On December 27, 2016, my entire life changed.
I had no idea how at the time, but the wheels were set in motion to alter the course of my entire life. Exactly one year ago today, I drank my last drink.
This post has been written and deleted and rewritten dozens of times over the last few months. The difficulty of finding the ‘right’ words or angle, trying to assuage my anxieties about my words landing right, is certainly a symptom of the social construct around booze.
There is also just so much to say. I’ve had a lot of realizations over the last year.
… About the microcosm drinking culture within myself, with my specific history and story, and the overarching American culture at large. The intersection of the two.
… The rollercoaster cycle around drinking, fluctuating through anxiety, chaos masked as ‘fun,’ then guilt and shame, and back around again. Rinse, repeat.
… The weird party/hangover bonding, like some sort of battle: We survived.
… How booze is everywhere. Literally: EVERYWHERE. Wtf are we doing to ourselves?
… The New Feminism of wine culture. You know, that hot pink cliche garbage masquerading as freedom and strength and choice. True empowerment does not lie within a glass of Rosé, no matter what the chic ads may say.
.. The bizarre masculinity around booze, and how being ‘one of the guys’ and ‘cool girl’ went hand-in-hand with a specific drinking culture. Wearing my ‘can keep up with the guys’ badge as some kind of strength, despite the underlying toxicity of that.
… The branding of sobriety as some sort of pathological weakness. Bitch, do you know how hard this is??
… The ‘coming out’ of sobriety, laden with fear around disrupting the status quo and the social backlash.
… How the decision to stay sober through the hardest cycle of politics and current events of my entire life maybe saved it.
… The forced reckoning with my life, marriage, relationships, body, brain, trauma history, everything uncomfortable in my life. I had to sit in it, totally submersed in my own pain and discomfort, for what felt like forever, until I came out the other side.
… The incredible beauty and resilience around the realization that not drinking is actually possible and completely changes your life, from the bottom up.
After a few months off of booze, I realized that I didn’t need a drink: I needed to rest. I needed a hug. To say No to the Thing. To move my body. To get out of town. To draw a boundary. The drink, which I had framed as medicine, was actually IN THE WAY of my medicine. It allowed me to ignore all the ways I can actually care for myself and my life.
So how did I do it?
- Resources & Research. I read Sarah Hepola’s Blackout in one sitting, searched the internet high and low for stories of getting sober without AA, started a secret Pinterest board of online resources, read through the entire catalog of Hip Sobriety‘s posts in one night, through that found Laura McKowen, starting following a bunch of sober instagram accounts that weren’t centered around AA, and built up this arsenal before I made any decisions. These ladies helped me frame my decision as something powerful, instead of a disease or that something was wrong with me. But for the record: I knew over a decade ago that I would need to quit someday. One of my earliest beacons called me in 2008 to tell me she couldn’t come to Burning Man because she had decided to quit drinking and my immediate thought was, “Shit, I’m going to have to do that someday, huh.”
- I decided I was ready. That’s what being ready is, a decision you can make. The bottom is when you stop digging. I had done a couple short-term sober stints before, but this time it felt different. I wasn’t exactly sure how, but I knew I needed to stop digging. I followed my instincts about what felt right and true for me, and it kind of unfolded the way it needed to. I ceremoniously drank my last drink, while writing my first journal entry in a new Sobriety Journal, on 12/27/16.
- Secrecy. I was stuck in a pain/shame place and could not have the same conversation over and over about ‘Why?’ with everyone I came across. At the few gatherings I did attend, I said things like “I’m taking a break today” or “I’m drying out,” without offering any details. I told a very small handful of folks that it was a larger goal of mine and kept it at that. The truth about quitting drinking is that talking about it can cause a huge range of reactions. A few people actually harassed me at parties about my decision. They most certainly were trying to be funny, but it was incredibly painful to be called out publicly in that way. Shutting up was so much easier, and it felt like I had more freedom to change my mind. I had to maintain the possibility that I could change my mind at any time (I no longer need that).
- Beacons. I needed real-life examples of what sobriety could be like, and people who I could trust to keep my secret. People I could reach out to at anytime, who provided an absolutely judgement-free place for me to share all the crap I was slogging through. They gave me total freedom to complain/whine/share, provided those grounding ‘Me Too’ moments of solidarity, and to them I am eternally grateful. (You know who you are). If you need a beacon, I am here.
- I implemented replacement beverages when I had a craving. I stockpiled fancy tea, expensive mineral water, and unique bitters and shrubs. The habit wasn’t just alcohol, it was also mixing a celebratory fancy bubbly flavored thing, too. I leaned into that part and it helped immensely.
- I allowed myself any other indulgences I wanted. Sugar, crap food, endless tv, online shopping; all replacement behaviors were acceptable. Cheese for dinner? Hell yes. Insanely high airplant budget? Don’t mind if I do. They came and went, assisting me as necessary. I found it interesting that none of those behaviors came close to creating the guilt/shame cycle as booze did.
- Journaling, at whatever random schedule felt right. Angry ranting lists and poignant realizations, four page diatribes and a couple scrawled words. Whatever needed to be said.
- ABout 5 weeks after my last drink, I enrolled in massage school. I received massages in class about twice, sometimes three times, a week for the entire year. I also had to *provide* massages at the same rate. It was an incredible practice in grounded embodiment, in a physical practice that centered and relaxed me. Plus, the schoolwork and studying kept me very busy when I was home.
- Anxiety-reduction techniques that aren’t booze. I took 2 hour-long bubble baths, started (and stopped) trying to meditate, stuck to a pretty consistent Hipline dance class schedule (at first), stuck to a regular supplement/herb regimen, and other little bits and bobs. Whatever pulls you, go towards it. When it stops feeling helpful, do something else. The freedom to change my mind and change my strategies was huge for me.
- Surrender. I will say that after a few months of frantically applying strategies and techniques and tricks, which is exactly what I needed in early sobriety, it eventually all came down to just sitting in the muck. I spent month desperately to avoid feeling The Things (Uh oh, big feelings are coming…I know! Tea! Netflix! Chores! Exercise! Meditation! Art!). Looking back, I see that as the true mark that I was over the hump and sobriety was actually working: once I surrendered to those feelings and allowed them all to come rushing in. I had to sit in it all, untethered, without my security blanket. Terrifying. But as they say, the only way out is through.
- Tracked it. I used the app Quit That to record my progress. The pendulum swung back and forth between slightly obsessive, opening it every day for a week, and completely ignoring/forgetting the tally. It felt good to see the days just tick by like that.
- I have reframed drinking in a way that makes me want to stay away from it. I no longer see it as ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ or as a marker of ‘freedom.’ I have a completely different relationship to drinking culture and that reframe is a big part of making it stick. The idea of drinking is just no longer appealing to me. Words that I attach to the thought of drinking: ugly, toxic, depressing, embarrassing, out of control, poison, gross, chaotic, etc.
- I said No to SO MUCH. I avoided going anywhere for months and months, and it honestly felt amazing. It was interesting to sit with the guilt that surfaced at first about saying No to invitations, and then it turned into this super powerful thing. It was clear I had stockpiled some much-needed Nos from my past, and so I used them liberally. My NYE was spent in our basement TV room watching a two-day Star Wars marathon, and it was perfect. This year’s will be very similar!
I really had no idea what would happen once I quit drinking. I just knew that it was in my way. Some of the effects were immediate, and some trickled in over time. They kind of occurred in a cascade, each affecting the others and magnifying the results. I traded in booze, and got in return:
Time. This was immediate. Before, my weekends revolved around some kind of social event: the lead-up to it, the binge drinking at the event, and then the physical recovery (which could take days). A beer would stretch out a 10 minute task to 30 minutes. A couple glasses of wine at dinner meant anything planned afterwards was pushed back to the next day. Booze interrupted SO much of my schedule. I had no idea this was occurring so often until suddenly, I had wide open days. This was a bit daunting at first, as I needed to stay busy so I could cope with the anxiety that I previously doused in booze.
Productivity. To cope with the aforementioned anxiety, I churned through my To-Do lists at an insane rate. There was nothing in my way anymore. Y’all thought I was productive BEFORE…
Stability. The rollercoaster, both physically and emotionally, that accompanies semi-regular drinking, disappeared. My mood stabilized and everything became more even-keeled. This is a huge component of feeling like I am able to take on the more difficult parts of sobriety, like my internal emotional landscape and my relationships.
Discomfort. I absolutely list discomfort as something I’ve gained this last year. Successfully avoiding discomfort is hugely detrimental to personal growth, I’ve learned. Instead of covering my anxiety in wine and pretending everything’s fine, or will be fine, or I don’t want that anyway, I am forced (able?) to sit in that discomfort with curiosity and compassion. It’s not that perfect all the time, but it’s damn better than the alternative. I once read that sobriety is like riding in a vintage car without suspension in the backwoods: You feel every bump in the road.
Clarity. This goes hand-in-hand with discomfort, because it’s the reason for the discomfort. There’s no more escaping the truth of my life. I have crystal clear maps of my coping mechanisms, my excuses, my habits and patterns. Totally out there in the open, without the booze-soaked haze or mask. I am eye-to-eye with all the shit of my life. That clarity means that I can move towards the shit and through it at an incredible rate. I am processing and moving through my bullshit at warpspeed. This clarity absolutely can cause a lot of pain sometimes, but that pain is no longer magnified by booze.
Mornings. Holy shit, you guys. I’ve spend the last 15 years of my life convinced I was a ‘night owl.’ That’s a lie booze told me. The first two months of not drinking were spent catching up on years of missed and crappy sleep, and ever since, my internal rhythms and clock are running at a regular and stable pace. For years, my body had been chronically underslept, and the booze had me convinced it was fine, or fun, or even an indicator of some sort of bizarre strength. What utter horseshit. “You can sleep when you’re dead!” Well, at that rate, you will.
Vulnerability. Drinking culture is all about pretending that pain doesn’t exist, or that you’re stronger than the pain, or at the other end of the spectrum, that pain is all there is to your life. Not drinking allows for this beautiful middle ground, where all the truths about your life live together. That things are so so difficult, and also that you are resilient, and that the pain is so much right now, and also there’s a part of you that knows how to care for that. I had to learn how to talk about all the shit, the pain, and the shame, and through that, could share and connect more deeply with others. This writing is part of that space I live in now.
Some kind of weird badass confidence. I feel more like myself than I have ever before. I’m not really concerned with what people think of me anymore, which allows for so much honesty in my life. Like how this post is kind of just a weird garbage list and there are lots of run-on sentences and grammar adventures and I keep updating/changing it every 20 minutes. That’s the life I live now. I do whatever the hell I want the way I want. If it’s not aligned with some deeper truth about my needs, I’m not interested.
Health. I haven’t been sick once in 2017. I am able to stick to my routines in a way that supports my overall health, and I’m no longer dumping poison directly into my system.
… I wasn’t sure where to put this result, but I was also able to make it to *every single* massage class, all 500 hours, on time. No absences, no tardies. No, seriously. This absolutely would not have been possible if I was drinking.
Don’t get me wrong, shit’s still all fucked up.
It’s just that in addition to all the fucked up shit, I now have the time and energy to process it all in a way that supports my overall wellness. That deeper voice of intuition can actually be heard, without all the racket caused by boozing. My entire life is gentler and slower, with more nuance and knowing.
As I embark on my second year of not drinking, I want to extend my hand to anyone else interested in changing their relationship to alcohol. I’m here. This is only part of the story, and it’s my story, but you get to write yours however you like. The bottom is when you stop digging.
PS: I HATE the word ‘sober’ and ‘sobriety’ and ‘recovery.’ I hate labels in general. You are free to describe your life and desires any way you want to. You’ll notice I didn’t use the word ‘alcoholic’ once in this entire post, cuz I don’t really think that word has any meaning and it’s not how I would describe my life. SHRUG.
PPS: Petition to start making Toasts, as in, raise a piece of toast and clink it with your neighbors in celebration, a thing.
PPPS: Who wants to celebrate an off-the-rocks New Years Eve with a pajama party movie marathon?? I’m building an empire.
PPPPPPPPPPPPS: All of these strategies, the replacement drinks, the dance classes, the online shopping habit, the access to resources- these are all laden with privilege. I recognize that there are many people for whom healthier coping strategies may not be possible. If you are one of those people, I would like to financially sponsor you in some way so you can get the infrastructure you need. Reach out.
Wow, Niki! What a wonderful deal. Congratulations on a milestone. I totally followed right along with you, identifying deeply all the way.
Thank you, Ken ❤
Thank you for sharing your journey with the world. I appreciate you and would love to raise a piece of Toast (preferably sourdough with lots of butter) to your increased clarity, time, productivity, stability, badass confidence and health. I’d like a little of all of that in 2018 as well, so I just may join you on the hayride.
I’ll toast to that!
Beautifully put. It’s a whole new world!
I can show you the wooooooorld… 😉
Love you. So much.
I didn’t see this until now you have ALWAYS been a person that I have admired- your persistence in seeking a better everything is what makes you so wonderful. Love you always in your corner should you need me.