What 365 days of sobriety from alcohol taught me about myself and our culture
On July 5, 2017, I drank my last drink. It was a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc, so similar to the hundreds (thousands?) that came before it. It was that familiar, satisfying blend of tart and refreshing, a hint of sweetness with strong notes of grapefruit. I drank it fitfully, slowly, knowing I was saying goodbye.
Ending my relationship with alcohol came gradually at first and then all at once. For years, I wondered how to summon the energy and desire to quit drinking. I read the books. Then, last June, after reading one more book about sobriety — the right one, This Naked Mind —the final, lasting decision to quit came swifty, taking root fully in a matter of days.
It felt like freedom. Suddenly, instead of wasting so much mental energy thinking about where and when to drink and with whom, a switch flipped. Those thoughts vanished. My perception shifted. Suddenly, I saw wine and beer and even the most smartly named craft cocktails as what they are…. as ethanol, as poison, as substances making me unhealthy, dehydrated, sick, ridiculous, ugly, much too chatty and emotionally rudderless.
In the sober year that has passed, that new perception has made navigating the world around me one rife with daily interactions that make me feel like a foreigner in my own land. We live in a culture that sends a constant message to drink to deal with our problems. It’s the Mommy Juice memes. It’s the beer at yoga classes. It’s the ever-presence of alcohol as central to functions of all types — even work meetings in the middle of the day.
For a long time, I did not think about this or even notice it. I was like many other 30-something, suburban, white, middle class women with kids whom I knew. I drank socially. Certainly almost every weekend. And at nearly every event that offered alcohol — which is most of them. At play dates. At kids sporting events. When two or more people were gathered in anyone’s name, there was I, drinking.
I drank alone, too. At home on weeknights, because, hey, life gets stressful. It was sometimes one glass of wine with dinner or after the kids went to bed. More often, that one glass would turn into three.
Over time, preoccupations with how and when I could drink took over brain space that could have been devoted to more productive things. Nearly every day in my life as a working mom, the decision of whether or not to drink presented itself. This meant the constant need to make a decision about whether and how much I would consume. Would there be drinks at this BBQ? Should I bring a bottle of wine? Would the host at this dinner party serve red or white? Was there something in the freezer at home if I returned from this gathering and wanted a night cap?
I drank because Donald Trump is (somehow) president, because I worry about the future my children are inheriting, because I had momentarily decided I was a bad mother, or because someone said something slightly off to me earlier that day in a meeting. I drank because of pervasive gun violence, because it was the Fourth of July or Christmas Eve or almost the weekend. Certainly, because it was the weekend. Because I was happy. Because I was sad. Because the light looked pretty on a summer evening at twilight. Because it was cold and snowy and I wanted to warm my belly. I drank because the ladies were coming over, or because there was a mimosa bar at the baby shower, or because the speaker at the conference mentioned the post-plenary drinks at least four times, and how else do you possibly network without an alcoholic drink in your hand?
(Turns out, you do it without an alcoholic drink in your hand.)
I drank without pondering why I dank too deeply, because our culture doesn’t require deep thought about it. This is just what we do here.
It’s the ever-present mimosas at 10 a.m. on national TV shows. It’s women’s health magazines writing on the latest liquor trends or cocktail programs or wine of the month clubs, despite a growing addiction to alcohol among women. It’s an Instagram feed of influencers who will not eat dairy or meat or god forbid carbs but are fine consuming a daily dose of poison if it is called a Moscow Mule.
When you meet someone new and they don’t know you are sober, they will instantly assume you drink. Earlier this year, I met a woman in a professional setting and made an offhand comment about a sparkling water flavor I love. Her eyes lit up. “I bet that would make a great mixer for rum!” she said. I just nodded, because I’ve learned it’s not really worth it most of the time to say anything else.
She’s a product of our culture. This is how it is.
I was in a toy store recently. It’s small and carefully curated, with only quality toys that seem ever-so-slightly educational — not a cartoon TV character emblazoned on anything in sight. But there on the book rack were two board books, one entitled, “Wine Makes Mommy Clever,” the other, “Beer Makes Daddy Strong.” Repeat: board books, for toddlers.
In what universe should these statements be offered to toddles in board book form?
When I quit drinking, I worried about plenty of things. First and foremost: what would my closest friends, those with whom I had split so many bottles of wine, think?
Those relationships have survived and grown in ways entirely positive. What I wasn’t worried about at the time was my own relationship to our culture. I wasn’t prepared to be shocked at just how pervasive I would suddenly find the message to drink is. How it was everywhere. I wasn’t ready to have to explain, so often, that I choose not to drink not because something went terribly wrong — you don’t have to have a drinking problem to have a problem with drinking, as they say — but just because I decided I want to live life fully aware, in good times and bad, awake to all of my sensations, experiencing all of my feelings and working through them. I want to live without hangovers, without the extra calories, without the elevated risk for all types of cancer. With better skin and amazing sleep (oh my goodness, it’s so good). Do others not share these desires? Or do they, but they are so inundated with the cultural message to drink that they can’t hear themselves or trust themselves to follow that desire?
Many more brave women are speaking out about sobriety and the proud choice to abstain. There are podcasts and shirts and Instagram hashtags — a growing community and one that has made my own path comforting and clear. Follow @TellBetterStories on Instagram to see a community of woman challenging the narrative to drink, for just one example.
Does it have the power and momentum to break through to the mainstream? I don’t know. But I do know each time I speak out about my own path through sobriety, I get at least one private message from someone curious about stepping into it themselves. Maybe there is an underground wave about to break through of resistance to the dominant drinking narrative. I hope so.
Cultural change moves slowly. But a year is enough time for me to see that even the most startling changes are possible.