I did not set out to stop drinking; I didn’t set out to do anything, really. It was nearly the new year and I hadn’t yet come up with a resolution so, on a whim, I decided to do a year-long minimal drinking challenge. That’s no more than one drink per day for a woman or two for a man… for 365 days…

I already hadn't been drinking much while in the wake of having had dengue fever, in order to help boost the energy levels that the mosquito virus notoriously saps. I was essentially already limiting myself to this degree, but for some reason I got very scared (terrified, really) of this particular undertaking. I tried to sort out the root of my hesitation and, while hazy, it seemed it had something to do with a fear of how this would affect my social life. Would it be hard to connect with people? Would I feel less at ease? Would I be less interesting?

I've enjoyed some great resolutions over the years — ask the other person about whatever you were about to say about yourself, keep a positivity journal, do a sun salutation every day — all challenging and transformative in their own ways. But none of these was hard for me to start, only to maintain. To drink only a little required a greater leap of courage than I could have ever imagined.

Yet once I had begun, not drinking became easier and easier. It turns out that only one drink is not that enjoyable. I realized that I'd rarely ever had just one at a time in my life. I'd had two or three and done some night-math that made it only one in memory. However, now fully committed to this resolution, there could be no creative accounting of the night's activities. One drink didn't alter my state of mind or really do anything except make me want another drink. 

First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

So one drink a day quickly became one a week... and on the days-after, I started really feeling the effects. Nausea, tiredness, headaches — a whole slough of less-than-pleasant sensations were shockingly strong on the day following just one beer or glass of wine, even one taken with a meal. And so one became none.

Every day I found myself still going out but only buying a water at the bar. If someone offered me a drink, I said "no thanks" but made no declarative statements about my predilection for alcohol. It wasn't "I don't drink" but "I don't like drinking" that defined my choices, and my choices started having an interesting affect on my experiences. 

Life became more clear and more vibrant. I felt the breeze prickle every hair on my arms, the water in the surf glide like silk over my skin, I saw the colors and textures of the world with a potency more electrifying than any experience on drugs or alcohol had ever offered. I felt the pure joy of dancing in the middle of a group of friends on the dance floor, I felt the ease of walking away from a negative situation, and I remembered everything that happened each day and each night. Every breath was an expansion, every kiss an explosion, every moment an eternity. 

Drinking had dulled the experience of living, robbed me of the full wealth of my humanity; now I was truly — tritely — high on life.

I also noticed my body change, growing firmer and stronger; my energy and sleep improved; my relationships became easier and less stressful; my surfing became more consistent and powerful; I had a lot more money in my bank account. I still went out almost every night. I still went to work each day. I still had fun. I still made new friends. I still laughed and danced and skinny-dipped and flirted. So what was it I had used alcohol for in the past?

All the things that being drunk or stoned had allowed me to do I was completely capable of doing on my own. What I had used them for was as an excuse for my actions, but enjoyment was a behavior for which I was completely capable of without them. Why is it that we seek to credit an outside force for our own magnificence? I had thought of alcohol as a hindrance to my happiness but in truth it was more aptly a distraction from the fact that I already had it.

Low self-esteem is a part of the “need” for social substances, to be sure, though not because we need to cover up a lacking personality but because we’re afraid of crediting ourselves for that which we put forth. If it wasn’t us — but alcohol — dancing last night then no one can criticize our dancing abilities. But we also cover up our gifts: the fact that we contain the pure joy and gall to go out and make a fool of ourselves in the name of fun. Without being drunk, dancing like an idiot can actually be a confidence booster.

Drinking a non-alcholic beer between surf sessions in Mal País.

Drinking a non-alcholic beer between surf sessions in Mal País.

Most often, I hear people react by saying that they could never do it, that they could never go out, socialize, and have fun without at least a drink or two. As we first walk up to the bar, I hear them say that they’re not “ready yet” to go dance or to talk to a guy that they like. This arises in me a frustration roughly identical to when I would go to the beach as a kid and I wanted to jump straight into the ocean to play but my dad would tell me that he had to warm up before he could enjoy the cold water. The problem is that I can’t bring a plastic pail full of ice-cold happiness and dump it over my friends’ heads, ready or not.

It’s not alcohol that’s the issue here but it’s acceptance and contentment with who and what we are. I hope everyone can learn that they are just as compelling and charming without alcohol as they are with it. And if without it they truly don't like where they are or with whom, it's not the sobriety that's the issue: it's the community. 

For me, this week marks a year without alcohol; 14 months after my resolution, I still find the act of not drinking easier than that of drinking. Will I decide to drink a beer tomorrow? Who knows; it's never been a hard and fast rule that I cannot drink. I only know that I am more capable of choosing that which serves me and that which doesn't. Now that I can sense my own wants and needs so much more clearly, I'm more open to taking risks and exploring new avenues. I am more connected to those around me and more at ease in social situations  — and now I know that I will never need to depend on alcohol to supply that.

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