Five years ago today, I quit drinking.
It wasn’t the first time. I took a year off from alcohol about ten years ago, mostly as a way to prove to myself that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. After all, if I could spend a year sober, obviously I couldn’t have a drinking problem, could I? :-)
Turns out, my very real problems with alcohol center on drinking in moderation. Apparently I have two modes: either I don’t drink, or I drink significantly, every day. Faced with that choice, I stopped drinking entirely.
Some people choose sobriety after an incident in which they hit bottom. That wasn’t my pathway, though I do clearly remember the events that helped me decide to make a change. My girlfriend – now wife – Amy Price moved in with me five years ago. She’s had alcoholics in her life for many years, and I knew that my drinking was a concern for her, though she never pressured me to change my behavior. Knowing that she would be watching, I cut my drinking sharply. After a few months of living together, Amy went back to Houston to see friends over a long weekend, and I immediately took the opportunity to get drunk.
I woke up the next morning, hung over, and wondered why the hell I’d gotten drunk the night before. Clearly, I missed the experience of getting smashed. Clearly I’d been waiting for the opportunity to get drunk as soon as I possibly could. What the fuck was THAT about?
I took some aspirin, drank an iced coffee, and dumped out all the cheap booze in the house. (I gave the good stuff to friends. I had some NICE whisky at that point in my life.) Since then, I’ve had the occasional sip of Amy’s drink, but haven’t ordered a drink, got drunk or otherwise violated the drinking rules I’ve set for myself. (Turns out, people get sober different ways. I drink NA beer and spirits, which have less than 0.5% alcohol – there are folks in the AA community, for example, for whom that would violate rules. I know a number of friends who are “California sober”, which means they use cannabis but not alcohol. That’s not something I do for fear that I’d replace one habit with another.)
I’m writing about my experience because one of the major barriers I had in taking on my problems with alcohol was realizing that I had a problem with alcohol. I convinced myself that all alcoholics looked like Nick Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas, drinking vodka out of the bottle in the shower. I mostly drank at home, so DWI hadn’t been an issue for me. I never lost a job due to drinking, though in retrospect, my drinking had a lot to do with the end of my first marriage. I didn’t drink in the daytime, I was reasonably happy and successful, so clearly I couldn’t have a problem.
I have written before about the idea that high-functioning depression can be harder to diagnose than major depression, and I suspect the same is true for alcoholism. I had the odd experience of trying to convince (only a very few) friends that my problems with alcohol were serious enough that it was wise for me to stop drinking. My sense is that we, as a society, would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of alcoholism. For everyone for whom alcohol has become unmanageable, leading to assaults, arrests, and endangerment of others, there are tens or hundreds of people for whom alcohol is becoming a problem, or making it harder for people to address the other problems they’re facing in life.
Some people report that they’ve lost tons of weight, felt a wave of new energy or experienced other physical or spiritual transformations when they’ve become sober. That didn’t happen for me. Perhaps if you’re the sort of person who can replace a few cocktails with running a few miles, but for me that would require a full brain transplant, not just eliminating alcohol intake. But my five years of sobriety have been some of the happiest of my life. It’s hard to credit that solely to sobriety, because other aspects of life have changed simultaneously: I’m treating my depression, I moved to a university that’s a much healthier environment for me than my previous employer, I’m in a terrific relationship. My guess is that sobriety makes these other changes easier, and is made easier by these changes.
The main change I’ve experienced from getting sober: I am starting to do a better job of taking responsibility for my own bad behavior. There’s a strong correlation between moments in my life that I’m embarrassed about and alcohol. It’s not hard to build a causal link: I drink and I do things I shouldn’t do. But that’s a dodge. Alcohol exacerbated my worst tendencies: it didn’t create them. Now when I fail to live up to my values and treat people around me badly, I don’t have an easy explanation for my bad behavior, which brings me one step closer to dealing with the ways in which I fall short.
The hardest thing about not drinking wasn’t the actual process of stopping. I am very lucky that I’ve always been able to cease drinking – my problem has always been with drinking in moderation, and I no longer try to do that. My problems now are mostly problems of replacement behaviors. I’ve had to figure out how to turn off at the end of the day. I used to have a drink or two over dinner – the alcohol was the cue that I was no longer expecting my brain to do productive work. That’s useful, because my brain isn’t well suited to working hard fourteen or sixteen hours a day. I’ve been working on other rituals and passtimes that help me turn off, but it’s a work in progress.
I’ve also had to search for alternative ways to reward myself – a drink was the preferred reward for finishing a project, for doing the task I’d put off doing, for getting through the day. It turns out that I still need rewards for accomplishing the mundanities of life. During the pandemic, I started driving an hour to Albany to get interesting and exciting takeout food most Friday nights, a way of breaking the monotony of COVID sameness. It’s become one in an arsenal of rewards that I keep handy.
That arsenal also includes lots of tasty things to drink that aren’t alcoholic. It’s a terrific time to get sober: breweries are cracking the riddle of making non-alcoholic beer that doesn’t make you sad. Most notable for me has been non-alcoholic Guinness, which I am betting would do well in a taste-test with the fully leaded stuff. I get a monthly subscription from Hoplark, which makes hop-inflused teas and waters, and a bottle of Kentucky 75, which mixed with diet Pepsi is a surprisingly good facsimile of my tipple of choice.
One of the most useful resources for me has been a Facebook group for non-alcohol beer fans, a community that’s been an equal mix of tasting recommendations and low-key encouragement. Seeing people celebrate their sobriety milestones is encouraging, as is watching people forgive and encourage each other. Someone will post about ordering a NA beer and being served the hard stuff, and “ruining” their streak of sobriety – the community will immediately explain that sobriety is, at least in part, about intentionality. The drinker who meant to order a NA beer, who stopped when she figured out the beer was leaded is still sober… and anyone who would quibble over that reading of the situation probably wouldn’t be especially comfortable in this community.
Why write about five years of sobriety? In truth, being sober doesn’t require much concentration or effort most days. I make a point of checking for NA options whenever I am in a bar or restaurant, if only to let restaurant owners know that non-drinkers exist. There’s alcohol in my house for Amy, who might have a glass of wine once a week, or for guests. I have very occasional moments where I BADLY want a drink – the most recent was on an airplane, sitting next to a man who put away four shots of bourbon in rapid succession. I drained my club soda, put on my mask and tried hard not to smell the alcohol as it seeped out of his pores. (Since getting sober, I smell alcohol on people’s skin with an acuity that can be uncomfortable.)
My path to sobriety didn’t run through AA or other conventional support groups, though I have friends for whom those communities, meetings and support are essential to their own path. But I saw an AA five year coin posted to my Facebook NA beer club recently, and I wanted one. Not an AA coin necessarily, but some tangible, physical acknowledgement of five years of being in the world in a different way. I am deeply proud that I’ve found a different way of being, a way that gives me a better chance of being the person I want to be.
This post is my five year coin. It’s my celebration of something that gets easier every day, but is still not easy, and may never be. It’s a strange thing to be proud of, an accomplishment made up of 1800 days of not doing something. But it’s something I am damned proud of, that I’m turning over in my fingers like a heavy coin in my pocket, that I fidget with contentedly, like my wedding ring.
I wish you the best with whatever changes you are trying to make in your life, and I wish you pride in your successes, whatever they may be. And I am looking forward to updating this post five, ten and fifteen years from now.