I did it. I’m here. I’ve been sober for a whole year. I’m not even sure if or how that’s possible – but, it must be. It’s been 365 days since I took my last drink. And what a wild ride it’s been. I wrote a little something to commemorate the day. Okay, it’s not exactly little. But it’s a good reflection, I feel, of what my personal experience has been with getting and staying sober over the past 12 months. I’m proud of myself for this, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with this wonderful sober blogosphere.
On July 9, 2016, I woke up tired, bloated and dehydrated from celebrating my birthday the night before. I don’t remember how many beers I had at the two breweries our group went to, nor do I remember the taste of the vodka-diet cocktails I drank at the karaoke bar at the end of the night. I don’t remember what we talked about, which games we played, or how late we were out that night. I don’t remember what I was wearing or how I felt. I just remember walking around pretty drunk all night.
I also remember the hangover that morning. It wasn’t particularly bad or unusual. I wasn’t vomiting or feeling like I wanted to die. But, it’s memorable nonetheless, because it was the last hangover I’ve had in the year since.
Even though not drinking has become the new normal for me, and I honestly don’t put a lot of mental energy or effort into evaluating or analyzing my sober life, I thought I’d take a bit of time to explore how being a sober person for the last year has changed me, my perspectives, and how I feel about alcohol and sobriety in general.
So, I wrote out a few thoughts on the matter, the very first of which is…
It’s not really about the alcohol
Not drinking is definitely all about not consuming alcohol in any shape or form, but the act of being sober isn’t really about the alcohol at all – it goes way beyond the drug into intention, resolution, and purpose.
For folks who find themselves in situations where alcohol is more of a necessary evil than a pleasurable pastime, there are usually unpleasant or unsavory things simmering beneath the surface that the alcohol is effectively working to keep hidden. We say, “oh god, this is really unpleasant, I can’t deal with this,” and alcohol responds, “it’s cool, I’ll take care of it.”
These “unmentionables” might be depression, anxiety, social awkwardness, shyness, mental illness, stress, perfectionism, trauma, etc. It might be something that happened to you that was out of your control, or something that you did that you’re awfully ashamed of. It might be a chemical imbalance in your brain. It might be some kind of chronic pain or illness. Whatever the problem is, alcohol falsely promises to fix it. So when someone with problems decides to quit drinking, being sober becomes less about standing awkwardly at the party without a drink in your hand and more about entering a boxing ring with your brain in the opponent’s corner — and it’s got your heart in a headlock.
Here’s the secret, though: you’re gonna be okay. Your heart is gonna be okay. Your brain will chill out. Even if it doesn’t, there are way healthier ways of helping you deal with that than drinking. It just takes time, and patience, and kindness to yourself. That anxiety-inducing social event will pass, the painful feelings will subside, the fear will die down. You have every right to remove yourself from situations that become too much to handle, especially when you’re fresh in sobriety. You have every right to treat yourself with the kindness and patience you’d give to a close friend who is having a rough time. It’s important to remember that the feelings you’re feeling are less about not having that beer, and more about dealing with everything the beer promises to make better (but never does). It gets better with time, but that’s just it: it takes time. In the wise words of Tom Petty:
“the waiting is the hardest part; every day you see one more card, you take it on faith, you take it to the heart; the waiting is the hardest part”
People are curious and ask a lot of questions
People who don’t drink usually get a lot of questions about why they don’t drink. I’ve always found this really interesting — alcohol is pretty much the only drug that people seem to care about others not using, except perhaps for caffeine. I laugh to myself when I get questions about why I’m not drinking, and secretly replace the words “drinking” or “alcohol” with things like “doing heroin” or “opioids.” Makes it seem even more ridiculous when you imagine someone asking you if you’ve ever tried moderating your heroin usage, rather than just quitting altogether.
Anyway, here are a few questions I’ve heard over the past year of not drinking:
- “Oh, you don’t drink? Why not?”
- “So do you just drink every so often then?”
- “What about at concerts/weddings/other celebrations?”
- “Do you miss alcohol?”
- “Do you think you’ll drink again?”
- “Can’t you just have one and stop?”
- “I feel like I could quit drinking whenever I want, I just don’t want to.”
- “How do you have fun without drinking?”
- “Does it bother you when I drink around you?”
- “So what do you do for fun instead?”
- “Life is too short to be sober. Why suffer like that?”
- “So… is that just a personal choice then?” (aka you’re not an alcoholic, right?)
You don’t have to force your way through it
I’m really stubborn. Like, really stubborn. When I quit drinking, I felt like I should be able to do it all on my own, with my own internal resources and my own inner strength. I didn’t want to talk about it a lot with the people in my life because I didn’t want them to think I had some kind of weird problem, or that they had to treat me extra gently because I was a fragile addict who could relapse at the drop of a hat.
But, as with any kind of hardship or major life change, having people around who understand and who can encourage you through the process makes a world of difference. Slowly, I began accepting help from some of my closest friends who have also gone down the sober path. I started accepting the idea that I might not be some weird social mutant because I choose not to get drunk anymore. I stopped forcing myself to power through late-night parties I didn’t really want to be at, where I was going to be the only one not drinking while everyone around me got progressively drunker. I started seeking out communities of non-drinkers and got myself involved in therapy. I read a lot of articles and a few books and started sharing my experiences with more people. Suddenly, I realized that doing this whole not-drinking thing didn’t have to be as hard as I was making it, once I finally reached out and stopped trying to do it all on my own.
Your perspective on alcohol might change
I missed drinking when I first quit. I missed the warm fuzzy feeling of the first sip, the ritual, the community, the crazy “adventures” it brought me on. I missed feeling included in a lot of ways because the only way I truly learned how to socialize as a full-fledged adult was with a drink in my hand.
I was a little bitter at first. And a little judgmental. Okay, I was pretty judgmental. But I learned, eventually, that acting and thinking that way wasn’t doing me any favors. I learned that I had to stop looking at my sobriety as a “me-versus-them” issue, when it was really a “me-versus-me” issue. Slowly but surely, my perspective on drinking started to change. I stopped viewing alcohol as the forbidden fruit, or as the solution to my social or personal problems. More than that, I started to realize how silly I must have looked in so many situations where I was falling over myself drunk, barely able to walk, slurring out garbled nonsense after my fifth vodka-diet. I recalled some conversations and encounters I had while drunk and cringed at myself. Yes, self-cringing is a huge part of the process.
Slowly, as I began to forget what a bad hangover felt like, I caught myself on more than one occasion wondering why people weren’t up and ready to roll at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. Not drinking became such second-nature to me that even among a group of people where I was the only one not drinking, I would forget that the folks around me were getting drunk in front of my eyes until they were very obviously drunk, like…really drunk. I became less frustrated and judgmental, and started viewing the act of drinking through dual lenses: one lens being that of someone who used to LOVE to drink, and the other lens being that of a sober person. I started feeling more empathetic toward both sides, and stopped having such black-and-white feelings about it all.
I’m now in the position of being a more self-assured non-drinker. I don’t idealize or vilify alcohol. I don’t feel the need to justify myself and I don’t feel frustration with drinking culture or those who drink. It just is what it is, and I’m okay with that.
You’ll see alcohol everywhere
Alcohol is everywhere. Everywhere. When it’s around, it tends to be the focal point of conversations. When it’s not around, people are often trying to find ways to get it. There are entire Facebook pages and Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts dedicated to the creation, consumption of, and commentary on it. It’s touted as a perfect (or even necessary) addition to date night, game night, club night, Saturday and Sunday brunch, Tuesday book club, Mommy’s day off, daddy’s day out, golf trips, fishing tournaments, weddings, birthdays, funerals, vacation, engagements, divorces, tours through Europe, camping trips, campfires, hunting trips, Netflix and chill, bachelor/bachelorette parties, bridal showers, “me time,” picnics, beach dates, after work socializing, post-workout treats, concerts, etc., etc.
We see alcohol in advertising on TV, on the street, in our magazines, and on social media; it’s in our favorite television shows and movies; we combine the consumption of alcohol with our favorite healthy activities like running and yoga (Boga, anyone?); we throw cocktail parties and pre-game before going out to bars to drink even more; we stand with beers in hand at concerts and get mad when the dude next to us spills his drink all over our shoes; we sneak flasks into festivals and take fireball shots to loosen ourselves up on the dance floor.
Alcohol. Is. Everywhere. Not drinking makes this incredibly apparent, almost painfully so at first. For the first few months, I couldn’t help but feel like the person who keeps seeing 11:11 everywhere, like it was all in my head and I was obsessing about this thing — this stupid, dangerous thing — that everyone was just drinking like it was nothing!
I’ve chilled out quite a bit since then.
Sleep might get worse, but then it gets better
Nightcaps are a thing, and I can definitely see why. We’re an anxious bunch, so if there’s a way to shut that shit down before going to bed, why not? I definitely have an overactive night brain, so alcohol was often the perfect little fix before jumping under the covers.
So naturally, when I quit drinking I was on-and-off exhausted for the first few months. Not only was my body adjusting to the lack of alcohol in my system, but my brain just wouldn’t let me have a break. Eventually, though, my sleep became more regular and restful, and I found it easier to drift off without toiling over every item on my to-do list for the next month and every stupid thing I said over the past year.
These days, sleep is pretty consistent and restful, though I still have my nights of frustration. I think at this point, that’s attributed more to my natural inclination toward anxious thinking, which is a whole other thing in and of itself outside drinking (as mentioned above).
Don’t worry – you can definitely find something to do with your hands
At a concert or festival? No worries! Fold your arms over your chest, wave them in the air, check your phone, or give the person next to you a hug (if you know them, that is).
At a party? Fill that red cup with sparkling water or soda and nobody will even care! They’re too busy getting drunk, remember?
Watching Netflix with that cutie from Tinder? I bet if you asked nicely they’d let you hold their hand. You can also make popcorn, or if you’re not into kernels in your teeth, grab some chocolate or meat & cheese slices to share. Don’t worry, your breath won’t smell any worse than it would after a few beers.
Sitting by yourself with the silence all around you consuming your thoughts and making you feel paralyzed with indecision? Don’t fret: you can always try balling up your fists and punching a pillow. Alternatives to this include phoning a friend, going for a run, reading a book, knitting, baking cookies, writing in your journal or finally getting around to chopping up all that firewood in the backyard.
It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to be OK with that
Quitting drinking can cause a lot of feelings of guilt, shame and regret to rear their ugly heads out of nowhere. I’ve definitely felt all of the above at varying levels of intensity over the past year. That being said, I am really thankful for my experiences with those feelings, because not only am I learning how to feel them and how to express them, I’m learning how to deal with them in a productive way without beating myself up or telling myself that I’ve failed somehow.
Of course, I have my good days and I have my very-not-good days. And that’s OK. It’s OK! I’m OK, and I’m OK with not always being OK. That’s been a really important thing for me to come to realize over the past 365: not being OK is normal. Forcing myself to look and act and feel OK all the time isn’t actually healthy or productive for me. It’s how I handle not being OK that matters the most: do I keep it all bundled up and stuffed down, or do I learn how to gently talk about and understand where those feelings of not-OK-ness are coming from, without being hard on myself or judging myself too sharply? I’m thinking the latter.
Sobriety is gonna suck sometimes
Maybe it’s just me, but before I got sober, I looked at sobriety as the fix-all for every single problem in my life. I was going to have more money, more time, more energy, more love, more success, etc. etc. For as much as I loved drinking and caved to both personal and societal pressures to drink, I hated how much I loved it, and I hated the hold it had on my life. I wanted out.
So when I quit, I had this idea that sobriety was going to even me out and make me the productive, smart, well-liked member of society I always aimed to be. I assumed that all of my wacky moods would evaporate into a thin haze and that I’d be able to blow them away with a single lungful of air.
Ha. Haha. Yeah, no.
To me, sobriety is worth all the trouble it takes to get there. From the moment I first wondered if I had a problem with my drinking to now, I cannot be more grateful for the teeth-gritting work it’s taken to get here. My sobriety journey has given me some very amazing moments of connection, vulnerability, joy, contentment, and humility. I am incredibly grateful. I am convinced that it is, in fact, the only way I wish to live from here on out.
That all said: being sober can really, really, REALLY suck. Just the act alone – being sober in a drunk, messy, fucked up world – sucks. Because let’s face it, when we drank, we were taking the “easy” way out of our problems, and it felt better to keep it that way for a long time. While in actuality, as active drinkers, we were just letting our problems pile up until they overflowed and started to cause chaos in our day-to-day lives. Now that we’re sober, we’ve got fewer places to hide our heads. The day of reckoning always comes, and dealing with it while sober is a whole new level of suck that we weren’t really prepared to deal with.
In my case, I have depression and anxiety as a result of several really shitty, traumatizing events that occurred between the ages of 15 and 25. My drinking allowed me to shove that shit so far down it was hardly recognizable once it came back up again. But, there it was. I couldn’t hide from it anymore. In this new sober world, I had to face down fear, sadness, despair, shame, anger, rage, humiliation, realization and much, much more, all without a way to numb that emotional pain I was feeling.
I had to come to terms with where my life has led me up until now — I’m divorced, I don’t have kids, I live in a tiny rented room working a job I don’t really like in an industry I loathe in an effort to bring myself through graduate school with as little debt possible. I’ve got all the same problems as before, the only difference is that now — NOW — I “get” to work through them without the ability to hide, dismiss, deny or make excuses for the ugliest parts of my reality. It’s truly a blessing and a curse. And it sucks. But the suck is wayyy worth the end result I get from the work I’m doing right now. As I said above, waiting is the hardest part — but all good things are worth the wait, are they not?