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Thoughts on My First Anniversary of Quitting Alcohol

There have been two major inflection points in my adult life that suddenly changed almost everything about my personal life, my art life, and my professional life. One of these inflection points happened almost 20 years ago. The other is happening right now.

20 years ago, in my young 30's, I broke free from a 10-year artist's block that had me completely artistically paralyzed for the decade since I'd graduated from art school. How I broke free is probably a book I will write someday, but in short: I did The Artists' Way, set up a little studio in my kitchen, quit my career, found some life-changing teachers, and a few years later my oil paintings were in galleries and art magazines. A couple years after that I started an atelier art school that has become nationally-known. Inflection point indeed!

The second most important inflection point of my adult life is quitting alcohol. It's been one year today since I stopped drinking.

It's been a very tumultuous year for me in addition to the major life change of quitting alcohol: This past summer I broke my ankle badly just as Nowell and I were moving out of our home of the last 16 years. He got us packed and moved (major good-husband points for that!) and we are now living an hour north of San Francisco on two tree-filled acres. My broken ankle has healed well, but I don't have an art studio set up yet, so my art life is on hiatus for the time being.

Despite all that, quitting alcohol has been the biggest event of the year for me.

In some ways, quitting alcohol has been relatively easy. So easy that I probably did not have a major dependence on it. I know it's much harder for many people to stop.

But I did drink a lot. How much is hard to describe.... I hesitate to say a quantifiable amount, because it doesn't really matter in terms of ounces. What matters is how it felt to me. I didn't drink enough alcohol for it to have a major negative impact on my professional life or my art life or my personal life. No one in my life ever expressed concern about how much I drank. I could take a day or a week or a month off whenever I wanted to. I didn't have physical withdrawals when I took time off. I didn't drink in the morning or the middle of the night. But I was more than a "social drinker". I drank when no one else was drinking. I drank at home, even when alone, and well more than one glass. I had a wineglass that had the words "It's not drinking alone if your dog is home" etched on it, which I thought was cute. I drank an amount that many people would find "normal", but some people might find concerning.

I drank when I was happy and I drank when I was unhappy. I used alcohol to relax and I used it to have fun. I didn't think it was possible to travel anywhere or celebrate anything without alcohol. I believed it helped me unwind and I believed it helped me sleep. I believed it helped manage my anxiety.

Until it didn't any more.

I started having sleep problems in my early 40's, and by my late 40's, I had developed full-blown anxiety attacks. Not panic attacks, the kind where you can't breathe and you think you might die within minutes. But anxiety attacks, where I would have fearful thoughts and would be unable to talk or think about anything but these terrifying thoughts for about 24-48 hours. These episodes of acute anxiety got so frequent and so bad that I realized I needed help, and went to my doctor and got on anti-anxiety medications. Medication helped, a lot. I then learned to meditate and started exercising with a personal trainer and read a lot of books and did a lot of other things, all the things, to support my mental and physical health.

As I focused on my mental health, I slowly realized alcohol had become a habit I relied on more than I wanted to. I started realizing that even though it helped me fall asleep, I always woke up at 3am when it wore off. Turns out that is a symptom of withdrawal: Withdrawal from a neurotoxin. I realized I was taking medication to control my anxiety, but alcohol was amplifying my anxiety. Essentially I was taking one drug solely to counteract the side effects of another drug.

As my 40's came to a close and my 50th birthday was suddenly coming up fast, I realized I was now, if I were lucky, Halfway Through My Life. And I thought a lot about the ways I want the second half to be better than the first half.

So the summer I turned 49, in 2020, it became really clear to me that drinking alcohol was the main thing in my life making me feel worse. So I started reducing my drinking, a lot.

I still didn't plan on quitting. If I considered it, I would immediately picture my favorite places to travel: France and Italy. I couldn't imagine going to Paris without having wine in a cafe. That felt drastic. I had learned to drink moderately, even minimally, and I planned to continue. I still planned to drink wine in Italy and France.

I started by taking several days off a week, and then multiple weeks off at a time. It took intention, but it wasn't very hard. I became a successful moderate drinker. I maintained that pretty easily for 2.5 years, and I didn't see any need to completely stop.

Except that it wasn't fun. The problem with moderation is that it requires vigilant attention, at least for me. Vigilant attention at a party or at a restaurant, while talking to friends, is hard to do. I had to consciously regulate the frequency of my sips and limit my pours and decline offers of refills, and all that took a lot of attention. It was hard to pay attention and also engage with my friends and also feel like I was having fun. In fact, it felt like the opposite of having fun. It felt like work. I started wondering if it would be easier to drink zero glasses than it is to drink one or two glasses.

But I still never planned to stop. I thought you had to be "an alcoholic" to stop. I thought you only stopped if you "had" to stop. I thought you only stopped because you couldn't control it. I thought the only people who stopped also went to AA meetings. But I had learned to drink moderately, even minimally, quite successfully, and I planned to continue.

But one day last December I suddenly realized that I'd already had my last drink, a few days before. And it happened when I read a book.

It's not the only book about quitting drinking I had read, but it's a book I picked up when I started getting "sober curious" content in my social media feeds. I started becoming slowly aware that some people quit without identifying as an alcoholic. Some people quit without "having" to quit. Someone I saw on TikTok recommended the book "Quit Like a Woman" by Holly Whitaker and the title jumped out at me. I had no intention of quitting, but I was open enough to the idea that I wanted to read the book. And halfway through the book, which explains how this neurotoxin we drink for fun hijacks your brain and hurts your body, and how it has been aggressively marketed to women especially in the last 25 years or so... and I suddenly realized I didn't want to drink at all any more.

I thought about sitting in that cafe in Paris. And I could picture enjoying the experience with a coffee. I imagined dinner in Italy, and I could imagine enjoying the amazing food, without alcohol.

Suddenly, I just knew I was done. It immediately felt like freedom, and a relief. And over this last year I've confirmed to myself over and over, it's easier, it's more relaxing, and it's more fun, to not drink at all, than it is to drink. If I do think about "the good part" of drinking, the first few cold sips and how they make me feel at first, I also think about waking up filled with anxiety in the middle of the night, and the temptation fades. I just don't want to drink any more.

So while I'm not sure yet exactly how this inflection point will affect my life path, I'm still processing my release from artist's block 20 years ago. And I'm slowly working on a book, or a series of essays, about accessing our creativity through blocks and other impediments. I feel like stopping drinking is opening up space in me to process and record more of my many thoughts on creativity and artmaking. I'll keep you posted!

Warmest holiday wishes to all,

Sadie

Resources:

Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life Annie Grace Annie Grace Podcast Annie Grace 30-Day Experiment The Alcohol Experiment is a FREE 30-day experiment. An effortless way to interrupt your patterns, give you control and put you back in touch with that version of yourself that didn’t need alcohol to relax or enjoy life.



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