Photo by Michelle Ress
“I’m never drinking again.”
We’ve all groaned it from the kitchen floor or beneath the arm of an unplanned bed friend. It was my first thought when I woke up in a sparkly party dress on New Year’s Day 2013. Except instead of popping a few Excedrin and taking a couple days off, I really did it. I quit drinking.
I didn’t exactly plan to stop. I like drinking, and I’m good at it. I’m the girl burly dude friends seek out five minutes before bar close to take a shot with because they know I can handle it without puking or crying.
But over the past year or so, I’ve started to consider alcohol’s role in my life more carefully. My family has a heartbreaking history with the drug. I know, we all have that uncle who goes one eggnog overboard at Christmas Eve, but more than a few Berkleys have gone from the life of the party to the party taking their lives. I never met most of my mom’s side of the family because alcohol-related health problems killed them before I was born. As I approach my mid-20s, I’ve started to evaluate the seriousness of my genetic bad luck. If your family has a strong history of skin cancer, would you go tanning every weekend?
I’ve also watched a young family member I’m very close to gradually sink into alcoholism. She went from being a normal kid who partied on the weekends and had drinking habits similar to my own to someone who can’t make it to 10 a.m. without an eye opener or two. Her loss of control over alcohol gave me my own eye opener: This could happen to me.
I’m lucky I haven’t developed the disease like so many of my family members, but I think if I continued to drink carelessly like I did in college and my early 20s, it’s possible I could have become the next Berkley to evade the police or chuck dishes at her seven-year-old.
It’s been six months now, and I sometimes wonder if this lifestyle change will be permanent. I like to keep an open mind—everyone chooses whether to drink or not, and for awhile now, I’ve just chosen not to. My dry spell might continue for another year, or the rest of my life. It’s my call. But in my time as a trial teetotaler, I’ve learned plenty about myself and just as much about the people around me.
This is what it’s like to quit drinking in your 20s.
Your life doesn’t suddenly transform into a Better Homes & Gardens centerfold
When I quit drinking, I expected results. I was sure that by the end of the first month, my jeans would be loose, I would have accomplished some artful reorganization of my closet, and I wouldn’t have said anything I’d regret the next morning. Thirty days in, I was still shaped more like Lena Dunham than Allison Williams, my clothes lay on the floor like cellulite, unmoving and lumpy, and I had managed to text the worst of my ex-boyfriends.
No, I didn’t start shitting gold stars just because I stopped drinking. But I never have to chug gatorade and skip a workout on a Saturday morning, and I spend my money on things that stick around a little longer than a craft beer. More importantly, my anxiety is lower than it’s been in years—no more worrying about being “that girl,” if I have one too many, less of that crippling fear that I may one day develop the kind of illness that can make you wake up with a broken jaw.
Killing your buzz without being a buzzkill
New Republic features reporter Sacha Scoblic describes the feeling of being sober during a night out in her memoir “Unwasted: my lush sobriety.” After a friend suggested ordering a bottle of wine, she said she didn’t drink, then added pleadingly, “But I’m still fun!!!”
I can relate to Scoblic’s desperate attempt not to murder the party. I didn’t make any proclamation to my friends when I surrendered my Stoli, but after a month or so, they noticed my regular order of whiskey n’ ginger was missing a key ingredient. I told some I quit for health reasons, which is true, and I chose that abbreviated explanation because it’s awkward to shout over the bar playlist and the smack of a cue ball splitting a rack, “My family has a nasty history of alcoholism and I never want to become an alcoholic, so I stopped drinking!”
When you’re sober, you can still have a good time going to a dive bar with friends. But here’s the truth: If you don’t drink, you will eventually get bored if going to bars is your only entertainment. I’ve always been a curious person with many interests, and once I stopped drinking, I started to pursue them with greater zeal. In the time I’ve saved opting out of after-work wine drinking, I’ve started mentoring three high-school girls, lost 15 pounds and worked with my state Representative to bring a bill to Congress that offers further protection to women and men dealing with stalking and harassment issues.
You’ll figure it out
Being a 24-year-old who doesn’t drink can feel weird. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself at a bar other than try out six different ways to Instagram my O’Douls and then drive everyone home. Eventually, though, staying sober felt just as natural as having a beer on a Friday night used to.
I’ve learned that even though someone might be curious about what’s in my glass for a minute, they’re much more interested in what’s in theirs.
I’ve come to value the sense of control and clear-headedness that accompanies sobriety.
I know that people may call me less often because I don’t party, but this is my life. I’m happy where I am, and that’s something I’ll cheers to, regardless of what I’m sipping after clinking glasses.
– Natalie Berkley is still fun