Alcohol Intolerance: My Drinking Dilemma

The majority of my friends consume varying amounts of alcohol most weekends and some weeknights in one way or another. Plenty of 21+ folks in my life meet up at restaurants for dinner and cocktails (and brunch and mimosas), spend too much money on drinks at concert venues, and sip on wine in the comfort of their homes regularly. It’s a pillar of our society.

Since turning 21 in 2014, I too have participated in this standard alcohol culture. The problem? I’ve developed an intolerance to alcohol over time.

People with alcohol intolerance have a harder time metabolizing alcohol and experience various symptoms when they drink. It’s technically not an allergy (though it is possible to be allergic to different ingredients in alcohol, like sulfites, wheat, barley, etc.) but the symptoms can be similar to moderate allergic reactions. It can be genetically passed down and occurs more often in people of Asian descent. You’re also more likely to be alcohol intolerant if you’re asthmatic or have other food allergies. There is no treatment or cure, it’s simply preventable by abstaining from booze.

The first glimpse of my alcohol intolerance I noticed was in college. When I drank two or more glasses of wine, my nose would get stuffy. My dad suggested trying sulfite-free wine, but it didn’t really make much of a difference for me when I tried it. I simply ignored the small annoyance and kept indulging because college.

My symptoms have gotten worse since then. Along with stuffy noses, I can develop a headache within an hour of having a single drink and experience facial flushing (my cheeks get red and hot, it’s real cute to feel like I have a fever at a bar.) I can generally count on having some sort of hangover regardless of how much alcohol I drink and sometimes my initial alcohol headache turns into a multi-day migraine.

The hardest part is that I don’t know how I’ll react each time. The other night I felt fine after drinking one glass of wine over a three hour period, but at other times any amount of wine will make me feel miserable. It’s annoyingly unpredictable and I haven’t been able to figure out what works for me and what doesn’t.

Truth be told, I didn’t notice how bad my symptoms were before I moved to Wilmington because I simply wasn’t drinking often after I got over the initial excitement of turning 21. In my quest to find friends in my new city, I started spending more time downtown in bars for karaoke, cast gatherings, and other nighttime events and consequently started to socially drink more often. Wilmington very-much caters to this lifestyle.

Naturally my alcohol intolerance symptoms began to present themselves more frequently as a result of my increased consumption, and boy it’s been a bummer. While one certainly does not need to drink to have fun, it can feel isolating to be a non-drinker surrounded by people who are imbibing. Occasionally I’ll experience peer pressure to take a shot with a group and I don’t enjoy having to explain my decision not to participate. Sometimes I’ll just cave in.

Honestly though, I think I place more pressure on myself to drink in groups than I receive from others. I don’t think I need to drink to cope with social anxiety, though that is a common issue, rather I’ve just become used to participating and feel out of the loop when I don’t. Social drinking is a habit. I don’t get to experience the silly, giggly, wild part of drinking, and I particularly feel that absence when I’m in an alcohol-friendly setting. For example, I was recently on a college campus for alumni events and my old college student persona immediately wanted to drink despite knowing the consequences. I ended up having several drinks that day, and while I had fun at first, my alcohol intolerance kicked my ass and I had a miserable night.

Repeatedly feeling crummy as a result of drinking forces me to consult the ultimate question: Is the short-lived alcohol-induced fun worth the longer-lasting suffering? Ultimately, I think my answer is leaning more and more towards no.

It would be nice to figure out if certain alcohol types in limited amounts would feel okay in my system, but for the time being I need to step away for an extended period of time. I need to confront my habit and reprogram myself to not feel the need to drink in social situations despite what other people around me are doing. I’m tired of feeling like shit, so cutting drinking is truly an act of self-care for me.

Here’s a working list of some methods I’ve found to be helpful to stop myself from drinking/wanting to drink/giving into peer pressure in social situations:

  • Order a mocktail or soda when you’re at a bar or restaurant. I personally love getting seltzer at bars. Something about having a pretty glass in my hand makes me feel less left out and I can still “Cheers!” and clank glasses when the time calls
  • Surround yourself wisely. True friends should understand and support you decision to cut drinking out of your life. While you can’t expect others to stop drinking on your behalf, you can at least talk to your friends about not pressuring you and still making you feel included in social outings. If your friends have a problem with your decision or encourages you to “just have one,” it says something about them/your friendship
  • Offer to be the designated driver/supervisor. Knowing you have a responsibility to keep your group safe can make drinking less tempting. The best part of being the sober chaperone of your group? You’ll retain the memories of the wild night out and wake up feeling fine. Win, win!
  • Keep alcohol off your shelves. Out of site, out of mind. If your loved ones want to drink at a social gathering at your house, make it BYOB and ask them to kindly not leave behind any extra alcohol
  • Focus on the health benefits. For me, this is simple: No alcohol, no shitty symptoms. The next time I’m tempted by a drink, I’m going to conjure the yucky memories seriously ask myself if the headache and stuffy nose will be worth it. There are other health benefits from abstaining though that could be worth abstaining. Cutting out alcohol could clear up your acne, improve your sleep cycle, and increase your energy, and that’s just a few potential benefits of quitting
  • Change up your social spots. If your friends only hang out at the bar, it can be especially hard to abstain from alcohol. Switch up venues and activities for a change of pace. Grab coffee, go bowling, or check out a new restaurant where the main feature is the food rather than specialty cocktails
  • Consider the financial part of giving up alcohol. The cost of a night of drinking can really add up! Do a little math at the bar and see how much money you’d save if you didn’t drink that night. Consider using that money to treat yourself in some other way as a reward for not drinking
  • Confront dependency. If you find yourself craving alcohol, needing it to function, or being unable to have fun without it, you may have an addiction problem. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional. There is help out there to combat dependency

Wish me luck as I navigate my prominently sober existence! Have any tips? Leave them in the comments below.

XO, Georgie

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One thought on “Alcohol Intolerance: My Drinking Dilemma

  1. Lindsey Chandler Ratliff-Davis

    Sounds like your new Wilmington friends are a regular bunch of drunks 😂 But they support your non consumption!

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