March 1, 2023

Dear Melissa & Friends: Laura McKowen Answers Your Questions About Alcohol

Dear Melissa and Friends: A Dear Melissa with best-selling author Laura McKowen.

This issue of Dear Melissa & Friends is all about taking a look at your relationship to alcohol. Laura McKowen—bestselling author and a leading voice in the modern recovery movement—answers your questions about alcohol.

“How can I cut out alcohol when my S.O. drinks? It’s not a problem for them, but their drinks tempt me.”

This is one of the most common saboteurs! First, get really honest with them about why you want to stop. I often find that people sugarcoat their reasons or hold back sharing their true feelings with their partners, either because they don’t really want to be held accountable or because it’s vulnerable to talk about these things, especially if the partner is unaware of the true impact alcohol is having on them. As uncomfortable as it may be, I strongly urge you to share the full spectrum of your experience and feelings with them. If you find it too difficult to share this in regular conversation, some folks find writing a letter is easier. You can either give it to them or read it out loud.

In my experience, no real change happens without honesty. Even if it doesn’t change your partner’s choices around alcohol, getting radically honest with yourself is necessary and, ultimately, freeing. Lastly, you’re allowed to ask your partner to support you in not drinking! Most people don’t do this because they don’t want to impose their needs on someone else or “rock the boat.” If this sounds like you, try taking up space in your relationship. You might be surprised at the result.

“Post-Whole30 I want to say no to alcohol, but I used to be a heavy drinker, and my friends expect me to go back to it. Tips for saying no?”

I’ll address the practical part of saying no, but what you’re really asking is deeper than that, right? When we change the unspoken or spoken terms of our relationships, it’s scary because it threatens one of our most basic human needs: belonging.

Conversations around alcohol are so loaded because of the place alcohol holds in our culture. We associate it with bonding, connecting, intimacy, friendship, fun, celebration, coping, and so much more, so it completely makes sense that when we try removing it from the equation, it can feel terrifying. What if our friends don’t want to hang out with us anymore? What if we’re boring? What if we’re bored? What if it’s awkward and harder to have conversations? What if my friendships fall away? These are very common questions people ask themselves when they stop drinking. I want to validate what you might be feeling and how much goes into saying “no.”

That said, I’m excited for you. Getting clear on the fact that alcohol no longer serves you is liberating and as someone who hasn’t had a drink in nearly nine years, I can tell you: SO MUCH GOODNESS AWAITS. Aside from no more hangovers (which is the best and never gets old), you’re going to experience more connection, more fun, more energy, more productivity, more peace, and–the best part–so much freedom. It’s incredible  to be free from the drag that booze puts on your life, and I’m guessing you’re already starting to taste that freedom, which is why you want to ditch it for good.

Hold onto this promise–because it is a promise I’m making–when you question your decision or are in the moment and feel the social pressure to drink.

As for the practical part, it starts with getting honest with your friends. They can’t read your mind, so tell them how you’re really feeling about alcohol and that you plan to continue. One of two things will happen when you do this: they’ll either express their disappointment or they’ll cheer you on (and maybe even join you). Although the disappointment may be hard, it will tell you a lot about the basis of said friendship(s), right?

Second, the reality is, when we stop drinking alcohol, it does change some things, especially if we were heavy drinkers and most of our socializing revolved around alcohol. For example, a long, drawn out boozie dinner simply may not be fun for you anymore. This might mean you opt-out of those types of gatherings, which can create some FOMO, but you can also suggest things to do with your friends that do feel good, like coffee, lunch, or walks. In other words, you can shape the experience you want to have with them so it supports your goals versus forcing yourself to endure things that don’t.

Last, tell your friends you’re not drinking before you see them. I recommend this with family gatherings as well. Send a text or give them a call. Hoping you won’t cave in the moment isn’t a good strategy and it’s so stressful! Even a simple text sent before you get together is enough: “Just wanted you to tell you before we get together this weekend that I’m not drinking. I feel so good without it that I don’t want to go back. I’m nervous about it because I feel like it’s expected of me, so I’m saying something in advance. Excited to see you!” Yes, this can be vulnerable, and yes, it may change the terms of your relationships, but it’s also freeing because it’s honest and sets you up for long-term success (not to mention the closer and more real connections I mentioned).

What I’ve witnessed over the years is, most of the time, the anticipation of what this conversation will be like is so much worse than it actually is. Some people even find their friends have been thinking the same things–they’re evaluating their own relationship with alcohol, or want to drink less or stop, but feel the same pressures–and so it opens up this beautiful conversation. Of course, sometimes this doesn’t happen, and our friends are bummed out or threatened by our intention to stop, and I will simply offer that this kind of reaction has nothing to do with you; it’s almost always about their own relationship with alcohol.

“I KNOW I feel crappy when I drink, but I still say yes to a second glass. Why, and what can I do about it?”

The reason you say yes is because alcohol is a drug, and a very effective one. We don’t think of it as a drug because that’s not how it’s marketed nor how it’s viewed culturally, but it absolutely is. Alcohol (ethanol) is one of few drugs that crosses the blood brain barrier very easily and very quickly. This is one of the reasons why it’s so effective, and dangerous. Within just a few minutes, alcohol triggers an uprush of “feel good” chemicals in the brain, far past normal levels. But after that initial rush, those levels drop significantly, which triggers a desire for more.

While some people can take or leave alcohol, many cannot. This is not an issue of willpower or control, contrary to what we are sold and believe culturally. Alcohol calls for more alcohol, and this fact only increases over time with more usage. Although I’m guessing it’s not what you want to hear, the best way to avoid drinking that second glass is to not have the first. I talk a lot about the cultural influence of alcohol and the reality of its impact on our brain and body in Push Off from Here.