It was the third Manhattan that did it.
I had intended only two, (they were strong, and that’s about my limit these days) but the bartender was a friend, and just before last call he brought another to our table. What could I do? I drank it, it was free. And I then I spent the next two days in wrenching, head-pounding, gut-churning misery the likes of which I had never experienced.
I’m still not exactly sure what happened, or why three measly drinks would cause such a violent reaction, but when the hangover finally cleared, I found I myself with a strange new feeling: a complete aversion to alcohol.
At first I was sort of stunned—almost scared. I can’t drink? I thought, But how will I interact with people, go to shows, do things? Oh my god what about brunch?
I’m not a “heavy” drinker, but alcohol is a basic part of my life. It’s how I toast good news and soften bad; how I smooth out the edges of interactions with new friends; how I mark the end of the work day, or a rough day, or the middle of a sunny day. It has never even occurred to me to try and go without it.
But now I would have to?
A week after The Incident my husband and I went to a show. As we stood in the dark watching the band, I was acutely aware of the people around me: the guy in the rugby shirt fist pumping during the slow songs, and the drunk girl swaying cheerily into my personal space. I was distracted and uneasy. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I tried crossing my arms in front of me. I tried awkwardly hooking my thumbs into my belt-loops. Finally in a stroke of genius, I got myself a glass of club soda to hold, and all was well. But a few songs later, when my husband went to the bar to get his second $9 beer, I found myself doing some sober math.
In my previous life, a week before, I would have been on my second beer as well. Nine dollars each, plus tip: That’s twenty dollars. Hey, I just saved us 20 bucks, I thought happily. I wonder how much we’d save if I keep this up…
The lack of booze meant I was alert enough to do word problems in my head. I began my calculations:
If we go out for drinks five times a month, and I have two each time, and they average $11 each, plus a $1-$2 dollar tip, that’s…$125 a month? What’s that times twelve? $1,500. Whoa, is that a lot? What about the drinks I make at home? If I have one half-size cocktail some afternoons, and a glass of wine most nights, what is that, $20 a week? That doesn’t sound so bad, but…$1,040 a year? Yikes. God and then there are the drinks I get when we go out to eat. You gotta have a beer with your burger, right? Another $40 a month, maybe? $480 a year! What happens if we add all this up?
$3,020 a year? Am I kidding me?
I could not believe it: $3,020 is so much money. That is a trip to South America. That is 1.8 months worth of rent. That is all the good cotton dresses at Anthropologie right now.
As my husband came back from the bar, I was still furiously crunching numbers. He put his arm on my shoulder and I looked at him, then eyed his plastic cup of beer. If he quit too, we’d save twice as much. $6,040 a year! We’d be practically rich!
How could we have let this happen? We were frugal people. We shop at the discount grocery store; we cook at home nearly every night; we eat the leftovers for lunch; our furniture is thrifted; I basically never buy the good cotton dresses from Anthropologie.
Early in our relationship, when we were living on grad student stipends, we agonized about the cost of coffee and cheese, and once had a long debate in a Kmart about whether we could justify the purchase of soft, $6 bath towel when there was a thinner, slightly scratchy one right there for just $3. But we never questioned what we paid to drink. Without any discussion, we had both agreed that gracious living included a fully stocked liquor cabinet that you could offer to your guests, a few bottles of wine that cost more than $9, and a refrigerator full of cold, rewarding things. Alcohol was a part of grownup life. It was essential to feeling cordial and accommodating—the act of pouring as important as the act of drinking itself.
So what would our life look like if we gave it up? Would we become barbarians?
I made it through our next few social interactions unscathed. We had a couple over for dinner, and I watched them get loose and loud, while I sipped compulsively from my water glass—a bit too aware of the volume of my own voice, but feeling fine. We arrived late to a BBQ in a park, and I chomped veggie dogs and about a pound of baby carrots, while my friends drained what was left of the beer. So far so good.
The real test came about two weeks in, when we were invited out to a gorgeous bar in our neighborhood where they make those fancy handcrafted cocktails with the vaguely old-fashioned names. I am a sucker for these places—for well-made, unusual drinks in general—and the thought of sitting there in the dim light with our friends while they ordered their Trolley Cars and their Sarsaparilla Reds, while I sipped my sad little club soda with lime, was enough to make me consider staying home.
But I went, and here is what happened: The bar was as beautiful and atmospheric as ever, the jukebox played the songs I wanted to hear, my friends laughed and told stories and opened tabs, and I asked for a dash of bar-made bitters in my club soda with lime. I tipped the bartender extra. And as the night wore on, I found I was just as good at laughing and telling stories as I was when I was drinking more than club soda.
It was this last revelation that really got me. I’m a shy person, and holding a drink has always seemed like the only way around my own anxious social barriers. This is part of the reason I had unconsciously put alcohol into the “essentials” category of my finances. That drink stem I’ve been gripping all these years as I talk to scary people? Total Dumbo’s feather.
It’s been about four weeks now. I’ve tried a few sips here and there, but I can’t say my taste for the stuff has come back. If my concert floor estimates were correct, I have theoretically saved myself $245 at this point, which, frankly, still seems a bit incredible.
It’s kind of shaming that it took something physically unpleasant for me to actually look clearly at this aspect of my spending, but I guess I’m glad it happened. If/when I do get over this aversion, I feel like I’ll be able to treat cocktails like the delightful gifts from the gods that they are, and no longer as an everyday necessity.
And then I will fly to South America.