How to Reimagine Your Relationship to Alcohol

For many, January is a month to rethink how much they imbibe, whether they’re worried about heavy drinking or just looking for a reset.

Seven years ago, Laura McKowen started a drinking journal. She knew alcohol was an issue for her — she knew it when her 4-year-old daughter helped her clean up the morning after a blackout, and she knew it the 10th time she drove to work hung over — but she needed to see it.

“Something very interesting happens when we put things on paper,” Ms. McKowen said, “because we have a lot of cognitive dissonance around drinking.” She couldn’t deflect around what she saw on the page, though: two bottles of wine a night. She got sober, and went on to help others do the same through coaching and teaching workshops.

Last January, Ms. McKowen published “We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life” and in March, she began hosting free sobriety support meetings on Zoom. By May, she had 12 employees and a company called The Luckiest Club, which offers classes and access to its community.

It’s no surprise Ms. McKowen found an eager client base. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 14 million American adults suffer from alcohol use disorder (A.U.D.), which is a term medical professionals prefer to alcoholism.

You don’t need an A.U.D. diagnosis to find your drinking problematic, though. Alcohol can impair sleep, cause weight gain, exacerbate anxiety, or subtly change your personality. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation in September suggests Americans are drinking 14 percent more often in response to pandemic-related stress, especially women, whose heavy drinking days increased by 41 percent in 2020.

When we go to work every day during non-pandemic times and don’t have an inordinate amount of stress, it’s fairly easy” to limit drinking to Friday nights, said James G. Murphy, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Memphis who published a paper in November about alcohol and drug use during the pandemic. “When all of that structure is ripped away — when you’re worried about finances and your kids’ home-schooling and you don’t have to be anywhere in the morning, so no one will see if you’re hung over — alcohol can be way more difficult to manage.”

This is one reason you might be seeing more Dry January hashtags in your social media feeds this year. One month off from drinking can be an opportunity for the sober-curious to examine their alcohol use.

If any of this sounds familiar, here are some suggestions to help you navigate your relationship with alcohol or bring it to an end.

Take note of how much you’re drinking, as well as the pros and cons of that consumption. Are you opening that bottle of Riesling because it pairs well with your Chinese takeout, or are you hoping the third glass will drown out those voices in your head that are telling you you’re mediocre? Study your own habits — and be honest about them.

To give you some perspective, the federal government’s 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than one drink per day for women or two for men (though some suggest fewer), and Dr. Murphy suggests the free alcohol screener at the website CheckUp & Choices. Take the questionnaire, which is used by health care providers, and use the score to assess your drinking. Similarly, Drinks Meter is an app with a daily calculator that helps put your own behavior into perspective using an anonymous database of over 6,000 people’s drinking habits worldwide.

“You don’t have to have things figured out, aside from wanting to make a change,” said Holly Whitaker, the author of “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol” and creator of an online A.U.D. recovery program called Tempest. “You’re doing it right now, by being brave enough to read this article.”

If you’ve decided alcohol is having a negative impact on your life, try distancing yourself from it for a while. Remove bottles from your physical spaces and booze-related content from your virtual ones. Cleanse your phone and computer of anything that might tempt you to drink.

It’s not about having a siloed existence or avoiding anything that creates an urge to drink, said Ms. McKowen, it’s about dismantling the myth that drinking is what makes life fun. “You want your online world to reflect the energy of where you’re going,” she said.

Then try not to drink for a month. Pick a date and stick with it. Experts say this is the best way to evaluate your alcohol use, and it’s a jump start on reducing your consumption, if that’s what you decide to do.

“Detoxification literally means removing the toxin,” said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This can be done on your own unless you have moderate to severe A.U.D., in which case you should seek medical help. Untreated severe alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

Alcohol does have positive effects: It squashes tension and lowers inhibitions. Remove it and you will miss it, at least initially.

So, identify other activities you love and increase them. Whether it’s exercise or spending time with friends, “we need another outlet to fill the void that alcohol leaves,” Dr. Murphy said.

You’re more likely to successfully abstain from alcohol if you have support. “Tell as many of your friends and family members who feel safe as you can about this,” Dr. Murphy said.

It also helps to connect with others who share your goal. In-person support meetings have become difficult to access in the pandemic, but help has proliferated online. Free sobriety support communities with virtual meetings include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, SheRecovers, In the Rooms, Eight Step Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Recovery Dharma, and LifeRing, among others. Neither good lighting nor charisma is required or expected; join from your phone while walking in a park or sitting in your car.

“I go to two meetings a day now,” said Braunwyn Windham-Burke, a reality TV star whose sobriety journey is currently playing out on season 15 of “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” “It’s so easy, because it’s in my bedroom.”

One Tempest member, Valentine Darling, 32, of Olympia, Wash., finds virtual meetings to be more L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly as well. “I feel safe sitting next to my house plants, so I’m more fully present and I’m also more authentically me: I wear dresses and express my gender queerness without worrying that anyone will follow me home.”

Many organizations have meetings specifically for people of color, certain age groups or even professions. Ben’s Friends is a sobriety support group geared toward restaurant workers. “We speak a common language in restaurants,” said co-founder Steve Palmer. “You find out that, ‘OK, he’s a line cook. She’s a bartender. These are my people.’”

If your month of sobriety was relatively easy to accomplish, then simply consider it a reset. But if you’re having trouble sticking to your plan, you might need more than group meetings. You may have A.U.D., which is a disease, not a moral failing, and it requires treatment like any illness. The most effective form of recovery usually involves long-term behavioral therapies and community support as well as medication, if needed.

The N.I.A.A.A. navigator can help you find the right treatment for you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has an online treatment locator.

If you decide you want to maintain your sobriety long-term, understand that treatment plans may vary over time. “The same practices that helped you quit drinking might not keep you sober later on,” Ms. Whitaker said. Maybe you’ve unlocked a trauma along the way, maybe you’re going through a divorce or maybe you’re living in the midst of a pandemic.

You haven’t done anything wrong; you just need a fresh set of tools.

Dr. Murphy recommends continuing to keep a log of alcohol use. Apps like Drink Control and Drinks Meter can help, but even using a pen and paper, make note of any benefits you see, to keep your momentum going. When you backslide, make note of that — and how you feel about it.

It probably took a long time to develop your current relationship with alcohol. Changing that relationship, then, will require sustained effort — and it might take several attempts. If the first one doesn’t last, Dr. Koob said, don’t judge yourself harshly. Just try again.

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