One Year of Being Sober

Content Warnings: alcohol, addiction

Beer on a table

Today marks my one year anniversary of choosing not to drink alcohol, and I'm amazed by how much my life has changed for the better. A year ago, I was on vacation drinking a bottle of wine while reading The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, and finally got over the fear of never drinking again. I'd found the book in the airport at the start of the vacation, and while it wasn't the sole reason I decided to quit, it gave me that extra little push I needed. A lot of my adult life has revolved around alcohol and so to completely cut it out has been a dramatic change.

Before I talk more about my own experiences, I want to say that I don't judge people who like to drink. Just because I think my own life is better without booze in it does not mean that I think everyone should make the same choice as me. I talk openly about my struggles with alcohol not to shame people who drink, but to normalize the difficulties many have with alcohol. I've had a number of conversations this past year with people who were also troubled with their use of alcohol, and those conversations would never have happened had I not been public with my own struggles. I'm sharing my journey for anyone else who might be thinking of quitting drinking but has doubts or questions that stop them from taking that first difficult step.

My history

I never really drank until I went away to college when I was 18. When I got there as a shy, introverted nerd, I found most peoples’ way of socializing revolved around massive amounts of alcohol. People often threw up or did something while drunk that would turn into a story that we would retell months or years later. I wanted to fit in, and didn't really understand what drinking meant for me, so I decided to give it a go.

It's been 20 years since I went away to college and I have a lot of the stories that heavy drinkers typically have - stories of throwing up, blackouts, one or even two day hangovers, arguments with a partner about drinking, awkward experiences with family and friends, and so so many different attempts at moderating or quitting. So when I tell people that I've chosen to be sober for the past year, they often think there was some catalyst, some big event that made me wake up and go “I really need to stop”. Oddly enough, there wasn't.

I think it's often a misconception with people that abuse substances - that they have to hit rock bottom before they are willing to pick themselves up and change. It's something I've seen in movies and tv shows my whole life, but my experience was different. Quitting drinking was something that I had been thinking about for a couple of years and I had to build up enough understanding to finally give it an honest try.

I've rarely ever let my drinking impact the things I deemed important, so I was careful to not be hung over at work or miss special occasions. Maybe once a year or so I had to cancel something because I was hung over, but generally speaking I was more tired and cranky than I was hung over. I've never liked drinking in the day because it makes me feel sluggish, so I was usually able to limit myself to evenings, even on the weekend.

There were days and sometimes weeks when I didn't drink because there were more important things to do. Alcohol didn't rule my life, but it was a large part of it. I don't think most people even knew I was struggling because I was able to hide it or manage my drinking well enough that they wouldn't suspect.

My previous attempts at moderation

I've quit drinking before a couple of times, most notably for a year before my 21st birthday. I've also abstained for four months here or six months there, but this time is different. All of those previous attempts were me saying “I want to drink, but I don't think it's a good idea for me right now. I'm just taking a break, but I'll eventually figure out a way to drink in moderation.” This time I don't have an end date in mind and I can't even imagine a world in which I'd want to drink again.

I've tried so many different ways to moderate my drinking. I've set limits on how much I can drink for a day, week, or month. I've used an app to track what my blood alcohol levels are so I can stay under a certain limit. I've limited the amount of money I can use to buy alcohol. I've put money in a jar every time I had a drink. I've asked partners to try to help me not drink as much. I've tried some of these multiple times just in case it would stick the second or third time around.

Each of these attempts were successful for a small time period, be it a day, a week, or a month, but I'd eventually slip up. I'd eventually find a loophole or justify breaking the rules this one time until that justification became etched in stone. A friend's birthday, an anniversary, a wedding, a good bottle of wine someone wanted to share with me, an aged beer - the justification didn't matter because I wanted to drink more than I wanted to stay sober. I was looking for an excuse and it didn't matter what the excuse was so long as it let me drink.

My difficulties with alcohol

You see, I had built up a lifestyle that revolved around alcohol. I collected and aged beer, some of which I aged for five years! I had many, many different kinds of whisky and loved trying different cocktail and beer bars in Seattle and London. I enjoyed a good wine and looked forward to getting together with my family to share our latest favorites. I loved the occasional late nights out in the city until 3am, although I didn't so much like how I felt in the morning when I woke up.

I've known all the statistics about drinking for years and years, but knowing statistics and truly understanding my own situation were two completely different things. I'd explain to myself I was somehow different and that my drinking habits were ok even though they flew in direct opposition to the amount the US and UK governments said I should be drinking. I know that heavy drinking shortens people's lifespan, but that's difficult to understand what it means for me as an individual. I'd justify my drinking by saying it didn't greatly impact my life, except when it did.

One constant throughout my last 20 years is if I allowed myself to drink, then I had a little voice in my head wondering when the next time I'm going to drink is. Do I stop at the Tesco on the way home to get a beer or two? If I'm at a bar with someone else, is it ok to order a second drink before they finish their first? Are we planning to leave the restaurant soon or do I have enough time to order another one? Is it too late to have another beer, or if I do, will I be hung over in the morning?

This voice did not stop. This voice was never sated. It took tremendous willpower to say, no, I have work tomorrow and I value my ability to think clearly at work more than having another beer. But I had to have that conversation with myself whenever I was drinking. Every. Single. Time. Even when I chose to not drink, I still had to have that conversation to decide to not drink.

What finally, finally made the difference is when I viewed drinking alcohol like a trade-off. Not as good or bad, but something that had some things I liked and others I disliked. The thing that finally got me to stop? It was not wanting to have that conversation with myself anymore. I was dedicating so much brain space to drinking even when I wasn't drinking, and I wanted that brain space back. I wanted to think about other things.

I wanted to be able to go on vacation and not think about the next bar I was going to visit. I wanted to enjoy my life without having a constant background conversation with myself. And when I made that final decision, I experienced such a sweet relief at not having to ever choose again, that it was like I'd taken a breath of fresh air and was finally able to smell how clean it truly was.

Drinking just wasn't worth the trade-off anymore.

Flipping the switch

So what's different this time? This time I genuinely don't want to drink. At all. Ever. It's not a choice I'm making, because in my mind there is no choice to be made. It's been completely life-changing.

I've been sober for a year now. An entire year. I'm very proud of that accomplishment because it took a lot of willpower to even want to change, not to mention keep going for as long as I have. I'm also incredibly thankful for my partner, who has helped me and supported me every step of the way. She's been more patient than I could reasonably expect of anyone, so thank you Ashley for all the support over the years. I wouldn't be sober without your help.

The unexpected benefits of being sober

What's surprising for me is how much I've learned about myself after I stopped drinking. There are the changes I knew would likely happen - I rarely stay out past 11pm and enjoy being at home more, I go to sleep at a more regular hour, I have an easier time waking up, and I don't really enjoy industry events that revolve around drinking.

The other ways my life has changed, however, were wholly unexpected. I had to learn, or possibly re-learn, how to cope with emotionally difficult situations without using alcohol as a way to numb them. I had to learn how to socialize in groups of people I don't know without alcohol loosening me up. And I learned that I was self-medicating for undiagnosed issues.

I've also been able to feel emotion in an entirely new and exciting way. Before, I'd say my emotions were limited to a narrow range and now I can understand and appreciate a much, much wider breadth of emotions. My life just feels so much clearer. I get angry and upset less and have a greater ability to be emotionally available for family and friends if they need me. I have been able to connect with people in a way that previously felt difficult or impossible.

It's been a lot to take in and difficult at times, but I feel like I know myself better than I ever have before and I value that tremendously. To say my life has changed is an understatement. Yes, I gave up drinking, which I enjoyed, but what I gained was so, so much more than what I gave up. I'm kind of amazed that it took so long for me to give up drinking, but I think my brain fixated on all the unlikely worst case scenarios instead of the likely best case ones.

Going forward

I don't know what the next year is going to bring, but I'm in a much better place after not drinking for a year. I want to continue talking about my journey so others who are struggling know what it might look like if they stop.

I want to be there for anyone who might have questions or might be entertaining the idea of not drinking because I know how hard it is to even entertain that idea in a world where alcohol is everywhere.

And lastly, I'm going to continue learning about who I am. I'm incredibly excited to find out more.