The first time I touched alcohol I was 14. It was my freshman year of high school and I was so desperate to impress some older boys during a game of beer bong, I ended up chugging so much vodka and OJ that I passed out almost instantly.
When I woke up, I had little memory of the night before—but I wasn’t concerned. It was a party after all. Sure, I’d blacked out, but nothing horrible had happened apart from my first, giant hangover.
In my early teenage years alcohol became a kind of magic elixir. It made me more comfortable in social situations, more secure in my body and less like the awkward teen I felt like inside. Drinking helped me feel like I finally belonged.
Growing up I’d been bombarded with messaging about the dangers of drugs. Constant adverts and campaigns made me terrified to touch any kind of narcotic substance. But I never felt the same sense of fear when it came to alcohol.
By the time I reached Louisiana State University, I was more than ready to live up to the school’s hard-partying reputation. Hazy memories and total blackouts were just part of the college experience. Throughout those years I worked in in restaurants most nights and would easily have a few drinks while working, plus three or four after work.
But I never got the message that binge drinking was just for university days. It followed me right into the corporate world in my 20s, with constant happy hours, holiday parties, and company retreats. The endless free drinks, boozy dinners, and binge drinking all seemed essential for team bonding. As long as we could hold it together in front of clients, we were good. While I didn’t drink alcohol every day, I would often end up binge drinking on the weekends and couldn’t resist a happy hour during the week.
Once, during my first few years as a working professional, I ended up in the Emergency Room getting my stomach pumped. Six months later I ended up passing out in front of my co-workers in a restaurant bathroom during a networking event.
These two events planted a seed in the back of my mind that maybe my drinking wasn’t “normal”, but I carried on as usual.
Friday and Saturday nights were spent in bars and when “Sunday Funday” came around, I had no problem turning to the bottle before the start of the work week. Day drinking felt glamorous and Instagram-worthy. I would tell myself: “Mimosas are a breakfast drink, so it’s ok to have one on a Tuesday.”
For a long time, I thought hangovers, day drinking and binging were all ordinary behaviors. That’s what everyone around me was doing, or at least, that’s what they said. As a culture, we laugh off hangovers—but they should really be called alcohol overdoses or withdrawals. Maybe then they would be less socially acceptable.
When I became a mom to my two kids, I always thought the fog in my head was normal. After a stressful day it was standard to open a bottle of wine. After all, I was a mother of two young children, and popping the cork is a perfectly ordinary way for overwhelmed moms to relax.
From internet memes to merchandise and TV shows, “Mommy needs wine!” was a message I received from every angle. After years of participating in that culture, I realized that my “brain fog” was actually a constant, low-grade hangover.
Alcohol can be an easy short-term solution for parents. For me, it worked wonders, until it didn’t. Then, I started to count how many weekends I had with my kids until they were 18, and how many of those I was currently spending hungover. The numbers did not look good.
I thought it was an issue of moderation. Maybe I enjoyed wine too much? So I switched to vodka, then added more rules around when and where I could drink. But, I broke every rule and wrote each one of my failures off as a result of what was happening in my life at the time. It was never the alcohol; I believed I deserved to drink and couldn’t imagine a life without it.
I once said in passing to my therapist: “Everyone drinks.”
She replied with a look of concern: “No, not everyone drinks.”
This blew my mind—that some people in the world just don’t drink. I thought that only people with serious problems, DUIs, and arrests, had to quit.
I didn’t have the typical “rock bottom.” Nothing really crazy happened. I had tried to quit several times and wasn’t able to go more than a week or so. Then the pandemic hit. I stocked up on wine and toilet paper like everyone else. I used alcohol to cope with everyday stress more and more. It turned into a sick cycle of frequent drinking that lasted around six months. I knew my drinking was a problem. I read all sorts of books and started doing therapy to try and quit, but nothing seemed to work.
Towards the end of my drinking days, I would often drink just over a bottle of wine every day and still feel and act completely normal. I found myself searching for a buzz that never really came. At that point there was a very fine line between drinking enough to get drunk and completely blacking out. I would sometimes realize I had overdone it and would try to vomit out what I had drunk to prevent a hangover. That never worked.
So, I would sometimes have a hard cider in the morning, or a drink at midday just so I wouldn’t feel like complete death. I would curse myself for drinking too much the night before and would swear off booze forever. Then, the following day I would overdo it again and I’d be back in the cycle.
I would promise myself that I could drink sensibly and that this time would be different, but then I’d end up drinking too much and end up drinking during the next day to not feel like death. This all happened quickly, over six months in 2020.
My final drink was on Christmas Day, 2020. After drinking nearly a whole bottle of champagne and a bottle or two of red wine, I woke with my usual hangover the following morning. When my immediate reaction was pouring peanut butter whisky in my coffee, I knew that something had to change.
The first 30 days of sobriety were incredibly difficult. It felt like I was walking aroundwith an open wound. I was very concerned about what other people thought about my decision to not drink and the thought of living a life without alcohol was terrifying, I couldn’t imagine how it was going to look. Social and work events became difficult and I spent a lot of time worrying about every possible situation and reaction.
So, I had to say “no” to a lot in the beginning. I knew most situations would be too triggering, and I needed time to adjust to this new alcohol-free life.
The first big event I went to was at my friend’s house. She was hosting a huge Seahawks party and soon I started getting overwhelmed by all the shots people were drinking. I ended up just walking out of the party, driving home and taking a nap. When I came back to collect my husband, no one had even noticed I was gone.
In the beginning, changing up my routine in the late afternoons was essential. The urge to drink for me would come up around 4pm. I knew that if I could make it to about 7pm without a drink, the cravings would pass, and I’d be ok.
Some days were easy in the first months, and I wouldn’t get any urge to drink at all, but it took a good six months of not responding to cravings to feel like I had a handle on things. On other days it took everything in me to not stop at the store and grab a bottle of wine.
The biggest challenges were around social relationships in my life. Some of my friendships were formed through drinking wine. It’s sad to face the truth that maybe there wasn’t a real connection. But I feel lucky that most of my relationships have improved since I quit drinking. Especially with my husband and kids.
I also had to walk away from my business. The fog lifted after I stopped drinking, and I was able to see more clearly that things were not going well. That was a huge loss as it was something I had worked on for over a decade. I’m now happy as I know that the path that I’m on is more in line with what I am meant to do in my life.
Instead, I made my sobriety my full-time job and was lucky enough to have a very supportive husband and some time to devote to devouring every book and podcast on sobriety out there. I was also in weekly therapy and attended meetings with other alcohol-free moms. It was very time-consuming, but that was what I had to do to make it stick.
Every single aspect of my life is better because I am alcohol-free. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect or that I don’t still have problems. It’s just that alcohol is no longer part of my life and therefore no new problems that come up because of it.
I have been able to look deeper into my authentic self and uncover some root issues that caused me to reach for alcohol in the first place. There are other perks that I love; clearer skin and less bloating. Overall, I feel healthier and get way better sleep now.
Alcohol robbed small joys from my life. I now find pleasure in small things like a cup of coffee and curling up to a really good book. I missed too much of my life being numb or hungover. An alcohol-free life, for me, is a better life.
Tessa Lowe, 40, is a mother-of-two from Seattle who quit drinking during the pandemic. She now provides guidance and resources for those looking to quit alcohol. For more information visit her Instagram or TikTok pages under @tessarlowe.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Monica Greep.
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