For most people, going one day without drinking is a normal occurrence.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that for me, going one day without drinking was a noticeable challenge.
According to the NIH, the median average person in the US consumes only three drinks per week. 1 For the past ten years, I’ve been averaging 2–3 drinks per day.
Dropping the bottle hasn’t been as difficult for me as it might be for someone with a more serious chemical dependency. But still, the social shortcut of daily drinking is hard to let go.
In today’s post, I’ll provide a summary of what medical experts say the first day of sobriety should feel like; and contrast that with my own experience dropping alcohol (with the help of a peer support group).
Table of Contents
- What you can expect after one day without drinking
- Community survey results: what to expect after first day sober
- My experience dropping alcohol (day 1 out of 365)
- Why I decided to stop drinking
- My personal experience: impact of one day without drinking
- Conclusion: measuring sobriety in days
What you can expect after one day without drinking
According to the medical literature (see citations below), your experience on day one of quitting alcohol will depend greatly on how much you were drinking prior to dropping the habit. 2
For those with heavy drinking of 5–10 drinks per day or more, experts recommend formal rehab and medical treatment as you’ll likely have strong physical symptoms from chemical dependency: tremors, sweating, even hallucinations or seizures. 3
For those like myself and the rest of my peer accountability group, the experience of going “cold turkey” is much more mild, and can usually be handled without medical support:
- Symptoms of a hangover like headache, stomach ache, vomiting.
- Forgetfulness and “brain fog.”
- Shaking hands or tremors
- General anxiety
- Persistent desire to have a drink
Social support and doctor consultation is a must, however — and remember that the relapse rate for former drinkers is as high as 90% according to some studies, even for moderate drinkers who didn’t require medical intervention to quit.
Community survey results: what to expect after first day sober
A survey of personal experiences going cold turkey in my sobriety accountability group yielded several dozen responses, which were surprisingly consistent in citing desire to resume drinking and general anxiety as the main issues:
“My biggest problem with alcohol is needing it to relax, and not being able to relax was an issue starting day one.”
“…Had no idea it was so bad until I stopped, and noticed all the times I normally would have had a drink in hand. Needing to drink out of habit to unwind after work was the hardest part of day 1 for me.”
“I had a headache all evening and slept poorly. Otherwise it was an uneventful experience. Expecting it to get harder before it gets easier.”
My experience dropping alcohol (day 1 out of 365)
As mentioned above, I was a moderate-heavy drinker for most of my twenties and early thirties.
All this changed when my wife and I had our first child.
I had briefly cut back massively during the later stages of her pregnancy, so I could be lucid and ready if the baby came early…
…But once the baby was in our home, I quickly found myself going back to my old ways of cracking a beer mid-afternoon and drinking “moderately” throughout the rest of the evening.
In other words, the baby wasn’t the only person in our house fixated on the bottle.
Why I decided to stop drinking
This could well have continued forever, but quickly I started running into situations where my drinking was straining my relationship with my wife, and making me feel less-than-present as a father.
For example, when our baby got colic after the first week and needed a late-night ER visit, I had to admit to my wife that I couldn’t drive us.
I’d just had two strong pints of IPA back-to-back, which was honestly becoming a daily habit thanks to the boredom of being stuck at home with the Covid pandemic. 4 The buzz was too much to legally drive (and the last thing I needed during Covid was a DUI).
That was the breaking point. My wife was understanding about it, but I personally felt ashamed and worried about my ability to be a good father.
The next week, I sat down with my wife and asked her to hold me accountable to stop drinking — and started this blog to hold myself accountable as well.
For more on my journey to sobriety, check out my sobriety timeline blog where I’m journaling through my experience and exploring the academic literature on the benefits of quitting the bottle.
My personal experience: impact of one day without drinking
Overall, day one of dropping the bottle wasn’t as bad as I expected.
My biggest issue was the “creature comfort” of having a glass of wine with dinner. I didn’t struggle with the urge to drink too badly given my kid gave me plenty of distraction, and my sleep was pretty much normal albeit a bit restless.
Morning was the easiest part of the day, since I normally don’t drink before noon. Coffee is my beverage habit for this time of day. Long term, I know I should drop coffee and caffeine as well… but for now, I’m sticking with it as a distraction to help me feel like I’m getting “a treat” at some point during the day.
Coffee is a big part of my morning routine with work, for better or worse.
Similar to morning, mid-day wasn’t a noticeable problem. I did have a light headache, but I’m not sure if that was related to the alcohol withdrawal or just the general lack of sleep from having a newborn in the house.
Evening was by far the most noticeably difficult part of the day, as I normally would have at least a couple drinks on a Sunday evening, and during the afternoon. I noticed two main feelings:
- Desire to drink to unwind
- Hand tremor (due to essential tremor, not caused by alcohol)
I have an essential tremor and my doctor had advised me that a glass of wine once per day would actually be good for reducing the tremor. Since it’s a slight tremor and just in my hands, I feel I’d rather drop alcohol for my health than rely on it daily for the tremor.
Overall, this is the time of day I noticed being without my beverage distractions the most.
Night and sleep quality
Drinking beer or wine in the evening has a tendency to make it hard for me to fall asleep. I’ll feel tired, but struggle to sleep, and struggle to maintain my focus enough to read a book (which causes me to get drowsy) rather than look at my phone (the opposite effect).
Conclusion: measuring sobriety in days
Overall, measuring symptoms and impact of just 24 hours without alcohol is probably overkill for someone like myself, who falls in the upper range of “moderate drinking.”
However, I know from past attempts to quit, that measuring in weeks can make it hard to stay on the wagon. It’s easy to lose focus and decide that “just one at a party” is acceptable and won’t reset the whole process.
Therefore, the daily practice of marking my “streak” and journaling my success should be a big motivator that I didn’t have during past attempts at cutting back my drinking.
One day without alcohol was a meaningful first step for me, and I’ll be keeping a daily log at least for the first week to help myself stay in tune with the benefits of sobriety.