Content Warning: The author talks about cutting back but not eliminating alcohol completely. Be aware if this topic is a trigger for you.
When my husband and I decided to move to Nashville from Brooklyn, we knew it would come with intimidating changes. We’d barely finished writing thank-you cards from our summer wedding when we began packing our belongings, plants, and two cats into a truck and hit the road for Tennessee. The timing was sudden, and we had nowhere to live. My in-laws lovingly offered up their home; we graciously accepted the offer and moved in.
It was there, in my husband’s childhood home, two newlyweds restarted their life. What we didn’t know is one of us would fall into a deep depression.
I left my career in fashion media to begin freelance writing full-time when we left New York City. I loved the change at first—the pace, quiet, and having room to think. I adored working from an outdoor deck overlooking the woods, only hearing the brustling of fall leaves or squirrels scattering through them. But soon enough, the quiet led to new space in my mind, and space led to dark thoughts. The dark thoughts led to drinking.
City living began to feel like a dream too fuzzy to recall, but too familiar to forget. As much as I tried to love our new environment, the monotony of suburban living in the South grated on me. My drinking started innocently enough with a glass of wine at dusk. When my in-laws were out of town and my husband was away at work, I’d find myself home alone without a car, career, or friends. I was living in a new place, surrounded by unfamiliar woods. As someone with PTSD, anxiety, and panic symptoms, the situation did little to put me at ease. This wasn’t helped by my work on a feature script about the lifelong emotional impacts of sexual assault, which eventually turned into my first memoir.
The stress of my creative work, coupled with my nervousness about being alone in a big house, led me down a dark path. I was depressed, suicidal, and drinking in order to blur the thoughts away.
Some moments were better than others, of course. Friends back in Brooklyn would text and encourage me to get out of bed and make breakfast, and they’d celebrate my achievements when I did. I felt loved. These habits became more regular, which made me stronger. I could get out of bed and eat on my own. The road wasn’t clear, but I was proud of myself for the baby steps. To congratulate myself for my new routine, I’d often have a cigarette to celebrate my success. By the afternoon, I’d pour a glass of wine and try my best to work.
City living began to feel like a dream too fuzzy to recall, but too familiar to forget.
But I kept moving up the time at which I’d begin drinking. I figured that if I got enough work done in the morning, I could relax with a cigarette and glass of wine at noon. And when I got enough good work done, I’d treat myself to more. One drink turned into two. Three turned into four. After that, the bottle was gone before I knew it.
Despite my progress, I would find myself back in a slump quickly. I would meander downstairs to have one more drink and one more cigarette to snap me into a positive, creative headspace. It was all in service of the work, I told myself. As I sat alone on the patio listening to the falling leaves, I’d scroll through Instagram and see photos of people lounging by pools in exotic locales. They’d post hashtags like #roséallday, #workhardplayharder at friendly work dinner meetings, and #decompression spa time at #wineoclock.
Everyone seemed to be working and having a good time. Why shouldn’t I? After all, I was the one who just left her career, moved to a new place, and was living as a newlywed at my in-laws house. If anyone deserved a drink, it was me.
I’d start a bottle of wine in the afternoon. I’d write, sleep, or cry my way through the day, shower before my husband got home, and finish the rest of the bottle with dinner. This pattern was my dirty secret, and Instagram helped me keep it. Instagram enabled me to share images of my lifestyle and feel supported for it. I’d post a frosty glass of rosé at dusk and let the likes pour in. I’d share a glass of pinot noir offset by autumn leaves and celebrate my #writinggoals lifestyle. These posts were just lies: in reality, I was barely keeping my safety intact.
Fortunately, the person I married cared more about me as a person than my social media presence, and got involved.
I was standing at the kitchen island with a bottle opener in one hand and a bottle of table red in the other. David, my husband, asked me if another drink was necessary, as he had watched me drink while I cooked. I said that yes, one more glass was necessary. He pushed back, told me firmly that I didn’t need anymore, and suggested I try to take a break from drinking. In that moment, I realized how much he cared. I also realized how strong my urge to drink was. The idea of facing reality sober seemed unbearable. It was then, for the first time, I recognized my drinking had gone too far. I did have a drinking problem.
The idea of facing reality sober seemed unbearable.
I began to understand how two types of drinking could be equally dangerous. My binge drinking of liquor in high school and college, and my adult drinking of a few or more glasses of wine, could in fact be the same. The “adult” drinking, while more socially acceptable, numbed the pain of sexual trauma from my childhood. The kind of drinks changed, but the causes stayed the same.
After much reflection and soul-searching, I accepted I was in trouble. I had to find a way to calibrate my habits with what I thought alcoholism meant. I thought I was doing what everyone else was, based on what I’d see on my Instagram feed. This made me wonder why I was the one with the problem: I’d see #yeswayrosé, #winedown, #mommyjuice, and it all sounded so innocent. Because of these constant messages convincing me that drinking to excess was normal, accepting that I had a problem took a while, but it came eventually.
Forget hashtags. I needed help.
I considered attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but couldn’t get up the nerve to attend. It felt too official, and I didn’t feel like enough of an alcoholic to fit in. Around this time, I was working on a piece about the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault survivors. Through my interviews with trauma recovery experts, I learned about SMART Recovery, an addiction recovery group that doesn’t require people to self-classify as alcoholics. I wrote SMART on a bright pink sticky note and continued my research and writing. After the article came out and my workload eased up, I gathered the nerve to attend my first SMART meeting. I listened to 20 people admit their addictions: alcohol, cocaine, narcotics, pills, and others. As I sat in the circle and looked around, I realized how much I fit in, and how similarly I felt.
When it came time to introduce myself, I started strong. I said my name, I explained that I’ve been feeling like I’m drinking too much but that it’s hard for me to stop. I said I suffer from anxiety and PTSD, and then I started sobbing. Someone passed me the tissues and everyone respectfully waited until I gathered myself. I stopped the tears and said sorry, looking up to a room full of knowing smiles. It was the first time I felt accepted, not for the worst in me, but for the humanity.
Later in the meeting, a young man asked us all if we’d be interested in a sober pizza dinner night. Everyone agreed and listed their names on a clipboard. I wanted to go, but something inside me felt like an outsider.
Today, my abstinence is flexible, and I try not to beat myself up for it.
Even though I mostly felt comfortable and celebrated in the SMART meeting, I wasn’t ready to commit to not drinking. I didn’t think it was okay to join a community of people trying to stay sober, especially if I was only sober-curious. I stopped going to SMART and decided to stop drinking for a month, just to see if I could. I felt left out at dinners where my husband and our friends would drink, but I held strong, knowing how important this promise was to myself. After a month or so of abstinence, I missed drinking and started again, but this time I set daily limits.
Today, my goal isn’t to stay entirely sober but to limit my drinking in order to confront my mental health challenges with a clear mind. At dinners and parties, I mostly abstain from drinking. I don’t relax with a drink while I cook dinner or while I watch tv with my husband. I’m stretching myself to socialize in ways that don’t require drinking, like going to shows or hiking. As much as I love feeling my cares slip out my mind and into the glass, I’ve accepted a daily drink is too slippery a slope. So far, I’m loving my new life with flexible sobriety.
My demons are powerful ones, but by acknowledging their truth, I regain strength.
Getting to know the underlying causes for my unhealthy coping habits has given me clarity. I no longer feel as if I’m running from something. Yes, the challenges in my life still exist, but I’d rather face them head on, steely-eyed and alert than hazily waiting for them to come and cart me away.