On a Year’s Sobriety

In exactly one week I will break my year-long commitment to sobriety.
In exactly one week I will be 30 years old.

Over the course of the year being sober has been revealing, but maybe not in the ways that people would expect. But backing up, how did I get here? Why would I decide to be sober in a city known for its drinking, whose motto is laissez les bons temps roulez, and for an entire year nonetheless?

Last summer, after an epic road trip, I was feeling pretty raggedy. I looked up a local health food stores that offered 3-day juice cleanses with the drinks that I could just pick up. I’d never done a juice cleanse before and it didn’t necessarily sound that appealing, but I was up for the challenge. The cleanse wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be; I definitely wanted food the first day and a half–I mostly missed chewing and different textures besides liquid–but I wasn’t necessarily hungry, it was just the craving. I realized, however, that not having to plan, prepare, or cook meals left me with SO much more time. The only thing I had to do was keep track of time to pull out the correct bottle and drink it.

With all this extra time on my hands, what else could I do but reflect deeply on my life? During this calorie restricted period, I thought about that time a friend of mine from college gave up drinking for a year, remembering how impossible I used to think it would be. But after nearly 2 days of not eating food and no longer wanting it, I reconsidered how difficult it would be to stop drinking. I love food; while I’m eating one meal I’m already thinking about what I’m going to eat next. If I give up eating for three days I could surely give up drinking for a year–that’s a proportional thought, right?

That’s when I made the decision. Six weeks before my 29th birthday I decided I would not have any alcohol until my 30th birthday. Since I was making that commitment, I figured I should set some personal development goals as well. Essentially, my entire Journey to 30 evolved from a decision I made while food deprived.

So what was it like not drinking for a year? It went something like…

“OMG are you pregnant?!”

For the first few months, after I’d refused alcohol one too many times and then had to confess I’d given up drinking, I spent a lot of time reassuring people that, “no, I was not pregnant,” “I’m sure I’m not pregnant,” and “no, I’m not trying to get pregnant.” At my age, that could be the only logical reason to stop drinking for any prolonged period of time, that or being on a course of antibiotics. I expected the pregnancy stares. As soon as I got married three years ago folks started wishing pregnancy on us, whether we wanted kids or not. By month six of not drinking, when it was clear I wasn’t gaining any weight, and thus not lying about being pregnant, that question stopped.

“Are you ok?…Oh, is there like a deeper meaning you’re looking for?”

Multiple people asked me if I had some profound rationale behind this endeavor or if I was an alcoholic in recovery (I’m not). It was asked as if I was planning on converting to a new religion or radically changing my life by relinquishing all vices in life–drugs, alcohol, sex, meat–and spending hours in silent meditation every day. Or they wondered whether there was some deep, juicy life issue happening that required me to make a massive life overhaul. My response was never as interesting as what people prepared themselves to hear me say. Usually they were disappointed.

They weren’t entirely wrong. While the idea came about while I was hungry, I had an entire month post-juice cleanse to change my mind and do something less drastic. I didn’t. I think that cleanse provided a moment of clarity. There were some life issues happening that made me wonder whether it might be wise to remove a behavior that could be, at times, problematic, but was mostly a habit of distraction and desensitizing when I got stressed or anxious. Maybe I’d be more likely to confront feelings, to really deal with them and think through them, rather than numbing them to get past the moment.

But they didn’t need to know all of that.

“Hey, we’re going to {insert name of bar here}, do you wanna come? Oh shit! I’m so sorry, I totally forgot, I mean you’re welcome to come, but I wasn’t trying to…Ugh, I’m sorry!!”

Out of everything, I spent THE MOST time making other people feel at ease with my not drinking. Yes, at first it was kind of awkward and isolating to not drink, especially since my first sober outing was at brunch where they had a deal on bottomless mimosas, which everyone was drinking but me. But after the first few encounters, I got over it. At parties I brought my own cans of sparkling water, and eventually friends would prepare non-alcoholic beverages for me if they invited me over. At bars, I drank ginger beer and other mocktails if they had them, or if all else failed, a club soda with lime.

I was fine. It was everyone else who felt uncomfortable. I think much of that discomfort arose because my lack of drinking provided a point of comparison – it highlighted the frequency with which they drank and the quantity of alcohol they consumed in a sitting. Without fail someone would make a self-deprecating comment about how they should probably give up drinking too, or how they’d tried every year for lent (40 days) and never made it.

Have you had any revelations?

Yes. People suck.

Mainly they’re just boring and/or thoroughly insecure. I never really noticed this before. Sure there were a couple of people I knew weren’t the most pleasant company, but the ubiquity of awkward and insecure people was mind blowing. Because just about every social situation permits casual drinking, even if your intentions are not to drink, after that initial one or two uncomfortable encounters, you will inevitably grab at least one glass of wine. It’s a coping mechanism. If you have to be in a room with these people and actually talk to them (because you have to network and play nice as a professional adult in a small city), then you’re sure as hell not going to do it completely sober.

This year has been an exercise in deep breathing and dissociation. I had to “fix my face” so as not to wince with every bad joke, or cringe with every retelling of the same story for umpteenth time, and generally not reveal how ridiculous I found many people to be. Interacting with a lot of academics made it plain how blatant some folks’ insecurities were as they redirected every conversation to be about themselves, talking through their resumes and performing one-upmanship anytime anyone else was highlighted. I worked hard at reminding myself to close my mouth when I found it agape at the dynamics, and to stop staring in disbelief.

Beyond the unfortunate meetings and larger social gatherings, I also realized that being sober makes it painfully clear when you may need to rethink who you voluntarily associate with and how often. This goes for family as well as friends. I mean you can’t throw away your family, but you can certainly limit your interactions with them if the only way you can tolerate them is with copious alcohol. Obviously that indicates a need to deal with whatever underlying issues are creating the discord that would drive you to drink, but we all know that not every relative is capable of handling such a discussion lest they felt “attacked” and ignited world war three. Naturally, the responsible and more productive thing to do is drink until the weekend ends and everyone can go home and you don’t have to deal with them for another year.

Luckily, I didn’t have to rethink any of my friendships, if anything not drinking affirmed that they were good choices. After the initial shock, they made sure to keep me included and support my new dessert eating habit in substitution of alcohol.

Do you miss alcohol?

Not really, but there are certainly some times that I have. Going to new restaurants has meant not only new food menus but new cocktail menus that I haven’t been able to try. I’ve been places that are either known for having the original iteration of a cocktail or just have some very interesting sounding, creative concoctions that I want to drink. I’ve tried to keep a note of those places so I can go back and try them, but sometimes it’s been disappointing.

But then there are frequent and glaring reminders of why I’m generally glad to not be drinking. For one, I can go out late with friends and still drive myself home and get up the next day and be functional, because the only thing I’m dealing with is minor sleep deprivation, not sleep deprivation AND recovery (whether that be lethargy, an upset stomach, or a massive headache). On days after going out with folks, I could be halfway through having a productive a day while they’d just be texting me at 2 pm telling me about how they finally managed to get out of bed but were still just laying on the couch. I don’t miss that.

Also, there were multiple times people canceled plans on me at the last minute because they were hungover from drinking the night before. That was revealing.

As someone who’s chronically fatigued (because of this PhD program), not drinking has made it a bit easier to determine how to manage that weariness and to differentiate between types of fatigue. Is it mental?: am I tired from staring at the computer, processing too much information, or stressing about school? Is it physical?: have I been sitting too long, am I unconsciously holding tension in my body, or am I sore from doing a specific activity? Am I hungry? Am I over-caffeinated? Did I get enough sleep?…I’ve become much more attuned to bodily cues that I don’t think would’ve been possible before.

Alcohol is like a signal interference, even if you don’t consume enough to be hungover, it messes with your digestion and sleep days later, so you’re never quite sure what’s going on or how to fix it. Right now I have a pretty good awareness of how to respond when I feel a certain way: whether I need to close my computer, go for a walk and stand in the sun, or go practice yoga; whether I’m dehydrated or have been eating too much or too little of something and need to adjust; whether I just need to call it quits and take a nap. I’m managing much better now than I used to.

“Do you think you’ll drink again? What’s the first drink you’ll have?”

Yeah for sure. But I’m gonna have to be more deliberate about my consumption. Am I drinking just to have something in my hand? Just to get through an awkward social situation? Because it’s there? If so, then I need to NOT. I genuinely enjoy a good cocktail or a fragrant bourbon just like I actually enjoy the flavor of coffee. But consumption of alcohol that I don’t necessarily want, just for the numbing effect is usually a regrettable decision. I know now that I can be perfectly comfortable having water or club soda while everyone else drinks. While people will still be awkward, arrogant, and insecure, I know those encounters are time limited, they won’t last forever and I can get through them despite the discomfort.

As for my first drink, I’ve been craving both tequila and champagne in equal parts. Which, I know the tequila probably sounds terrifying to other people who balk at drinking it on a regular day, let alone after a year of sobriety. But I want what I want. I found a few tequila & champagne cocktails, a Mexican 75 (instead of a French 75) and a paloma with champagne instead of soda. One of them will be my drink of choice to ring in my 30th birthday at midnight.