Updated: Nov 10, 2019
I got sober by mistake.
My plan was to complete a Dry January, but a couple of wholesome and productive fortnights of not drinking made me greedy. Imagine what I could achieve if I gave up for a year!
A dozen false starts later I realised two things.
1. I was going to need help if I was going to manage 365 days without alcohol.
2. If I needed help to quit I might have a bit of a problem.
I ploughed through memoirs about women who had gotten sober and listened to hours of recovery podcasts. I began to fill my head with counter-perspectives to the pro-drinking crowd that I was used to, and the booze-loving chorus resident in my head. I hunted for phrases with the same level of indisputable logic as one won’t hurt.
And when books and audio still weren’t enough to keep me out the wine aisle I found a community of women who were managing it, contentedly, and asked what on earth had worked for them. Accountability helped, they said, which was a crying shame because there was no way I was telling the people closest to me what I was doing.
What kind of weakling needs help sticking to their own decision?
Thus began my Entirely Accidental Education into Addiction (clever acronym pending).
School consisted of online Am I Alcoholic? tests (aced them); innumerable Google searches (Can you be a bit alcoholic? Is alcoholism really progressive? Is sobriety actually good?); passages from the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous; Ted Talks galore; scouring old diaries for evidence; and crying at Sandra Bullock in 28 Days. These lessons were compounded by new sober women friends who answered my questions, and tolerated my confusion, and laughed at things I hadn’t realised were funny yet. They said stuff I wasn’t used to hearing, and challenged my thinking about drink.
What’s the worst that would happen if you aren’t alcoholic and you stop drinking anyway?
They nudged me to call other people and see how I could be of service, instead of hiding away and feeling sorry for myself; they told me I was doing great; and encouraged me to keep going; they said it would get easier; and promised it was worth it, and sometimes I actually believed them.
Still, I had no intention of quitting for good. This was just an experiment, something I would do for a year. If it was interesting, maybe I could write about it.
I practised observing or sharing my alcohol-seeking thoughts rather than acting on them, and over time another internal voice became prominent, one that had been calling to me for years about yoga and gardening and climbing and nature. I made plans to do activities that didn’t feature booze and grew to understand the point of cake and coffee. I created space for a new narrative around alcohol to bloom inside my psyche.
Instead of thinking fuck it, one won’t hurt when a free glass of Prosecco was offered on entering a fancy restaurant, I left and called a sober friend half-crying with anger and embarrassment. Why TF couldn’t I just drink it?
Because it is never just one. Because you are trying something different.
I acted as if one would hurt, long before I believed it. I began every day with the decision not to drink today. After all, it was just for a year.
Reading Sarah Allen Benton’s book recently, Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic [HFA], Breaking the Cycle and Finding Hope, I began to better understand the particular difficulties I experienced getting and staying sober. “For HFAs, the level of their own denial is heightened by the denial of society, their loved ones, and their colleagues”, Benton writes on p.109.
As well as an unwillingness or inability for loved ones to see the problem (helped by the tendency of HFAs to drink in private) there is the fact that drinkers tend to gravitate towards people who drink like them. As Benton writes, “it becomes easy to be ‘compared’ out of having a problem.”
I knew plenty of people — mostly men — who drank more than me and weren’t trying to cut down. They made my drinking seem moderate. Not only this, but I’d seen ‘real’ alcoholics at close quarters — most notably my uncle — and my consumption was nothing like his. My uncle kept drinking in spite of losing his job, health, and in the end, his life. Anyone could see that alcohol was ruining him. I was an over-anxious wine-sipping lightweight in comparison; an occasional binge-drinker overreacting to a non-problem. I needed to try harder to control myself, perhaps, but that was all.
It never occurred to me that my uncle’s drinking had shifted from one style to another, that he had once been a sweet lil binge drinker like me. I had no concept of ‘alcoholism’ as progressive.
My uncle was taken over by his addiction so gradually, over fifteen or twenty years, that even from close hand it is difficult to say when he crossed that invisible line from ‘liking a drink’ into true dependence. Did he go through a period of promising himself that today he wouldn’t drink, only to find himself drunk again? Was his booze-parasite’s grip so great he never asked for help? I didn’t witness any efforts to quit, but I know how pride can stop a person from revealing the conflict inside.
It only occurred to me that my drinking related in any way to his after I began seriously trying to stop. Wanting to stay sober, and drinking anyway I began to understand his predicament. I saw how a person could lose the power to choose, in spite of what it cost them.
Looking back, with the evidence of how my life has changed as a result of quitting, I can see I was lucky. Nobody suggested I stop drinking; I didn’t lose a job; in fact, the negative consequences were largely invisible. The message simply rose up from within me that life would be better without the financial, emotional and psychological cost of this limiting habit.
Almost three years sober, and better educated about the nature of addiction, I wish I could have helped my uncle. I wonder how bad my drinking would have to get before anyone intervened. And I wonder if there are many people who never stop drinking because nobody around them notices it is a problem.
In one year of sobriety my life and spirit and self esteem improved so much that I knew I needed to quit alcohol.
If a year sober brought such joy and opportunity and fulfillment, what would a lifetime do?
A return to drinking, for me, looked increasingly like self-harm, but that doesn’t mean giving up was easy. In fact, the transition was tricky enough that I still find it incredible that anyone (let alone me) ever manages it.
The early days of sobriety are such a leap of faith, and alcoholism (for want of a better word) talks to you in your own voice the whole time, using your best arguments, tailor-made for you, by you, to get you drinking again.
Just one, though, of course! Yolo!!! ; )
Which is why it’s so important to find people who will help you stick with your decision when you lose track of why you’ve taken it, which, if you’re harbouring a booze-parasite of your own, you likely do after two or three hours/days/weeks of healthy living.
If drinking is stopping you from living the life you want why not try my experiment yourself? Tell those closest to you what you are doing, find a sober community and ask for help. People who love you will do what they can to support you, even if they lose a drinking buddy.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll wish you quit years ago.