Let me start with full disclosure: I stopped drinking over three years ago. So I'm not exactly a neutral party when it comes to the costs and benefits of alcohol. I'd quit for short stretches of time before that, usually after an especially bad hangover made it easy to see that my drinking wasn't serving me well. But every time, I managed to convince myself that alcohol would make my life better.
I recently spoke with Laura McKowen on the Think Act Be podcast about her own journey to sobriety, which she describes in her lovely memoir, We Are the Luckiest . McKowen emphasized that the benefits we think we get from drinking typically don't match the reality. "I feel like we've all been duped because most of those 'benefits' are kind of a lie," she said. "It's like that bad relationship that you romanticize, but the reality is that it's actually pretty painful. So you have to really examine your beliefs and pick them apart."
Here are five promises that alcohol makes.
1. I'll help you sleep better.
Alcohol is appealing as a sleep aid because it's sedating and can help with falling asleep. However, it's terrible for sleep overall, particularly in the second half of the night. I can't count the number of times I woke up in the middle of the night hot, restless, and uncomfortable after having a few drinks.
"You don't sleep well when you drink alcohol," said McKowen. "You might get tranquilized and pass out, but you don't reach the deep levels of sleep that you need to actually feel rested."
Even a modest amount of alcohol can lead to a restless night. "It doesn't take much," McKowen said. "One drink will mess up your sleep."
2. I'll calm you down.
People often use alcohol not only as a sleep aid but also to reduce anxiety, given its tranquilizing properties. Alcohol works on the same neural receptors as drugs like benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Klonopin), and its calming effects are well known. But the rebound effects of alcohol consumption are less apparent.
"I never put together that my anxiety was related to the drinking," said McKowen. "We hear it's supposed to 'take the edge off' and relieve your anxiety, but there's nothing more soul-crushing than the anxiety on the day after drinking." I recall that post-drinking anxiety from many Sunday mornings in college, as I carried a vague sense of unease and agitation with me throughout the day.
In addition to the physiological effects, the fallout from drinking is a stress of its own. "The things that happen when you're drinking often cause anxiety," said McKowen. "Not remembering things, putting myself in horrible situations, feeling so much shame, trying to clean up messes from the night before—doing disaster control breeds a ton of anxiety."
Habitually relying on alcohol for anxiety reduction also gets in the way of developing other ways to cope. I suspect I would have learned the value of healthy stress management years sooner if I hadn't been in the habit of finding relief in a bottle. Taken together, the net effect of consuming alcohol generally is greater anxiety overall.
3. I'll make your life more interesting.
Alcohol also promises to enrich your life by making any experience better—time with friends and family, an evening alone, a disappointing day, a celebration. There were so many evenings when my half-hearted resolution to stop drinking would end with the thought, "Tonight will be better if I pick up some beer or wine on my way home."
McKowen believed "alcohol made everything more , and brought me closer to whatever I was experiencing." But when she gave up alcohol, she realized the opposite was true. "That's the great lie," she said. "It was squashing and interfering with my experience. And it created a numbness around me and inside of me—even when I wasn't drinking."
Alcohol is often appealing because it knocks off all the rough edges, putting a haze between us and our problems and concerns. But that haze isn't selective and also dims our awareness of the best things in life. We need some edges to define our experience more clearly and to make life engaging and meaningful. "Sobriety is clear-headed presence ," said McKowen. "It's the capacity to have a direct experience with life."
Plus, not being able to remember things isn't very interesting. Even if you don't have a frank blackout, your memory isn't as good for things that happened when you were inebriated, and the memories you have will be less clear.
4. Life's no fun without me.
We've strongly linked alcohol to pleasure, as though we can't truly celebrate an anniversary without champagne, watch a sporting event without a beer, or enjoy a nice dinner without wine. "It's such an assumed part of our culture," said McKowen. "It's everywhere—not just drinking, but over drinking. It's assumed that it belongs in every celebration, social experience, date, dinner. So we don't even question it most of the time."
McKowen and I both found that a sober life is actually more enjoyable, but it's important to acknowledge that the transition isn't necessarily seamless. "I'm not going to lie and say you're not going to notice any difference in social situations when you stop drinking," said McKowen. "You do because most of our culture drinks." Being the only one not drinking can be pretty un-fun when alcohol is the center of the gathering. So adjusting to sobriety often includes building new friendships with other sober people.
5. You can't stop drinking unless you're an "alcoholic."
A common belief about drinking alcohol is that "there are people who can and people who can't," said McKowen, "and as long as you're not an alcoholic, you're fine." This may be the biggest lie of all because it suggests you're not allowed to abstain from alcohol unless you have a "real problem" with it.
Drinking is the default in most of our society, and "opting out" is thought to require some serious justification. "The typical question we ask is, 'Is this bad enough that I have to change?'" said McKowen. "But the question should be: Is this good enough to stay the same?" So our relationship with drinking doesn't have to meet some threshold of "bad enough" in order to say goodbye to alcohol; instead, we can ask ourselves if it's a net positive in our lives.
McKowen also recommends asking ourselves, "Am I free? Or does this thing own me in some way? And that makes it very clear. Alcohol owned my life."
Where to Begin
If you're struggling with alcohol in some way and considering a life of sobriety, remember that " you are not the problem," said McKowen. "Alcohol is the problem. This is a profoundly effective drug."
She recommends starting with curiosity about your experience. "You don't have to make it any big deal. Just ask yourself what's going on. What am I up to? Why do I drink when I don't really want to? Why do I think I need to? And see where that question leads you."
Honesty is crucial, so start by telling the truth to yourself. "The truth is expansive," said McKowen. "It's uncomfortable but expansive. Lying is comfortable but confining. And you know the difference when you feel it. And that's because the truth is in alignment with love and the essence of who you are."
And no matter what alcohol promises, the truth is that no one regrets having had too little to drink the night before. "I've never met one person who's said, 'Man, I wish I hadn't stopped drinking,'" said McKowen. "Never."
So start by telling the truth to yourself. The truth can change your life. The truth will set you free.
NB: Abruptly quitting drinking can be dangerous, even life-threatening. Talk with your physician if you're considering abstinence from alcohol.
If you'd like to pursue sobriety with the help of a therapist, you can find one near you through the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
The full conversation with Laura McKowen can be found here.
Facebook image: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock
McKowen, L. (2020). We are the luckiest: The surprising magic of a sober life. Novato, CA: New World Library.