A one-year challenge to lay off the booze brought me to an unexpected realization.
The panic still hadn't gone away. Two days after I'd been out with some old friends, my hangover had lessened, but the aftershock still rippled through my body—shaky limbs, racing heart, and a pit-like feeling of guilt nestled in my gut.
I had recently turned 28 and wore all the signs of the archetypal binge drinker: going days or weeks without indulging in a cocktail and then, in one night, making up for it by blowing past my limit as if I were newly 21 again.
That weekend, a silent pledge to cut myself off after one drink had turned into gin and tonics, whiskey shots, tall cans of beer, and not knowing how I got home. Again.
Often, I was just as anxious in the wake of my binge as I had been the night of the bender itself, except my anxiety about being in a crowd had been replaced with dread that I had done something irreparably wrong. This sinking feeling wasn't something an Advil could clear up. It cut deeper: Inside, I felt empty and raw, angry at my lack of willpower. I wanted to stop for real this time.
This reaction, as it turned out, had less to do with the alcohol and everything to do with how I interacted with the world, though I didn't realize this at the time. For years I've struggled with an anxiety disorder that went largely undiagnosed until it manifested in the form of panic attacks, right around the time I moved to a new state in 2011.
Sometimes I was too afraid to leave the house, and the simple act of driving seemed insurmountable. I feared being looked at or judged, and couldn't seem to get my legs to walk me through the door. At the same time, I wanted to be liked, included, and the same as everyone else, a hard thing to recognize and an even harder thing to admit.
I began taking antidepressants, which eased the stress that triggered my anxiety fits. But I never examined the unhealthy coping mechanisms that had embedded with my overactive nerves: binge eating, binge drinking, binge sleeping. Add to this an incessant need to please everyone and a bad case of FOMO, and alcohol became the perfect device for soothing anxiety and turning off my mind.
I was a relatively late-onset drinker, because I'd always been afraid of losing control. A deep-seated fear of making mistakes, and being visible, kept me from many things that could lead to embarrassment in adolescence, including social functions, drugs, and alcohol; I'd barely even touched a drop until my sophomore year of college. When my peers were outgrowing their first experiences with getting drunk and making stupid decisions, I was just getting started, making up for lost time.
My first lessons in imbibing were power hours and Edward Fortyhands, not sipping wine coolers at high school sleepovers with someone's mom in the other room. House parties quickly escalated to recreational cocaine use and taking any pill I was offered. I was the girl who stayed the latest. Never turned down shots. Always in for the next round. Matched you drink for drink.
Blackouts were all part of the fun. In college, if I drank too much and didn't remember anything that happened the previous night, I was always surrounded by other people who'd done the same thing. We laughed about the bits and pieces we could cobble together over brunch and did it all again the next weekend. I enjoyed the outgoing person I became when I was drunk, even if I couldn't remember her. Eventually it became difficult to separate binge drinking from who I was.
"Alcohol is a great anxiety reducer, but it doesn't last too long," says John Walker, clinical psychologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. "A lot of young people who are quite socially anxious figure out that if they have a drink or two, it makes them feel less anxious, more confident, more sociable."
"If you're relying on alcohol, you don't build up your confidence much, or skills that you can use to negotiate social interactions, dating, parties," Walker says. "You rely on that one method of coping. People [with social anxiety] want to please other people, so they're not very comfortable turning down drinks."
It wasn't as though I craved alcohol every day. My partner and I moved to New York City in 2013 and rarely ever kept booze in the house (he has now been sober for nearly five years). But when I went out with others, there was always a danger of overdoing it. If I was with binge drinkers, I drank heavily. If I was with social drinkers, I drank modestly. My relationship with alcohol resembled something more like a heart rate monitor than a straight line of indulgence. I didn't really drink—until I did.
This is actually a common pattern in women who consider themselves binge drinkers, according to Patt Denning, director of clinical services and training at the Center for Harm Reduction Therapy. "In my experience, women who binge drink fall into two categories: ones that do not drink at all between the binges, and others who are daily drinkers who occasionally really overdo it," she says.
By the time I reached my late 20s, there were fewer and fewer people with whom I could commiserate about blacking out. When it happened, I felt immensely ashamed, and went out of my way to keep it secret—alone with a fast-beating heart, an insufferable hangover, and lots of guilt for causing people angst. Like when I failed to remember my own address, so a friend was tasked with getting me home. Or when I lashed out at my partner and didn't remember it the next day.
As I got older, the blackouts grew scarier and more frequent, after a smaller number of drinks. My college town had felt safe—like a city on training wheels. New York was a different beast. I got lost on the subway, confused about how to direct myself home, and brazen about walking late at night.
"In a blackout, the parts of the brain that let you use short-term memory are still doing OK," says Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "You could have a conversation, you could talk about the past, you could remember stuff that happened 30 seconds ago, you could look totally fine, but what you're not doing is, you're not weaving stuff together into an autobiographical record. It's sort of like a dash cam: you're driving along, you're not thinking about it, but the dash cam is recording where you go, what you see." You're not remembering your life as you're living it.
Blacking out has more to do with how fast you drink than it does with how much. "You can have two people who've had the same amount and have the same blood alcohol level (BAL) at a certain point, but one person took four hours to get there and the other took two," White says. "The person who got there after two hours is much more likely to have blackouts."
Nervous drinkers like me, who often try to keep pace pint for pint, are also more susceptible. "Women who suffer from anxiety seem to be more prone to blackouts," Denning says. "It may be because they're drinking faster than other women who don't have anxiety. Then you get a rebound of anxiety in the morning. You're anxious, you drink, you're not anxious anymore, but the next morning, bam, you're super anxious."
Heavy drinking and high anxiety, in other words, can go hand in hand. "It is understandable that those with a low threshold for stress and anxiety, particularly someone with a family history of alcoholism, may also be at a loss for more constructive solutions," says Robin Kappy, a clinical social worker and therapist based in New York City. "However, for the many who have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or clinical depression, alcohol often makes these conditions worse. It's a depressant. While drinking may seem like a logical short-term emotional-balancing agent, long-term use can stunt emotional growth and lead to dependency, irrational thinking, and impulsive behavior."
I began to stress over getting the amount I drank just right to avoid my brain activating autopilot. For the better part of two years, I went to therapy, and worked on getting healthy. I made mini-pledges to myself, setting goals like I would if I were going to the gym. "I'll go to the bar and stay just one hour." Or, "I'm cutting myself off at two drinks." Or, "If I don't drink for 10 days, I get to buy myself a new pair of shoes."
Ultimately, these little bribes failed—while my binges became fewer and farther between, they still happened. I was still the same person who only knew how to connect with people over pitchers of beer and booze-fueled journeys around the city.
Worse, the guilt lingered for days. I was right back to having full-blown panic attacks, waves of nervousness sweeping up and down my limbs. Sometimes I'd go a whole day without eating or getting out of bed. My body felt like it was on fire, completely separated from my mind.
I knew this feeling was completely of my own making, built up in a way that cannibalized the reality of the situation: I should just stop drinking. "Some people have a predisposition toward anxiety in particular social settings and turn to alcohol to regulate their emotions. Seeking to experience escape from the discomfort of anxiety or depression, they lose their capacity to be discerning and repeatedly drink to dangerous excesses," says Kappy. "Feelings of guilt can escalate and make one susceptible to a cycle of alcohol dependency." This cycle continues until something breaks the loop, because they feed into each other. It becomes habitual.
The morning after that last bender, something finally clicked. I signed myself up for an intervention of sorts and came up with a plan: I would quit drinking for one year during which time I would write about my experience. Something about abstinence within a limited time frame stuck where an attempt at moderation had not.
One year, I thought. I've never been a fan of absolutes, but 365 days of sobriety seemed doable—far enough away that I might learn something, but not too long that it felt like forever.
It was exactly what I'd needed: Being sober for a full year, along with regularly meditating and journaling, allowed for a period of self-reflection that I had been missing. I realized that my addiction wasn't actually to the alcohol; it was to the people-pleasing and the fear of missing out, and of not being who I'm supposed to be around others, never learning what I really wanted.
I've reset my life and habits around new activities that don't center on alcohol. Journaling and therapy helped me regain my sense of self. I know the nuances of my mood, and when I'm exhausted or getting sick. I like being at home, and I'd rather read a book than stay out all night. I grew to appreciate moments of quiet, rather than chaos.
"In psychotherapy, a person in sobriety gains an understanding of their personal history, emotions, issues, and motivations," says Kappy, "while learning to grow from life's inevitable challenges and adversities with greater skill and increasing resilience."
I didn't magically become a yogi who eats clean and wakes up with the sunrise. I didn't lose a ton of weight, and I still hit snooze more often than not. But I have welcomed some new ways of coping into my life, and I'm more in tune with my body. But most importantly, while I still have bouts of panic and depression, I'm more balanced than I used to be. I no longer have panic attacks that last for days on end. That's something I can't imagine ever going back to.