I Track How Much I Drink In A Spreadsheet & It's Changed My Relationship With Alcohol

by Emma McGowan
Emma McGowan/Facebook

I started tracking how much I was drinking last July — July Fourth week, to be exact. That week, I had 28 drinks, 10 of which were all in one day. When I saw the numbers laid out like that — three, two, five, two, three, three, 10, and that final tally of 28 — I recoiled. Nearly 30 drinks in a week is a lot of drinks, especially when you’re over 30 yourself. This has to change, I told myself. Soon.

But I know from past experiences that trying to change a habit never works if you go from zero to 100 all at once. So instead of being like, NO MORE DRINKS, I kept tracking my alcohol intake — just tracking, not making any changes — for the next two months. By the end of August, I knew that I was averaging around 20 drinks per week. Not as bad as that first week, but definitely not good. Not good at all, especially when you consider that the recommended number of drinks per week for women is seven.

I’m 31 and my relationship with alcohol has been rocky since I finished college. Like most college kids, I partied on the weekends. But unlike many college kids, I didn’t drink at all during the week. I was committed to my studies (and I went to a very expensive school) and I looked down on kids who imbibed Monday through Monday. In retrospect, the binge drinking I did on the weekends probably wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t feel out of line with the culture I was living in.

Emma McGowan

When I graduated, though, things shifted. I moved to New York City and my previously structured life was suddenly a mess. My college boyfriend and I were both doing work we didn’t love. We were pretty broke. And it was the beginning of the Great Recession, so things were feeling bleak in New York.

So we started drinking more. He worked at a wine store for a while and would bring home magnum bottles, which we would polish off in an evening while smoking cigarettes on the roof my building. We drank because it was fun and because it felt “grown up” but also because things weren’t going the way we expected and we didn’t know what to do about it. We drank because it was hot out and we were too poor for AC; we drank because it let us escape a little and because it made us feel like rebels.

Later, after he left me, I kept drinking. By then I had traded my job behind the register of a vintage store for a job as a social worker. My work was emotionally and physically exhausting and I had no other outlet for the feelings it brought up in me. I also, like most New Yorkers, lived in a tiny apartment with a roommate who was rarely around. So I sought out company — and solace, in the form of booze, friendship, and sometimes sex — at the local bar.

I basically lived at that bar. I would get off the subway and go directly there, staying until it was time to go to bed. I got free drinks. I ordered delivery to my bar stool. I knew everyone. It felt like home to a young woman who missed her original home more than she could admit.

That’s really when I started drinking heavily. That’s when alcohol became part of everything I did that wasn’t work, from dating to brunch with my friends to weekend afternoons. But, again, it didn’t feel out of line with the people around me. Everyone was struggling, to some degree, but everyone was working. And everyone was drinking.

Emma McGowan

It wasn’t until my mid-to-late-twenties that I decided I needed to reassess my relationship with alcohol. By then I was in San Francisco after a couple years in South America and I was so pumped to be back in the land of decent beer. So I drank a bunch of it. And I learned that everyone who told me my metabolism would drop in my late twenties was so right. My weight, which had stayed pretty consistent since I finished puberty, suddenly shot up twenty pounds in just a few months. And while I’m all about body positivity, I was not happy with the weight I'd gained.

But I didn’t stop drinking. The habit was engrained at that point and I didn’t want to. I cut back a little, maybe, for a while, but for the most part my drinking habits remained the same. I just wasn’t ready.

Which brings us to four years later, back in San Francisco after another few years abroad, and me staring at that average 20 drinks per week with shame. I let myself spiral into that shame a little bit — in addition to drinking more than is healthy, perfectionism and anxiety are persistent issues for me — and then started taking steps to correct it. My first goal was simply less than 20 drinks per week, which I met with relative ease for the next couple months. Sure, there were a couple times I exceeded it — and I didn’t count weeks that had holidays, giving myself a break — but for the most part I was keeping it between 15 and 20. OK, I thought. I can do this.

Screen grab/Emma McGowan

But 15 to 20 still felt like too much. So when 2018 rolled around, I dropped the goal to 15. That’s just over two per day, which felt like a good number to me. Sure, it’s more than twice the recommended amount, but that didn’t really bother me. In January, I averaged just over 13 drinks per month. February was 15, minus the week I spent in France. (Because come on: It’s France.) In March, which is my birthday month, the number crept up to 16. And for the first three months of the year, I went over my target of 15 drinks per week three times.

That’s when I started to worry. Was my drinking a habit, like I’d always told myself, or were we leaning into addiction territory? Alcoholism is a serious problem on both sides of my family, so I knew I was genetically susceptible to the bottle. But I didn’t want to believe that I was an alcoholic.

In April, that non-alcoholic self image was put to the test when I went to a yoga retreat where there was no booze. Going in, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t gone more than two days in a row without a drink in longer than I could remember and certainly not since I started tracking my alcoholic intake. But my worries were unfounded, as they often are. I was dry for an entire week and it was totally fine. Granted, I was far removed from the daily stresses of work and city and relationship. But the fact that I had no desire for alcohol — literally zero — reassured me that my drinking was, in fact, a habit and not a bigger issue of addiction. Cool. I thought. I can do this. I’ve changed habits before.

I came home from Guatemala with a resolve to shift my eating habits a little, start back up with cardio, watch less TV, and — yup — drink less. I also came home with a nasty stomach bug that had me running to the bathroom to poop liquid multiple times per day, so it was pretty much the perfect time to cut back on booze. I decided that I would abstain from drinking during the week and only do it on weekends; similar to my college habits, but minus the binge drinking.

Emma McGowan

And while we’re still in the early days, it’s going pretty well. Last week I had four drinks, with five days in a row without booze. This week, I made it through every weeknight — including dinner out with a friends — without drinking. I had one rough day, Wednesday, when I finished work much earlier than usual and was sorely tempted to have a midday beer. But I pushed through, reminding myself of the willpower I showed when I finally quit smoking, and I also realized that boredom is a big trigger for me wanting to drink.

But other than that Wednesday, it really hasn’t been hard. And while I know that not everyone has the privilege of taking a two week vacation, I think the lesson of disrupting your life a little bit to break a pattern is a good one. Maybe it means doing a dedicated fast or a fitness challenge or some other dramatic life change all at once. The key, I think, is shaking up your current routine so that there’s space for a new one.

I’m going to keep tracking my drinks per week, maybe forever, because it keeps me honest. Because I think my relationship with alcohol will continue to change — and I think it will probably continue to be something of a struggle. But I’m happy with the progress and changes I’ve made and I’m excited to keep moving forward. And that’s all I can really ask of myself.