Just about a year ago, I wrote an essay detailing my own reasons for abstaining from alcohol. (If you’re also a stickler for reading a series in order, you can find “1,186 Days” in the archive. Don’t rush. We’ll try not to get too far ahead before you rejoin us.) It was a relief to talk about it, frankly, having stewed it over for a few years. It was also surprisingly cathartic to put it on paper, since it was substantially more chaotic swirling about my brain box than it was organized and detailed in that essay. Ah, the curious, inscrutable liberation of constraint.
Before I published it, I labored for months over the implications of my admissions: would friends judge me? Would they rewrite the stories of our relationships with this new information, indelibly staining our shared moments with my arrival at this murky end? Would they see evidence in my behavior, view our debaucherous moments with hindsight bias, convinced they could see now the unfortunate trajectory that would lead me to quit drinking? Would they feel weird around me? Would they glumph me into the world of addicts, a ticking time bomb that might dive headlong into a vat of gin and tonics and never resurface? Would I lose friends? Job opportunities? And did any of this matter to me, really? Because in this case, the truth was the truth. The only variable was other people seeing me as I actually was. So I published it.
Well, none of what I thought would happen happened. (I mean, as far as I can tell.) Instead, I received scores of private messages from people — many friends, but even more complete strangers. Some were folks who were secretly sober, others were openly sober. The non-drinkers thanked me for writing, and generally enjoyed the addition of another sober person to their community. We made jokes about buying each other water when we saw each other next, or how fast asleep we’d be on Friday at midnight. A few shared their reasons for stopping drinking, and some were chilling. Mostly, they were reasons like mine: I had a suspicious relationship with alcohol, so I stopped drinking. And now we’re here together. It was nice.
But overwhelmingly, the messages were from folks still drinking. I noticed, poring over the messages, that nearly all the messages had one unusual thing in common: the folks writing to me described what they were drinking at the time they were writing, what they had consumed the night before, or what they typically drank. I won’t print anyone’s letter here, but they read like this: “Hey. I read your essay, and just wanted to thank you for writing that. I wonder a lot about my own drinking (although, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting here with my first/second/third margarita/beer/glass of wine). I wonder sometimes if I should stop.” As the year has passed, I have continued to receive messages from people, and the same rule continues to apply. Thanks for writing, followed by a precise explication of what alcohol the person has consumed recently or typically.
While I’m still not sure exactly what this means, it reminds me of how I used to feel about shopping at Whole Foods Co-op. At the time, I was a cigarette smoker, and I felt like I was somehow disqualified from shopping there while I was still a smoker because I was mired in such a health-defeating habit. It felt disingenuous and fraudulent: what’s the point of organic tomatoes if I’m going to eat them with a side of 60+ carcinogenic chemicals? I’d have to eat a thousand organic tomatoes to make up for one day of smoking. Might as well keep eating Totino’s Party Pizzas. (One time, in a multi-stall women’s restroom, a woman dropped her cigarette, which then rolled from one end of the bathroom to the other. Someone handed it to her, and she asked the room, “It’s my last one in the pack. Is it awful if I smoke it?” What ensued was the most meta conversation I’ve ever had in the pisser. Consensus was eventually that while the cigarette now posed a more proximal threat, the existential question about whether to smoke it really dwarfed any immediate concern. Somehow we arrived back at “Fuck it,” washed our hands, and returned to the bar.)
So, the messages were maybe a little bit confessional, a little bit diagnostic: I know I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing, and since you figured out your drinking was bad, can you tell me if mine is bad? The answer, unfortunately, is no. I can’t tell you if your drinking is unhealthy, or if you have a problem. And even worse, I can’t help you stop. I’m really sorry about that. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can do whatever the hell you want to do, and I will cheer for you from afar. But I’m expressly unqualified to do more than that. Several people asked for help, some for help for themselves, and others for close friends. I wish I could do more. So, in lieu of irresponsibly and recklessly offering to help people analyze or stop their drinking, I thought it might be useful to answer the questions people sent me, and tell you all what I did to stop.
More caveats: I’m not a medical anything, and what I say here is my own experience. Nothing I offer here should be construed as medical advice, and you should continue to make your own decisions about your health. (And all your other stuff, too, although I will totally weigh in on whether or not you should get bangs.) I trust you, and I think you should, too. And there are actual professionals out there who can help you, if you’re feeling like that would help or is necessary. I’ll put some local links at the bottom of this essay.
To that point: The first thing I did when I stopped drinking was get very honest with myself. I had spent such a long time pondering my drinking, monkeying with the details, negotiating and renegotiating moderation schedules, and generally beating parts of my brain into a macerated pulp that I had a pretty good idea I was doing something unhealthy to myself. How unhealthy, exactly, I wasn’t sure. But it was something I felt strongly I should investigate. The fact that I was so reluctant to take a break, and so recalcitrant on the subject of being a non-drinker, was fishy to a degree that even I could no longer ignore.
I didn’t make any big proclamations, but I definitely admitted to myself that my drinking wasn’t healthy. I had started talking about it to my husband and a close friend. That helped me feel less ashamed, and more like this was a conscious thing I was doing: not some inexorable force of addiction — which I truly didn’t believe was my issue — to which I would need to surrender. I started avidly and voraciously reading blogs and seeking out articles written by folks who’d either quit or deliberately reformed their drinking. They had loads of similar experiences, and wrote in detail about the ways they’d managed their early days without alcohol. But mostly, I devoured their stories of heavy drinking, and saw myself in them, without shame, and with significant compassion. It was easier for me to see myself with that same compassion once I’d seen them that way.
I knew from my efforts to moderate my drinking that quitting, even if I wasn’t addicted to the drug of alcohol, was going to be hard. And I was pretty sure that hating myself was not going to make it easier for me to take a major step to protect myself. I needed my cognitive dissonance to settle its shit around this subject, and align around the idea that healthy things were good for me, and what I deserved. I also guessed that I might need to take more than one run at this break, based on my own experience and what I’d read from other folks. I’m really glad I started with that knowledge, because I did indeed flop. It took me several attempts to take the break I had planned. Which brings me to my next point: I made a plan.
I’d read that it took anywhere from six to twelve weeks to change a habit, and I wanted to break my habit before I revisited it. I wanted to see it with clear eyes. So, I decided to try a challenge proposed by “Tired of Thinking About Drinking,” a website I followed: 100 days without drinking. Something about the idea really appealed to me, and I liked the way the site’s author approached sobriety. I quietly stopped drinking on June 2, and just avoided social situations for the first few weeks. As we got closer to July, I decided to tell people I was participating in “Dry July,” a month of not drinking, and was just getting started a little early. I knew a couple of other folks who were doing cleanses for the month of July, and would be abstaining from drinking during that time. Honestly, I also felt it gave me plausible deniability. I was worried about having conversations with folks while I was in such a raw and fragile time. I didn’t want to try to traverse such foreign and potentially hazardous terrain with anyone else’s shit on my back, and it’s hard to be private about your abstinence when your entire social group knows you to be a heavy and enthusiastic drinker. I imagined shouting “I’M NOT AN ALCOHOLIC BUT I’M SUSPICIOUS ABOUT MY RELATIONSHIP WITH ALCOHOL,” into the ear of a friend at Pizza Lucé, and elected to not ever do that, instead. The truth is, I knew I was taking a party buddy away from a lot of people, and I knew they’d have feelings about that. I wanted to be mindful of that while protecting my own privacy and process. Saying, “I’m doing ‘Dry July’ was easy and avoided the whole conversation.
For the nights when I didn’t want to talk about it, I devised a whole host of decoy cocktails (mocktails, when they were available), like sparkling water with sliced lime or lemon, in a cocktail glass. Bartenders were terrifically accommodating and discreet. I’d just lean over the bar and ask for a drink that looked like a gin and tonic but had no alcohol in it. It made me feel more at ease in party or bar environments. This turned out to be really important, because for the first three months, I felt a lot like a high school kid with a fake ID, trying to Adult in the Grown-Up Place. It was enough to navigate sober interaction in previously non-sober situations, without the “why-aren’t-you-drunk-should-we-talk-at-length-about-it” element.
I ate everything and anything I wanted, which mostly meant sugar. I have spent most of my adult life lording my mouth free of sugar teeth over my friends and family, so this was a hard but, let’s face it, deliciously sweet pill to swallow. I ate a lot of crow, but even more cookies, candies, cake pops and whipped-creamy coffee confections. The blogs I followed strongly encouraged folks early in their quit process to reward themselves for days or weeks of sobriety. I really took that to heart. I sometimes rewarded afternoons of sobriety with caramel corn or a cupcake and a latte, towering with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. Occasionally, all three. (I’m not fucking around about the sweets, yo.) Even with a distressing weekly habit of buying treats and junk magazines from gas stations, the most expensive stores in the world including Dubai, I still saved money, not drinking. I also still lost weight, which was not my reason for quitting, but was metabolically amazing, considering my cupcake consumption.
All the bloggers talked about the magical sleep they were getting, but I didn’t get that, at first. Initially, I experienced a host of strange physical symptoms. While I never had any classic withdrawal symptoms from the sudden removal of alcohol from my life, I did feel my brain adjusting to the persistent change in my neurochemistry. Alcohol behaves like a neurotransmitter in the brain, binding to receptors and typically causing sedation and relaxation. Over time, because I had consistently taken in large quantities of alcohol, my brain, helpful gelatinous blob of knowing that it is, had adapted, upregulating the excitatory system. It took a few weeks to get the memo that no more alcohol would be coming. This made me feel moody, anxious, moody, jittery, moody, and generally cognitively wacky. Sleep remained elusive — maybe more so than when I was drinking. I felt like a very caffeinated emo squirrel for a little while, which was not fun, but not terrible enough to make me reduce my sugar intake or seek additional help. The most intense downside of this state was how it intersected with the enormous pile of unprocessed shit I had accumulated by drinking about things for so long without ever really thinking about them. Suddenly I had all this time — even at 2 a.m.! — to think. It was kind of the cognitive equivalent of the Gravitron ride. Pinned to the pads, spinning as fast as possible, for much longer than I’d prefer. It lasted about six weeks, and started to improve dramatically about three weeks in.
That’s when the sleep started. Let’s have a whole paragraph devoted exclusively to sleep. Sleep.Sleep. Delicious, delectable, magnificent sleep. I started sleeping like a cat. Sleeping like an otter holding hands with another, even cuter otter in a warm river. Like the actual dead, only the dead that were super happy to die, like, “finally, I’m so exhausted, I’m so glad I’m dead, this is so great.” I met my pillow every night like an old and trusted friend, read a few pages of some sci-fi novel, and let sleep claim me like a Teletubby wrapped in Snuggies and down pillows. For fucking real, the absolute best reason to stop drinking is for the sleep. If you can be horny for sleep, I am. (Sober blogger Suburban Betty wrote a delightful treatise on the subject on her blog, Suburban Betty, Clean and Serene.)
Speaking of Suburban Betty, although I never felt right about attending any addiction recovery or support groups in person (which had nothing to do with the groups, which I have tremendous respect for, but had much more to do with me), I did form a support network online. I reached out to a bunch of bloggers I admired or shared commonalities with, and we formed tight alliances. We may not have known each other in person, but we grew close, shared our stories, and supported each other. I feel impossibly grateful for their help, kind words, and camaraderie during that first year. Also, their authenticity and foul-mouthed transcendance made me feel more at home on the planet. We did a hard thing together, and it continues to astonish me that such different people can be so good to each other. (And I’m not even in the emo-squirrel phase anymore, so you know this is real talk.) I felt sheepish in person, asking for help when I was struggling, but I felt at ease talking to people online.
I threw myself into exercise in ways unprecedented in my adult life. Since I was 16, I’d been a cigarette smoker or a heavy drinker, and although exercise was definitely a part of my post-smoking life, it was a bit player. Adding a planned and regular exercise routine to my life helped me lean in to my healthier identity, and actively participate in the self-love I was trying to cultivate as a replacement for the self-harm I’d become so dependent upon. It was a money-where-your-beer-was kind of thing, and every time I sat on that stationary bike or walked through Hartley, I was showing myself that my health was important. It had the added unexpected benefit of making me feel way less crazy during the emo-squirrel phase, as well. It’s so good at the uncrazy-ing, in fact, that I’ve kept doing it ever since. I’m not particularly strong or fast, but I can likely slowly ride my bike to Boca Raton, should the need for that ever arise.
As the 60th day of my 100-day break passed, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so good — so healthy, so present, so rested, so at ease with myself. Somewhere around day 80, I remember my husband turning to look at me one day, smiling and saying, “you’re never going to drink again.” Although I never consistently had that particular conviction, and still maintain that drinking is a choice I make or don’t, I knew why he said that. I was in my skin in a way I had not been since I was 21 years old.
I went to visit my best friend, and told her what I was attempting. She positively beamed at me. “Was I that bad?” I asked her.
“No. But you are this good, now.” I felt it.
As I approached 100 days of sobriety, I started to contemplate my next moves. Should I attempt to work out a healthy relationship with alcohol? What would that look like, and what would it mean? I had a kind of slow revelation — more of soggy match lighting than a lightbulb — that I’d always thought of quitting drinking as a long trudge without. Without alcohol, without my coping mechanism, without the fun and delicious darkness of oblivion. I’d been preparing myself to give all those things up during my experiment. But instead I had gotten all these things back that I hadn’t noticed disappearing. I was much less stopping something than I was starting something far more precious and important to me than drinking had ever been.
And, although I know I’ve said this before, I cannot fully express to you how important it is for me to never, ever have a hangover ever again, ever. I think I’d rather purposely give myself the stomach flu, or be tased.
At the 100-day mark, I decided to start talking about my decision to keep not drinking. My friends and family were supportive, if a little confused, and I was strong enough in my new habits that I could handle whatever ribbing they slung my way. It felt like closing a loop, and I gradually brought more people in. And then, in the way of things, it was now. I’ve been through a lot in the four years since I stopped drinking. There have been many, many times when I’ve thought my situation would be improved (or at least abbreviated) by several shots of tequila. I haven’t tried any of the new microbrews, liquors, or ciders in the city, and although many of them are award-winning, you couldn’t prove it by me. And I don’t care. I feel the same way about it that you might feel about a college boyfriend: awwwwww, but naaawwww. Thanks for the memories, I learned a lot, but we don’t need to keep in touch.
I don’t know if I’ll always feel this way.That’s scary, but let’s be all the way candid for a moment: I don’t know how I’ll feel about anything, forever. And as much as it feels tantalizingly good to think I’m in control of something, to have certainty and clarity is a big fat lie. Almost everything is temporary, including and especially me. What I can tell you is that I’ll continue, to the best of my ability, to make my decisions out of love for myself.
So, there it is. There was nothing special, magical, or transcendent in what I did. Slightly more interesting and less technical than the story of how I chose my last car or figured out what was wrong with my stomach. I hope there’s something useful in here for you, even if it’s the section about cake pops and caramel mochas. It’s like everything else — for better or worse: you get to choose.
- Tired of Thinking About Drinking
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment
- Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
- The Easy Way to Stop Drinking by Allen Carr
- Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease* by Herbert Fingarette
(* I don’t think alcoholism is a myth, but added this book because it did such a thorough job of describing many different unhealthy drinking types, as pathological and detrimental without necessarily following a prescribed disease process. If you know of a better one that accomplished the same end, please add it in the comments!)
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