Today is my birthday. Last year on this day, I made a semi-unplanned declaration to myself: This year I will give myself the gift of sobriety. I didn’t expect it to last. I didn’t really even believe that I was doing it. I have tried to give up alcohol dozens of times in the past, only to continue drinking later that day or the next. At most I would go about a week due to being at a camp that didn’t allow alcohol or on vacation with my in-laws, but never would I skip that many days on my own volition.
I’m not sure if being an alcoholic is a binary thing: either you are or you aren’t. I typically didn’t drink until after 5:00 pm, and I “only” had about 3-6 servings of wine per night, so in comparison to some, I was doing okay. Right? But that’s all just arbitrary. If I compare myself only to the person who is drinking at 8:00 am or who has lost everything because they can’t be sober for more than 10 minutes, then I can say that I don’t have a problem.
However, if I’m being honest with myself, the following were true for me:
- A day without a drink felt incomplete.
- I would pre-drink for any event that had alcohol so I could go in hot.
- I would pre-drink for any evening activity, really.
- I would always order whatever had the most alcohol in it.
- I would hide how much I was drinking by either pouring some into a seltzer can or silently refilling my glass.
- I would keep alcohol in my closet.
I heard the term “overdrinking” which seemed to be a mild form of drinking too much without officially declaring yourself an alcoholic. All-in-all, that’s a term that I was comfortable with and can confidently say described me. I was an overdrinker.
I’m Not Anti-Alcohol
Before I go on much more, I would like to state that I am not anti-alcohol. For so many people, it is an enjoyable social lubricant or daily unwinding, that is enjoyed moderately and is a lovely addition to life. Red wine, in particular, is even healthy in certain amounts and there is a bonding that happens over sharing craft beers and bourbon. I don’t even have anything against the Miller Light crowd…for many people watching a sports game with some light beer is a sacred ritual passed down from generations.
For this reason—even though I remain sober—I happily mix and pour drinks for others, buy wine as gifts, and hang out at bars with friends. I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but in order to remain surrounded by alcohol, and not consume it, I had to have some difficult “firsts” to build up some strength (more on these later).
Why I Decided to Go Sober
Besides the fact that I had a hunch that secret drinking was a red flag, I recognized that I was not the best version of myself when I was drinking. I was very friendly and would tell you “I love you” even if I had just met you. I was a “fun” drinker, much more likely to laugh more than get angrier when I drank, but I have to admit my patience and understanding were lowered when I was tipsy. I would be more curt and rude with my wife and kids. I would fall asleep instead of being helpful in cleaning up after a group of friends would visit. I was spending a lot of money on alcohol. I was distracted from a good time if the pours were small or the ABV was weak.
Because I wanted to lose weight and improve my health, I had been wanting to give up drinking for a long time, but each night pouring a glass of wine sounded like such a great idea. While I remained functional for the most part, I wasn’t able to make the decision to finally quit drinking and do what I knew I really wanted for myself deep down.
So, when my birthday came along, and I decided to give myself the gift of sobriety, I didn’t expect it to last more than that night. I didn’t even know if I would go the whole night without it. But I went one day, and then the next. Now I had 2 days under my belt, so why not go 3 (I’ll probably drink again tomorrow). But 3 days turned into 4, then a week, a month, and a year. I made it a whole year! As I sit here typing this, alcohol is no longer a temptation for me, but the hardest days were on those “firsts” I mentioned earlier.
The Hard “Firsts”
Besides the obvious “first day” being hard, there were a lot of moments that made it difficult to stay strong while building up the willpower to continually stay sober. For example, the first time friends came over for an evening to hang out. Everybody was enjoying some wine and as the night went on, people were enjoying the effects of a glass or two in their system. I, however, was going off of nothing other than the day’s caffeine from earlier. There was a strong voice in my head saying “you will have more fun and enjoy the evening more with some alcohol.” Not only that, but I was beginning to believe that alcohol was a requirement to enjoy an evening with others who are also drinking. As hard as it was, I stayed strong as the evening came and went. In reflection I realized what so many already know: that I don’t need alcohol to enjoy an evening like that, even if I’m the only one not drinking.
Future evenings with friends became easier and easier until I didn’t even think about the fact that I wasn’t drinking. It was difficult, however, the first time someone hosted us at their house. It’s one thing not to make yourself a drink, but another to say “no thanks” when someone offers you one. Now you are not only being sober, but your brain is tempting you with the notion of not being rude. Again, after once or twice, it became easier. Besides, my friends were now realizing that this time I really was sticking to my guns (I’ve had evenings before where I wasn’t drinking, but those only lasted for that one night, I was happily back at it the next time we met).
The first date night and first nights out with friends at bars and restaurants were hard. I remember ordering a hot herbal tea instead of my usual manhattan when out on a date night with my wife. She enjoyed the wine, and I stirred some lemon and honey into chamomile-infused water. I stared longingly at the wine.
My neighbor and I have regular outings at a local bar, and the first time we went there after I quit drinking I ordered seltzer water with a few drops of bitters. I was trying to make the best of it, but eventually learned that I preferred to just stick with water and maybe order an appetizer to pick at instead, bringing some home if I didn’t want to eat it all. I don’t want just to replace drinking with full-sugar sodas, or even the chemical bomb that is a diet soda. I go through phases where I keep packs of Zevia at home, but in the end, I think just drinking more water or decaf coffee (black) is best for me.
Now that I’m a year into sobriety, I’m running out of firsts. It is still hard for me when there is an open bar and EVERYTHING IS FREE! but I have to pass and stick with the water. However, the knowledge that I’ve made it this far and the positive changes that I’ve felt are now more powerful of a motivator than a free drink.
The Positive Changes
I recall hearing on a podcast recently, where one of the speakers has been sober for several years, “being the sober one at a party where others are drinking feels like a super-power.” I know exactly what he means. I have been out at bars and interacted with intoxicated people, and it’s weird to have a sharp mind, whereas before I would have just been an unsteady, slurred participant in the crowd. It’s also nice to have my mind about me when the evening activities are over. Whether that’s driving, cleaning up, or making sure that others are taken care of. These are the moments that almost everyone wishes there was an “off” switch for being tipsy…especially the driving.
I love that I am present for my kids every evening when I tuck them in to bed. I love that I have more patience and have presence of mind at bedtime. Not that I was harsh with them, but I just wasn’t always my best self. This also applies to my evening interactions with my wife. I know that there were times that I was rude to her or reacted in a way that I wouldn’t have if I was sober. They weren’t big blow ups, but there were enough small interactions that added up to an unpleasant drinking Ryan when the fun was over.
One of my favorite positives of not drinking is that I haven’t had a hangover in a year. Hangovers were getting more and more frequent, sometimes with as little as one or two drinks. I learned that drinking enough water helped prevent them, but I still woke up foggy and with a headache. Now, if I wake up with a headache (which I only believe happened once) I immediately start to wonder what’s up from a health standpoint. It’s nice to wake up almost every morning feeling refreshed and alert for the day.
Finally, although I was slowly losing some weight before I stopped drinking, the year of sobriety has been my healthiest year ever. I lost a lot more body fat and exercised a lot more. Not only did the alcohol provide empty calories, but when drinking I tended to eat whatever I wanted. Willpower goes out the window for me with alcohol on board.
I’ve been asked: “How long will you keep going without alcohol?” To be frank, I can’t think of a reason why I would need to start it up again. Perhaps if I was convinced that I could maintain the willpower to only have a glass of wine per night for health reasons, but knowing how easily I overdrink once I start, I’m not sure I want to open Pandora’s Box. That and the calories, money, and risk of hangovers even with a single drink…I think I’d like to remain sober for the rest of my life.
There have been about five occasions in the past year where I’ve had a sip of a craft beer or a whiskey to taste it. I made sure it was such a small amount that I would feel no effects of the alcohol. I know once I feel that feeling again I’ll want to chase it with more. Even those five occasions I can take or leave. In hindsight, I probably should have passed on the whiskey, since it didn’t really provide me with the soul points that I thought it would, and it was risky to tempt my taste buds like that.
So, as I write this I am one year down, and perhaps I have 45 more to go! Who knows. If I do begin drinking again I am making a promise to myself now that I will journal about that decision (or giving into that temptation again) here, and either try to learn from it or process why I think I am okay adding it back into my life again. The purpose of this post is mainly to remind myself in the future where my mind was when I stopped drinking.
Here’s to another year of sobriety, and many more! *raises coffee mug.