The Gift of Five Alcohol-Free Years

Today I am celebrating five years of sobriety. Six years ago, if you had told me I would one day use the words “sobriety” and “celebrating” in the same sentence, I’d have laughed out loud.

But a quiet part deep inside me would have been elated to learn that change was possible. Part of me had been hoping I would eventually find the courage, strength, and determination to give alcohol the boot.

Drinking was a big part of my life from the age of sixteen. I couldn’t imagine going out to dinner, starting the weekend, or marking an important occasion without an adult beverage. Feeling happy? Have a drink (or two). Feeling sad? Have a drink (or two). Stressed out? Have a drink (or two). Kinda bored? Have a drink (or two). And once I had a couple glasses of wine in me, it was likely that many more would follow. I didn’t do this every night. But I did do it often enough. Consistently. For decades.

When I finally decided to quit, it wasn’t a life or death matter. But it was a quality of life issue. For what seemed like ages, I had been running the cost-benefit analysis of drinking in my head, and the trend was not headed in a good direction.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be more active. I wanted to try new and interesting things. But I was most certainly not doing any of this.

So, on May 12, 2017, I decided I had had enough. It was time to give sobriety a try.

At first, I concentrated on resisting the cravings, and I gritted my teeth when everyone else was getting buzzed and I was consumed with FOMO. I paid attention to my triggers and slowly dismantled them one by one. (A completely unexpected trigger still pops up from time to time!)

As the years went on, the journey became less and less about drinking. Removing alcohol from my life was like discovering a door to a whole new wing of my psyche. I uncovered other coping mechanisms that I was using to soften the edges or distract me in the short term—fixations such as TV, social media, and shopping that did not produce positive results in the long term.

Sobriety ended up being about so much more than declining to put a substance in my body. It was and is about emotional growth, building skills that last, and developing hard-earned confidence. At last, I was able to focus more productively on my anxiety, fear of death, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the stuff I thought alcohol was offering me—I had to learn how to give those things to myself.

And I kept the promise I made to myself: I committed to my writing. I ended up writing and self-publishing a book about my experience, in which I explored the patterns and stories that had kept me idling in place for so long. I tried all kinds of new things, including meditation, Pilates, aerial yoga, spin class, zip-lining, flotation therapy, paddle boarding, pole dancing, indoor rock climbing, and much more. I still do several of these activities regularly.

Not everything I tried to do was a success. The drum lessons I took at the beginning of my sobriety came to a quick end. My husband and I pursued two small business ideas—I even attended a six-month course related to one of these ideas—neither of which panned out. I started to build an online course in habit-shifting that I thought had real potential, but it was too much to take on at the same time as writing and editing my book. I did end up sharing it on this blog—and who knows, maybe one day I will get back to it.

The gift (there’s another word I didn’t think I would ever use in this context!), the gift of sobriety has been the ongoing process of unearthing who I am. “Coming into your own” is a phrase I never fully appreciated. But now I can tell you that it feels like bursting forth from a long dormancy, like opening up and reaching toward the sky.

Is Life a Lopsided Tennis Match?

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.

Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.

So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…

What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.

These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:

  • A mother struggling with mental health issues
  • An absent or detached father
  • A learning disability that emerges in childhood
  • A hurricane damaging our home
  • A bully at school
  • A lengthy illness
  • A parent losing a job
  • A traumatic car accident
  • An unexpected death in the family
  • A violent stranger
  • An inhumane law or practice

A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.

As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.

So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.

I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.

In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.

In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.

As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.

As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.

Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.

What Sobriety Means to a Former Gray Area Drinker

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.

When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.

Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.

I don’t think so.

I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.

My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.

I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.

Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.

When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.

But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.

Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.

The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.

Liberation

My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.

Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.

Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.

Perspective

When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.

Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.

So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.

In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.

Self-Respect

How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?

Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.

Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.

Peace

Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.

Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.

Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.

The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.

Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.

Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.