I felt miserable. After a weekend spent catching up — and drinking to excess — with old friends, I was exhausted, vaguely nauseous and had a terrible headache when I woke up Monday morning. By early afternoon, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I took a power nap on the couch (perks of WFH) that didn’t do much to help my situation. I don’t want to feel this way anymore, I thought as I popped an Advil and got back to work.
It was the end of May 2021, a month that also included a family vacation (with craft beer at Vail breweries and restaurants) and my boyfriend Rich’s medical school graduation (that called for mimosas in the morning and champagne at dinner). By Memorial Day, I could no longer ignore the grogginess I was putting up with every day, and the weekend with friends solidified what I was starting to realize: I needed a break from alcohol — just for a month — to reset.
And so, on June 1, 2021, I made a decision that changed my life. I stopped drinking, and I started living. Within two weeks, I realized I never wanted to drink alcohol again.
I had newfound energy that propelled me out of bed each morning to work out. My relationships improved. I no longer had pointless tiffs with Rich. I started talking more often with my brothers and I grew closer to my parents.
I saved thousands of dollars over the course of a year. I went from struggling to fill my free time after work to never having enough hours in the day for everything I wanted to do.
Deciding to quit in the first place — and then sticking with it — surprised my family and friends. I didn’t have a “problem” in the traditional sense. I wasn’t an alcoholic, and I didn’t have an addiction. My drinking never felt excessive and it didn’t end with an intervention. I was comparable to my peers (especially while at Notre Dame with its drinking culture so all-encompassing that it’s discussed in a popular course).
(Because I didn’t have a physical dependence on alcohol, just an emotional one, I didn’t experience strong withdrawal symptoms when I stopped drinking. Alcohol detox can be very dangerous and, for heavy drinkers, should only be done under medical supervision.)
Although the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends a weekly maximum of 14 drinks for men and seven for women (a number I tended to exceed), the American Cancer Society says it’s best not to drink and the American Heart Association says “there is no level of alcohol consumption that is safe for health.” A July 2022 study in The Lancet confirms that for people under 40, there is no health benefit to drinking alcohol, only risks.
The health dangers of alcohol didn’t matter to me when drinking was entrenched in my routine. At 5 p.m., I’d transition from work to home with a cocktail or a glass of wine. Maybe I’d have another with dinner. On weekends, I’d have a drink or two at a restaurant and another one or two at home. On Notre Dame game days, Rich and I would post up at the Irish pub and sip Guinness — maybe a pint a quarter — and eat appetizers. We were “normal,” and I wasn’t worried about my drinking — and neither was Rich or my doctor, for that matter. I was 23, I had a job, friends, hobbies. Outwardly, I seemed fine.
But I didn’t feel fine. And I didn’t realize that there was an alternative until I stopped drinking. That’s when I noticed just how far alcohol dragged me down — literally and figuratively.
Physically, I felt better than I had since before I started drinking at 18. I was energized with a new vigor for life, bolstered by incredible sleep — eight restful, uninterrupted hours a night. Weekends that used to be opportunities to grill and day-drink made way for pursuing my yoga teacher certification and exploring new hiking trails in the Catskills (with a surprisingly delicious non-alcoholic beer in tow).
Intellectually, I had a renewed interest in learning and growing. I enrolled in graduate courses in public health. I took on new responsibilities at work, with a fire under me to earn a promotion. I started reading for fun, a hobby that had fallen by the wayside when a depressive substance stunted my evenings.
Emotionally, I felt my mood lift and stabilize. Everyday annoyances that used to bother me would roll off my back. I had a greater emotional capacity for others, allowing me to deepen relationships because I wasn’t dealing with my own ups and downs. Working with my therapist became much more fruitful. And I found a community on Instagram, including many other young people who let go of alcohol by choice before it became an addiction.
Spiritually, my desire to have a relationship with God bloomed. As every aspect of my life got easier, my eyes opened to all the reasons I have to thank God and appreciate what I have.
Now, the idea of going back to the way things were is preposterous to me. These past 14 months haven’t always been easy, but they’ve been some of the best of my life — and for what, in retrospect, is a very small sacrifice.
My experience is just that — mine — and I can’t promise that going alcohol-free would be right for anyone else. What I do know is that my life experience has changed drastically for the better, and it was much, much easier than I ever imagined.
To change my life, I just had to give up alcohol.
Mary Bernard lives in Albany, New York. She is a social media and content marketer at Media Logic, a marketing agency that works with healthcare and financial services companies. You can follow Mary’s sobriety journey on Instagram at @yoursoberbff and reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.