I'm Not An Alcoholic, But I Quit Drinking Anyway

I Stopped Drinking But I’m Not Sober

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I won’t call myself “sober.” That’s a term that should be reserved for the folks who choose every day not to let their addiction control them. That’s really hard, and what I did wasn’t hard. I’m not an alcoholic. I simply quit drinking, gradually, almost without meaning to.

I’m lucky though. Based on my family history, my years of drinking should have left me battling addiction. I started drinking around age 14 and dabbled in all manner of drugs through my college years. My drinking in particular was what most people would consider in the extreme. I had this routine where I’d chug four or five drinks and then retreat to the bathroom to vomit it all up, clearing my stomach so I could drink more.

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After grad school, I moved on to a more civilized kind of drinking. A glass of wine or two per night, sometimes three. But I never felt I had to have it. It was fine if we ran out. I didn’t crave it. I never ran to the store just for wine. I did drink a lot over the holidays. When the family would get together, we’d load up on strawberry daiquiri mix and white zin and get drunk every night while ripping through endless games of Taboo and charades. I drank at social gatherings and at work conferences. I drank because I was a mom and you’re supposed to want a drink after being home with kids all day.

I drank to be a better writer. I read that Ernest Hemingway had said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” That made a whole mountain of sense to me. Lubricate your neural pathways with alcohol, just like the venerable Mr. Hemingway, and let go of your artistic inhibitions. Allow yourself to get real and vulnerable in a way that simply isn’t possible when sober. So, after the kids were asleep, I drank wine and wrote, and in the morning, sober, I edited.

The problem was, my drunk writing actually kind of sucked. Ideas which the night before had felt like brilliant epiphanies turned out in the morning to be humdrum everyday knowledge, utterly lacking in novelty and insight. Gorgeous turns of phrase were incomprehensible garble. There wasn’t even anything to edit. I doubt if “write drunk, edit sober” actually works for anyone. Also, I found out later, by the way, Ernest Hemingway didn’t say that. He didn’t write drunk. He was a meticulous craftsman, a tireless revisionist. Old Man and the Sea underwent 200 drafts.

I began to replace my wine with coffee or tea. My productivity doubled—sometimes tripled. What I wrote was workable. Eager to write more and better, I cut way down on drinking.

Not long after I stopped drinking wine at night, a loved one revealed himself to be an alcoholic. I’d drunk with him many times and often marvelled at his tolerance — he never “acted drunk.” I had no idea he was out of control. We always had a great time drinking together, but I learned from him that he had done terrible things to feed and hide his addiction. Risked his job, his family, his life. Alcohol had made a mess of a brilliant, beautiful man. Seeing him rise from the ashes of that dark place has been a wonder to behold. I loved him when his drinking was out of control; I am amazed by the sober version of him.

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Then, last year, a bunch of friends came over for a potluck dinner and game night. I supplied drinks for those who wanted them but stuck to coffee for myself. I wanted to be a good host, and I worried I’d fail at that if I was tipsy. It was the first time I’d ever completely abstained from drinking at a social gathering, and it turned out to be one of my favorite social nights ever. I was more alert when we played games, laughing more because I was catching all the jokes, and I didn’t fall prey to the slouchy exhaustion that usually crept up on me after a few drinks. My guests drank and had a great time, and I kept the drinks and snacks flowing. When everyone left in the wee hours of the morning, I still had enough energy to clean up before I went to sleep. I woke up to a clean kitchen, rested, and without a hangover. It was glorious.

I don’t begrudge anyone their right to drink or to get drunk. But, at the same time, I have to be honest with myself about what I have witnessed in my life when it comes to alcohol. So many people I’ve loved have done things they regret while drunk or fallen prey to addiction. For some of the best people I know, their lives have become a daily battle for sobriety. Brené Brown discusses this in a recent blog post. She says, “As much as I try to work a ‘live and let live’ vibe, I’ve watched ‘civilized drinking’ ravage the lives of so many families and friends that I’ve developed no interest in it at all.”

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Brown stopped drinking 23 years ago after a look into her family’s history of alcoholism scared her into sobriety. She wasn’t sure she was “drunk enough” to be a bonafide alcoholic, but she was nursing other addictions including smoking and emotional eating, and her desire to live as authentic and vulnerable a life as possible, for her, meant she needed to quit drinking.

My reasons aren’t as deep as Brown’s. For one thing, I haven’t banned myself from drinking altogether. I don’t prohibit myself from having a glass of wine if I want one. The point is, I don’t want one. I don’t really have any big reason for not wanting one other than that I’ve found I like myself better and have a better time when I’m stone-cold sober.

According to a recent article from CNN, I’m not alone. A growing number of people, for all sorts of reasons not necessarily having to do with alcoholism, are choosing to abstain. In fact, one of the hottest new trends in New York City is “sober bars”—nightclub-like, non-alcoholic social venues.

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Again, I’m completely fine with others drinking. I have to admit though, I do harbor a sort of resentment toward alcohol itself. I feel something like anger toward it, as if it has a consciousness, a living awareness of what it can do to people, and it ought to be ashamed of itself. Alcohol has a wonderful flavor, but it has left a bad taste in my mouth.

I’ve only drank a few times in the last year, but each time it was only one or two drinks over several hours, and it was with only one other person, just hanging out and having a quiet conversation. The idea of drinking in a crowd or “feeling drunk” doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore. I like myself better when I’m sober. True, being sober all the time means I have to feel every bit of my social anxiety, but … I’m me. The real me, not a lubricated, slightly foggier version of myself. I like the sharp edges of my thoughts, and I don’t want to dull them with alcohol. I truly don’t judge anyone who chooses to drink though. In fact, let’s hang out. I will happily be your designated driver.