Why I Stopped Drinking for My Mental Health

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If you would have told me that I would stop drinking during a global pandemic, recession, and political frenzy I would never have believed you. Out of all the times to stop drinking — now? It seems absurd and impossible. But the fact of the matter is it was a long time coming.

Drinking as a coping mechanism

Ever since I was legally able to drink at 21, I’ve used drinking as a coping mechanism. Stressed out? Why not have a glass of wine? You got dumped? How about vodka, which you can call breakfast because you added orange juice. Over time, the habit just got cemented even further, making it that much harder to pull away.

I was already flirting with disaster as my family has a history of alcoholism. Somehow I wanted to prove that wasn’t going to happen to me but sometimes I wondered, “IS that me?”

If you start wondering if you’re drinking too much, you have your answer.

You don’t have to label yourself ‘alcoholic’ or anything. And as noted in this episode, you don’t have to hit rock bottom either to want to change your drinking habits.

Though my journey with alcohol started with low-lit, grungy dive bars and cranberry vodkas, my taste escalated over the years. I got into wine and joined wine clubs. I found out I loved sake and joined a sake club. I found the slight smokiness of mezcal so seductive and had a thing for classic cocktails like the Aviation or Dirty Martinis. I considered myself an epicurean, ready to taste and imbibe the world and have new experiences.

My cocktail snobbery became well-known on Martinis and Your Money, a podcast I’ve been on once a month for nearly five years. We all drink and chat money, and each episode I’d bring some fresh new creation or fancy cocktail.

Moving from self-medication to on medication

About three and a half years ago, I started to have an impending sense of dread. I was extremely depressed and my anxiety was increasing at an alarming rate. At that point, I also realized things were falling apart in my 9-year relationship. I started to drink more than usual. Then it was up to a bottle of wine a day.

I’d try to take breaks but felt like I needed it. After a few months of doing this, I realized I was self-medicating and saw a psychiatrist. That’s when I went back on antidepressants and medication after a 10-year hiatus.

I hated that I had to be back on medication but knew that it would be better than drinking a bottle of wine a night. My psychiatrist told me I couldn’t drink while on this medication and that the two would cancel each other out.

It said on the bottle in dark print “do not drink alcohol while taking this medication’.

On one hand, I was glad I took the steps to manage my mental health and get help and get on medication. But not drinking felt like a huge blow. I didn’t know what I’d do or how I could enjoy life.

I lasted only a few weeks, then slowly started to experiment with one glass of wine. I was fine. Then two, still fine. In my mind, I didn’t have adverse reactions from alcohol and medication so why stop?

Over the next three years, I still drank fairly heavily. Not a bottle a night heavy, but I drank more nights of the week than not and typically 2–3 drinks each time.

I did start to feel an interaction in my brain with the meds when I drank too much. My brain felt like it was on the verge of a seizure, with these weird brain zaps I can’t describe. But it was uncomfortable and scary.

Throughout those years, my 9-year partnership ended, which completely shattered me. I had tried for so long to make it work and admitting it didn’t was devastating. My life felt like it was crumbling and among all the brokenness, I was able to see clearly all the pain, hurt, and dysfunctional patterns I engaged in. It forced me to look at myself and my behavior and really do the internal work to heal.

I remember telling my therapist that this was too hard. She said drinking all the time and engaging in unhealthy relationships is hard and healing is hard. But one has a better outcome.

She had tried to get me to replace alcohol with weed (weed is legal in CA) as a way to deal with my anxiety but I couldn’t find the right fit and didn’t particularly enjoy it.

Turning point

Last year, I realized that my drinking had hit an apex again. I had gotten seriously drunk several months in a row. Though I drank a lot, I controlled it pretty well and knew my limits. But drinking too much — to the point of sickness — rarely happened and here it was happening at least once for a few months in a row.

There was the time I mixed too many drinks on a not-well-fed stomach at a house party (beware of servings at house parties!). There was that time I drank a 32oz mimosa too fast at a drag show and ended up throwing up in my new boyfriend’s car.

I was mortified and so paranoid that he was going to dump me. He’s an angel and didn’t. There was that time in Mexico. And that other time in Mexico.

What I started to realize is that I would drink to make myself feel better and it would work, temporarily. But then I’d feel like crap and hate myself for drinking and feel so much shame. Those feelings of shame and self-loathing were so strong, I went for another drink to lessen the sting and the cycle continued.

While I was in Mexico, I had a revelation.

When I drink and lose control, I don’t trust myself. When I don’t trust myself, I can’t love myself.

My main goal in therapy was to learn how to love myself and break people-pleasing codependent patterns and here I was in a pattern that ensured that I’d stay stuck.

I knew I needed to stop drinking. But I was in Mexico! I was going to Europe shortly after. I started to limit the drinking but I couldn’t stop. I hate that I felt like it had such a hold over me and that I had such intense cravings. I felt I had no will power. Alcohol felt like a friend who was always there for me, through thick and thin. I didn’t know who I would be without alcohol or how I’d cope. After struggling, I told myself that after Europe I’d try to stop drinking in earnest.

Then the pandemic hit.

Like most people, my drinking started to surge again amidst all the chaos and uncertainty. By June, I realized bad patterns were creeping in again. I didn’t want to get back up to a bottle of wine a day and I hated the push and pull in my mind between wanting to have a drink and trying so desperately not to have one. My desire was so strong but I knew it wasn’t good for my physical or mental health.

Making changes

I decided to commit to 30 days of no drinking just to reset and see how I felt. I went 33 days and noticed that my mood was more stable, I had much fewer headaches and my skin looked brighter.

I ended up drinking two cocktails and then went another 28 days without drinking. Then I had two dirty martinis and I wrote in my journal how bad I felt afterward. I felt nauseous. Headachy. Dehydrated. Sad. I finally realized that I liked the side effects of not drinking much more than what I felt when I drank.

At first, I felt bad that I drank again after about a month, breaking the streak. But I now see it as building a muscle. I wasn’t fully ready then. Now, I am 100 days alcohol-free and feel good. I wake up with more energy, my mood is more stable and less melodramatic and my body feels healthier too.

During that June, I had read the book Mindful Drinking by Rosamund Dean because I wanted to learn how to effectively moderate. In the book, I learned that it actually takes so much more work to moderate your drinking because of all the questions you need to answer. How much can I drink? What should I drink? How often should I drink? How do I say no when I’ve reached my limit?

I then read This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and it completely shifted the way I thought about alcohol. I saw how ingrained alcohol is in our culture and how advertising affects our subconscious and how drinking wine has been branded as the de facto female bonding activity. I learned how alcohol affects depression and anxiety and realized just how addictive it is.

After reading the book, I felt differently about alcohol. Having those previous two months of no drinking — and then having two drinks — helped me realize how much better I felt when I didn’t drink.

CBD has helped

I also decided to experiment with CBD as I heard it was good for anxiety. As it turns out, CBD gummies have helped my anxiety significantly and I have zero desire to drink. I also have CBD oil for when I need something faster acting. It’s been a life changer and finally, I have replaced alcohol with weed, except CBD doesn’t produce that high you feel with THC. So I can relax and still work and not turn to alcohol when I feel distressed.

Looking ahead

A common saying in 12 step programs is “one day at a time”. Will I ever have a drink again? I don’t know. As of right now, I am taking it one day at a time but for now I feel better not drinking.

This year I got real with myself about my mental health and the dumpster fire that is 2020. I realized that if I really wanted to put my mental health first, I needed to let my antidepressants have their full effectiveness and not be canceled out by booze.

I wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk seeing as I started the Mental Health and Wealth show.

I replaced alcohol with more positive coping mechanisms. I started walking, reading more, taking insanely long baths, reading poetry, trying a new recipe, or enjoying a coffee or tea.

I remember at the beginning of this year, quitting drinking felt impossible. It felt like I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t know how to function and I’d be cutting myself off from so many delicious libations and experiences.

Now, I’m at a place where I realize I’ve had my fun. I have wonderful memories of wine tastings, specialty cocktails, and beer tours from all over the world. I will always cherish those memories. But I also have very bad memories of alcohol-fueled fights or getting myself into situations that made me hate myself and made me worry like crazy that I messed everything up. I think about all the time and energy I’ve spent on alcohol — crying, being hungover, feeling fatigued, dealing with a dull headache. It’s hard to be productive and happy when you feel like crap.

If you’re struggling with alcohol, you’re not alone. You can change your relationship to alcohol at any time and don’t have to be an alcoholic or hit rock bottom. I will say you do have to be ready to stop and sometimes you’re just not there yet.

I was there the majority of this year, until I got tired of the same results. Big changes happen when you get sick of the life you’re living and know you have to change something to get different results.

It’s when you’ll risk the loss of something in order to gain something even better. And sometimes, that gain is your life.

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Writer. Author of Dear Debt. Host of the Mental Health and Wealth Show. Founder of Lola Retreat. Let’s talk money. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/melanielockert

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Melanie Lockert

Writer. Author of Dear Debt. Host of the Mental Health and Wealth Show. Founder of Lola Retreat. Let’s talk money. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/melanielockert