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Cecily Mak shares her personal journey and paradigm shift around the role of alcohol in her life.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell people you don’t drink. They’ll think you’re weird.”
Last night I attended an international boarding school reunion at a lovely rooftop venue on Park Avenue in New York City. I was among approximately 75 people of many ages, diverse backgrounds, and exotic nationalities, our experiences at a Swiss boarding school at some point in the last seven decades being the thread that tied us all together. I attended the reunion alone and knew nobody.
It’s always interesting to experience these types of events as a non-drinker. Whether it is a professional networking happy hour, a school fundraiser, a milestone celebration, or any of the many other types of professional or social gatherings comprised of mostly strangers there to meet, connect, exchange, possibly meet again, alcohol is almost always the common theme. Let’s face it: Alcohol is an excellent lubricant. A drink or more makes these events easier and often more fun. Our inhibitions lessen. We’re less intimidated by the unknown. We’re more likely to introduce ourselves, open up, share contact information, and sometimes more.
I’ll admit it: Though I still enjoy them, it is harder to attend heavily anonymous social or professional events without alcohol. It takes work to move through a crowd and meet strangers without the alcohol buffer. It’s often awkward to order a non-alcoholic drink and reassure the person asking “Yes, I’m sure, just a sparkling water for me, please.”
It’s also a little more tiring. A couple of hours is usually my limit. I meet the people. I do the things. I listen to the talk/toast. I exchange contact info. I have interesting conversations. Then, I’m finished. I’m thinking about getting enough sleep to be up and out the door for a run at 6am, not where we are all going to go to get some late night food and a nightcap (salty pizza and a double Oban with one rock being my historical favorite).
I am a regular at these gatherings and have been for most of my life. I was trained at a young age how to host and attend with style, grace, and just the right amount of drink. Starting in high school, carrying on through college, a brief chapter as a model in LA, three years of law school, three years at a law firm, seven years as a music lawyer, six years as a Silicon Valley executive, and now as a new entrant in the blockchain/venturing industry, I consistently attend a multitude of gatherings that include alcohol as a focal point, an essential part of the experience. A whisky tasting with colleagues in Dublin. Dinner followed by karaoke with the new team in Tokyo. Cocktails at the end of a grueling two-day offsite in Brooklyn. A wine tasting at high end Italian restaurant in Las Vegas. These are a few of the things I’ve attended without drinking alcohol, just in the last seven months.
I can then layer in the personal life experiences: twelve years (so far) as a mother with many wine-loving fellow-mom friends, eleven years as a professor (almost always hosting a round of drinks after our evening classes), and a fifteen-year long relationship with a DJ/burner/creative (imagine it and it probably happened). I’ve had my share of social and professional drinking and partying. I’ve delighted in the boozy client dinners, the champagne-soaked baby showers, the big nights out on the town with rockstars, endless day-night-days at Burning Man, sloppy family holidays, girls weekends galore, and plenty of amazing pinot noir tastings in spectacular environments with fascinating people.
If I’m honest with myself (and I’m getting better and better at this every day), I was headed in the wrong direction with alcohol when I decided to stop drinking almost two years ago. My years of “use” and enjoyment purely for enjoyment’s sake were behind me. I had evolved to a place in which I was (ab)using alcohol to dull, tolerate, to avoid, to endure. Lucky for me, I was inspired to stop before this (ab)use progressed further, possibly descending me into the grips of addiction and depression I witnessed take my mother’s life.
A gifted therapist I started to see several months after stopping, primarily to help me understand alcohol culture and some of the changes I am experiencing in embracing a sober life, has helped me put some terminology around this all. He tells me there are three levels of drinkers: users, abusers, and addicts/alcoholics. I was a bit disoriented in the beginning of my alcohol-free journey and needed some structural guidance, language-wise. I never felt like an alcoholic. I never had a DUI, I never went to rehab or needed AA. I just stopped only to realize my life is better without it. I also knew I wasn’t just a casual user either. I was drinking at least a little almost every day and probably more than I should have on some days. There were certain things I couldn’t imagine doing, people I wouldn’t see, places I didn’t want to go without a context-appropriate beverage in hand. And there were certainly mornings I awoke annoyed with myself for not drinking less the night before. But I had grown up and matured as an adult surrounded by loved ones, a social life, and a professional ecosystem that assured me that this was all just fine, normal in fact.
After a few conversations, we concluded that I was abusing alcohol when I decided to stop. This was more than casual use and not as serious as an addiction or alcoholic label. I was (ab)using alcohol to cope with a heartbreaking time in my life, to escape, to avoid, but not to celebrate. It took me some time to accept this. What I was doing for almost the entirety of my adult life didn’t look like abuse or a problem of any kind, it looked like what most of my friends and family were doing: a cocktail or two after work, wine with dinner, the occasional beers on the beach, the meandering afternoon-into-evening in wine country, mimosas with weekend brunches. In fact, many friends and a couple of family members have tried to talk me out of this seemingly austere decision. “You didn’t seem like you had a problem.” “I never saw you drunk.” “Are you sure you are choosing not to drink for the right reasons?” (This last one is particularly puzzling to me. Another post, another day.)
It all looked “normal” but I was drinking just enough to dial the volume of my inside screams down, calm my pounding heart, sometimes get to sleep. I was getting to a place of needing to drink to transition from work-mode to home-mode, from chore-mode to entertain-mode, from bedtime routine-mode to chill out on the sofa mode. I often felt I couldn’t really relax, socialize or be fun without a little kickstart. In some of the harder, final months of my marriage (and habitual drinking), I recall not even wanting to eat dinner with my family until I’d had a cocktail. Though it seemed normal and harmless enough, this meant less presence, less connection, less consciousness, less health, all things I celebrate and rejoice in today.
So, how and why did I stop?
It was pretty spontaneous. I’d met a few women in the years leading up to my own decision (my “Choice Day”) who inspired me. One was a new mom who didn’t want to be buzzed, ever, around her daughter. Another was an overworked executive who quit one day and discovered a love for running that has evolved into a thriving fitness-for-urbanites business. Another radiates health and attributes her clear eyes, glowing skin, and regular meditation practice to living alcohol-free.
I made the decision to stop in an unexpected and unplanned moment of shock and awe. I awoke before dawn on September 1, 2017, and knew in the core of my being that it was The First Day of the Rest of My Life. The previous thirty-six hours were a neon-lit array of events and circumstances that, strung together, confirmed once and for all that my marriage was over. I was in the middle of the desert at Burning Man, surrounded by thousands, profoundly alone, surprisingly at peace, and with great trepidation peeking over the edge of the other side of The Continental Divide of My Life. In this moment, I was reminded by a loved one that I needed to be as crystal clear and present as possible for at least the next thirty days. Decisions I knew I was going to be making and communications I knew I would be initiating would impact my children, my health, my finances, my community, my career, my family, and more for years to come. I knew that in order to make sure that this all unfolded as harmoniously as possible, I needed to be completely present (sober) in every moment. I didn’t want to look back on a single regrettable text, conversation, signature or kiss. There was no room for being blurry or loose. This was the time to be sharp, clear, feeling, and present.
It was surprisingly easy. I am very fortunate. I have not struggled to not drink. I haven’t needed AA, rehab, or any other medical/psychological support in making this profound change in my life. (That said, I can’t imagine having navigated these seas without the bright lights in love, friendship, and support from many amazing people I’ve been beyond blessed to journey with. Again, another post for another day.) I never went through withdrawals, battled cravings, or questioned my decision. In fact, I tell people all the time, I’ll have a drink when I want one. I just haven’t (and now that it’s all out of my system and I am fully embracing what I’ve affectionately called ClearLife, I doubt I ever will).
After thirty days, the positive impact on my life was so profound in so many ways, I started another month, and another. Sleep was deep and uninterrupted. My skin, eyes, and posture lit up. I started running early in the morning before work. I mastered my finances. My mind sharpened. My heart opened. I started to write again. Anxiety and fear withered into a memory. I have grown to be more comfortable with touch and eye contact with loved ones. I lost almost twenty pounds. Things that had been on a rolling to-do list for years were crossed off, energy freed up. Most importantly, what felt like a loving and functional relationship with my sons has evolved into a deeply powerful bond of mutual respect, understanding, and awe that I hadn’t fully experienced pre-ClearLife. And somehow there is no more yelling, anywhere. There was for a while, including between my sons and me.
In months three and four (the 2017 holiday season) there were a few evenings when I chose to consciously drink, experiment, yet these experiences were only affirmative; I was finished. The last drink I had was on December 29, 2017. There was a home-cooked steak dinner, a raging fire in a handsome fireplace, wonderful conversation, and peaceful sleep, but none of this was made any better by the cocktails or wine. Not knowing it was the last of the last, looking back, it was a beautiful way to say goodbye to what was no longer going to serve me.
Simply put, my life is better without alcohol. I could not be more grateful for the awakening, strength, and self-awareness that has empowered me to make perhaps the biggest decision and shift to date. And my kids are growing up with one parent who lives a pretty awesome and fun life, but doesn’t drink. I never had that example in my own childhood.
I don’t bring it up, but at events like last night’s reunion, sometimes it does come up in social settings. When I ultimately tell people that I don’t drink, most ask if I had a problem. Common responses include:
“Oh wow. Do you do anything or are you completely sober? Nothing?!”
“So, are you an alcoholic?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. What happened? Are you ok?”
“For how long? Is it forever?”
“Wow! I could never do that.”
Funny, alcohol is the only drug we need an excuse to not be taking.
So it was interesting when I was at the alumni gathering last night and one of the first (and only) people I spent much time talking to was a seventy-something year old man who also doesn’t drink. He’d just finished the Boston Marathon and was more fit and bright-eyed than most of my forty-something friends. We spent almost a half an hour talking about our common education experiences, marathons, travel, our careers, and how to stay healthy into and through our 70s when we stumbled into the “I don’t drink either” part.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell people you don’t drink. They’ll think you’re weird.”
This was thought-provoking. He went on to explain that he dodges the topic in his busy social and professional circles by being the life of the party and generally not getting into a discussion about alcohol if asked. (Meanwhile I’m wondering how he could possibly leave this detail out if answering questions about his health and fitness at his age.)
I’m driven to help shift this. I’d love to live in a place and time when it isn’t weird or stigma-inviting to not drink alcohol. There is a movement underway, somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Big Tobacco. Younger people are drinking less. The mocktail (or “zero-proof drink”) industry is exploding. The stigma associated with not drinking seems to be fading, despite the marketing muscle behind trying to keep us going. A growing list of celebrities are publicly opting out of the booze. We are spending billions of dollars a year on improving health through diet and exercise, but neutralizing all of this time and money spent with a steady dose of ethanol.
I don’t want my (our) kids to feel like they have to drink to have fun, be fun, or fit in. I also want to be able to talk about this if asked without inviting or suggesting judgment either way. So, here’s a baby step. Maybe if more of us are more open about our choices around alcohol (and there is a growing number of us!) we’ll be less weird over time.
See the original post by Cecily Mak on Medium.com.