In February 2020, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. A month later, the pandemic gripped Ontario. We had a seven-month-old at home, whom I had recently stopped breastfeeding, and my husband was laid off from work. I turned to drinking as a way to ease the overwhelm. Weekend wine quickly became weeknight wine. Although I was always able to be a full-time mama, I often felt crappy, heart racing in the middle of the night kind of thing.
I don’t define myself as someone with an alcohol use disorder, but I’ve always enjoyed drinking more than my friends have. It’s gotten me through many tough times and was my “go to” coping mechanism, for as long as I can remember.
I’ve always leaned on alcohol to “help” me, but almost every bad decision I’ve ever made involved alcohol. From cutting my nose on a tree branch in high school, to breaking my arm in university. From making a fool out of myself at parties to darker decisions at after parties. The long-term shame, that I continue to feel, is embedded deep within me. It hangs out in my neural pathways, spiralling around causing havoc. Yet somehow, I always seemed to forget “the shames” each time I decided to drink.
I knew that quitting this time around was different: I woke up one too many times hungover. I picked one too many fights with my partner.
It took a long time to get here. Longer than I thought it would. I have been practicing sobriety since January 2021, with many stops and starts along the way. I tried that in previous years too, prior to my pregnancy. 2021 began with journaling my feelings around alcohol and making meaningless promises to myself. I ignored my self-imposed consequences and drank anyway. Once I found an accountability buddy, it became easier. We shared stories of our drinking and the tools that had helped us. We have different approaches as to what works for us as individuals, but as a team, we collectively wanted to drink less.
What helped me the most was writing down what nights I drank alcohol and how many glasses of alcohol I drank. It was shocking. For someone ‘trying to quit’, how did I drink 30 drinks over 6 nights… in one month? Tracking my use made it more real and kind of scary. One study shows that alcohol use was linked to 7000 new cancer cases in Canada in 2020. I don’t want to become a part of this statistic.
Sometimes, I wondered why I was making such a big deal about drinking. This usually happened after a few weeks of not drinking. Then I remembered: alcohol dims my light. My body hates it. My mind hates it. My spirit does too. I wish I could moderate my drinking, be someone who could enjoy one glass of wine, and return the rest of the bottle to the fridge. But my ol’ body and mind crave more.
Once I made the decision to stop, my brain was finally able to rest and enjoy a new spaciousness not seen in decades. There’s no longer cognitive dissidence: I decided to stop, and for once, that decision has stuck. My 25-year drinking habit is finally over!
I started writing this article at 4 weeks alcohol-free and I’m sharing it now, just before my 40th birthday. I’m still in baby sobriety, but I’m excited to approach this new decade with a clear mind.
In yoga school, I’ve learned that “Where attention goes, energy flows.” No longer will I let a substance determine my personality. I’m slowly retraining my brain and treating my new neural pathways with the respect that they deserve. I certainly miss my former party girl persona, but enjoy my newfound peace of mind more.
In place of alcohol, I’ve been eating a lot of sweets, which I hear is quite common. But my new sugar habit does not make me pick fights with anyone. So far, I’ve never said anything terrible “on cake” or regretted my decision to enjoy a slice (or two). I think it will take a long time for my shame surrounding alcohol use to quiet down, but I’m glad I’m giving my mind a real chance to do so.
To anyone who is considering dropping alcohol, for whatever reason, I can promise you that it does get easier. Everyone says that because it’s true. The mind space that I dedicated to drinking is now dedicated to my wellbeing and other mindful pursuits. Although I still miss the taste of wine, and the ability to share a bottle with my partner over a nice dinner, it just isn’t worth it.
My daughter sees her mama run on Saturday mornings. She observes my weekly yoga school Zoom meetings. And if I drink anything out of a wine glass, she can always have a little sip! Instead of violently throwing myself from one side of the mood spectrum to the other, I’m more balanced, even on the hardest days, and there have been many this year. It took a lot of time to practice not drowning out sorrow.
At first, I thought I couldn’t succeed without my partner’s support, but it turns out, it made it easier in the long run. I don’t care if he drinks in front of me now, or if anyone else does for that matter. I went to a small Halloween gathering, my favourite holiday of life, and easily spent it booze-free, surrounded by people drinking. Alcohol doesn’t equate to fun. I started buying Acid League wine proxies and I love them. I don’t sacrifice having a lovely drink with friends. I have a great time and don’t have to worry about a hangover or “the shames” the next day. I read this beautiful quote that really resonated with me, ‘As you heal, your attractions change too. Toxicity stops looking like excitement, and peace stops feeling like boredom.’
Sometimes I still can’t believe that I quit drinking during my mom’s cancer treatments, a world pandemic, raising a toddler, going through a month-and-a-half-long home renovation, and taking on a new role at work. But there truly is no better time to start than now. Even on my most stressful days, I’m thankful I made this decision to help myself feel better. Forever is a long time so I prefer to look at not drinking day by day, week by week, month by month. I don’t know if I’ll drink alcohol in my future, but if I do, it will no longer be an afterthought of a decision. Living with intention and purpose and being the best mama to my sweet girl is my priority now and always. I am finally free at 40.
Here are some things that worked for me:
- Understanding triggers happen when you least expect them to
- Replacing cocktails with ‘fancy’ non-alcoholic drinks
- Listening to podcasts and reading books about alcohol (at first)
- Talking to a small group of friends about my drinking
- Sobriety app / alcohol tracking including moods/how many drinks (at first)
- Working out every day, be it running, yoga, walking, biking, weight training
- Volunteering time / creative pursuits
- Vision Board
- Psilocybin micro-doses
- Avoiding situations with big drinking present/going to bed early (at first)
- Meditating and yoga school
- Getting my ass in one seat instead of living duality in cognitive dissidence
What didn’t work for me:
- Trying to moderate
- Assuming my brain would change doing the same thing with alcohol… after 25 years
- Planning morning activities to stop my over-drinking the night before (while trying to moderate)
- Blaming others for my behaviour
- Just doing one of the above things that worked as a stand-alone, without looking at my life holistically
If you are struggling with alcohol, especially around the holiday season, I hope that with some dedication and practice, you can find a sobriety formula that works for you.
Ariel Ng Bourbonnais is a writer living in Toronto, and the co-author and editor of Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss. Ariel recently completed her 200 hours of yoga teacher training, and is enjoying this new pursuit. If you are feeling stressed this holiday season and looking for additional support, find Ariel at yoga_with_ariel on Instagram.