At the end of last summer, I had an existential crisis. I was about to turn 35, at a career crossroads, and on the verge of leaving the U.S. for good. I reflected back on how my adult years had been spent. They were self-serving, blurry and distant, and lacking deep personal connections with others. And myself.
I’d been living unhappily as a “man-child” — a lifestyle fueled by excessive partying and minimal commitment — for most of my adult life. Ashamed and disappointed I hadn’t accomplished more, I dwelled on squandered time and people I’d hurt along the way. I wanted to run from it all.
Rather than bouncing to Bangkok, however, I decided to clear my head. I was going to try an long-overdue experiment: a break from drinking. Half a year later, I’m still enjoying the positive benefits of that decision.
The Positives of a Drinking Break: a Conversation
Since I’ve moved back to NYC, I’ll admit I’ve had a few social drinks. Lifetime sobriety wasn’t my endgame, but I wanted to see how far I could push it. I began to wonder if my taking a break was unique among the one in six US adults who binge drinks multiple times a month.
In my first weeks at Talkspace, I learned that my content team co-conspirator, JoAnna Di Tullio, is on a similar break. I was interested to hear why she made the decision to take a drinking break, and what I could learn from her experience. Here’s our conversation…
What was the moment or tipping point for the decision to take a break from drinking?
JoAnna: I think it was when I realized how much time I was spending drinking or recovering from a night out. I had been living in NYC for a little over a year at this point and I was having a conversation with my mom. She was asking me about what I had been doing for fun lately and if I was enjoying all that NYC had to offer (she’s in my hometown of LA). She asked me if I had been to the Highline, the Met, eaten Dim Sum in Chinatown… I hadn’t.
In fact, I hadn’t really been doing a whole lot other than touring the bar/party scene. I had been dating a guy who was a DJ so the party never really stopped. I realized that most of my “fun” adult-life experiences revolved around drinking, and that I wanted more out of life. And not for nothing, if I never suffered from another hangover again, I wouldn’t be mad.
Josh: I feel you on the hangovers. They take me out the entirety of the following day. And don’t get me started on “hangxiety.”
To your point on enjoying NYC, I was in the camp that if I’m not buzzed on something, it’ll be boring. It’s a social lubricant for a social city. It think that plays into the larger decision to take more frequent breaks: realizing it’s ok to be your sober self.
My tipping point was one week that I went blackout three out of the five weeknights. I distinctly remember coming home after one night, looking in the mirror, and asking myself “Who are you?” That moment was a catalyst to leave a cushy job and get my mind right. I was hoping to re-discover myself before it was too late.
My most recent try at sobriety, which I opened with above, is related to being more present in relationships with others due to past mistakes in those arenas.
The times you thought “I’m out of control”… was it a difficult conversation with yourself?
JoAnna: It’s always tough to look in the mirror and see the parts of yourself you’ve been trying to avoid. But I think this all ties back to just that –– avoidance. Drinking was a great way to distract myself from problems or questions that scared me.
But at a certain point that whisper became a roar and I had to get honest with myself: did I want to break out of old patterns and live a big life that I’m proud of? Or did I want to keep playing small because I was afraid of change?
Josh: It’s hard to face yourself, and even harder to make a change. I think some people call it a “come to Jesus” moment. No matter your belief system, that moment is ultimately about not believing in yourself. If you don’t have you, what’s left?
I’ve been out of control at points, and the number of times I realized this and did nothing is staggering. I was a taker, and when I was drinking I could forget about relationship debts. I struggled with perfectionism, and scrutinized myself and my decisions to the point of paralysis. I needed to lose control to live, it seemed.
I’ve made progress on those fronts. Now it’s a matter of willpower and surrounding myself with more positive people and experiences.
What keeps you focused on your health when tempted to head back out to the scene?
JoAnna: My health keeps me focused on my health! I feel so good these days. I’m still out and about. I go to bars with friends and dance the night away, but the difference is that the next day I wake up and can still have a full, productive day.
I’m an early riser and love the quiet of the mornings. I meditate. I write. I exercise. I wasn’t able to prioritize any of these things while in the throes of a hangover.
Josh: From two desks away… you are honestly one of the healthier people I’ve met.
I’m in the gym 3-4 days a week now. I meditate daily, if possible. Talkspace lets me balance work and life in an amazing way. I feel like I’ve hit the lottery, but have this lingering sadness, wishing I would have sought a clarity of mind sooner.
How did your friends or family respond to this big change? Do you care either way?
JoAnna: I think some people were a little confused at first. But then it was no big deal. It’s funny, drinking is so ingrained in everything we do in our culture that at first, it’s hard to imagine what you will do if you’re not drinking.
The answer is, everything and more. It’s hard to imagine dinner without wine, or New Year’s Eve sans champagne, or a beach vacation without a tropical cocktail –– but once you do it, you realize that in a lot of ways, it can actually be a more enjoyable experience.
Josh: Real talk regarding “drinking holidays.” It’s normalized to the point that there you get pushback from people if you don’t drink around occasions like NYE. I want that enjoyable experience you mentioned, and I want to feel the pain that comes with the less enjoyable experiences. That’s living, right?
It seems a lot of my relationships, and the people I surround myself with, like to party. I love my friends, and maybe I’m the bad friend for assuming we always have take the edge off somehow. I was nervous I’d get teased about it, but everyone was supportive.
My relationship with my immediate family has vastly improved. I’m more honest with them. I think my parents had similar discussions with themselves around my current age. They’re able to have a glass of wine or a margarita (or dos margaritas), and remain productive members of society. They set a good example.
Have you had this discussion with your therapist?
JoAnna: Oh yes. I was going back and forth on it for a while. My therapist helped me realize that it’s something I could try for a little while and see how it goes. Guess what? The alcohol industry isn’t going anywhere.
Josh: I’m actually restarting my therapy experience now using Talkspace. I haven’t had a therapist since I last lived in the city two years ago. I don’t think I was as up front about my “chemical romance” with my prior therapist as I should have been. Now I’m ready to openly discuss my problems without fear of judgement.
The difference in going it alone is that you don’t have that objective observer to help you with solutions. Trying to solve my own problems has been a minefield. I enjoy my time in therapy, it’s a completely positive experience.
What are the major positives that have come out of this decision?
JoAnna: I think mostly how I feel. Not drinking has been amazing for managing anxiety. I also sleep better, have more energy, and overall am enjoying life more.
Another thing that’s come out of this is that my relationships have deepened in a way I would never have imagined. When you’re actually present and listening in a social setting… it’s revolutionary. I also feel a sense of empowerment and confidence that I didn’t have before. It’s all pretty wild to be honest.
Josh: For me, it’s that I’m able to face my past, my problems, and myself. It’s easily the most difficult thing I’ve done. It boils down to discipline, something I’ve been poor at historically. I’m proud I’m able to say no to things that do me harm, and yes to new experiences.
Another is the clarity of mind I thought I’d never experience. There’s always something brewing up there, but I’m better able to cope with, and talk through my issues. I feel less ashamed of who I am, and more hopeful for my future.
What advice would you give to someone looking to take their own break?
JoAnna: It’s a deeply personal decision, so get honest with yourself. What are the reasons you want to do it? Trust yourself –– you know what’s best for you. And find your people. Find the ones who support you, love you, and who are cheering for you. The ones who are down to meet for tea and talk about stuff that matters. The ones who realize there’s more to life than the next party and being seen in the “right” places.
There might be people who give you a hard time about it –– they’re probably the ones who don’t deserve your energy. Another thing: get back to your roots. What were all the things you used to love to do but suddenly didn’t have time for anymore? For me it was reading, writing, and making art. What are all of the things you’ve wanted to do but didn’t have time for? Now’s the time.
But most of all, I’d say celebrate yourself. You’re going against the grain and doing something important for yourself. Be proud. Be fearless.
Josh: Preach. Put yourself first, the rest will fall into place naturally. I started the journey trying to prove to someone else I could be the person they wanted me to be. I haven’t heard from that person since, nor do I expect I will again. It was a fool’s errand, but also the catalyst I needed to make actual changes. I realized I have many other people in my life who truly care about me and support my decisions.
One thing I’ll add is that it’s an amazing world out there, with nearly infinite experiences to be a part of. Because I was afraid to face life’s uncertainties, I missed out on some good years. I’m still working through how to enjoy things without a constant haze surrounding me.
How can we continue to be supportive as friends, family, or co-workers?
JoAnna: By allowing people to make their own decisions judgement free. We don’t really know what’s going on with people, so coming at them with our opinions and advice, is sometimes not helpful.
Everyone has a right to do what’s best for themselves and we should all support one another in that pursuit.
Josh: Like you said, support should be unconditional. The world would be a better place if we’d focus on being our best selves, rather than constantly expecting it of others.
That’s what I love about working at Talkspace: everyone is open and supportive. I know I’m pretty new to the team, but it feels familial. And not in that fake-y, startup-culture sense.
Thank you for being real, and having this conversation with me!