I Took A Step Back From Drinking and It Changed My Life

How a "sober curious" journey helped one writer develop an honest relationship with alcohol.

image of hand holding a drinking glass

Byrdie/Designed by Tiana Crispino


This is about one author's personal, anecdotal experience and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.

A few years before the pandemic, I couldn't shake the thought that I was an alcoholic. I didn't think I was a danger to myself or my loved ones, but I experienced alcohol in a lonely and habitual sense. I knew my drinking was stopping me from evolving my life to the next level. I didn't feel drunk enough for a step program, but I also couldn't abstain on my own. Where did I fit? I tried everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Refuge Recovery and never felt at home in any program. When we were required to quarantine, I had nothing but time on my hands. This prompted me to research and discover more about my sober curiosity.  

For context: I was born in a bar. Ok, I was born in a hospital, but I grew up in a bar. My grandparents owned a giant country music venue in western Pennsylvania, and my family lived in the hotel rooms above the bar. Most of my early memories include drunks, beer cans, and the magic that a Jukebox can create. I would do homework with the happy hour crowd, and I would spin around the dance floor with my grandma after dinner and be tucked into bed by eight. I am entirely aware that this was not normal, but it felt magical in the thick of things.

Nonetheless, I grew up to view alcoholism like a beast slowly following me. I have a family full of alcoholics, and I've been a steady drinker ever since I turned 18. I was waiting for my turn. Still, despite my familial history with alcohol, my journey proved to be complex.

"I've discovered that I am the happiest when taking long breaks while constantly keeping an open mind to evaluate my relationship with drinking."

During my last visits to the AA rooms, I simultaneously started seeing a new therapist, who specialized in an approach called harm reduction. AA meetings loaded my head with a lot of jargon that I didn't necessarily believe but couldn't shake. While AA's sense of community and accountability makes it so successful, it was hard for me to fully commit because I couldn't look beyond intense rules. As I listened to others' stories, I never felt like I belonged. I expressed this to my therapist, who told me plainly: "I do not think you are an alcoholic. I think you sometimes abuse alcohol." I never thought of being an alcoholic and having struggles with alcohol as two separate issues. This distinction helped me better navigate my habits.

All step programs require complete abstinence. That means you give up your vice entirely from day one. Harm reduction, however, focuses on reducing the negative consequences of being drunk, helping you to either moderate or abstain. One trick I've practiced is "playing the tape forward" when I am inclined to drink. I fast forward to thinking: If I drink this, what will be the result? Will I sleep well? Will I stop at one or two drinks?  Often it ends in me skipping on a glass.

I don't want to get rid of expensive champagne pizza parties on my birthday, but I don't need to drink a bottle of wine to watch the Real Housewives on a Thursday. This notion will only open up more reason to drink every other night of the week. When I drink, nothing crazy happens. I don't blackout, and I don't make horrible choices. Instead, my sleep isn't restful, and I typically wake up with a light hangover. The after-effects of a few drinks cause me to skip out on the gym and lose focus at work, which isn't aligned with who I want to be.  

byrdie writer shain kish

Shain Kish/Designed by Tiana Crispino

My curiosity began before my harm reduction therapy when I read the book Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington. It prompted the reader to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol and explore their sober curiosity. A few years later, she released The Sober Curious Reset, a workbook with 100 days of daily prompts to help change the way you drink. For me, 100 days was the perfect time for me to understand my relationship with alcohol. There were some bumps in the road, but I began to feel the joy of a substance-free life in three months. 

While taking a booze break is rewarding in many ways, the process can still be quite challenging. You will learn a lot about yourself, and some lessons are tough before they become easy. I am a high-functioning generator, which means I work best when I'm busy. I would use booze when I needed to unwind as a form of self-medication. When you remove alcohol, you can be left with an exposed feeling. You have two choices: Either work on the root of the issue or mask it with a drink. Drinking is an easier option, but learning how to treat the cause offers the ultimate reward.

The Sober Curious approach acknowledges that everyone is on a unique journey and that self-care and community will nurture anyone's process. It is beneficial to find a supportive tribe of people who will help you stay accountable when you are on a break. I've even found that Facebook groups can help you feel less alone, and Sober Curious has a great one.

"I realized I was worth a life full of great choices. I also learned to go where it feels warm and love myself during the road to recovery, no matter how challenging it may look."

Over the last five years, I've spent half of that time sober and the other half trying to moderate. What I've discovered is moderation is more challenging than sobriety, in my opinion. With moderation, you create boundaries and then slightly shift them to fit social or emotional stressors. I've discovered that I am the happiest when taking long breaks while constantly keeping an open mind to evaluate my relationship with drinking.

When I look back at my history of drinking, a lot of my memories feel dim. I didn't understand how much trauma I was trying to bandage. I spent months into the pandemic very drunk and used alcohol as a tool of survival when I felt scared or frustrated. After a few months and the harsh realization that the pandemic was nowhere near an end, I needed to reactivate my sobriety. With actively working through the Sober Curious Reset, paired with my weekly therapy, I was able to get back on track.

As I started this new path with my therapist, I learned the root cause of why I abuse alcohol. As a gay man from a small town, I have shame, sexual trauma, and abuse as a part of my story, and therefore part of my recovery. As I started to look at this and acknowledge it as part of who I am, I started working to heal. During this cognitive process, it became easier to make better choices with substances. My shame started to lift, and I realized I was worth a life full of great choices. I also learned to go where it feels warm and love myself during the road to recovery, no matter how challenging it may look.

Article Sources
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  1. Logan DE, Marlatt GA. Harm reduction therapy: a practice-friendly review of research. J Clin Psychol. 2010;66(2):201-214.

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