Most people who sign up for the annual Alcohol Free For 40 Challenge are expecting to experience some degree of difficulty. The 40-day challenge entails giving up all alcohol from Ash Wednesday until Easter, establishing baseline health metrics including certain labs, body composition, blood pressure and a close-up photo, which are then repeated at the end of the challenge.
Giving up alcohol completely for 40 days is harder for some than others, and at times, feels nearly impossible for many, as participants may struggle with deep-rooted feelings of self-doubt.
But one thing is absolutely certain: Not a single person who signed on for the 2020 Alcohol Free For 40 Challenge was prepared for what they were about to face.
Less than two weeks into the challenge, the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Louisiana. One week later, all bars, theaters and fitness centers were shuttered and restaurants either closed or transitioned to takeout- and delivery-only facilities. This was soon followed by the statewide stay-at-home order.
Nearly all of the usual distractions that we turn to as replacement behaviors to help break the habit and curb the desire to drink – trying out new hobbies, experimenting with different workouts, retail therapy – became, for the most part, off-limits.
We were left alone with our thoughts, our anxieties and our fears swirling around in our heads.
We had to dig deep within ourselves to discover our strength and establish coping skills to help turn down the noise in our own minds to bring forward a calmness, serenity and a level of peace amidst the chaos. And we had to do it on our own, without the alcohol to help numb the pain.
It’s hard to put into words just how proud I am of our Alcohol Free For 40 crew.
Some did choose to throw in the towel early, and this is understandable. Everyone is in a different place in their journey, with varying levels of importance or value placed in their commitment to go alcohol-free.
Many, however, stayed the course through Easter, and more than a few strong souls are still in it so that they can see the before-and-after comparison of their labs. (We’re still awaiting the green light to host the events for post-challenge metrics.)
Learn more about the participants’ journeys, as they share their experiences in their own words:
“As I lay in bed falling asleep one night, I realized that I feel incredibly grounded. As if the alcohol kept me blowing around like a snowflake in a storm. When I stopped drinking, the wind stopped blowing. Eventually, I have rocked back and forth on the currents as they calmed until I came to rest on the ground. Ah. Calm.” - Kalisa Hobbs Hyman
“I've had a much better time managing my stress since starting this challenge. It's crazy how the thing I thought was stress relief at the end of the day seems to have been priming my brain for higher stress and anxiety in the long run.” – Rose Landry
“This is my fourth year taking the Alcohol Free For 40 Challenge, and each year I’ve experienced better sleep, clearer skin and eyes and, best of all, clarity. Clarity is the best weapon in these times, along with what I know is an improved immune system. Many, many thanks to you and your team, Molly.” – Letty Nelson
“I love that I was able to do this challenge during the pandemic and have held strong. In the middle of it, I lost my sweet Dad and I want to feel every emotion without the numbing effects of alcohol. I’ve got this and love all of the support and tips we’ve received during the challenge.” – Joanne Dornak
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“Between the challenge and COVID-19 restrictions, my house has never been so clean, nor my nutrition, fitness and meditation practice so consistent. There are days when I think a glass of wine sure would be fantastic, but I occupy myself and the thought eventually floats away like a cloud. I’m grateful for the timing of the challenge. It has helped me tune into myself and my healthy coping mechanisms.” – Melanie Warner Spencer
“Being a caregiver to a Stage IV COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) spouse, I cannot even fathom adding alcohol during this present journey. Having a clear mind to make healthy decisions is paramount at this time.” – Sandy Courvoisier
“Amazing that my almost-85-year-old husband and I, both daily wine drinkers, have not looked back! We eat earlier and sleep better. Getting bucket list Items accomplished as our day doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock wine time.” – Rita Lynn Jackson
“I am so thankful for this challenge. My head is clearer, my morning jogs are peppier and my appreciation for mocktails has grown exponentially!” – Irene Evans
“I am not sure how I will re-enter the world of drinking when this is over, but I know I can always use this experience as an anchor. It’s nice to notice that it’s not that much different, drinking or not. I still manage to enjoy life.” – Dottie T.
“These are uncertain times and staying healthy is the only thing I can control. I’m thankful for my health and my family. Looking forward to continuing this program that has only brought me good things.” – Claudia Benevento
“I've managed to stay the course, as I know that one will turn into many, so I don't go there. I get up early, I accomplish a lot during the day, my skin looks good, my eyes are bright, and my thinking is straight. My adult kids are proud of me.” – Barbara Murphy
“I love that I sleep like a brick.” – Susan H.
“The fact that I have been able to be alcohol free during what has got to be the worst piece of history in my life is amazingly powerful. Living in NOLA, that carrot is always dangling in front of our faces. But this is like a nuclear carrot. This is an extremely depressing situation for our society and alcohol may have just thrown me over the edge.” – Cyndi Migon
“I felt like I owed it to myself to uphold my commitment. Throughout the challenge, I felt my awareness getting stronger each time I was approached with the offer of alcohol, and realized that there are many other options for enjoyment and alternatives to curtail such cravings. I believe that I will come out of this a smarter drinker with increased awareness of what I’m putting into my body.” – Cyndi Cu Vu
“While this is my third successful year of AFF40, this year holds the most meaning for me, as unlike past years, I didn’t feel the urge to mocktail it. I won’t deny that it has been difficult to modify my behavior but I’m looking forward to next year!” - Sonny Cathey
“I find it is never a ‘good time’ to give something up if it is your crutch for coping with stress. These past alcohol-free weeks have forced me to find different ways to relax: I exercised, I learned Wim Hof's breathing methods, I attended Ochsner's mental mindfulness sessions each day, I learned to ask for help when I needed it. I also drank tons of mineral water, became a mixologist of the mocktail and prayed. There is always an excuse to not succeed when abstaining from something not great for your health. Quit making excuses and do it! As for me, I am still hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit until the end!” - Lucinda L’Enfant
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner’s Eat Fit nonprofit initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s columns + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.