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I’ve Been Sober for a Year — Here’s What It Did for My Anxiety

Kim Hughes

Here we go again. It’s Monday morning and I hate myself.

I’m tired, irritable, bloated. My eyes look puffy and I feel sad and sluggish and everything is hard. I had a mini panic attack in the stairwell and I want to run away from work. But I only had two glasses last night. How did I end up here again?

It took me a while to connect the dots between drinking and anxiety. For a long time, I thought that was just who I was as a person: a little shaky, a little sweaty, a little panicky. I had always been under the impression that alcohol helped curb these symptoms, not make them worse. Perhaps this is why drinking became so habitual for me.

Kim Hughes

It was how I decompressed after a long day, how I took the edge off. It was how I celebrated, how I connected with others. It was my reward after a double shift. My social lubricant. It helped me pass time at the airport. It even had its place at the finish line of every race I’ve ever run. For a very long time, I didn’t even think twice about the impact drinking had on me. It was just part of my life. One that I liked a lot, I might add.

My drinking background

I grew up in a town in the US where underage drinking was very common; almost normalized. I tended to hang out with upperclassmen and was bedazzled at the way they chugged Busch Lights in the woods (as us New England kids do). I was 13 the first time I got drunk. Too young.

Throughout high school, I began to glamorise alcohol and the way it made me feel. It helped me come out of my shell and made me a little more chatty. In many ways, it leveled the “social playing field” a bit as it gave me a break from my exhausting social anxiety and tendency toward introversion. This is when my brain learned alcohol as a sparkly, magical way to connect with others.

In my late teens/early 20s, I drank like a lot of late teen/early-20-somethings. I lived in Boston, was a full-time student, and worked in restaurants. Shift drinks with coworkers 10-20 years my senior were the norm. I watched how they proudly worked doubles and treated themselves afterwards. I followed suit. I was doing well in school, developing a work ethic, making money, and having fun. I felt independent, mature, social, and successful all at once. This is when my brain learned the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality.

At age 21, I moved to Austin with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. He was (is) a musician. We went to a lot of shows and drank Lonestars at cookouts in our friends’ backyards. There was a robust music/craft beer scene. There was also a robust wellness/running scene.

I took part in both. I’d run road races and have a beer in my hand within 20 minutes of crossing the finish line. This is when my brain learned that wellness and social drinking could coexist. Harmoniously at times, not so much at others.

With the perspective of hindsight, I can also pinpoint this as a time in my life (about age 21 through 26) where I got really good at being busy. I worked full time, babysat/waited tables on weekends, went to shows at night, and for the last two years in Austin, was a full-time grad student. I was burning the candle at both ends, and almost couldn’t get enough of it. This is when my brain learned alcohol as a reward for the constant doing/perfectionistic tendencies I’d developed, which I can see now was simply a distraction from discomfort.

At age 27, I moved to Massachusetts, got married, and for the first time in about 7 years, was working just one job. My weekends were no longer filled with double shifts and frozen-margarita-food-truck afternoons. There were no more nightly shows to attend. No more marathon days of work upon work upon homework to reward.

The hustle I’d grown so accustomed to had phased out, and things got really…quiet.

But my brain was still running at a thousand miles an hour; that was all it knew how to do. Things had calmed down externally, but internally I was spinning. This is when my brain learned to love the off-switch of a glass or two of red wine at night. Usually with dinner, too, so I began to also learn the wine-food connection.

Meanwhile, while all of these drinking associations were being learned/reinforced, all the other stereotypical reasons to drink were present as well: graduations, weddings, family dinners, holidays, cookouts, etc. So my brain also learned to associate alcohol with all types of celebrations and gatherings.

So, over the course of about a decade, I learned that there was pretty much always a reason to drink: celebration, connection, accomplishment, treating myself, getting to know new people, connecting with old friends, feeling stressed, feeling happy, feeling bored, traveling, enjoying a nice meal, etc. The list goes on. You name it, there was always something. By my mid-20s, I drank most nights. And for a long time, it worked.

Until 2018, at age 28, when something started to shift: hangovers.

In my early 20s, hangovers were inconsequential. I either didn’t have them, or they were simply an extension of the party. Think silly mornings filled with brunch, mimosas, and laughter. Things changed as I got older. Hungover me became a slightly shakier, sweatier, sadder and less confident version of myself. And it wouldn’t last just one morning.

Slowly but surely, Saturday’s drinks started wreaking havoc on Mondays and Tuesdays. Even the small, subtle, “micro” hangovers from just 1 or 2 drinks would linger for days at a time. These are the days I’d struggle at work with brain fog + increased anxiety + fatigue and then feel confused about why.

It didn’t even dawn on me that it was from my almost nightly wine habit. After all, I was drinking in “moderate” amounts, right? “One or two with dinner,” I’d tell my doctors. They didn’t raise an eyebrow, so why should I? “My job is stressful,” I’d tell myself. Then I’d ease the stress over a glass of wine and maybe some Netflix with my husband. “I deserve it,” I’d tell myself. And so the cycle of alcohol as a calming reward that yielded connection and ease continued.

So yeah, there were the low-grade, subtle, “micro” hangovers that took some time for me to figure out. But every once in a while, there was also the more obvious, in-your-face, you-overdid-it-you-idiot type of hangovers. In June of 2018, I experienced a particularly rough one after overindulging at a wedding. It sent me into a multi-day spiral of shame, guilt and depression. I lost almost an entire week of my precious life to feeling like a waste of a human.

This is when I connected the dots. Drinking was exacerbating my anxiety and depression. And not just when I overindulged. My “one or two on weeknights” played just as big a role as my “I drank too much at that wedding last night.”

Alcohol was making me sad and keeping me small. And truth be told, I was imbibing more frequently than I wanted to. That shaky feeling — both literally and metaphorically — wasn’t just “my personality.” It was my body sending me a message. So I decided I needed to make a change.

My quit story — Part one

I began opting out of wine Mondays through Thursdays. I kept it pretty tame on the weekends. Sometimes I’d have just one or two, sometimes none at all, sometimes I overdid it. I considered doing sober October, but there was that Oktoberfest party coming up. November wasn’t convenient because I had a trip planned to Austin. Then it was the holidays. And we were going skiing for our anniversary.

Then it was New Year’s. And then I woke up on January 2nd feeling hazy and foggy and sad once again and I looked at myself in the mirror and asked a very hard yet necessary question: what the fuck are you doing? And are you gonna keep doing this for another whole year? No. I can’t. I won’t.

My experiment lasted four months. I was able to see things through an excruciatingly clear lens. I was forced to take a deep look inward and confront some personal edges. During this time, I experienced a birthday, a New England winter, and a tropical vacation sans booze. I learned how to socialize without alcohol. I got Mondays back. My anxiety decreased a lot. It was the most mature, empowering, enlightening decision I think I’ve ever made. But I was wishy-washy. I didn’t say “forever” because I wasn’t sure about forever. That seemed too daunting.

So, I went back. It was April 27th and I’d abstained for 115 days, so I decided it was time to reward myself with a Guinness at an Irish pub. I learned a lot during this time. Apparently, alcohol-as-a-reward was something I hadn’t “unlearned.”

That first Guinness after 4 months dry? Kind of underwhelming, to be honest. I drank minimally for the next 2.5 months. Things I discovered:

1. Wine doesn’t taste that good once you’ve gone without it for a while,

2. I can successfully moderate, but

3. I don’t want to.

The micro-hangovers were still there. The brain fog, the low energy, the shaky feelings. They were all still there. I also spent a lot of time thinking about drinking and not drinking. My inner dialogue often consisted of “Will I drink tonight? If so, wine or beer? And how many?” I’ve heard people in the sober curious world refer to moderation as “mental gymnastics.” What a fitting term. It was exhausting.

I knew that booze wasn’t serving me anymore. I knew deep down what I had to do. I remember thinking about it while out for a run on a beautiful sunny day in July when suddenly I slipped, rolled my ankle, and broke a bone in my foot.

My quit story — Part two

Six to eight weeks out of work and on crutches. I could tell my mom was worried about what this would do to me mentally. She knew what I’d been going through the few months prior, and I suspect she was worried about how I’d respond to being physically unable to “do.”

Without outwardly saying it, my mom knew that I derived much of my self-worth from my level of productivity. “Use this time wisely,” she texted me after I sent her pictures of my x-rays. “Take care of yourself,” she wrote.

I spent the next eight weeks journaling, meditating, and working on myself. My foot was elevated and so too was my mind. This injury was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Without it, I’m not sure I would have devoted so much time to such deep, healing personal inquiry.

I signed up for Carly Benson’s Alcohol-Free Accelerator program, and with Carly’s skillful and thoughtful guidance, I was able to completely dissect my relationship with alcohol. I unlearned all the drinking associations I’d failed to unlearn the first time around, specifically and perhaps most notably, the very strong association I’d had in my mind between drinking and traveling.

I explored meditation. I implemented breathing techniques. I kept a gratitude journal. I began viewing alcohol-free living as a gift. A superpower almost. Carly changed my life. She is a total badass and an inspirational leader in the alcohol-free-uplevel-your-life conversation. I highly recommend checking out her blog and her Instagram.

A Year Later: Where I’m At Now

It’s been a little over a year since I became “sober curious.” It’s been 164 days (almost 6 months) since I’ve had a drink. I feel like a new person. I’m calmer, happier, and more confident. I enjoy the little things in life more thoroughly; things as simple as going for a walk, going out for coffee, watching a movie, etc.

I show up in the world better; more “me.” I feel more in tune with myself. And the SLEEP! Omg the sleep. It is otherworldly. Deeply restful + restorative. Waking up in the morning feeling truly refreshed and clear-headed—especially yesterday on January 1st :)—is such a gift. I’ve learned and unlearned so much. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been so, so, so worth it.

I’d say the trickiest part about deciding to quit drinking was just that: it was my decision. I think quite often in life, whether we’re aware of it or not, we seek external validation.

We so badly desire that thumbs up from those whom we respect. We want permission from others that what we’re doing is good and meaningful and that we’re on the right track. Same goes the other way around: we hope that when we’re misaligned, in pain, or suffering, that someone will flag us down, step in, or give us some kind of warning to heed.

But what I’ve learned is that sometimes we need to do the hard thing ourselves. It is not up to our friends/family/spouses to call us out. They often can’t see what we are experiencing on the inside. [I write this with full acknowledgment and respect that when it comes to alcohol, many people are unable to tackle it on their own and do indeed rely on family/friends/professional help, which is a perfectly acceptable, valid, and integral part of many peoples’ path to sobriety].

In my experience, I knew the change had to start with me. I just had to get comfortable with the idea that sobriety could be a choice rather than a last resort. No one was gonna do it for me, or even suggest that I do things differently. Because there was no outward struggle. There was no crash and burn event. I didn’t hit that stereotypical rock bottom. I didn’t crash my car. I didn’t lose my job. No one was asking me to stop. All the suffering was silent.

The conflicting internal dialogue, the crippling anxiety, and perhaps most importantly, the self-loathing, guilt, and shame over time lost to hangovers—all of it was inside. And it was crushing me.

I feel strong and empowered that I did the hard thing. I listened to my body when I could have just kept ignoring it. I could’ve continued trying to make drinking work so that I didn’t stand out. So that I wasn’t the only one at the wedding, the bachelorette party, or the holiday dinner without a drink in her hand.

Having experienced all of those things sober in the past year (often with a delicious nonalcoholic beer in my hand instead), I can say with absolute certainty, that for me, the teetotal life is better. It may be a little quieter, a little more low-key, maybe not quite as flashy. It may have altered my friend group, my weekend calendar, and my social trajectory for years to come, but I can definitively say that this somewhat predictable, slow-paced, even-keeled way of living is 100%, without a doubt, the life I’d choose again and again.

Cheers to that.

This article originally appeared on kimhugheswrites.com and has been reproduced with permission.