The first nine months of sobriety blow by in a rosé-colored haze of aha moments and monumental growth. If it weren’t for the same face staring back at me in the mirror every day, I’d swear I’d grown wings or maybe scales; maybe I’d think a whole hive of honeybees suddenly buzzed to life inside my bloodstream.
Suddenly, I’m free of a propensity to tell a little white lie or to say yes to anything I don’t actually want to do. For the first time in my life, boundaries are sprouting up, easy and strong. I don’t miss it. I don’t crave it for a second.
I get a sobriety tracker on my phone. I watch the days, weeks, months, even hours tick by. It is so deliciously easy. I’m surprised at an unfamiliar, yet a long-chased sense of liberation that sprouts up where booze once was. I’d wanted to want to quit for years. I’d known for as long as I’d been drinking that alcohol didn’t do me any favors. But I was scared. Afraid I would miss it. That people would find me boring and I wouldn’t be any fun. So, I’m surprised when sobriety becomes synonymous with liberation and, though I dream of drinking all the time, I’m never tempted to return.
Now, as I search for my footing, I dance around the words. You know, the “A” words. Addict. Alcoholic. These labels don’t resonate with me or my experience. And yet, if I’m not either of these words, what am I? What is my problem? I got sober and I have no idea who the fuck really I am.
“I got sober and I have no idea who the fuck really I am.”
Additional, unexpected sobriety side effects: Blinders I don’t even know existed get ripped off. I see with clear eyes all of the things I used booze to numb myself from, all the ways I used booze to avoid adulthood, to encourage magical thinking.
My boyfriend of eight years and I get into therapy (if you get sober, there will be therapy) to blast us out of a rut. We try to rekindle the relationship that’s decent enough on the surface but also full of issues that I was always just numb enough to not take seriously. It doesn’t work.
I read book after book about mindset, spiritual approaches to sobriety, and connecting to my shadow side. I try everything possible to change my attitude and pull my self-esteem out of the shitter. I look around at all my friends buying houses, getting spouses, making babies. But I can barely fold my laundry after it comes out of the dryer and I wear the same pair of socks four days in a row.
Getting my shit together has never felt more urgent.
I’m nine months booze-free when the sober train comes to a screeching halt.
Up to this point, I’ve felt more capable of handling my issues than ever before. Now, as I’m called to go deeper, life starts to suck again. I’m confronted with the fact that I still have to deal with all the shit that kept me drinking.
I’ve heard in AA circles about the “pink cloud,” a phenomenon particular to early sobriety that is marked by early euphoria and elation at being free from booze. One night in my writing group, I write about the pink cloud and my recent fall from it. After I read it aloud and wait for critique, one of the women says perhaps the cloud was protecting me until I was ready to do the work.
People act funny when I tell them I quit drinking. I’ll crack open an ice cold LaCroix (if you get sober, you will drink so much fucking LaCroix), and it goes something like this:
Them: No booze?
Me: I don’t drink.
Them: *Cranium spontaneously combusts*
Me: *Wipes brain matter from my face*
This is all to say that alcohol is all black and white to these people. People whom I would normally describe as having nuanced perspectives, smart friends who have the ability to hold multiple points of view at a time. People can’t understand why someone without a very obvious problem would choose to abstain.
I can tell when my admission of sobriety ruffles feathers. They nervously wonder if they have a problem. Or, usually with a drink in hand, are inspired to tell me all the reasons why they can drink. Or there are those who always seem to “forget” I’ve quit and continue to offer me drinks whenever I see them. They act surprised when I remind them as if they are perpetually waiting for me to pop out of whatever phase I’m in.
I fantasize about telling people I got off heroin or cocaine, that I quit smoking cigarettes — or even sugar, for fuck’s sake. Nobody questions those choices. But alcohol? People act like I just told them I had the winning Powerball ticket but I ripped it up because it was too much money. Like I’ve just announced that I’ve decided to have a third titty surgically implanted on the center of my forehead just for fun.
There’s no room for them to hear the far simpler truth, which is that I will no longer be ingesting a substance similar to gasoline (if you get sober, your early days will be rife with haughty self-righteousness). “WHY!?” they ask, always incredulously, eyebrows smooshed together like they just smelled a fart, usually while shielding their glass of wine away from me like I might infect them if I get too close. Like I’ve caught some contagion and it will spread simply by uttering the word “sober.”
“I’m SOBERRRRRRRR!” I scream out to anyone who will listen, which usually ends up being the hawks in Glen Canyon Park, my dog who does that cute little doggy head tilt thing whenever my voice hits a certain pitch, and my therapist who is proud of me but also I suspect a little bored.
Getting sober is the closest I’ve ever come — without the aid of any substance — to feeling that maybe God exists. So, while I learn to mute myself around people, my excitement leaks out in other ways: Perfectly curated posts on Instagram where I shyly adopt the hashtag #SOBER; in my daily journal practice, where I fill pages upon pages with awe and wonder and dot connecting and trying to understand how the fuck this is working; in my novel, shifting completely the entire premise so I can explore all this through characters I make up, who won’t be offended with my newfound obsession with telling the truth.
“Getting sober is the closest I’ve ever come — without the aid of any substance — to feeling for real that maybe God exists.”
I am hyper aware of not coming across as evangelical in my sobriety. In the beginning, I still go to bars, ordering a club soda with bitters until I realize bitters are made out of alcohol (if you get sober, there will be learning curves). Then, I don’t drink anything, just refill my paper bag with the shitty, free bar popcorn seventeen times.
At first, I have a hard time declaring it for real, telling people when they ask that it’s “for now,” even though I know it’s forever.
I don’t want my teetotaling presence to make anyone uncomfortable. Basically, what happens is I turn even more into a hermit than I already was. I continue to put other people’s comfort before my own. I go entire days without speaking to a human, and then in the evening I get it together to teach a yoga class and I can barely remember the names of basic body parts. I lose fifteen pounds and nothing in my closet fits anymore. That’s exactly how I feel every time I leave the house. Like nothing fits.
What I really want to say when people ask me why I quit drinking: I quit because drinking made me hate myself. Because for a brain like mine, even a couple of drinks is enough to send me into a next-day depression. Because I no longer want to avoid the truth of my life. Because I never want another goddamn hangover. Because I never want to wake up feeling regret about behaving how I would have sober, about words that I can’t take back. Because I want to believe that a day is coming when the pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme inside of me will finally come to rest in the middle.
“I quit because drinking made me hate myself.”
Outwardly, things haven’t changed much. I have the same apartment, the same jobs, the same student debt. Most of my friends are the same. I face the same life challenges I did pre-sobriety: Patching together a life as a writer, figuring out how to do so in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, and learning how to be an adult (if you get sober, you will finally grow up).
Inside, however, I am alive. As winter shifts to spring and the old ways continue to die, I don’t cling to peaks or fear falling into valleys — these arcs are simply signals that I’m a little out of balance; calls to tend to myself, not to flee. I can hear these calls now that I’m no longer numb. Sometimes the pendulum swings me back to the soft fluff of my pink cloud. Sometimes it knocks me over. Both are OK. Up on my cloud, or down in the dirt, I am home.