I have to reluctantly admit, post-New Year’s Eve, that one thing that is usually good for my mental health is moderating and even cutting out alcohol.
Like a good portion of America I’d wager, I have a push-pull relationship with alcohol. With the medication I take, I really shouldn’t have alcohol. Not to mention, at times I definitely have the propensity to overdo it. Yet, there are still the good times when I drink: When I feel a little sillier than usual, a little more amorous, where it seems like alcohol is an enhancement and nothing bad happens.
As I approached middle age, I noticed more and more of my friends going sober. At least a few of them said it was for their mental health. One told me alcohol can make your medicine stop working, and I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced that a couple of times when my body processing the sugar from wine overrode the heavy sedatives I take at night and led to insomnia.
Another one of my friends on Facebook recently announced his sobriety. Someone congratulated him, saying American culture encourages alcoholism. While we may not be the most alcoholic nation, I think this is entirely true, and a big part is based on that idea of push and pull. When you try to stop drinking as I have a few times, you notice it everywhere, from characters on television revealing secrets at office parties on TV, to silly memes on the Internet about starting a wine “juice” cleanse. Alcohol is often advertised as both fun but also something with a bit of a shameful edge. I feel like America’s alcoholic culture is very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, like “we know you’re going to be bad tonight, so treat yourself, you deserve it.”
I’ve given up and then re-picked up drinking again a few times over these past few years. Again, I know I really shouldn’t with my meds, and I have proven this to myself with a few bad incidents. Alcohol can affect me powerfully and especially exacerbate my depression. I guess it’s unsurprising that I picked up drinking again when I was trapped in my house during the pandemic. I felt alone and scared and even with the impact of the alcohol it was difficult for me to find calm or rest sometimes (in fact, alcohol probably acted to make me more restless in the end).
This sounds fairly obvious, but the good times are what make alcohol so hard to give up. And there are still good times for me. If I hit that sweet spot where I have just a couple of glasses of my favorite, a rich Spanish or Italian wine, and some really good food, and a relaxing evening by a fire or out on the deck with good company, there is not much better than that warm and pleasant buzz that helps you relax and just loosens your tongue a little bit, but not too much. Enough to become more affectionate and open, but not quite enough to let the demons out.
When I look at old pictures or think of the past, the good times were even more plentiful then. I drank quite a lot of red wine through a good portion of my thirties, and at the time would just get silly with my partner or my group of friends, sing karaoke, dance, make art. It seemed like bad things rarely happened and I’d even usually wake up in the morning feeling fairly normal, maybe a little drowsy. I can’t romanticize it completely because I still remember a couple arguments and embarrassing incidents, but it seemed like they were far outnumbered by the good drinking days. Of course, I have to remember that I’m over forty now, but probably most importantly, I did not have a serious mental illness diagnosis back then and I did not take meds. I could afford to be much more cavalier and carefree with my mind and my body.
Sometimes I become resentful now that I cannot do the things that many others can do for fun all of the time anymore, or the things that it seems used to be so much easier for me to do. I’ll go to a party or a bar and be so tempted to drink but know that I have a much higher probability than the other guests of having a bad reaction and starting to cry or pass out. I know I’ll be more likely to miss sleep, have nightmares, or feel like I was hit by a truck the next morning, even if I didn’t overdo it.
It’s hard to separate how much of this is from age and how much is from having a mood disorder and taking meds. But either way, as hard as it is to refrain, I know I’ll probably feel better. I’ll get better sleep, have more energy throughout the day, and maintain a more stable mood. I’ve discussed this before with my psychiatrist and we talked about how relieving my anxiety during that little window in the evening is probably not worth potentially feeling worse throughout the next day. As many of us know, the hard part can be seeing through that window to the next day.