in the first place. Here is a starter list of reasons why choosing not to drink can actually be a good thing:

Just one month of sobriety offers long-term health benefits.

Research conducted on the Dry January phenomenon shows that quitting drinking for just a month can give you more energy. 7 in 10 people also reported better sleep as a result of going dry. When they went back to drinking afterwards, participants in Dry January drank less on average than those who did not participate.

Choosing not to drink allows you to be more present.

Without alcohol, you can be truly present for important life moments. You might be expected to drink on birthdays or holidays, but skipping the booze offers you the opportunity to have clarity of mind and make better memories (that you’ll actually remember).

Buying fewer drinks saves money.

Whether you choose to drink mindfully or quit drinking altogether, cutting back on the booze saves you money in the long run. If you don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you’re not drinking, you can always order a club soda and cranberry juice at the bar — but cutting out that weekly bottle of wine at home will save you $80+ a month.

Drinking less makes your skin glowier.

Obsessed with skincare? Skipping that cocktail does much more for your skin than that expensive serum ever will. Alcohol dehydrates your skin, which makes signs of aging more apparent and promotes inflammatory conditions like acne. You might just find that cutting out alcohol helps your skin glow.

Sobriety can improve your mental health.

You may have heard that alcohol is a depressant, which refers to its effects on your motor skills as well as your mental health. That’s one of the reasons why you might get “hangxiety,” or find that depression and anxiety worsen the day after drinking. Many people find that sobriety improves their mental health, even if they don’t have an alcohol use disorder. It’s also worth noting that mixing alcohol and antidepressant medication can have dangerous effects. In my opinion, it’s safer to avoid alcohol if you struggle with mental illness.

A Word On Alcohol Use Disorder

Lots of people choose not to drink for various reasons. Some of them simply don’t like the way alcohol makes them feel, or, like me, may have a complicated relationship with alcohol. But other people may find that they cannot control their drinking behavior or that it causes serious problems in their life. Symptoms like these could signify a more serious problem with alcohol, or even a full-blown alcohol use disorder:

  • Drinking longer or more than you intended
  • Trying to stop or cut down, but failing
  • Craving alcohol (feeling a strong urge to drink)
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from alcohol use
  • Experiencing negative consequences from drinking, like injury or depression
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes problems
  • Building tolerance (having to drink more to get the same effect)

If you identify with any of these symptoms, you might have a more serious problem with alcohol. It’s important to know that quitting alcohol if you have a physical dependency on it can be difficult and even dangerous.

Withdrawal symptoms occur within 6 hours to 48 hours of stopping drinking. They can include headache, nausea, vomiting, sweating, hallucinations, and seizures. Serious symptoms require immediate medical attention. They can be controlled by cutting back on alcohol gradually under the guidance of a medical professional in a qualified treatment center.

If any of this resonates with you, know that help is available for alcohol use disorder. SAMHSA’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP offers free, confidential treatment referrals for anyone who wants them.

Tips for Quitting Alcohol

So, you’ve learned more about the sober curious movement. You’ve decided you want to try drinking less — or, perhaps, not drinking at all. It’s not easy to make that decision in a culture dominated by drinking, so you definitely deserve credit for choosing to go against the crowd. But not knowing the next steps to take can make the choice to become sober curious feel even more challenging.

What’s a girl to do when she wants to stop drinking? I haven’t been sober curious long, but even so, I’ve navigated many of the challenges of being sober — like boozy holidays (July 4th) and parties where everyone else is drinking. Through these experiences, as well as research, I’ve gathered a few tips to help you quit alcohol without FOMA (“fear of missing alcohol”):

Make new friends (but keep the old).

When you stop drinking, one of the things you realize is just how many of your friendships are based around alcohol. When I first cut back on my drinking in college, I alienated a lot of people from my sorority. This is in addition to the friends I’d already lost because of things I’d done while I was drunk or in connection to my drinking behavior. In short, I felt very alone. But now, I’m thankful for it.

Cutting back on the partying, and quitting my sorority, taught me who my real friends were. I still regret losing some of my close relationships. But, many of my relationships with those people revolved around pregaming and partying. The fact that I no longer did those things forced me to reassess the nature of my close friendships. At the end of the day, the friends I kept supported my new “grandma” status (as I liked to joke). I didn’t need the ones who would have minded it. They weren’t my real friends anyways.

If you’re interested in becoming sober curious, you will quickly learn how many of your close relationships revolve around alcohol. And I’m not going to lie: you might lose some of those friends. When that happens, it’s important to remember that it is not about you. Sometimes, when we quit drinking, it makes other people feel insecure about their own choices. If they perceive you as “holier-than-thou,” it’s likely because your choice to become sober makes them feel uncomfortable with their own drinking behavior.

You don’t need anyone who isn’t supportive of your choice to cut back on or quit drinking altogether. No one should make you feel like there’s something wrong with you for not wanting to take shots. The fact that you’re sober curious doesn’t mean that you need to cut everyone who drinks out of your life, but if you find that champagne is the only thing you had in common with your squad, it might be time to find some new friends.

That doesn’t mean that losing those friendships won’t hurt. What helped me get through it was a lot of therapy — and challenging myself to go to events where alcohol wouldn’t be served, where I could bond with new people over something other than sharing a drink. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re sober curious in a culture that romanticizes getting drunk, but once you get out there and start meeting other sober people, you’ll realize how many of us dislike drinking culture as much as you do.

Go in with a plan.

So, you’ve been invited to an event and you know alcohol is going to be served. Depending on your relationship with alcohol, that might stir up some difficult emotions. You might feel like everyone’s eyes will be on you if you’re not drinking, or that people will speculate about your choice not to drink: “Maybe she’s an alcoholic.” “Maybe she’s pregnant.” Or, you might feel anxious about being in a social situation without relying on alcohol to loosen you up — trust me, I’ve been there.

Often, the time I spend worrying about these events ahead of time ends up being worse than the event itself. Usually, I grab a can of Coke when I get to a party and nobody asks any questions. Still, if you’re wary about meeting a new group of people (and how they will respond to your choice not to drink), or you know that you will see someone who pressures you to drink when you don’t want to, it’s helpful to have a plan for coping ahead of time.

The first step involves recognizing why that situation might make you want to drink. Personally, I want to drink whenever I’m around a new group of people or people who I find difficult to deal with because the alcohol takes the edge off my anxiety. I also hate being in situations where I know other people will be getting drunk, because it’s hard to find a drunk person funny when you’re dead sober. But, triggers for drinking are intensely personal. Identifying yours will likely require a little soul searching.

Once you know the reason why staying sober might be challenging in that situation, you can formulate a plan to deal with the urge or expectation to drink. Your plan should always include, at bare minimum, an answer to the question, What am I going to drink? If you aren’t drinking alcohol, and you aren’t holding a drink, it will probably call more attention to the fact that you are avoiding it.

Holding a solo cup full of soda or cranberry juice usually allows you to dodge any questions. Most people are so ingrained into our drinking culture that they will probably assume you’ve got a little whiskey in your Coke, or some vodka in your cranberry, and won’t ask any more questions. I recognize that it’s a little effed up — but in this case, you can use drinking culture to your advantage.

I also like to give myself an out for any social situation where I feel pressured to drink more than I want to. Bringing a trusted friend along to a party or event where you might need help escaping can make this process a lot easier. David and I always come up with an excuse in the car on the way to an event so we can leave if I feel my social anxiety getting too bad or my endometriosis pain flaring up. The same approach works for drinking. Saying something like “I’ve got to go — the kids are with a sitter, and I’m only paying her to stay until 9:00” or “The dog hasn’t been out all day, we’ve got to head home” sounds perfectly innocent and won’t raise any eyebrows.

I usually give myself a minimum amount of time to stick it out for before using my excuse. For example, I’ll stay for an hour to see if my social anxiety improves — but if I’m still not having fun by then, I can leave without guilt or shame. I use this approach because I think it’s important to expose myself to situations that trigger my anxiety and learn to work through them without the use of alcohol to take the edge off.

You might feel apprehensive when you first arrive at a party where everyone is drinking and you aren’t, but once you immerse yourself in conversation and stop thinking about how awkward you feel, you might find yourself actually having fun. If that’s still not the case by your set time limit, however, you should always feel free to say “see ya” and go home to hop into your jammies.

Find tasty alternatives.

One of the more fun parts of being sober curious is getting to explore tasty alternatives to drinking alcohol. The mocktail market has really stepped up its game now that so many millennials are abstaining from alcohol. Some of the newest store-bought options for virgin drinks taste surprisingly convincing — and they’re almost all delicious.

I admit that I am someone who used to enjoy the taste of alcohol. In fact, my affinity for the taste of wine and cocktails is the only reason I kept drinking after my hard-partying days in college were over. For that reason, I worried I would feel deprived by no longer choosing to drink. As it turns out, trying virgin drink recipes and mocktail mixes from the grocery store is just as fun as wine tasting!

From being sober curious, I’ve learned that you should always have a plan for what to drink at a party where there’s going to be alcohol, and that there’s no shame in bringing your own. In fact, if you bring a non-alcoholic drink for everyone to enjoy, you might make some other party guests who don’t drink very, very happy — and maybe even make some new friends.

Below, I’m sharing some of my favorite homemade and store-bought options for mocktails to help you find the joy in abstaining from alcohol:

Mingle Mocktails makes several non-alcoholic drink blends. They come in the shape of wine bottles, meaning it’s difficult to tell the difference between a bottle of this and the real thing. Melon mojito is my favorite flavor, but they also make a moscow mule and a cranberry cosmo.

DRY Botanical Bubbly uses simple ingredients — just four per bottle — to make its virgin bubbly. There are flavors ranging from watermelon, to blood orange, to lavender, to pineapple. They come in either cans or bottles, allowing them to go from barbecue to birthday bash in the blink of an eye.

Sparkling water is the perfect substitute if you are someone who is used to habitually sipping wine or beer in front of the TV. When you want to crack open a cold one at the end of hard day, reach for a can of sparkling water instead of the hard stuff. I like Spindrift, which includes a splash of real fruit juice. La Croix gets polarized reviews, but also deserves props for its wide range of flavors.

Coffee is my favorite non-alcoholic drink choice. Hear me out: the variation in coffee blends is as multifaceted and nuanced as the differences between wines or beers. Like alcohol, you can make it strong, or temper it by blending it with different “mixers,” like almond milk or vanilla syrup. My favorite? Nitro cold brew, which blends cold brew coffee infused with CO2 with just enough of your favorite milk. Just be careful, or sobriety will turn you into a coffee snob like me!

Mocktails can also be made at home with a variety of ingredients. Pinterest allows you to find recipes that span sweet, sour, and everything in-between. Try this sparkling peach and thyme mocktail with a San Pellegrino base, or this strawberry basil limeade made from fresh fruit and honey simple syrup.

Find sober voices on social media.

There will be moments when the people around you won’t be supportive of what you’re doing. They’ll ask you things like “why can’t you just have one drink?” or crowd your Instagram feed with pics of them slaying-then-rose-ing. In those moments, it’s easy to feel alone — especially if you don’t know anyone else who is sober curious.

In every other area of my life, social media has been the place that allowed me to connect with people far and wide when I didn’t have immediate members of my tribe who understood what I was going through. Whether it was my struggles with an eating disorder or my experience with endometriosis, Instagram and Youtube introduced me to a world of influencers who were speaking out about the things I was going through. It helped me feel like there was someone in my corner, even on days when I felt like no one had my back IRL.

There are a few accounts I recommend following on Instagram for inspiration and community if you choose to become sober curious. @sobergirlsociety is based in the UK and is a space for sober or sober curious womxn to learn and grow. @1000hoursdry is a movement that promotes an alcohol-free lifestyle through its 1,000 Hours Dry challenge. @soberblackgirlsclub provides resources and support specific to Black womxn choosing a sober lifestyle.

On YouTube, I have been inspired by watching so many of my favorite influencers choose sobriety over the years. Lucy Moon, a beauty and mental health Youtuber, is the first Youtuber I remember “coming out” as someone who struggles with alcohol — you can watch her original video on alcoholism here. Kate Flowers, a vegan and non-binary Youtuber, talks about the effect of quitting alcohol on her life in this video. And Melanie Murphy, a bisexual beauty and sexual health Youtuber, gave up alcohol one year ago, in July 2019, and talks about reaching the six month milestone here. It was Melanie’s decision to become sober that first made me question my relationship with alcohol, and I’m so grateful for her content on this subject.

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