I hadn’t planned on quitting.The night of my last binge, I’d showed up to a friend’s house believing that I’d finally reached the promised land of “moderation.” It was a place where drinking responsibly was easy and carefree. My constant and complicated routine of mental gymnastics was over, and I could finally be the person I’d always wanted to be: Someone who could take a drink or leave it.
In the months leading up to that night in September 2017, I’d made rules for myself that kept me “on track.” I never drank at home and only allowed myself three or four drinks throughout any given week. Once in a while I’d have a big binge, but every time that happened, my friends reassured me that I was “normal.”
So, when the first barbecue of our always overdue San Francisco summer arrived, I told myself I deserved to cut loose. I was six months into what I’d dubbed my “Jesus Year,” after having been hit head-on by a car while riding home on my Vespa scooter the day before my thirty-third birthday.
The barbecue was a perfect storm of equal parts sorrow drowning and celebration. The world was full of trouble, sure. But my body had healed, I was among dear friends after a summer spent writing in quiet rooms alone, and I was settling back into another fall semester of grad school in the program of my dreams. I had my shit together.
There was a keg. And a bottle of tequila that seemed perpetually full. I drank like I did in college: as if racing toward some murky finish line, where the prize was oblivion.
I’d fallen well over the line of moderation and spent the night puking out of my bed onto my sad gray rental apartment carpet. My boyfriend at the time cleaned it up. The next morning, I woke up to Gatorade, coconut water, and ginger ale. My bones felt like they’d been filled with concrete. My shame kept me pressed to the bed, leaving only to vomit. Which I continued to do the entire next day.
I drank like I did in college: as if racing toward some murky finish line, where the prize was oblivion.
The next time I saw my friends, they laughed it off. Assured me they knew it was a one-time thing. They knew I wasn’t like that. I laughed with them, but on the inside, I was so confused: If this was normal, why did it feel like something was horribly wrong? If I was in such control—if I could truly “take it or leave it,”—how could I explain my epic binges? The way I changed around alcohol was so contrary to the person I so desperately wanted to be.
A new question elbowed in, surprising me: What if, instead of always trying to be in control, instead of always having to manage myself, instead of spending the rest of my life treading water, always just out of reach of that fabled promised land… what if I could simply be done?
I am a person whose relationship to alcohol has never not been complicated. I’d wrestled with whether or not booze should have a place in my life for as long as I’d been drinking—even before I started, too.
I grew up in a home with a father who didn’t drink, until he did. It transformed him into someone unpredictable and scary. I was haunted by this monstrous version of my father every time I drank. To this day, I can still recall a few awful instances in my early twenties where I acted the same way when I was drunk. I cringe when I think of the words I said and the ways I behaved.
I thought I’d moved past days like that, but all it took was a particularly shitty year to finally see that, try as fiercely as I might, there was no middle ground for me. The messages I’d received my entire life said a person was either an alcoholic—like my dad—or “normal,” a person who could stop drinking whenever they wanted.
I identified with neither side. Even during periods of moderation, drinking never felt simple. I spent so much time and energy over the years thinking about drinking, mulling over in my head some random, arbitrary quota I would absolutely not go beyond on any given night out. I agonized and berated myself over even the slightest hint of a hangover, confused why some people in my life seemed to be able to have just one or two drinks while I seemed to always get into trouble. I was sure some demon lived inside my genes and was just waiting to be unleashed. Never once did I stop and wonder whether the way I was feeling had to do with the poison I was regularly ingesting.
What I refer to now as my “slow-motion bottom” began long before I took my last drink.
Not being able to drink “normally” made me feel like a moral failure. I lied when there was no fucking reason to. I tried way too hard to get people to like me, to fend them off at some imagined pass before they realized I was a total hypocrite. And yet, to the outside observer, I appeared healthy, balanced, and, oh, there’s that word again: totally fucking normal.
It would go like this: I’d moderate successfully for months at a time. Then, inevitably, I’d get some compulsive bee in my bonnet. Maybe the rare warm Friday night, or some occasion worth celebrating (or otherwise forgetting). And a strange yet reliable itch would overtake me and I’d have a binge. That feeling—I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Like some dervish called to live inside me, spiraling and whipping itself around, spinning me toward an edge I knew exactly how to throw myself over. I knew at the bottom of a drink or two, that dervish would quiet.
Except now I had to reckon with the fact that drinking bound me down more than ever before, creating the exact opposite effect of what I thought I’d been chasing at the bottom of a glass. Freedom.
Maybe my last binge seems like a rock-bottom to you. In some ways, I suppose it was. But, truly, I view the end of my drinking days as a slow pull of an alcohol-shaped rug out from under me. What I refer to now as my “slow-motion bottom” began long before I took my last drink.
What I’ve learned: We don’t need to wait for a major, alcohol-related disaster or crisis to reconsider our drinking habits. Despite what our cultural norms about alcohol make us think, none of this is black and white. There’s a whole gray area, and if you find yourself questioning your relationship to alcohol, even if the people around you assure you you’re fine, even if you appear perfectly normal, the simple act of questioning your habits is a good enough reason to reconsider whether or not alcohol is something you want to keep in your life.
I always heard that a person with a drinking problem can only quit after a crisis, a rock bottom. But what if that never comes? What if, instead of a tabloid-worthy downward spiral, a person chooses to quit based on a low-grade sense that something here ain’t right?
What if your own promised land is found learning to live intentionally inside the gray?
Those early, booze-free days I devoured every resource I could find. Books. Podcasts. All the therapy. I spent more time at the gym and began recording personal records with every lift. I went public with my choice and started posting about it online.
AA didn’t resonate with me because I didn’t identify as an alcoholic. And, I also knew in a most essential way that I could no longer drink. A question persisted, though: Where did I belong? Where were my people? My first six-months sober I vacillated between feeling tender and tight and itchy and confined. Quitting drinking felt precious, like something I needed to protect and care for more than anything else.
What if, instead of a tabloid-worthy downward spiral, a person chooses to quit based on a low-grade sense that something here ain’t right?
And I did. I learned to navigate social situations as a non-drinker. I took naps and wrote constantly and with such fury my hand could barely keep up with my mind. I practiced saying, “I don’t drink,” in the mirror. “I don’t drink,” I’d say, and I could see in people’s eyes a hunger for some big story. Some serious rock bottom. A declaration of powerlessness, some confession of ending up in jail or with a totaled car or in a bed where I didn’t belong.
In my early days of sobriety, I’d watch their eyes would glaze over as I described the tale of why I quit. Often, they changed the subject before I got to the best part: the part that came after my last drink, the part where I made the choice that brought me back to life.
It can be challenging to navigate our culture as a non-drinker. But I haven’t once found myself missing the person who I was when I drank. In learning to inhabit the gray space between extremes, I’m less worried about labels.
Occasionally, I still have hangover dreams. My eyes pop open and the memory of drinking is as close as the sheets. I blink, swallow, rack my brain for clues from the night before. And then I remember I never ever have to feel that way again. And the relief in that is all it takes for the tears to come. To never feel that familiar, cold slick of shame.
Not drinking is liberation. Not drinking is everything I’d always been seeking. There’s more space now, like a door to a room I never knew existed inside me has been opened. And in that room, free of complicated alcohol-managing arithmetic, so much space for forgiveness, for honesty, for a life full of possibility I’m only just beginning to taste.