"Did you lose weight when you stopped drinking?"

In a previous post, I discussed how alcohol temporarily assuaged my discomfort with my body. Thursday through Saturday, it was easy enough to forget that my stomach wasn’t perfectly flat and I’d been squatting the same weight for two years.

Sunday-Wednesday, it wasn’t so easy. On Sundays, especially, I tended to feel guilty for what I'd consumed over the weekend. And to assuage those feelings (truly, life at this point was about band-aids), I would remind myself: “You’ve been drinking for a while, and you never really look much bigger.” Surely, if routine binge drinking was going to catch up with me, it would have by now? (Um. I was 22. There was time.)

During this time, here’s a snapshot of my typical Sunday-Wednesday neuroses:

  • I was obsessed with girls on YouTube who lift weights and document their “fitness journeys.” (Ok, I kind of still am.) Sometimes they’d even answer frequently asked questions. I waited with bated breath to see if anyone had thought to ask my question: “How much do you drink, and do you think I can get drunk multiple times per week and still reach my fitness goals?”

(These gurus tended to be noncommittal and inoffensive, so my guess is they would have chirped, “Anything in moderation!”)

  • I refined my fitness plans on Sundays, when the fact that drinking is never as fun as I expect was fresh in my mind. I would tell myself, “I’m not going to drink until Thursday so I can really dial in on my fitness goals this week.” (Presumably, by Thursday, I would look spectacular.)

(By Tuesday, I’d find myself googling the calories in a glass of wine, and I’d decide that my fitness goals were not incompatible with drinking. Everything in moderation, right?!)

Left: the last time I drank. Right: December 2018, the last time I set a personal pull up record.

About a month into sobriety, I was at a friend's house party. I’d been to those parties many times, typically nervous about who I’d see, and typically drinking more for that reason. This time, I was stone-cold sober. My friend casually commented,“You seem a little thinner.”

When a friend says you look thinner

I’m reminded of the math-lady meme (right). “When a friend says you look thinner.”

Suddenly, the world around me disappeared, and I began scouring the recesses of my mind to think what I was doing differently, whether I could reasonably maintain it, whether my friend was correct, whether the scale would agree or maybe it’s just that my jeans fit differently, whether it was time to trash half of my closet, and whether it was too late to sign up for a bikini competition.

At least one of those questions was fair: was it true? Did quitting drinking result in my effortlessly losing weight?

On one hand, my weight did stop going up. I've never been as heavy as I was three years ago. On the other hand, you’d think that instantly cutting out lots and lots of sugar in the form of alcohol – not to mention the lower inhibition around food while drinking – would have a more dramatic effect. I expected that drinking was the difference between me and Jillian Michaels, not between me and me minus three pounds. (Not a big difference, unless you’re a friend in search of a compliment.)

On the other other hand (we’re talking a highly judicious monster with 3+ hands here), not drinking made my body a more exciting place to live. Because I unconsciously felt that drinking was the thing inhibiting my progress, sans alcohol I was excited to work harder in the gym, eat and actually stick to a "cleaner" diet, and make the kind of goals that benefit from continuity and sustained consciousness (which is to say, literally all goals).

On the fourth and final monster hand, alcohol and food obsession are, as we’ve discussed, symptoms of an underlying problem. You can remove the alcohol, but you can’t so easily remove the desire to feel nothing. Newly sober, I felt more alive than I ever had. But Thanatos (the instinct towards death or self-destruction) didn’t disappear. In low moments, I was still drawn in by food’s capacity to help me numb out.

I was once working with a client who was struggling to quit drinking, and she mentioned that a major benefit to quitting would be the weight loss that would inevitably follow. I found myself torn in how to respond. Weight loss is, after all, a powerful motivator. I was hesitant to take it away, lest it be replaced with an inferior motivator like “improving my relationships” or “finally respecting myself.”

But, as is too-often the case, I felt compelled to be honest. For me, I explained, alcohol was not the reason for my negative body image. Taking it away did not solve my relationship with food. And I didn't turn into Jillian Michaels.

Am I a stronger, healthier, and marginally lighter person now than I was three years ago? Yes. Is it because I stopped drinking? In a roundabout way, yes. I get more sleep now, I’m never too hungover to work out, I make better use of my free time, I have fewer feelings to eat or not eat about, and I have relationships that promote healthy behavior.

For my client, I'm sure this answer was more complicated than the one she wanted. Nuance isn't sexy, and the long game doesn’t “sell" -- but it’s also the only game that matters.