The 6 Worst Parts Of Getting Sober (Nobody Tells You About)
John Cheese the Great and Powerful wrote a pretty legendary column a few years back about his experiences with sobriety. I read it while hungover a few months ago and thought, "Hey, maybe I should stop drinking for 30 days and see what all the fuss is about." By 7 p.m. on the day I started, I was gripping the walls, looking around with giant pupils, and clutching my chest, wondering how the hell I was going to get through one night. It occurred to me that perhaps I was a good candidate for never drinking again. Since then, here's the weird shit I've learned.
The Days Feel Insanely Long
Look, we all know for a fact that there's nothing more fun than drinking, or smoking pot, or, I don't know, eating molly? (How does molly happen?) When you're abusing alcohol, you don't have to make too many decisions on how to spend your time. It's gonna involve a bar, or a purse beer, or cocktails in your house, and anything past that is fucking gravy. You don't need to plan anything -- that's your Fun Aunt Booze's job!
"Hey kids, get in the car! We're going to McDonald's!"
Addicts tend to be people who can't be okay unless they're having fun. And number one in fun is your drug of choice! Fun fun fun. Even those old Temperance Movement etchings make the slow descent into irreversible alcohol-fueled failure look ... how do we say this ... fun?
Even Groucho Marx likes to let loose sometimes.
Like, what is so bad about that? It's a fairly gradual gradient; he's not going to die. The only thing he's in danger of is having a good-ass time. Plenty of people float down a river while drunk. It's called tubing.
The lines are brutal for Devil's Toboggan Slide, so definitely spring for the FastPass!
In a way, these panicked cartoons have a point. Alcoholism usually gets progressively worse, and as it does, it's harder to cut back. It's more common for a normal person to become a problem drinker than for a glassy-eyed nightmare to effortlessly evolve into someone who has a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with dinner. Because of that, you start to calcify your routines around alcohol, and you lose track of what's fun besides drinking. It makes you give less of a shit about what you're doing, who you're doing it with, and whether any of it is healthy or safe. It also blurs your perception of time, and can even cause blackouts, where you're conscious but have no memory of what's happening.
When you stop problem-drinking, you suddenly get a third-ish of your day back. That's because your days don't fizzle out at 6 p.m. like they used to. Instead of floating through your weekends and evenings in a dreamy fog, you're there for all of it. Good or bad, you're present and participating and not hitting the eject button. There's nothing altering your state of mind and experience of the situation.
Unless you get creative.
It's not just cool or good -- it's fucking weird.
I felt high my first week sober. Like, bad high. Everything felt like it was taking forever, and everything felt thisclose to my face, and I felt like every moment was hanging precariously in the air, paranoid that someone would come over and say, "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" It's really goddamn bizarre to be back in the driver's seat, and it's even more bizarre to realize the extent to which you were napping in the back. It's Neo taking the red pill and realizing, "Oh shit, I need to stop taking so many pills from strangers."
Again, to alcoholics, drinking is obviously the funnest and only fun thing you can do. But tough shit, you have to approximate that chemical high with legitimately good experiences. You can't just be like, "Fuck a whiffle ball picnic with my closest friends on the most beautiful day of the year! I can have fun right here with this Coors Light in my bed." You have to do dumb shit, like making lasting memories with people who love you.
Sorry, bud. But listen: It gets worse ...
It's The Worst Breakup You've Ever Had
For people with a drinking problem, alcohol can be like a loving, supportive partner with a major dealbreaker. It's there with you every step of the way. It goes with you to parties, celebrates your victories, comforts you during heartaches, and also sometimes poops in the shower.
Having a problem with alcohol doesn't have to mean you're throwing plates at your cowering wife; it can manifest as just really, really, really loving alcohol, to the point where you're not quite sure how you'd get on without it. That's how it was for me. I didn't want to be one of those weird sober people. I was so afraid of being "single" that I stayed in a shitty "relationship." And honestly, it could have gotten much worse for me. And who knows, it could still get worse. We could get back together. But I didn't want to get married.
Mazel tov, you two!
I found ways to incorporate it into the parts on my life I already liked: hanging out with friends, doing shows, going to the movies, having writer's meetings, writing at home by myself, peeing at work, walking somewhere, sitting, breathing, living. There really needs to be an out-of-office canned response that says, "I'm currently away from my desk until whenever I figure out how to be a person without four Narragansetts each night at minimum."
The main thing you realize when you swear off alcohol is that alcohol is fucking everywhere. It's in your pasta sauce. It's in your salad dressing. It's on the label of the soap in your parents' guest bathroom. And it wants you back.
HA HA HA, THIS SOAP IS ADDICTIVE! JUST LIKE WINE!
It's like an ex that can't take a hint and keeps showing up wherever you go. It's John Cusack standing on your front lawn, holding a stereo blasting "Margaritaville." Won't you just give it another chance? Couldn't you make it work if you only tried? Don't you believe in love?
Goddammit, Bath and Body Works. Why are you doing this?
It's not like you'll get drunk from a candle that's (inexplicably) scented like "wine country." But that's not the point. All those traces of booze serve as a reminder that you're on the outside of mainstream culture now, looking in on people who can drink just one glass of rose (which, while we're on the subject, is a feat of psychosomatic agility on par with those gurus who can slow their heart rate down to like 4 bpm). They're little notes from your college boyfriend or girlfriend -- the one who's super religious now and lives in a hut somewhere with their athletic spouse, helping kids learn how to teach orangutans to do sign language or whatever it is that they're doing. It could never work, but it still hurts to know they're gone. Even if they were shitty or abusive, there's still a part of you that's hung up and wishes there was a way to make it work.
No, come back. :'-(
It's normal to feel actual heartache, sob for hours, order yourself takeout twice in one day, and eat ice cream while watching garbage rom-coms. It's just hard to explain to people that you're going to be useless for a few weeks because you have actual love for gin. But it's not all bad ...
Your Skin Transforms
Here's a pretty good rule of thumb: If someone looks like they're at least 10 years younger than they are, chances are good that they're a teetotaler.
I met a woman after a show who looked to be about my age (a hard 28). She mentioned that she was still dealing with weird dating apps at 42. I immediately knew she was sober. She later mentioned that she hadn't had a drink in almost a decade. Am I a mentalist? Yes, but also, it's usually the case that fresh faces are sober faces.
There's no mystery about whether or not drinking is good for your skin. It dilates your blood vessels, making you look like a red-faced cartoon drunk. It saps moisture, causing wrinkles and loss of elasticity. It bloats you (seriously, all those Mad Men guys were way too fresh-faced for how much brown liquor they drank before noon). It's a carcinogen and can make you more sensitive to sunlight, so you'd better get those moles checked. Plus, if you're flopping into bed trashed most nights, chances are you're not washing your face.
Vomit isn't a great moisturizer.
After just two weeks off the sauce (the alcohol sauce!), I noticed that my skin looked way brighter. Even the whites of my eyes were whiter. Part of this was because three weeks back, I had thrown up so badly that I burst blood vessels all over my face and in both eyes, making me look like a jaundiced, bloody-eyed hellbeast for my cousin's wedding, and it was starting to finally clear up. This was a part of my not-Hollywood rock bottom: having to explain why my eyeballs were bloody to every member of my family in a house of worship. And goddammit, Uber charges you an $80 cleaning fee even if you throw up out of the car.
"M'lady, you need to get the fuck out of m'car."
People do tell you that quitting drinking makes you look more fresh-faced, but it goes much further than that. A boosted immune system means your bruises and cuts heal much faster. And they're not total mysteries, either. One of the weirdest parts of my first week sober was seeing a bruise on my leg and remembering where I got it. Who was I, Monk? Was I an OCD detective? Well, was I?
People Get Weirded Out
I was out to dinner recently with people I didn't know that well, and I ordered the nonalcoholic version of a drink. I considered mentioning I was sober so that no one assumed I was pregnant (you'll have to catch me with my back turned, fetuses!), but I realized in that moment how ridiculously personal an admission that would be. It would have been like saying, "Hey y'all, I'm broken on the inside. I come from bad stock and my genes are trash. I'm gonna get my sticky fingers on your wallet! I sleep in the sewer! I'm a lil' raccoon! Hissss!"
Y'know, or something.
The point is, literally nobody besides sober people are happy to hear someone say they're sober. It's like outing yourself as mentally ill, or kinky, or some other hella personal thing that isn't polite to talk about at social gatherings. You don't poop with the door open at book club, so why explain why you're skipping a glass of wine?
Here's why: Everyone has a fucking opinion.
"Hey good for you! HAVE YOU CONSIDERED ADDING A NIACIN SUPPLEMENT? I HEARD ABOUT IT ON NPR!" -- Your friend Dan who drinks two Michelob Ultras a week.
Either they worry you won't be fun anymore, or they have a factoid about why AA is the ONLY way to get sober, or they start to think you're some sort of seer who can divine whether or not they have a drinking problem and they shrink away from your touch. No matter what, most people respond to "I actually don't drink" the same way they would to "Have you heard the good news?" If they're also in that crowd, they're down to talk. If not, then move along, Jesus freak! People are trying to have fun over here!
Speaking of a Higher Power ...
For some reason, there's a huge backlash now against 12-step programs and how they're all culty and shamey and ineffective. That's a fine opinion to have (although what kind of trash-ass cult makes no profit?), but it's weird how confident people are about telling you why you should or shouldn't attend a program they don't know much about. You don't see flabby people telling you that CrossFit is better than SoulCycle, so why are normal drinkers so chill with being all, "My uncle went to AA and he said they're all Nazis"? Weird. Obviously, there are downsides to the program, but you'll hear much more about them from people who have no experience.
Having been the person who was leery of sober people while still drinking, I totally get it. Nobody wants to party with the Ghost of Christmas Future.
There Are Secret Rules For Women
People who've never dipped their toes into non-alcoholic waters probably have no clue how different the rules are for sobriety depending on your gender. Lots of women get sober for reasons that aren't really talked about in the general conversation about sobriety.
First off, I had no idea how many sober women had antidepressants contribute to their worst and final drinking days. Lots of medications interact with booze, but SSRIs can actually lower your tolerance to alcohol and get you drunker faster. They also open you up to blacking out, which women are already at a higher risk for. Plus, your antidepressants can't make you any less depressed if you're ingesting large amounts of depressants every day. That's just science.
No, your doctor didn't give you placebos. Quit drinking.
A huge open secret is that longtime sober dudes love newly sober women. This behavior is so prevalent that its practitioners even have a fun name: "13th steppers." They range from straight-up predators who specifically target women who don't know up from down to run-of-the-mill gray-area creeps who try to hook up with, influence, silence, shame, and intimidate other women in their groups. And a lot of the women are in a vulnerable state and attach heightened significance to the men they meet in the program, making the resulting relationships pretty rocky and ill-fated. It's a big mess, and as with lots of heterosexual big-mess relationships, the women are the ones who get shunted aside when it's all over.
And guess what society tells you to turn to when that happens?
And depressingly, sexual assault and murky consent is a big factor at play for women who abstain from alcohol. Being drunk makes you less able to control who you spend time with and what those people get to do to your boundaries. Sometimes they're out-and-out creeps who target incoherent women, but a lot of the time, it's in more of a gray area. It's fucking terrifying to suddenly become conscious in the middle of sex, especially if Blackout-You has a very laissez-faire policy about condoms. What the fuck do you do with that information? You seemed like a regular person to them. (Or so they say? Who knows if they're telling the truth?) Sarah Hepola has a whole book on the subject, and when I was still drinking, I really fucking hated hearing what she had to say. After having similar experiences, I still really don't know what to do with that information, but I get it. I so get it, and most sober women I've talked to do, too. It's nuts how many of us have been through something in that lovely neighborhood of the human experience. It conflicts with how I feel about consent to say that I don't want to get drunk anymore so that I'm less likely in that situation again, but here we are. It fucking blows. But still ...
There Is No "Rock Bottom"
Good news: Your life doesn't have to be a total nightmare for you to quit drinking.
Whether it's the residual cultural effects of the Temperance Movement's fearmongering or the stuff you sort of remember from that episode of Intervention, lots of people have this idea that you cannot stop drinking or using unless you're in a heap in the gutter. If you're not clutching a jug with three X's on it, you're simply not eligible. It's like a screwed-up deductible you have to meet, but instead of money it's blackouts, and instead of co-pays it's meetings in church basements. If you're not the bath salts homeless dude eating someone's face (or at least the other homeless dude getting his face eaten off), you're not there yet.
Thankfully, this is bullshit.
Well, that deescalated quickly.
There's no scientific evidence that addicts must hit a Hollywood rock bottom in order to start the recovery process. In fact, most people do better when they start a little earlier than total failure, since they still have some sort of network to support them through the process.
Like any other significant life change that affects your daily routine, it does take some solid stakes in order to make it stick. There has to be an un-fun reason to not do the fun thing. In that way, yeah, you have to hit a point where the pros no longer outweigh the cons.
You can make up your own mind about what you think about all this. It's not a very objective field. But what I've heard, and what makes sense to me, is that everyone has their own bottom based on who they are. For some people, it's contracting that heart infection heroin addicts get from using dirty needles, or getting arrested for trying to fight a bouncer twice their size, or driving drunk with their kids in the car. For me, it was throwing up out of a black Toyota Camry on the BQE and missing my best friend's birthday. Much less marketable, but it was the moment I realized that alcohol was making my life harder. One person's bottom could be another person's top. You know, like a Human Centipede.
"Somebody get me a fucking Uber! I gotta get to an improv show!"
It's easy to believe that there's a born-and-bred difference between "afflicted booze hounds who need serious help" and "people who love the stuffin' out of drinking," but it turns out that line is much fuzzier than you think. The only difference between people who stop drinking and people who drink is that the people who stopped drinking stopped drinking.
The biggest sign that you should stop? If stopping makes everything feel different. If not, cheers! Keep walking!