The Complex Beauty of Not Drinking

Posted On: 08.01.16

ADR coffee

I see my therapist once a month. Almost always at 6am. It’s a good time for me because my mind is fresh and uncluttered and I often see things most clearly before the sun is up. I’m grateful for this woman, this woman who has held my hand through very anxious times, who has listened to me and supported me over the years.

Sometimes, when I show up at her office I don’t know what we will talk about. These are the mornings when I feel frissons of guilt, that doing this thing is a badge of privilege somehow, that to pay a person a substantial sum of money to chat about whatever is a mark of some deplorable breed of entitlement. But even on these days, we end up talking about real and meaningful things and I leave forty-five minutes feeling lighter, more optimistic.

But then there are some days when I arrive prepared, when I have many things I’d like to discuss. Last Tuesday was one of these days for me. There were so many things, I actually jotted a list in my iPhone to make sure we covered everything. And we went through item by item, tiny and not-so-tiny things that have conspired to make me quite stressed of late, and with each passing minute of talking with her, I felt predictably better. There is something remarkable about simply being heard.

And then our time was almost up and I added a little something which was of course not so little at all. A footnote.

I’ve been drinking again. Not a lot. Not enough to get in the way of anything really, but enough to wreak subtle havoc. And I don’t like that I’m doing this, but I also understand why I am. 

She listened to me and didn’t judge, but we talked about this, as we have countless times before. She didn’t have to say much.

I’m happier when I don’t drink. 

She nodded, kindness twinkling in her eyes.

I handle things better when I don’t drink.

More nodding.

I feel far less anxiety, and far more resilience, when I don’t drink.

The nodding continued.

And then I told her something, something true, something I hadn’t realized until that moment.

You are the only person in my life who has told me how important it is for me not to drink. And the weird thing is that you have never been around me when I’ve been drinking!

I thought about this. It was a bit of an aha moment. This woman, this woman who I see relatively rarely and only in the safe haven of her dim-lit Upper East Side office is the only person who has told me directly that I should avoid alcohol, that I’m unequivocally happier without it. How can this be?

It makes so much sense to me, actually. For the most part, barring some extreme circumstance (the likes of which I have avoided, thank goodness), people will not tell us what to do, what is best for us.

Take my husband. The love of my life. My rock. This guy has supported me beautifully through tough times and triumphs. He has talked to me for infinity hours about alcohol. When I abstained for a year, he was my biggest cheerleader. But he has also been unfailingly patient, and has trusted me to make my own decisions, to figure this out. He has not policed me. I’m thankful for this.

Take my friends and family. Many many of them have supported me beautifully when I’ve given up alcohol for shorter and longer periods of time. Many many have been wonderfully curious about my dance and my choices; there have been so many raw and real conversations about this topic. Some, I suspect, have tolerated my periodic decision to abstain, but these are also people who I can tell are happier or a bit relieved when I am drinking again. (And I don’t blame them! This was totally once me.) And then there are the people who I sense pulling away when I’m not drinking (or pondering drinking, as in these posts). This too I understand. This topic is fraught for so many of us and I think my self-analysis on this topic can be uncomfortable for some people to be around. (Again, this would have been me at one point.) And, yes, there have been some people (truly not many) who have gone as far as criticizing my efforts to understand my drinking or to eliminate alcohol from my life, or who have cracked jokes about my efforts and my struggles. Not fun, but really the minority of people I know.

The upshot though: There is this woman and she knows what is good for me. And there we were on a rainy Tuesday morning in July talking about this good-for-me thing: Not drinking. Even as we talked briefly, and said nothing much new, I felt a zip of optimism, a bolt of joy coursing through my veins. The utter, bright sense that this is the best thing for me. And it is.

And so the question that remains, the thing I’m still wrestling with and likely always will: Why do we do all sometimes do things that aren’t good for us? Why do we choose things that get in the way of our happiness, that wreak subtle havoc in our lives? I don’t pretend to know.

What I do know: Havoc is havoc. And happiness is happiness. And it’s not that alcohol does terrible things in any amount. I don’t believe this. What I do believe is that the lack of alcohol, for me, lends a complex beauty to the world that is missing when cocktails are part of the picture. I say complex because that is just what I mean. There is nothing simple about it, nothing easy, but it is other and exquisite and, for now, and again, I’m choosing it over the muted, self-medicated tones of drinking.

It’s been about a week of not drinking. Hardly long at all. But long enough to realize, and to remember. To realize and remember what it’s like to actually see so clearly, to sleep so deeply and well, to wake up in the morning and write like a furious wind, spilling words like seeds. It’s long enough to gather the strength that eludes me for some reason when I drink any amount at all, a strength I have but that is hidden, obscured if I let it be.

You guys, I don’t know. I am not an expert and I never will be. What I am is deeply curious, full of questions, in love with this life that is tricky and gorgeous and utterly mine. I don’t want to run from it with a glass of wine or three.

And I won’t. I won’t.

Maybe you clicked the link to come here because you are concerned or curious about your own drinking or the drinking of someone you love. Maybe you have a pit in your stomach, a hunch that your life could be better if you stopped drinking or doing whatever you do to numb and flee (we all have things). Maybe you know me – in person or here in the ether – and you want to hear this latest installation of my drinking story, the mea culpa du jour, this admission of humanity, imperfection. It doesn’t matter. You are here now and maybe something I wrote hit you and made you thoughtful or angry. Maybe you are feeling kinship or judgment. Tell me. Or don’t.

I write these words because this is part of my story, one that remains pressing to me, and I want to honor it and explore it, get it down. I write these words because they are not just words, but the building blocks of permission. Permission to choose what I know is best for me.

We went to dinner with another couple on Saturday night. A college friend and her husband. We went to their home to grill out and a few days ahead of time, she emailed to ask if there’s anything I don’t eat. I wrote back my list – lobster, scallops, duck, oysters – which we later laughed lots about because apparently it’s criminal that I don’t adore these things! I didn’t say anything about not drinking though. No, I just showed up and declined the champagne, then the wine with dinner. I felt a touch awkward doing this, but any awkwardness was gone in mere minutes and we had the best time, talking and laughing for hours, sharing real stories about life and love and work and parenthood, lapping up delicious gelato at the end, getting home later than we had in so long. I went to bed with a clear head and a happy heart.

I share all of this because I’m learning and because I know that I’m not alone in any of this. So many of us are dealing with this stuff, these little doubts and subtle havocs, and I trust that I’m doing something good, and meaningful, by opening up.

Wherever you are with alcohol (or whatever your thing is), hang in there and try your best to be honest with yourself. It’s tricky business being an adult in this world, but clarity can be a brilliant gift, and a better gift for some of us than a glass of wine.

I’m learning that.


Happily again.

A big coffee cheers from my new favorite Starbucks on Amsterdam Avenue. Off to snag my biggest girl from camp.

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19 Comments for: "The Complex Beauty of Not Drinking"
  1. Valentina Pollard

    Such beautiful words and important thoughts. You’ve given me a lot to think about, as always. Thank you!

  2. I have found this to be SO TRUE – that those who loves us the most often will not tell us what to do, even though we long for them to! I have been in this exact position (not with alcohol but with other things) and I completely feel you. Thanks for sharing, as always. xo

  3. Catherine

    For what it’s worth, every time you write about alcohol I wonder, “Why doesn’t she just stop drinking? It’s clear she’s so much happier without alcohol.” I’ve voiced these questions to Holly and her response is, “Everyone has their own process, their own journey.” She’s right of course, but as someone who’s read all of your posts on your relationship with alcohol I’m here to say just do it… Just give it up. You’re better/happier/clearer without it.

    It’s not easy, especially socially, I get it. But it’s better.


  4. C

    We buried my stepmother last Tuesday. “Complications of alcoholism” is the most accurate cause of death. It wasn’t a shock, but it did happen fast. So fast. Just over 24 hours fast. Once the machines were turned off I had to leave. It was too much. And one by one I watched my sisters- her daughters- come out into the hallway and collapse. It wasn’t an easy or quiet death.

    She could never admit that her health and relationship problems were related to alcohol, maybe because they and it kind of snuck up on her. Plus,” everyone drinks too much on occasion, right?”

    Alcohol is complicated. It brings so much baggage and often shame. I can’t help but think my stepmother might be alive today if only she had had the slightest self-awareness. Maybe all of your musing and sharing about it can bring that to someone. Or at the very least, remove some of the shame of even questioning.

    Please, keep going, keep sharing, keep searching, keep asking questions.

  5. LDC

    I’ll reach three years of abstinence in November. The word ‘sobriety’ feels funny to me since it’s so closely related to ‘alcoholic’, which was never a label I felt comfortable assigning to myself. When I first stopped drinking, I had drinking dreams all the time. They stopped about a year in. I started Paleo a month ago, and now I have donut dreams instead
    Anyway, it’s a nice way to live. Life is a lot less complicated now for me.
    Thanks for always being so candid.

  6. LDC

    I’ll reach three years of abstinence in November. The word ‘sobriety’ feels funny to me since it’s so closely related to ‘alcoholic’, which was never a label I felt comfortable assigning to myself. When I first stopped drinking, I had drinking dreams all the time. They stopped about a year in. I started Paleo a month ago, and now I have donut dreams instead 🙂
    Anyway, it’s a nice way to live. Life is a lot less complicated now for me.
    Thanks for always being so candid.

  7. Jenny

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this and all of your blog posts, Instagram posts and books. I have been examining my relationship with alcohol for going on 5 years with periods of abstinence and non abstinence. I still don’t know the right answer but it makes me happy to know that I am not the only one who struggles with the complicated feeling and thoughts that go along with this. Your posts give me hope and help push me to continue on the path I have been on. Please continue sharing and writing with no filter, just feeling!

  8. Alix

    I will be sober one year next week…..the most amazing part of this journey has been the realization that it doesn’t solve all of my problems! I am finding more and more parts of myself that need love and focus…the different thing these days is that I can face it head on….I like the the idea of being better off this way….it’s the better way to live this AMAZING life…confused, scared, tricky, life…’s all better this way…even the tough stuff seems lighter….I am so grateful for brave people like you that are willing to share your journey…thank you for helping me realize I am not alone ❤️

  9. I think the most universal part of this story is knowing what is best for us (because deep down, I really believe that we do know), but choosing to do something different anyway. And that different thing is not always bad. But it’s not the best. And I’m slowly beginning to realize that if any of us want our best lives then we need to make the best choices for us.

    And, most of the time (like with your drinking or my eating junk food) it’s not an easy choice. Or it is easy, but we choose to backslide because of the memories that hold us back or the ease of situations.

    I look forward to continuing to hear about your journey.


  10. TLJ

    This hits so close to home. It’s as though you were in my head. I’m currently fighting the same internal battle. It’s refreshing to know I’m not alone. I may not know you however; I wish you all the best. Stay strong.

  11. Sue

    I so appreciate who honestly you share about your dance with alcohol. You inspired me to take a year off drinking but I see it creeping increasing;y back in and I don’t like that. I keep pondering an approach that works for me. I need to probe why I need/want it on my life at all.

  12. Judy Coble

    What a beautiful piece. As I continue to struggle with life after 29 years of abstinence I truly believe that although life seems more difficult without alcohol because I must deal with my feelings, it also has a much greater beauty to it that I never could see through the alcoholic fog. Carry on, my friend. It is always worth the struggle. Peace.

  13. I follow you on Instagram and saw your post today and made a note in my calendar to read your post this afternoon. I love the title. But, something must be in the air because I wrote a post eerily similar today, though much less eloquently.

    I’m struggling with being confident as a non-drinker, without losing my edge. I’m an artist and I like being laid-back, but how do we embody these things when, what’s best for us, is to strictly not drink?

    You can read my thoughts here:

  14. Thank you for sharing this!!!

  15. Andie

    Love, Love, Love this!!!! I am a recovering alcoholic. I have been sober 6 years February 15th. Through this whole journey, I have come to terms that not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you have to change your whole life (friends, morals, values). You just have to change you. And I can say, after almost 6 years, I love me. The sober me 🙂

  16. Tessa

    I’ve been interested in your journey with alcohol from the start. As a small personal experiment, I gave up alcohol for a year in 2007, just to see what it was like. It’s hard to describe just how much better one feels. You have described it beautifully in this post. Of course, it is hard, at first, to adapt a no-alcohol way-of-being to today’s society, but I am so pleased I persisted. Now all my family and friends know that I don’t drink alcohol and it no longer ‘an issue’. I feel so, so so much better – healthier, sharper, engaged, present….. and will never go back to it. I now see alcohol in the same category as all the other drugs I don’t care to take. My question to you, Aidan, is this : What impact does your ‘maybe-I-will-drink-or-maybe I won’t’ approach have on creating periods of “subtle havoc”? Doesn’t too much valuable energy go into this stance? Always having to decide and weigh up the pros and cons of am-I-going-to-have-that-cocktail-or-am-I-not. To me, the much cleaner, truer, stronger and more honest way to live if to say “I don’t drink alcohol” and just be done with it, period.

    What do you think?

  17. Katie Crane

    Thanks for sharing this post. I have been without alcohol for three and one-half years now, but I still struggle with my desire to add it back into my life. Like you, I was never considered an alcoholic or even a problem drinker; the problem was how I felt after drinking — the guilt, the regrets, the shame. I know not everyone feels this way after a night of having one too many; hell, our society encourages it! But my history with alcohol (alcoholic mother, heavy college and post-college drinking for me, but usually only wine, and only on the weekends, which somehow made me think it was OK) made it a particularly corrosive force in my life. Finally, like the previous commenter, I decided life would be so much easier without it. It has been somewhat challenging socially; my college friends still drink fairly heavily, as do several other friends whom I see more regularly. My husband and I were just at a wedding — in Sonoma County, no less! — where a substantial focus was on drinking wine for most of the day. At times I felt the pull; other times I was so glad I didn’t have to face the hangovers and general sluggishness one feels after drinking (even drinking expensive wines!). Your post helped me to come back to the fundamental truth — my fundamental truth, anyway — that drinking carries more downside than upside for me, even if no one is telling me I have a problem or need to give it up for health reasons. But I can’t lie, it is a decision I wrestle with and haven ‘t entirely put to bed. Perhaps I’ll always feel the occasional pull of alcohol, but at this stage I hope I will continue to choose clarity, focus and lack of shame over the alternative. Keep struggling in your journey; you are very brave in your willingness to put your honest musings about alcohol out there for all the world to see, and even braver to be facing this struggle at all, before you “have to” face it because it has become a substantial problem in your life.

  18. Anonymous

    Your posts about your relationship with drinking are always so interesting to me and obviously a lot of other women because many of us can relate. I listened to a really good podcast with Moby not too long ago on his struggle with sobriety and he said this: “You have to be done. You can’t really make the effort to do the work until you are done. When you are done, you know that you are done. Something happens and you know you are done.” That just made so much sense to me. You have to know you are done with drinking, done with partying, done with whatever it is you are struggling to give up. I don’t think you are done yet Aidan. It doesn’t seem like you are anyway from your many posts about the topic. But once you are done, you will know. You seem to have a beautiful life – your work, your family and friends, your health and your home. Try to embrace it more and enjoy it while you have it – you seem to struggle so much for perfection and control – there is no such a thing. Life happens (death, illness, sickness, etc.) and sometimes we have no control over it. To quote Pema Chodron: “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” Good luck to you and thank you for sharing.

  19. JL

    I’m not sure where I found this link but I cut & pasted it to myself when I had some time to really read and not skim through your article. I am an alcoholic and have been sober for 5 years. I applaud you for your coverage to share your journey and very much understand the struggles.

    I had lunch with a friend yesterday and she ordered a sauvignon blanc. It was Kim Crawford and I love New Zealand wines. My mouth was watering and I so wanted a sip, glass or bottle. However, I do know that I am incapable of only having one drink & to be honest, it really pisses me off.

    My life is much better without alcohol but it doesn’t mean it won’t be a struggle for the rest of my life (I am in my 40’s). Do I miss it, yes, will I always miss it, probably but I have to constantly remind myself that drinking to make my problems go away is only a temporary reprieve. I will wake up the next morning feeling shame, guilt and more than likely, a hangover and my problem will be worse because I will not be feeling well.

    I wish you great luck in your journey and I look forward to reading your future posts.

    All the best to you.

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