'I Drank Two Bottles of Wine a Night. Then I Launched The Alcohol Experiment'

Alcohol was never really part of the household I grew up in. My dad stopped drinking before I was born; a spontaneous sobriety that came from realizing he was headed in a really bad direction. In a very committed way, he decided to stop and so I've never known him to drink. And, my mom was a hippie and she didn't drink at all. I actually grew up in a one room cabin, on the top of a mountain with no running water and no electricity.

The cabin was in Aspen, Colorado, which I appreciate is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S. but I had a very intense chip on my shoulder about it. Success was important to me not for any other reason than to build a life where I didn't feel any sense of lack.

So I was very driven. I didn't really go to many high school parties and my social circle at college didn't drink a lot. Then my husband and I moved to New York City in 2005 and I got a corporate job in marketing. I remember my boss asking me once: "Annie, Why aren't you coming out to happy hour?" When I told him I didn't really drink, he explained that this was where my ideas could be showcased. He told me that this was where my career would be made at this company.

I was so nerdily innocent at this point in my life. My days consisted of going to work, going to the gym, waiting for my husband to finish his late night job and reading Harry Potter. I had some vague idea that there were certain people that were alcoholics and I was certain I was not one of them.

So, I took it upon myself to build a tolerance to alcohol. I made a plan to have a pint of water, a glass of wine and so on at these work drinks. I would even go into the bathroom sometimes to throw up the previous glass of wine, just to keep drinking.

Over time, I began coming home, eyeing my running shoes and then realizing I could just get a bottle of wine, which sounded equally relaxing. Slowly but surely, what was drinking at work became drinking at home.

Am I an alcoholic?

About a decade later, after multiple promotions, I was global Head of Marketing for this company, traveling in and out of the U.K. and often staying there for six months at a time. I was drinking at least two bottles of wine every night.

I stopped feeling really hungover and I stopped really being able to get drunk. We would start drinking at 5pm, then I'd get home or to a hotel at around midnight, open the mini fridge and have two or three more little wine bottles before I fell asleep in the early hours. It felt very compulsive.

I also started buying boxes of wine at home, because I did not want to know that I was opening that second bottle. The cognitive dissonance there was extremely high.

One Saturday in 2014, my husband and I took our kids to the London Eye. I was so hungover from being out late Friday night with colleagues that I had taken some beer with me in my purse, which obviously I couldn't take with me on the London Eye. I opened my bag, dropped the beer, and it exploded all over my two little children. They were totally drenched in beer. I had to laugh it off in the moment, but it was so heartbreaking, because my kids smelled bad all day. I smelled bad. But when we went to lunch, I remember ordering alcoholic drinks.

I had a few other moments like that, like when I asked my son to sit on my lap and he said that he didn't want to because I smelled bad, and my teeth were purple.

Truthfully, six years of my decade of heavy drinking were spent trying to drink less. I was constantly on an alcohol diet, full of slight reductions and rebounds, though more rebounds than reductions. If I took a week off alcohol, I would be pining for it. I would feel like I was missing out the whole time I wasn't drinking.

I think most people believe you can only question your drinking if you're an alcoholic. I remember a friend I used to drink wine with told me she wasn't drinking anymore. It was so out of the blue. But she had gone to an AA meeting the night before and said she'd realized she was an alcoholic. I also drink that way, so I asked her if I was an alcoholic, too? She said no, and went on to make a case of all the differences in how we drank to reinforce her point.

The moment of profound change for me was on a trip to London in 2013. I was away from my family and I had stayed up until four in the morning, getting totally drunk in somebody's hotel room. I got up at 6am, went into the hotel bar and asked them for a mimosa as a "hair of the dog." The waitress wouldn't open a whole bottle of champagne for a mimosa but she offered to make me a screwdriver, which is vodka and orange juice. It was one of those little lines I had never crossed: vodka at 6am.

But I was just so desperate that I said yes and drank two or three. I then took the Heathrow Express train and arrived in the bowels of Heathrow airport. I had mistimed my trip and had time before my flight, so I sat on a bench, pulled out my journal and started crying.

I wrote the words: I think I have a problem.

I had been asking myself for years: Am I an alcoholic? What's wrong with me? These really shame inducing questions that actually prevented me from changing, because the answers to them were so tragic. Sobriety was the absolute worst thing I could imagine, because alcohol was certainly my best friend.

But at that moment, a different question came into my mind: Why?

Why was it that this fermented liquid glass had so much control over me? I felt smart and in control everywhere else in my life, but this was a strange exception. Why?

Changing my alcohol habits, and my life

I decided to let myself off the hook and try to understand the "Why?" And that kicked off almost a year's worth of research into alcohol and its effects, reading all the scientific literature I could find. I started by making a list of all the reasons that I drank, and it became clear that I believed that alcohol relaxed me like I believed the sky was blue.

But the beautiful thing about learning something new that you cannot argue with is that once your brain knows that, it can't unknow it. I was learning about the negative biological and neurological effects of drinking alcohol and once that happened, I felt something new. I didn't feel pulled toward the substance anymore.

During research, I had been drinking less and less, without even consciously realizing. And one night in December 2014, I told my husband that I wasn't going to drink anymore.

In the early days, I joined a lot of online forums to talk to different groups of people who weren't drinking; it was cathartic. At the same time, all of my research had been done and I was synthesizing it for myself. I had a huge document that was a combination of journal and research points. I cleaned it up as much as I could, and posted the PDF in these different forums. I just felt this information needed to be out there. Within the first two weeks, 20,000 people downloaded it. I remember one guy wrote to me and said I should turn my research into a book, which I eventually did.

Annie Grace Quit Alcohol 7 Years Ago
Annie Grace drank two bottles of wine a night before quitting alcohol in 2014. Annie Grace

In between, I had to make peace with the fact that we human beings need maintenance. For me, that really does look like exercise, a slow road into meditation, trying to be outside in nature more and really connecting with people. I had to reframe existing relationships so they weren't built around alcohol.

A lot of people can think that a social event or experience would be so much better if they could just drink. But I think that it's powerful to learn how to live awake in our society, with our eyes wide open to everything that's happening, and feeling all of our emotions and experiences. If I were to compare when I was drinking, to now, it's like night and day. But it's always a process, to just continue to realize that I'm doing the best I can.

Starting The Alcohol Experiment

Around two and a half years into being alcohol free, I began to notice that while dry January is extremely popular, nobody was really learning anything new as a result. In fact, it almost created this "forbidden fruit syndrome" where people were drinking more on February 1.

I began to ask myself if this could be a different kind of experiment. Because I realized that the questions we are likely asking ourselves when it comes to alcohol, collectively as a society, are: Am I an alcoholic? Do I have a problem? What's wrong with me?

Those questions, by definition, keep us stuck. They keep us entrenched in the same behavior because they're so painful to answer. They almost precipitate a rock bottom, because you're not going to answer those questions in the affirmative until you're really low.

So I decided to create The Alcohol Experiment in 2017, and the question that I posit is, essentially, what if I could be a bit better at drinking a little bit less? There's no requirement to get sober. It's free and there's no following a plan and sailing off into sobriety.

I would like people to consume the information about alcohol and drinking alcohol that is provided every single day of the experiment, and then decide. The experiment encourages people to take a break for 30 days, but there's no shame and there's no blame. Drinking alcohol is just considered a data point. There's no expectation. I would also never encourage anyone to do The Alcohol Experiment as an alternative to seeking professional medical help for alcohol dependence. I am not a medical professional, I'm just trying to have a different conversation about alcohol and lower the barrier for having a dialogue about drinking less. My barrier to entry was I felt I had to identify as an alcoholic before I could engage in this conversation, and I have never identified as an alcoholic.

Annie Grace Quit Alcohol 7 Years Ago
After quitting alcohol, Annie Grace launched The Alcohol Experiment to help others have conversations about their alcohol consumption. Annie Grace

To date, more than 325,000 people have taken part in the experiment, and we now get around 10,000 emails a month. A lot of them are thank you letters, but another prevalent theme is people writing to say that every time they'd previously taken a break from alcohol, they would find themselves white-knuckling by around day 15 and counting down the days until they could drink again. Now, they say they are considering not drinking again, or taking another break from alcohol. That's really interesting.

This work can be so heavy. And the truth is that it's heavy enough, so I want to bring some lightness to it. I'm going to provide science-based information and I'm going to talk about my own life. What people want to do with that is totally up to them, and they should take the credit for doing all the work. I just shared my story.

A soundbite I often share is that I drink as much as I want, whenever I want. I just haven't wanted to drink for more than seven years. And psychologically, that's a really healthy place for me. I don't think I'd ever drink alcohol again. But I really feel that if I was to promise I'm never drinking alcohol again, it creates unnecessary pressure.

I saw a quote from the writer Mark Manson recently that really encapsulates the truth of life for me right now.

"The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one's negative experience is itself a positive experience."

That was very true for my drinking. I was trying to have a more positive experience, and I was creating so much negativity. Now, I'm sad sometimes and I'm okay with that. It feels better, for all the counterintuitive reasons, because I'm not striving to feel better as much as I'm striving to just be in reality.

Annie Grace is the author of This Naked Mind and The Alcohol Experiment. She lives in Colorado with her family. You can find out more about her at thisnakedmind.com and learn about The Alcohol Experiment here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.