Yes, that’s right. I didn’t say “sobriety”; I said “not drinking.” Sobriety sounds like a condition, something I’ve been stricken with. (“Have you heard? He has sobriety.”) Not drinking isn’t some ordeal I’ve been forced to undergo but a decision I made five years ago. It’s like veganism, but less smug.
I’ve rarely written about my life without booze because there’s nothing to see here, folks; move along. No rock-bottoms have been hit. No scissors have been run with. Just panic attacks and a realization that my body and brain were no longer up to the punishment. And so, after learning through trial and hangover that I couldn’t just drink a little, I decided to not drink at all.
Which brings me to:
- Nobody loves you when you’re not down and out
Because drinking is such a key lubricant in our social engine, people have come to expect from those who voluntarily choose not to drink some lurid tale. A stint in rehab, a drunk-driving arrest, full or partial nudity – these are cause-and-sober-effects people can understand. It gives them the strap of sympathy to cling to when they interact with their recovering friend or colleague. But if you’re not in AA but just decide, “No more for me, thanks,” there’s little sympathy, only skepticism. Rarely has anyone said to me, “Good for you!” More like, “Good luck with that.”
- “It’s just a phase”
When you stop drinking, you’ll find yourself dreading the adverb: “Are you still not drinking?” As if it were a state of impermanence, like temporary insanity or seeing how long you can go without bathing. It’s tempting to hate that adverb. But I’ve learned to accept it as an honest inquiry into my well-being, and I usually reply by announcing how long it’s been. Which brings me to…
- Not drinking is like a baby
First you mark its age in days, then weeks, then months. Six months will be a landmark; if you keep a journal, you’ll likely add an exclamation mark: “Six months!” Then a year. (In my journal, I wrote, “One year. What now…?” You wouldn’t do that with a baby.) After that, you start to forget the month-iversaries, and sometimes even the year. You shouldn’t, though. Send yourself a card. Slip 20 bucks in it. Buy yourself some candy. Oh, and by the way…?
- You’re going to eat a lot of candy
You might be able to kick alcohol, but sugar is a meaner drug. The loss of all that alcohol sugar in your system will have your body diving into the bags of baking chocolate. M&Ms will be your new best friend. Your children will give you an ice cream scoop for Christmas (true story). Sugar: because why give up self-loathing entirely!
Being around drinkers is tough but not impossible
My wife still drinks and all my friends drink and every social event everywhere ever involves drinks. For the first year, being around alcohol was a bit of a skin-crawl. My instinct was to flee, and often I did. But over time it’s become easier as I’ve re-taught myself how to socialize sober and how to be creative with club soda. I have drunk a lot of tea. I will gladly be your designated driver. Dishes to do? I will do them. Last November, I celebrated my 50th birthday at a local bar. The owner kindly came around with a tray of complimentary shooters. My wife informed her I don’t drink. The owner returned with a shooter of tap water – the saddest shooter in the world. Actually, this may have been my rock-bottom…
- I used to be fun
I can be around drinkers now, but when the words start slurring and the conversation reaches that irrational pitch, I’m out. I can’t quite explain it; this should be when things get interesting. I should be taking notes or blackmail videos. Instead, I become sullen and irritable and at times angry. Perhaps it’s the prohibitionist’s scold in me, perhaps it reminds me that I’m missing out. This used to be me. I used to be fun.
- But I probably wasn’t
Watching drunk people, I remember that time at the office party when I performed an interpretive dance to “A Horse With No Name” and realize it probably wasn’t as hilarious as I thought it was.
- No one trusts a sober man
Someone once stumbled up to me at a party with a bottle of scotch. “Shot to friends,” he said. “I don’t drink,” I replied. “You’re not my friend,” he said and moved on. I know he was drunk but in vino veritas. People will suspect your motives if you don’t drink, like you’re a spy or holier-than-thou or taking blackmail videos. They’ll think less of you as a man, which is a shame, because drinking was the only manly thing I had going. You won’t get extra credit for not drinking. People won’t admire your will; they’ll just think you’re weird. After all, if you truly had will, you’d be able to drink just a little. Just one shot.
- Movies are better with a buzz
I used to watch a lot of movies while drinking a lot of beer. Now, sipping my Tension Tamer tea while watching some tired cliché of a rom-com, I realize I’d rather be reading. It turns out most Hollywood movies aren’t worth remembering, and, thanks to alcohol, I don’t. There are years of movies I could watch again because I can’t recall the ending. But no thanks. Similarly, without a glass of wine handy, I don’t cook nearly as much as I used to. I’m sad about this; my wife is even sadder.
- Booze is still my co-pilot
My life is better without alcohol – I assume. I have no way of knowing what it would have been like had I continued to drink these past five years. For instance, I tell myself I never would have been able to write a novel if I’d been drinking, but maybe I would have written a better novel! But I do feel healthier in body and spirit. I feel shame only for the usual human reasons. I’ve taken ownership of my actions; I can only blame my stupidity on myself. I’m saving a ton of money. It hasn’t been the miracle cure for everything in my life, not by a long shot (shot!), but I’m generally a happier person.
But booze still controls me. Last summer, sitting at a picnic table, I absentmindedly picked up someone’s beer and took a swig. I spat it out like there was a bee in it. I reacted that violently because I was afraid, as if that one sip would undo all the work in the past four years, three months and twelve days.
I don’t like that I fear alcohol. I don’t like that it still occupies my thoughts and actions in the form of strategies for avoidance and coping. I don’t like saying “I don’t drink” like it’s an admission of guilt. I don’t like that I sometimes feel resentful because I don’t drink. I don’t like that I can never sit down and have a beer with my kids.
But one of the reasons I quit was because I didn’t want my children’s memories of me to be exclusively “tipsy dad.” If fear is what it takes to erase that, bring on the fear. Five years of fatherhood not drinking compared to the 20 drunk ones that preceded? I have a ways to go.