What I’ve learned from 20 years of not drinking

Yesterday was my 20-year soberversary.

I have been officially committed to not drinking since 20 years ago yesterday.

I didn’t quit drinking because of alcoholism. That disease does run in my family, but I was not personally afflicted – possibly because I never really liked or acquired the taste or habit.

Alcohol just didn’t agree with me. I’m already a person who falls asleep by about 9 pm, and alcohol in the evenings made me even sleepier and not very good company.

I always had a low tolerance – just one glass of wine or cocktail would leave me light-headed or buzzed. Two glasses would find me doing stupid things like giving myself a black eye.

Plus, I used to get an annoying hot flash feeling and a noticeable red flush in my face and chest after just a few sips, as if I had an intolerance or allergy to alcohol.

All that aside, the real reason I gave up alcohol for good on this date 20 years ago is my beloved hubby. On February 5, 20 years ago, E and I started dating. Eric didn’t drink and I knew that alcohol was a deal-breaker for him in a relationship.

Giving up drinking was a very easy choice to make since I didn’t care for alcohol much anyway, and I already cared for E a great deal!

Although it was easy for me to commit to not drinking alcohol, sticking to it for all these years has been harder than I thought it would be. That’s because there is intense, near-constant pressure to socially drink in our society.

I’ve had business clients say “I don’t trust people who don’t drink.” We’ve lost friends because of not drinking. We’ve felt estranged from neighbors because of not drinking. And we are constantly excluded from social events because we don’t drink.

The “mommy culture” in particular is super wine-focused and it can be very hard to make mom friends when you don’t drink. It can also be awkward to be a non-drinker at business events like dinner with clients.

Here’s the thing: it sucks being excluded because of not drinking. E and I truly don’t mind being around people who are socially drinking. We don’t enjoy being around people who are actively getting hammered, frat-boy style, but we’re fine with parties and other social gatherings where there is alcohol.

My parents drink wine nightly and we’re fine with having wine in our home while they are our guests. When we throw a party (which hasn’t happened since Covid), we typically don’t serve alcohol but we encourage guests to BYOB if they like to imbibe.

I think the reason people hate non-drinkers is that they think we’re uptight, no fun or judgemental about others drinking, but I’m pretty sure those who know us would attest that these things are not true of us.

Sure, we might quietly laugh at someone who is falling down stupid drunk, but other than that, we’re staying in our lane and not watching yours.

So what have I learned in 20 years of not drinking? Here are a few thoughts.

  • It’s not the same for me to say I haven’t had a drink in 20 years as it is for an alcoholic to say they have 20 years sober. I’m not looking for any congratulations here – this was not a big feat personally. An addict giving up alcohol is a big deal and worthy of much admiration, respect and kudos. For me, not drinking is a minor inconvenience at most. For alcoholics, sobriety is a matter of life and death.
  • I think many more people in the U.S. (and the U.K., and probably elsewhere) are problem drinkers and alcoholics than are willing to admit it. There are active, so-called functional alcoholics all around us. How do I know this? Because of statistics like these. And because when you don’t drink, you notice how much of a role alcohol plays in social situations.
  • America has one of the lowest alcohol use rates per capita of first-world countries, with Belgium, Germany, France, the UK, and Australia coming out ahead of us. But we have a higher rate of alcohol abuse than any of those countries because we tend to “go big” in this country. Let’s face it, alcohol abuse is generally pretty well tolerated here – maybe even accepted or encouraged.
  • It has always seemed to me that the people who have the biggest problem with non-drinkers are likely the ones who have a personal problem with alcohol. The people pressuring others to drink are the ones who can’t control their own drinking, and therefore they want to normalize drinking so they feel less shame or guilt.
  • It can be hard being the only person not using a social crutch – for that is exactly what alcohol is – in social situations. While other people “take the edge off” with alcohol, we get to sit there and feel everything acutely and clearly. But this is something that has also come to feel pretty good to me, too. Plus, there are other ways to take the edge off that don’t involve alcohol.
  • It’s a mixed blessing sometimes to be the only stone-cold sober person at a gathering or party. That said, I do make a pretty great designated driver and I’m always happy to help out that way. And, there’s something to be said for being responsibly “California sober.”

I’m glad that recent years have seen an increase in people talking openly about sobriety and not drinking. There was even a super cool alcohol-free dry bar called the Dry Mill in Columbus, but alas it already closed. And, just about every restaurant has chic non-alcoholic beverages available for those of us who choose to abstain yet still enjoy a fancy drank now and then.

If you feel you or someone you love might be among the one in eight American adults who suffer from alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, there is help. SAMHSA has a great downloadable brochure called “Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happen in the Best of Families” and SAMHSA’s National Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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