Opinion: How I Redefined My Relationship With Alcohol

I’m enough without it.

By Riley Reed

I haven’t always known what it means to redefine my relationship with alcohol, but I have known for quite some time that alcohol doesn’t always serve me well. I didn’t have my first drink until my senior year of high school. I had a few friends stay for a sleepover with the intention to just “try it”. We mixed all different kinds of strange concoctions together that left me dizzy, nauseous, and reluctant to ever drink again… that is until college rolled around. It was a perfect storm of young adult life crisis, peer pressure, and drinking culture. Sometimes it was fun. Sometimes it was chaos.

As I traversed my twenties, I had several epiphanies that alcohol and I didn’t always get along. It served as a depressant (which is what it is): altering my mood, disrupting my sleep, and preventing me from achieving maximum productivity. It physically affected me: encouraging an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, contributing to inflammation, and stimulating severe eczema flare ups that left my arms covered in raw, red, itchy bumps.

With all of those symptoms, you might think I’d never drink again. But for me, having a drink can be romantic, enjoyable, and best of all, a connector (I mean… I met the love of my life at a party.) And thus, in redefining my relationship with alcohol, cutting it out entirely wasn’t for me. It’s more about reframing how I indulge and more importantly, why. I have the right and the power to choose. The danger lies in allowing the substance to control me, rather than taking ownership and finding the control within myself.

Almost two years ago, upon exploring Whole30, I read a book by Holly Whitaker called Quit Like a Woman. It completely transformed my perspective around alcohol and its relationship with the self, the collective, and society at large. By studying alcohol’s contribution on a universal level I was able to get introspective about its place in my life.

To dive into this topic further, I interviewed Amanda Kuda, a writer, speaker, coach, and teacher who helps high-achieving women renegotiate their relationship with alcohol. Scroll on to read our conversation and sound out in the comments below. 

Note from the editor: This is a personal account of my experience redefining my own relationship with alcohol. We recognize that everyone’s journey is different, so if you think you may struggle from addiction or wish to seek treatment, please consider the below resources:

Image of Amanda Kuda by Shelby Sorrel

Do I have a problem?

When I first started exploring my relationship with alcohol, I initially led with self-criticism. It wasn’t productive at all. Shame and regret followed which only poisoned any positive attachments I had to the substance. I played with quitting altogether and even went six months without drinking.

The issue with evaluating alcohol’s impact on ourselves is that we immediately think if we have a problem, we must be addicted. As Amanda Kuda says, “Alcohol is an addictive substance and addiction is real.” But just because it’s addictive in nature, doesn’t mean we are addicted. In fact, Kuda points out that only a small percentage of drinkers have what is known as “alcohol use disorder” (according to a 2018 report by SAMHSA).

What I learned from Quit Like a Woman is that all humans suffer from some degree of addiction. We might not sacrifice our lives entirely or get so wound up that we can’t find ourselves. However, we all suffer and we all look outside of ourselves to manage that suffering through habits, patterns, and attachments.

As Kuda says, “you don’t need to have a problem for alcohol to be problematic in your life.”

Where do I begin?

Rather than beginning with research (Google will scare you), consider starting with introspection. Whitaker shares great prompts:

Is alcohol getting in the way of my happiness, my life, my self-esteem?

Is it getting in the way of my dreams, or maybe just not working for me?

Does it cost more than it gives? Does it shrink more than it expands? Does it cut pieces out of me I can’t reclaim?

Does it make me hate myself, even just a little bit?

Personally, memoirs aid me immensely when it comes to considering my identity and life experiences. They help me to remember so that I can consider why I behave the way I do. Redefining my relationship with alcohol has begun with thought. In support of this method, Kuda says, “so often, we obsess over what everyone else is doing or saying. When it comes to changing a habit in your life, you are the guru.

“Only you know if a habit is truly serving you or if it’s holding you back.”

What does exploration look like?

My approach to drinking quickly became a spiritual one. I’ve joked that I’m a life purist. I treasure integrity and transparency. I expect it out of myself and I hope for the same from others. Therefore, I’ve wondered if alcohol blocks my ability to be my best self. Does it dilute mindfulness, intentionality, and empathy? Whitaker talks a lot about routines, meditation, human connectedness, and healthy lifestyle changes in conjunction with the erasure of alcohol consumption. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was stunting my own personal growth by continuing to indulge.

But, what I’ve found is that (for me) there is a time and a place for drinking. I don’t have to live in extremes and I don’t have to make permanent decisions. My life is fluid and so long as I am living it based on what I truly want in the moment, fulfillment is attainable.

Kuda speaks to a term coined by the writer, Ruby Warrington, called Sober Curious. It is used to describe a person who is dabbling with an alcohol-free lifestyle. They might be trying to moderate, or taking long periods of abstinence, but they haven’t actually committed to a sober lifestyle long-term. They might wonder: is there a healthy way to drink alcohol so that the substance doesn’t control you? Her best piece of advice for someone exploring a sober lifestyle is this:

“Your inner guide doesn’t whisper ideas to you at random. If you’ve started to become curious about exploring a sober lifestyle, that curiosity was put there for a reason—explore it.”

How do I know what lifestyle is best for me?

Though my own introspection and reading has lent to a better understanding of drinking culture and overall lifestyle, I haven’t felt equipped to explain why one person might choose to continue drinking, moderate drinking, or quit altogether. Whitaker convinced me that I couldn’t reach my greatest potential with alcohol in my life. She explained that alcohol is ethanol. If we packaged it in a pill it would be the most popular drug on the market. And… she’s right.

I gained a greater understanding of alcohol lifestyle choices in my conversation with Kuda. She speaks to the difference between choosing sobriety because it is a means of survival versus quitting “for the health of it”. She lists three reasons why someone might stop drinking for the latter: physical (wanting to feel better), mental (wanting to be more present), and metaphysical (feeling a deep calling or a sense that alcohol is getting in the way of your place in the world). Regardless of your choice, she says;

“If you commit to exploring your relationship with alcohol or adopting an alcohol-free lifestyle, you will have a competitive advantage that cannot be met.”

How would I create a non-drinking routine if my drinking habits are attached to my surroundings or the time of day (aka a glass of wine with every dinner)?

Habits are attached to a bigger picture. They are apart of a greater system of being. In order to better understand where your behaviors come from, you have to comprehend your current lifestyle completely. For instance, I know that I have always chosen to drink because of my social environment. From college to waitressing to parties to family gatherings and celebrations; drinking has acted as a satisfying accessory. It is a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, live-for-the-moment kind of choice. In order for me to set myself up for success (to not regret, to not suffer), I have found that active planning helps me avoid an automatic, ‘yes, I’d love a drink’.

It takes time and patience. Kuda says to ask yourself if you are a natural “moderator” or “abstainer”. She notes; “Most people who want to change their relationship with alcohol are abstainers meaning they do better with all or nothing goals. Abstainers find freedom in restriction because they don’t have to worry about setting rules around figuring out how to moderate. If you’re an abstainer, consider setting a reasonable, yet challenging goal to test out a new routine.” 

She advises you can also consider substituting a non-alcoholic wine, kombucha, or another mocktail in place of an alcoholic beverage.

“There is no one right way, just remember that confidence comes from commitments that we keep to yourself. So, avoid ‘exceptions to the rule’ and ‘cheat days’ when you’re creating a new routine,” says Kuda.

What if people around me don’t understand why I care about my relationship with alcohol?

Human connectivity is so important to me. Naturally, I’ve had a lot of fear around declining drinks. It’s no different from telling my grandma I can’t eat her sweet potatoes because I’ve quit eating dairy. There is so much pressure to join in the fun, especially when people look at you like you’re crazy when you say, “I’m not drinking right now.” But… drinking is normal, right?

Kuda encourages us to reframe our mindsets around socializing without alcohol. It is brave to explore your relationship with alcohol, in part, because not everyone will understand or support that choice. You can maintain a wonderful, active social life while not drinking. However, you might find that there are things that used to entertain you that now only bore or annoy you. Kuda says,

“Realistically, if it’s no longer fun without alcohol, it was probably never fun to begin with. You were just using alcohol to distract yourself.”

Redefining your relationship with alcohol is a learning process that requires self-compassion and grace. Kuda reminds us, “if you identify as anything other than an ‘every-now-and-again’ or ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ drinker,” it can be very difficult to truly develop a healthy relationship with alcohol. Why? Because most of us are unwittingly drinking to shift or dilute our personalities. We drink to be more fun, more relaxed, more social.

She adds; “Like it or not, when you drink to become ‘more’ of something, you are sending a subconscious message that you are not enough on your own. Anything we do from not-enoughness cannot truly be healthy.”