"My drinking is no longer habitual—it’s intentional."

Paulina Jayne Isaac
Aug 28, 2020 @ 11:38 am
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Paulina Jayne Isaac

Warning: This story discusses the topic of drinking alcohol.

In my experience, an introduction to alcohol has a huge impact on your subsequent drinking habits. My story feels a bit cliché, but I’m going to tell it anyway since it’s crucial to understand why, seven years later, a break from drinking was beneficial for my mental health. As a kid, my parents never made alcohol feel taboo. They’d let me have a sip of wine on Christmas Eve, and my dad always had a six-pack in the fridge. Once I became a teenager, I was very into following the rules, so I never drank or even wanted to, if I’m being honest. But that all changed when I started college.

The days of drinking being an abstract concept were long gone. When I started school at age 17, I was thrown into the world of partying, drugs, and binge drinking. I was not prepared for this lifestyle, so I spent the first six months of my freshman year going to frat parties stone-cold sober. My friends waited in line at a keg and took shots while I nervously watched them from the sidelines. It’s not like I had a problem with drinking, I was just still in that rule-following mindset and was scared of what would happen if I crossed over to what felt like the dark side.

After a while my curiosity got the better of me, which should come as no surprise. You can only go so long standing on the edge of a pool before you jump in the water. So that’s exactly what I did—except I jumped into the deep end. One night, I was dressed in one of my many “going out dresses.” You know the ones; they’re super tight and most likely covered in sequins. It was 2013 and my friends and I were singlehandedly keeping Forever 21 in business.

I can't remember if I knew, as we walked to an upperclassman’s apartment near campus, that it would be the night I’d kiss my sobriety goodbye or not. I guess I just got tired of saying no and decided to say yes. I think it was also a way to fit in with other people my age. I wanted to prove my maturity—I desperately wanted to be an adult. So when someone offered me a shot of raspberry Smirnoff (gag me), I took another…and another. I ended up saying a line my friends still won’t let me live down: “It tastes like water!” So, there you have it. Popping my alcohol cherry felt like no big deal. Getting drunk on the weekends felt like no big deal. And for years after that night, it never felt like much of a big deal.

In March of this year, I started a therapy program to help improve my mental health after experiencing prolonged insomnia, which triggered feelings of anxiety. After a few weeks, my psychiatrist recommended me to attend an intensive group therapy program that would help me learn to cope with the stressors in my life. The first time I spoke with my new counselor, she explained how the program would work. I fidgeted in my chair as I did my best to focus on the words she was saying. It felt weird to talk about my recent struggles with a stranger, but I tried to remain open-minded about the program.

But then one word captured my attention: abstinence. I perked up as she told me that, for the therapy to work, I had to abstain from all mood-altering substances, including alcohol. I thought, “I’m an adult. Are you serious?” I didn’t see the correlation between drinking and my mental health. But I’m pretty sure I also thought, “Well, I should have had some wine last night.”

Even though I’m not a teenager anymore, I still have that rule-following streak in me. I immediately knew that I’d follow the rules of the program. It wasn’t just because those were the rules but because it suddenly felt like a radical act of self-care to prioritize my mental health. After experiencing symptoms that were out of the ordinary for me, I knew I needed to take a hard look at my life and make necessary changes. A lot of my anxiety was situational, meaning that I could decrease it if I altered certain parts of my life. I just needed to figure out what needed changing. 

Self-care isn’t always comfortable. It’s not just sheet masks, bubble baths, and clearing your schedule. I do all of those things—and they’re important—but they’re not what’s most important.

When it comes to self-care, no one talks about cutting ties with a toxic family member or, in my case, giving up alcohol and implementing healthier coping skills.

I’m not implying that I had a drinking problem. I just got caught up in the social aspects of drinking. When you become an adult, happy hours, holiday parties, and wine nights are the norm. I still get a buzz of excitement when I walk into liquor stores and see all the options. I love to drink wine. Making cocktails and having mimosas at brunch is fun. I think we can all agree on that. What’s not fun is waking up with a headache the next day or not remembering something you said that was unintentionally hurtful.  

In therapy, I learned that alcohol is a depressant that alters mood, behavior, and neuropsychological functioning, which means it can make depression and anxiety worse. I might think that having a drink to de-stress is a good idea, but it’s scientifically proven that once the buzz wears off, alcohol-induced anxiety can last for an entire day after drinking.

I’ve had a drink for a variety of reasons: to celebrate, to ease the awkwardness of social interactions, or because I’m eating a certain type of food. Soon I realized that I drank mainly out of habit. It wasn’t always because I wanted the drink but more that I was so used to having one. 

A few weeks into my program, we had to start therapy virtually because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One aspect of quarantine that worked in my favor is that it made it so much easier to not drink. I only had one dinner with friends where I was the only one not having a cocktail (just water with lemon for me, thanks!). The rest of the time, the only thing taunting me was my bar cart—specifically, the wine rack. I’d have a long day and look at the red wine, only to go and grab a seltzer from the refrigerator. My friends would joke about drinking every day out of boredom, or they’d tell me about their Zoom happy hours. I’d smile and think about how I hadn’t had a drink in over a month. But as the weeks passed, it became increasingly easier. I lost my taste for alcohol. 

A huge part of my therapy program was teaching me how to regulate my emotions and practice mindfulness. I learned how to add activities into my daily routine that bring me joy. I started running, baking, and finding ways to ease my anxiety naturally, rather than grabbing a drink. It wasn’t that I was using alcohol to cope with my anxiety. But it had become a knee-jerk reaction when I wanted to unwind. It was like I had forgotten all of the healthy ways to relax.

I had to intentionally unlearn that habit in order to train my mind to rely on other activities to calm my nervous system. I now regularly check in with myself to see how I’m feeling. I talk with my therapist weekly instead of biweekly, and, most importantly, taking care of my mental health now supersedes everything else in my life. If I have a job, relationship, or obligation that negatively impacts my mental health, then I no longer have space for it in my life. That might sound drastic, but it's only because we live in a society that values physical health over mental health.

My productivity doesn’t directly correlate to my satisfaction anymore. My value isn’t based on what my body looks like. All of these outward societal measurements of happiness mean nothing to me if I’m not taking care of my mind. That is my priority now. 

However, after my three-month break of no drinking, I did have a weekend in June where I felt like I had too many cocktails. I was out of town celebrating a career milestone and decided to drink with my friends. I wasn’t sure if I was going to before I arrived, but in the moment, I did. The next morning, I vowed that it just wasn’t worth it. I realized the lessons I learned in therapy would continue to be a part of my life moving forward. Now I can sit down and have a single glass of wine without wanting another. That would have never happened before. My body just can’t tolerate large amounts of alcohol anymore.

Cutting out alcohol was a tool; it was about cutting out anything that would alter my mind in order for me to strengthen my mind-body connection. Today, caring for myself means listening to my body. What is my body trying to tell me when it comes to drinking? If it feels bad after having a certain drink, then I listen. If it doesn’t, then I just practice moderation.

I’d be lying if I said I’ll eventually give up drinking for good, because that’s not something that I feel is necessary for me to do. What I can say is that my drinking is no longer habitual—it’s intentional. I think, for me, it’s a little like sleeping in late. You might have a habit of sleeping past noon every day, and you don’t even realize it. It’s just something you do. But, once you stop sleeping in and waking up early, your habit changes. Of course, this doesn't pertain to alcohol use disorders. But, for me, if I pour a glass of red wine in the evening, it’s because I want it. It’s not because I’m in the habit of mindlessly drinking because I’m cooking or hanging out with friends. 

My first time drinking when I was 18 felt like no big deal, but it was a big deal because I was setting the tone for my drinking habits. But almost a decade later, I’m making changes that take care of both my body and my mind. In a way, it feels like I’m also taking care of my younger self who didn’t know what she was getting herself into. I thought I was all grown up then, but I wasn’t. I still had so much to learn. I don’t pretend to have all the answers now—and my learning will undoubtedly continue throughout adulthood. What I do have is the joy of knowing that I’m caring for myself the best way I know how. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, head over to the Facing Addiction with NCADD website, and/or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357).